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On the Couch: Memorable TV & Movie Therapists

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Pop culture and therapy are an amazingly good match. First of all, most worthy comedies and dramas are populated with people facing sizable problems. Secondly, introducing a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker cuts to the heart of the matter without special effects or car chases. It also makes for insightful writing and acting.

LORRAINE BRACCO IN “THE SOPRANOS”

Lorraine Bracco was as crucial to the success of “The Sopranos” as the sex and violence that punctuated the show. Dr. Melfi’s sessions with Tony brought clarity to the proceedings and had an electrifying intimacy separate from everything else.

BOB NEWHART IN “THE BOB NEWHART SHOW”

I have a feeling Newhart’s portrayal of psychologist Robert Hartley was more accurate than most TV and movie therapists. He used jargon, he rarely raised his voice and he kept incredibly regular office hours. Thank goodness he also treated the occasional clown.

ROBIN WILLIAMS IN “GOOD WILL HUNTING”

Not everyone is a fan of Williams as the feisty therapist helping Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting.” I liked his performance; I thought it had tons of heart and soul. How do you like them apples?

MARIAH CAREY IN “PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL ‘PUSH’ BY SAPPHIRE”

It’s easy to lose sight of just how good Carey is as the social worker in “Precious.” She’s as tough as she needs to be in a film about hope in the face of brutal reality. Is there anything in this world more courageous than standing up for an abused kid? An amazing job.

JUDD HIRSCH IN “ORDINARY PEOPLE”

This fine performance is central to the effectiveness of 1980’s Oscar-winning “Ordinary People.” Hirsch’s scenes with a young Timothy Hutton have a real urgency to them, while noting the limitations and boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship.

LISA KUDROW IN “WEB THERAPY”

Lisa Kudrow is a master at delivering the disarming remark. She did it to perfection on “Friends” and she continues it on “Web Therapy.” As highly-flawed Dr. Fiona Wallice, Kudrow levels her snark on everyone, including herself.

STEVE CARELL IN “HOPE SPRINGS”

For such a skilled comic actor, it’s surprising how good Carell is at playing a subdued character. This is a great quality for his therapist in “Hope Springs.” He’s patient, probing and decent, without being boring.

ALLAN ARBUS IN “M*A*S*H”

Allan Arbus was always a welcome sight on “M*A*S*H,” as psychiatrist Sidney Freedman. Funny and fatigued as that character was, his appearances never failed to remind viewers of the insanity of war.

JOANNE WOODWARD IN “SYBIL”

Joanne Woodward brought a wonderful sense of authority and humanity to her part in “Sybil.” Sally Field, as a woman with multiple personalities, had the showier role, but Woodward had to give the whole thing plausibility.

KELSEY GRAMMER IN “FRASIER”

I doubt that any actual therapist has as soothing a voice as Kelsey Grammer. On “Frasier,” he offered a tour de force of comical compassion, without hiding the quirky side of the people giving the treatment.

HELEN HUNT IN “THE SESSIONS”

Helen Hunt is her usual, decent-but-intense self in “The Sessions.” She plays a sex therapist here, and much has been made of her willingness to bare everything onscreen. I thought her most revealing scene was in a car in a motel parking lot, fully clothed.

RICHARD BURTON IN “EQUUS”

In “Equus,” Burton is a doctor treating a very disturbed young man who has blinded several horses. What unfolds during their sessions is a deep well of guilt, trauma, religion and sex. As you’d expect, Burton brings heaps of dramatic heft to the part, for which he earned an Oscar nomination.

DYLAN McDERMOTT IN “AMERICAN HORROR STORY”

Worst. Therapist. Ever. I don’t know where this joker went to school, but I’m pretty sure they tell you on the very first day, “Don’t have sex with patients who are ghosts.”

JANE LYNCH IN “TWO AND A HALF MEN”

As Charlie Sheen’s therapist on TV’s “Two and a Half Men,” Lynch was able to talk tough, but also be sympathetic. It was a clever way to reveal Sheen’s – I mean the character’s – insecurities and motivations.

BILLY CRYSTAL IN “ANALYZE THIS”

Light fare, to be sure, but Crystal generated very solid laughs as a shrink forced to work with a mobster in “Analyze This.” He clearly loved being in a film with Robert DeNiro, who was in full self-parody mode.

J.K. SIMMONS IN “LAW AND ORDER”

What a superb job Simmons did with this small, occasional role as a psychiatrist who sometimes testifies in court cases on the various “Law and Order” shows. He was calm, yet razor-sharp in his scenes evaluating suspects and victims; he could seem jaded and cynical, yet also honest and hardworking.

