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You Lookin’ at Me? Breaking the Fourth Wall

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There’s no better way to add some zing to a TV show or movie than to have a character suddenly turn and talk to the audience. Sure, it’s cheating. But if the character happens to have some charisma, it’s also fun. Here’s a toast to the best instances of breaking down that fourth wall.

IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW

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In his innovative 1980s comedy series, Garry Shandling made breaking the fourth wall the centerpiece of the whole show. He’d ask the audience questions and solicit their advice. The other characters on the show also were in on the trick. Garry treated the sitcom as the artificial absurdity that it is, but always with his trademark light touch. Even his theme song, “This is the Theme to Garry’s Show,” acknowledged the audience.

HIGH FIDELITY

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This was one of John Cusack’s best roles, and it worked precisely because of his interaction with viewers. Every eye roll, aside and bit of rage revealed that this guy wasn’t just a sarcastic slacker. He had depth.

THE BERNIE MAC SHOW

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Bernie Mac didn’t just talk to his sitcom viewers, whom he simply called, “America.” He cajoled them. He persuaded them. It allowed him to be as gruff as he wanted to be in the rest of his scenes. We still knew he was a pushover.

GROUCHO MARX, IN EVERYTHING

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Quite possibly the most devastating comedian who ever lived. Groucho was a verbal master, slicing up his conversational victims with glee. He had so many great lines, there were always extras to be tossed right at the camera. Here’s one from “Animal Crackers”: “This would be a better world for children if the parents had to eat the spinach.”

FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF

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“Ferris Bueller” is a cultural touchstone of the 1980s – something it owes to both Matthew Broderick and the way he made his case directly to moviegoers. It was like having lunch at the cool kids’ table, all day long.

HOUSE OF CARDS

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The current king of this category is Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards,” hands-down. He absolutely commands the TV screen, spinning his intricate web of politics and power. When he turns to the camera, you know you’re about to hear something hideous AND hilarious.

ANNIE HALL

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In “Annie Hall,” you have Woody Allen at the top of his game. At various points, chosen very shrewdly, he tells the audience what he thinks about relationships, therapy and the work of Marshall McLuhan.

MOONLIGHTING

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“Moonlighting,” the popular TV romantic comedy of the 1980s, spent almost as much time beyond the fourth wall as it did in its own world. Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis were naturals at it. I loved when they took a few moments to answer their viewer mail.

30 ROCK

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Tina Fey and Co. broke the fourth wall a bunch of times, but one particular instance was sublime. It’s from the Season Four premiere, when the show aired just before Jay Leno’s ill-fated 10 p.m. variety show. Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy are watching a crass promo for “Tennis Night in America,” when Donaghy says, “There’s nothing wrong with being fun and popular and just giving people what they want.” Then he stares into the camera and purrs, “Ladies and gentlemen, Jay Leno.”

SLEEPWALK WITH ME

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Mike Birbiglia perfectly blends his comic persona with the needs of a feature film by personally narrating key portions of “Sleepwalk With Me,” which is based on his own life. One of his best quips is, “I know! I’m in the future also!”

MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE

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Young Malcolm, the genius child in a family of nutjobs, constantly sought comfort by talking with his TV fans. It was a way of saying, “Is it just me, or are these people crazy?”

JFK

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This example is brief, but powerful. It comes at the end of the film, as Kevin Costner’s prosecutor character tries to make a jury believe there was a hidden conspiracy at work in the Kennedy assassination. With one final move of the camera, the audience suddenly becomes Costner’s jury.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE

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Perhaps this isn’t appropriate, since I’m not including other TV hosts on the List. Oh, hell. I simply have to mention the great Rod Serling. He wasn’t just a host – he was our guide, giving us fair warning about the weird stuff heading our way.

ALFIE

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For me, there’s never been a better fourth wall breakdown than Michael Caine in “Alfie.” With his cold stare and heavy eyelids, Caine is a predator in search of sexual conquest. His confessions to the camera show us his cruelty, his self-delusions and his failure as a human being. It’s brilliant.

Of course, this is a mere sampling of great examples. You also have “Airplane,” “Animal House” and so many others. What are your favorites?

Great TV Dads and Movie Dads You Might Have Overlooked

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Something great resonates when you encounter a compelling¬† father character on TV or in movies. It firms up one’s faith in humanity. But with so many movie and TV dads floating in and out of view, it’s easy to overlook some good ones. In honor of Father’s Day weekend, we look back at a few.

DONALD SUTHERLAND

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (2005)

Here’s a fine, fine actor playing a small role with tenderness and care. As the henpecked, mellow patriarch of the Bennet family in Jane Austen’s classic story, Sutherland lets his misty eyes, his sly smile and his lanky limbs work to their full advantage onscreen. Then, at the end of the film, he reveals his complete and utter love for his daughter through a quiet intensity that lingers nicely.

