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TV’s Best Occasional Characters

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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.

DAVID PUDDY

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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.

DEDE PRITCHETT

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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

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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!”

ADAM

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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.

CHARLES MINER

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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.

ANGEL

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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.

ENDORA

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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.”

DEVON BANKS

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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

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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.

RICHARD ALPERT

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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.

MILES DRENTELL

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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.

JANICE

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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.

NATHANIEL FISHER

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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

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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.

ALAN BRADY

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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!

6 Comedy Bits I’m Thankful For

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In this time of gratitude, how about a moment of appreciation for some great comic gems? It’s a personal thing, of course, but each of us has a collection of classic scenes or routines that make us laugh every time we encounter them. These are some of mine.

JAY THOMAS & THE LONE RANGER

This one will be coming up again in a few weeks. Every year, just before Christmas, David Letterman brings out Jay Thomas to tell the same, hilarious story. It has to do with a car dealership, a traffic accident – and the Lone Ranger! I love it.

REV. JIM & THE YELLOW LIGHT

It’s a classic scene from the sitcom “Taxi.” Here, Rev. Jim (Christopher Lloyd) is taking his driver’s test to become a cabbie, and he needs a little help with one question.

THE 2,000 YEAR OLD MAN

Comedy geniuses Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner used a combination of written premise and improvisation to create the masterpiece that is “The 2,000 Year Old Man.” Mel’s voice alone is priceless, but the material is amazing, too.

“HEAD” SCENE FROM “SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER”

It may be an obscure movie, but among many of my friends this scene is close to perfection. First of all, Scottish accents are terrific for comedy. Add in a gruff father character and you’ve got something special.

INDEPENDENT GEORGE

In a show brimming with top shelf comedy, this bit is particularly funny. Jason Alexander, as George, is explaining to Jerry how dangerous it is to have his relationship world collide with his friendship world. “Seinfeld” at its finest.

WHO’S ON FIRST?

Now we come to the Thanksgiving feast of comedy routines. It’s Abbott and Costello’s famous, “Who’s On First” bit. I used to practice it when I was a kid, trying to master its rhythms. These days, there’s a certain 9-year-old in my family who laughs just as hard at it as I do. For that, I’m very thankful.

I hope your weekend has its share of jokes, too. Happy Thanksgiving.

Television’s Great Angry Wives

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Friends, we are living in a Golden Age of Angry Wives on TV. Unlike most of their counterparts from earlier eras, today’s television wives give full voice to their fears, frustrations and fury. It’s a beautiful thing. Take a look at some classic examples from today and yesterday.

JANUARY JONES IN “MAD MEN”

Don Draper gets all the attention, but Betty Draper’s story arc on “Mad Men” is equally compelling and also tragic. We see her transform from mousy and petulant to passive aggressive to outright bitter. No one holds an angrier cigarette than Betty.

SOFIA VERGARA IN “MODERN FAMILY”

Here’s a case where having a character show anger makes her much more likable. As Gloria, Vergara easily could have been just eye candy. Instead, she uses her zero to sixty temper to be someone who stands up for herself, thinks for herself and is funny in her own right.

AUDREY MEADOWS IN “THE HONEYMOONERS”

Alice Kramden is the TV Angry Wife rock of Gibraltar. That voice! That withering stare! Not only did she give as good as she got on “The Honeymooners,” she apparently conducted much of her life in a dreary apartment roughly the size of the Kardashians’ bathroom.

LEAH REMINI IN “KING OF QUEENS”

I think the closest thing to Alice Kramden in recent years was Leah Remini as Carrie Heffernan on “King of Queens.” Carrie didn’t put up with any guff from her larger-than-life hubby and she had a ferocity about her that jumped off the TV screen.

TICHINA ARNOLD IN “EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS”

Everybody may have hated Chris, but they were downright scared of Rochelle. She ruled the family with a steely resolve and a glare that could see through solid rock – in this case a young Chris Rock. Yet the show made quite clear that Rochelle’s anger stemmed from her desire to keep her husband and kids moving forward.

