It’s amazing how much impact an occasional character can have on a TV show. Without the benefit of a long-term story arc, the great occasional character bursts onto the scene and always leaves the viewer wanting more. These are some of my favorites, with one proviso: I only allowed myself one example from any given show.
Forgive me, Frank Costanza! My favorite “Seinfeld” side character is Puddy. Patrick Warburton has perfected a deadpan delivery that sounds like John Wayne on mushrooms. Yeah that’s right. Puddy is terrific in all situations, whether he’s painting his face for a hockey game or explaining to Elaine that she’s going to hell.
Shelley Long is a truly gifted sitcom actress, and she proves it yet again each time she appears on “Modern Family.” Her stock-in-trade is neurotic women with a large bundle of issues, and she really goes to town as Jay’s ex-wife, DeDe. The key is that she allows for vulnerability without losing her wit or oomph.
ERNEST T. BASS
This little guy, played by Howard Morris, was a live wire. A hillbilly with a hankering for love, he’d pop up on “The Andy Griffith Show” to hurl rocks through windows and cause lots of low-grade mayhem. And who can forget his lilting lament: “It’s me, it’s me, it’s Ernest T!”
Gourmet chef, dedicated hermit, sock hat afficionado. That’s Adam, the angry sourpuss played so well by Adam Arkin on “Northern Exposure.” This character seethed with sarcasm, but in a good way. Just don’t use too much cumin when he’s in the vicinity.
Idris Elba was phenomenal as a short-lived supervisor on “The Office.” He brought a jolt of realism to this zany workplace, allowing us to see the regular characters in a slightly different light. Charles Miner was a tough, rigid boss, but thanks to him we finally could see why Jim Halpern actually fit in so well at Dunder-Mifflin.
The cowardly crook with inside information has been a staple of cop/private investigator/crime shows for decades. For me, the cream of the crop was Stuart Margolin as Angel, on “The Rockford Files.” Angel was Jim Rockford’s former cell mate, and Margolin played him with a very 70′s, very twitchy sense of humor.
How perfect was Agnes Moorehead? On “Bewitched,” she played her mother-in-law-as-a-witch role to the hilt, doling out equal bits of imperiousness and shtick. I loved it when she would call Darrin “Durwood.”
Any guy who can go mano-a-mano with Alec Baldwin on “30 Rock” deserves to be on The List. The great Will Arnett does just that as the devious Devon Banks. Their scenes of staccato, deep-voiced threats are like comedy symphonies.
CIGARETTE SMOKING MAN
Okay, so he’s not an exemplar of healthy habits. Still, fans of “The X-Files” yearned for CSM’s appearances. He (William B. Davis) was a mysterious, tantalizing link to figuring out what the heck was going on throughout the series.
Nestor Carbonell – AKA “Eyeliner Guy” on “Lost” – was everything you want in an occasional character on a sci-fi drama. For the longest time, you had no clue about his back story, other than the fact he was hundreds of years old and seemed to have a huge stash of Maybelline. Yet Carbonell always grounded him, humanized him and made him sympathetic.
The Zen master boss from hell. David Clennon made Miles Drentell on “thirtysomething” a malevolent, Machiavellian figure. He was full of wit, style and delightful, dark humor.
Dear lord, that laugh! Maggie Wheeler would show up periodically on “Friends,” first as Chandler’s girlfriend and then as a general nuisance. Each time, she hit it out of the park. Wheeler took a funny, annoying accent and turned it into high art.
Richard Jenkins played the deceased patriarch of the Fisher clan on “Six Feet Under,” one of the most emotionally taxing shows in TV history. Jenkins has a way of offering multiple feelings with each look and line of dialogue. He’s angry AND understanding; he’s playful AND depressed. His scenes always sparkled.
Freddy Rumsen, one of the old-school advertising dudes on “Mad Men,” is a deeply likable character, while also being deeply flawed. Actor Joel Murray keeps him low-key, even in episodes where Freddy is humiliated, bewildered or upset. He’s a nice counterpoint to some of the more forceful personalities on the show.
For me, the king of the hill among occasional characters has to be Carl Reiner as Alan Brady, the egotistical TV star on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Reiner commanded the screen in his moments on the show, despite the fact that he was surrounded by sitcom heavyweights such as Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. It was such a strong performance, in fact, that just the mention of Alan’s name in other episodes caused a reaction. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Reiner was the creator of the show.
No doubt I’ve left out dozens of other great examples. Feel free to suggest them!