BERNIE MAC

“THE BERNIE MAC SHOW” (2001-06)

There was nothing quiet about the late, great Bernie Mac. Like few other actors, he projected a powerful, coiled up aggressiveness while also allowing his compassion to poke through. On his show, he played a man who takes in his sister’s children, raising them as his own. He often talked directly to “America,” looking straight at the camera, and it worked. You trusted him. You liked him.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN

“KRAMER VS. KRAMER” (1979)

Times and gender roles have changed so much that people forget what an eye-opener “Kramer vs. Kramer” was, with its depiction of a divorce and subsequent child custody fight. Hoffman is his usual, superb self as the father who learns how to be a parent.

CHUCK CONNORS

“THE RIFLEMAN” (1958-63)

Although the show was far from realistic, the father-son relationship at the heart of “The Rifleman” seemed authentically affectionate. Connors played Lucas McCain as a figure of towering strength and real kindness. Plus, he had the coolest rifle ever.

J.K. SIMMONS

“JUNO” (2007)

Simmons is a true craftsman. In “Juno,” he’s a father who helps his teen daughter through an unplanned pregnancy, and he does it with keen humor and gentle exasperation. Good in any type of role, here Simmons offers a physical weariness as counterpoint to the movie’s spry, stylized dialogue.

RONNY COX

“APPLE’S WAY” (1974-75)

This is a prime example of the father as idealist, from a TV show that never quite caught on with viewers. Cox was George Apple, a lawyer who moved his clan from California back to his hometown of Appleton, Iowa. Once there, he inserted himself into just about every free speech and human rights issue his little town encountered. His kids loved this, as you can imagine.

DELROY LINDO

“CROOKLYN” (1994)

Set in Brooklyn in the 1970s, “Crooklyn” featured Lindo as a musician who didn’t quite earn enough money to support his family, but whose sweet nature helped buoy the family during hard times. Lindo expertly shows us the full range of his guy’s flaws and qualities.

ROBERT DeNIRO

“A BRONX TALE” (1993)

DeNiro directed himself as a straight-arrow bus driver in the 1960s, trying mightily to keep his son from falling under the spell of a charismatic gangster. Playing against type, DeNiro gives a tightly controlled performance: tough, but not too tough; good, but not too good. It’s a gem.

MARTIN LANDAU

“EDtv” (1999)

To be sure, Landau’s loopy stepfather is the comic relief in this film. His character is in poor health and often clueless about what’s happening around him. But he gets a dynamite scene near the end of the movie that is gratifying as a nod to the true meaning of fatherhood.

NOAH BEERY JR.

“THE ROCKFORD FILES” (1974-80)

Any “Rockford Files” fan will have a soft spot for Rocky. Beery played him perfectly – no affectation, no ego. His scenes with James Garner had an easy charm and warmth.

MICHAEL TUCKER

“RADIO DAYS” (1987)

There’s a wonderful joke about dads in Woody Allen’s “Radio Days.” Seth Green, who plays Allen as a kid, has no idea what his father, Michael Tucker, actually does for a living. No matter how hard the kid tries to ferret out the information, dad finds a way to change the subject. It’s hilarious, partly because it plays on the mysterious, unknowable quality many fathers have.

ADAM SANDLER

“SPANGLISH” (2004)

I may not be the biggest Adam Sandler fan in the world, but I have to give him his due here. He’s excellent as a doting father in an unhappy marriage. His scenes with Sarah Steele as his teen daughter are beautiful and at times heartbreaking.

HECTOR ELIZONDO

“THE FLAMINGO KID” (1984)

Elizondo is the emotional core of this Matt Dillon comedy about a young man faced with a choice between corrupt wealth and the middle class work ethic, as represented by his family. I love how Elizondo communicates his frustration and hurt feelings without upsetting the comedic balance.

JUDD HIRSCH

“NUMB3RS” (2005-10)

No one matches Hirsch when it comes to the older, intellectually nurturing father character. Here, he invests Alan Eppes with a genuine pride and respect for his adult sons, along with his love and concern.

DAVID MORSE

“CONTACT” (1997)

In the sci-fi adventure “Contact,” Morse gets to play two versions of a father. One is the wise, gentle teacher. The other is the loving, lasting image a father leaves behind.

GENE HACKMAN

“THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS” (2001)

I think this is one of Hackman’s best roles. His character, Royal Tenenbaum, is sneaky, self-absorbed and unhelpful. Yet he’s also an undeniably cool old rascal. The question this film poses for him is whether it’s ever too late to stop being a jerk and start acting like a father.

Now let’s hear your suggestions. Add to The List!