PATRICIA HEATON IN “EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND”

The meaner Patricia Heaton got on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the funnier she became. She was a joy to watch, particularly as she branched out and got angry at her in-laws. The fact that she’s so tiny made it even more impressive.

ESTELLE HARRIS IN “SEINFELD”

Despite playing a secondary character, Estelle Harris was an essential part of “Seinfeld.” Her epic arguments with her TV husband, Jerry Stiller, were atonal symphonies of spite. Bravo, Estelle.

ALICE PEARCE AND SANDRA GOULD IN “BEWITCHED”

Two actresses shared the role of nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz on “Bewitched.” Alice Pearce trafficked expertly in odd facial expressions, while Gould (shown here) went in for a more hostile vibe. Let’s just say Mr. Kravitz had his hands full.

JANE KACZMAREK IN “MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE”

Ah, Lois. Your sitcom anger was pure farce, but it was truly formidable. Kaczmarek crafted a character who used yelling to convey humor, honesty, love and concern, as well as indignation.

SUSIE ESSMAN IN “CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM”

And then there’s Susie. Her put-upon, California wife in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is a force of nature. Her anger is volcanic. Her expletives are extraordinary. I’m fairly confident she can divert weather systems with the sheer energy emanating from her face. If TV is going to have a Larry David, there has to be a Susie Essman to balance things out.

Oh, but there are so many more. You have Edie Falco in “The Sopranos,” Felicity Huffman in “Desperate Housewives,” Julie Bowen in “Modern Family,” etc. Who are some of your favorites?

Great TV and Movie Reunions

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We’re all suckers for reunions, aren’t we? They speak to our collective sense of the passage of time, our feelings of mortality and our deep desire for human connection. Hollywood reunions exploit this to great effect – which is a wordy way of saying I can’t wait for the upcoming “Arrested Development” update now being produced for Netflix. In the meantime, here are nine terrific TV and movie reunions.

THE WEST WING POLITICAL AD

This one is pretty recent. The “West Wing” gang got together to help the campaign of cast member Mary McCormack’s sister out in Michigan by producing a short video. It’s actually a nonpartisan ad, and it shows that C.J., Toby, Josh and President Bartlett haven’t lost their touch. And of course there’s a great walk-and-talk scene!

THE MARX BROTHERS ON G.E. TRUE THEATER

Obscure, but poignant in its way. On March 8, 1959, Harpo and Chico Marx starred in an episode of “G.E. True Theater” called “The Incredible Jewel Robbery.” Now, any time you get two of the Marx Brothers together, it’s an occasion for celebration. What took it to the next level was the appearance of brother Groucho at the end of the episode. I happen to think that old men acting silly for a laugh is a noble thing; it’s especially true when they clearly enjoy each other’s company this much.

SONNY AND CHER ON LETTERMAN SHOW

The emotions were much more complicated in 1987 when Sonny and Cher went on “Late Night with David Letterman.” It was years after their divorce, and Letterman somehow persuaded them to sing “I Got You Babe” during the broadcast. I remember that Sonny, in particular, seemed emotional. It was an awkward, but riveting, reunion.

MARY TYLER MOORE AND DICK VAN DYKE REVISIT LAURA AND ROB PETRIE

Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke shared an incredible chemistry on the old “Dick Van Dyke Show,” and it remains obvious every time they’re on stage together. My favorite example of this was from 1979, when Mary briefly had a variety show and Dick appeared as a guest star. They did an extended “Rob and Laura” sketch, in which Mary is in psychotherapy and Dick has to write the eulogy for Alan Brady’s funeral. It was like comedy comfort food.

THE SEINFELD GANG ON CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM

Here’s a case in which a TV reunion settled some unfinished business. More than a decade after the final episode of “Seinfeld” fell flat, Jerry & Co. did a multi-episode story on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which they returned to their characters. It was absolutely brilliant. The writing was sharp, insightful and – most important – funny.