ANNA KENDRICK IN “50/50”

Therapists have to start somewhere, right? It was brilliant to have Anna Kendrick as the inexperienced caregiver to cancer patient Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It flipped the normal power dynamic and felt much more real.

RICHARD DREYFUSS IN “WHAT ABOUT BOB?”

This movie about a therapist (Dreyfuss) who can’t get away from a patient (Bill Murray) has many devoted fans. Dreyfuss gamely gives in to the rising exasperation the part calls for, which is why it works so well.

BRUCE WILLIS IN “THE SIXTH SENSE”

What I often like about Bruce Willis is his ability to be very still. It comes in quite handy in “The Sixth Sense,” where he’s trying to help Haley Joel Osment deal with a … tricky situation. Willis listens with a thoughtful intensity.

GABRIEL BYRNE IN “IN TREATMENT”

“In Treatment” isn’t simply a great TV show about therapy; I think it’s one of the best shows ever. Byrne plays Dr. Paul Weston, whose patients range from a cancer patient and a troubled businessman to a little boy caught in the middle of his parents’ divorce. Each season, the show tracked the progress of several patients, session by session. Byrne is astonishing, as is the delicate-yet-powerful writing.

But I see our time is up. I didn’t even get to the therapists in “Annie Hall,” “Mad Men” or “The Prince of Tides.” Which are your favorites?

TV’s Greatest Straight Men (and Women)

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With the passing of Andy Griffith earlier this week, it seems only fitting to devote a List to the best straight men and women in TV history. It’s such a delicate balance: being strong enough comedically to stand up to your zany co-stars, yet grounded enough for the audience to relate to you.

HAL LINDEN

BARNEY MILLER (1974-82)

At the center of one of my favorite shows, Linden’s compassionate cop, Barney Miller, presided over an absurd, smart, feisty circus of humanity. He was the moral compass, but with enough personal quirks to keep things interesting.

JASON BATEMAN

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (2003-06)

Bateman gave a virtuoso performance as the put-upon Michael Bluth in “Arrested Development.” His timing is fantastic, every episode, every line. Plus, he had some great scenes with Attorney Bob Loblaw.

EDDIE ALBERT

GREEN ACRES (1965-71)

Of course, no character was more put-upon than Oliver Wendell Douglas, played by Eddie Albert. This surreal sitcom about city folks living in the country had daffy Eva Gabor, sneaky Pat Butram and a brainy pig among the ensemble. And in the middle of it all was Albert, who gamely tried to regain control – but thankfully never did.

MARY TYLER MOORE

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (1970-77)

This one is a tough call, particularly since I’m not including Dick Van Dyke on this List. Mary’s character was incredibly funny in her own right, but I always felt she played it best when she was reacting to Lou, Ted, Rhoda, etc.

DAVE FOLEY

NEWSRADIO (1995-99)

Here was a terrific show that featured a great cast, with Foley as the straight-arrow guy running the radio station. He was witty, while being at his wit’s end. Not a bad game plan when your co-stars include Phil Hartman and Andy Dick.

DAN ROWAN

ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN (1967-73)

Dan Rowan had one job to do on “Laugh-In” and he did it exceedingly well. Amid all the groovy goings-on, with sketches coming and going at lightning speed, Rowan simply looked tan and dapper while cleanly setting up punchline after punchline. You can look it up in your Funk & Wagnalls. I dare you.

GEORGE BURNS

THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW (1950-58)

Although a lot of their material is now dated, it’s amazing how much of the Burns & Allen formula still works in today’s scripted TV comedies. Gracie had all the best lines, of course. But George was smooth as silk.

ROB MORROW

NORTHERN EXPOSURE (1990-95)

Rob Morrow sort of came out of nowhere as Joel, the New York City doctor stuck in a crazy Alaskan town. The concept burned itself out after a few years, but it was great while it lasted. Joel’s frustration kept the show on its toes.

ISABEL SANFORD

THE JEFFERSONS (1975-85)

It took a very strong personality to hold the screen with Sherman Hemsley as George Jefferson. Enter Isabel Sanford as Louise. By turns she would yell, plead, cajole and guilt trip George to keep pace. It was a classic sitcom combination.

GEORGE FENNEMAN

YOU BET YOUR LIFE (1950-61)

Fenneman is a unique figure in television history. As the announcer for the Groucho Marx quiz show, “You Bet Your Life,” he was verbally pummeled from here to Tuesday by one of the funniest human beings who ever lived. Groucho could be merciless, and George routinely was left speechless. Oddly enough, it made Fenneman all the more endearing.

JOHN KRASINSKI

THE OFFICE (2005-PRESENT)

As Jim Halpert, Krasinski carries his show’s “regular guy” role without the benefit of being the lead character. It’s a tricky thing to calibrate, but Krasinski has been all over it from the first episode. He gets his own jokes in, too.

BOB NEWHART

THE BOB NEWHART SHOW (1972-78)

How great was this dude as a straight man? Well, he often was HIS OWN straight man, in scenes on the phone. No one does a thoughtful stammer like Mr. Newhart. Perfection.

LINDA LAVIN

ALICE (1976-85)

This wasn’t Gilbert & Sullivan, but it was solid comedy. Lavin played things straight as working class mom Alice, adding a touch of drama here and an earthy zinger there. And she held her own around characters willing to shout “Kiss my grits!” at the drop of a hat.

ED McMAHON

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON (1962-92)

Gotta give it up to the most durable sidekick in talk show history. Ed was Carson’s Rock of Gibraltar: quick with a laugh, a comment or a helping hand. He was a joke target when need be, as well. And the show was never funnier than when Ed got in a funny line at Johnny’s expense.

BUDDY EBSEN

THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES (1962-71)

Ebsen’s Jed Clampett had a way of seeming smart and not-so-smart at the same time. He never, ever veered out of character.¬† One of his main responsibilities was to bear witness to the twin whirlwinds of Granny and Jethro, which he did with his trademark country squint.

DEAN MARTIN

THE DEAN MARTIN COMEDY HOUR (1965-74)

Dino went from being Jerry Lewis’ straight man in movies to being everybody’s straight man on television. He was superb at it. Effortlessly, he made singers, actors and comedians who came on his show look good. Here was a guy who was the butt of nearly every joke, yet he was clearly the coolest guy in the room.

DEMOND WILSON

SANFORD AND SON (1972-77)

Absolutely an unsung hero of TV sitcoms. Wilson was the all-too-human counterpoint to Redd Foxx, who gloriously chewed the scenery like it was a danish from the craft service table. Without Wilson, the show doesn’t work nearly as well.

LARRY HAGMAN

I DREAM OF JEANNIE (1965-70)

Looking back, maybe this wasn’t the most enlightened comedy premise in the world: an astronaut finds a bottle containing a beautiful genie who becomes his servant. But that’s not Hagman’s fault. He did every ridiculous facial contortion known to man during his years as Major Nelson, as if he knew most people would later know him as J.R. Ewing.

JOHNNY GALECKI

THE BIG BANG THEORY (2007-PRESENT)

He’s a nerd’s version of a straight man, but it still applies. Galecki expertly reels in audience sympathy while lobbing up softballs for Jim Parsons to knock out of the park. Well done, sir.

STEVE ALLEN

THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW (1956-60)

A TV pioneer, Steve Allen was a genius at conducting “interviews” with his stable of comic actors. They included Don Knotts, Louis Nye and Tom Poston. They’d show up as crazy characters and Allen would gently skewer them with puns and wry observations. David Letterman and Jon Stewart have been doing a version of this for years, but Allen got there first.

RON HOWARD

HAPPY DAYS (1974-84)

Though not a huge fan of “Happy Days,” I very much respected the way Ron Howard gave the show a likable, viable central character. I also admired the way he didn’t quit the show when the Fonzie character took over the world.

YVONNE DE CARLO

THE MUNSTERS (1964-66)

Yes, it is possible to be a great straight woman while dressed as a lady vampire. Despite her appearance, De Carlo basically played a suburban housewife dealing with a sarcastic father and a childish husband. They got most of the one-liners and she was the rational, head of the household.

JUDD HIRSCH

TAXI (1978-83)

Hirsch was the voice of reason on “Taxi.” Sometimes that meant giving a pep talk; sometimes it meant taking someone to task. Usually, it meant trying not to crack up while the likes of Danny DeVito and Andy Kaufman brought the funny.

FORREST TUCKER

F TROOP (1965-67)

Very little about “F Troop” made sense, except that it was disarmingly funny. Tucker played his Sgt. O’Rourke like he was the lead in “The Music Man,” which was exactly the right approach.

DICK YORK/DICK SARGENT

BEWITCHED (1964-72)

The wonderful duo of Darrins did their level best to hold their heads high, no matter what incantation or evil twin scenario they were up against. That’s what happens when you marry a witch with a big family.

BUD ABBOTT

THE ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW (1952-53)

Abbott was a legendary straight man from the stage and the big screen, but he also qualifies for The List because of his popular, but brief TV series with the great Lou Costello. Abbott was like a professional hit man of comedy. He was sharp and he was confident and you almost never knew he was there.

ANDY GRIFFITH

THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW (1960-68)

Thank goodness for Andy Griffith. His show was heartbreaking, human and hilarious. At its best, it was as funny as any TV program before or since, and it did so with a firm belief that humor could come out of everyday life and common foibles.

Is it possible I’ve missed anyone? Add them to The List!

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!