DEAN AND JERRY REUNITE ON LIVE TELEVISION

In terms of reunion shock value, nothing beats the moment at the 1976 Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon when Dean Martin walked out to greet his old partner, Jerry Lewis. They hadn’t seen each other in 20 years, and both were sheepish and stunned. Frank Sinatra had orchestrated the whole thing, which went on for several minutes and had all the Hollywood schmaltz of a Rat Pack movie. First, Jerry says to Frank, under his breath, “You son of a b—-.” Then he looks at Dean and asks, “So, how you been?”

STAR TREK GOES WHERE NO FILM HAS GONE BEFORE

Aside from those ghastly uniforms, the return of “Star Trek” a decade after its cancellation has to be the most successful Hollywood reunion ever. Sure, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” was ponderous, but it led to a movie series that continues to this day, plus several well-received TV series.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER REBOOT

The beloved sitcom, “Leave It to Beaver,” had an unlikely second act, thanks to a reunion. Most of the cast came back in 1983 for a TV movie called, “Still the Beaver.” In it, the Beaver was a divorced dad with two kids, and the public was intrigued. That led to a second regular series, which ran for several years.

THE NEWHART FINALE

With one scene, Bob Newhart brilliantly cut to the hard truth about his sitcom, “Newhart.” It was this: as funny as “Newhart” was, it never could erase the audience’s memory of Bob’s previous series, “The Bob Newhart Show.” How do we know this? Because in the “Newhart” series finale, Bob suddenly wakes up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from the old show! To this day, it’s the best finale in TV history.

Brings a smile to your face, doesn’t it?

My Favorite TV Hangouts

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It’s no secret that we form sentimental attachments to our favorite TV characters. But we also become fond of the places those characters go to socialize. For me, they include bars, malt shops, diners and way too many coffee shops.

FLOYD’S BARBER SHOP

Mayberry wouldn’t have been nearly so entertaining without Floyd’s Barber Shop, where town luminaries such as Sheriff Taylor, Deputy Fife and Gomer Pyle caught up on the latest gossip with Floyd (Howard McNear). I loved Floyd’s spacey, vaguely disapproving manner on “The Andy Griffith Show.” I also loved Eugene Levy’s send-up of Floyd on the old SCTV show.

CENTRAL PERK

This was the perfect place for the cast of “Friends” to spend quality time. Coffee shops were just coming into their own as hipster meeting spots, which fit the vibe of the show. One thing did bother me: how did this same group of friends ALWAYS get the good couch?

MOE’S TAVERN

As animated dive bars go, Moe’s Tavern on “The Simpsons” is the best there is. Moe himself, voiced by Hank Azaria, is a hoot and a half. His place is Homer’s safe haven and the launching pad for some great prank phone calls (“Al Coholic? Is there an Al Coholic here?”)

SATRIALE’S PORK STORE

This place, one of several hangouts for the thugs on “The Sopranos,” absolutely reeked of authenticity. That’s because it’s a real pork store in New Jersey. Also, my apologies to those hoping this List would include the Bada Bing.

CAFE NERVOSA

More coffee here, this one from “Frasier.” Cafe Nervosa was upscale and classy, in keeping with the tone of urbane wit that Kelsey Grammer & Co. maintained.

LONG BRANCH SALOON

No one would ever accuse the Long Branch, from “Gunsmoke,” of being a realistic depiction of a saloon in the old west. I suspect the saloons on “Deadwood” were a lot closer to the real thing. Yet it proved to be home sweet home for Marshal Matt Dillon – thanks to the ever-patient Miss Kitty.

KARAOKE BAR ON THE NEWSROOM

What seems like an odd locale for the news folk on “The Newsroom” to choose as a hangout is actually very smart. The karaoke bar (if someone knows the name, please let me know) is sleek and flashy, just like the show. It’s also kind of pleasantly goofy, just like the show. It works.

ARNOLD’S

“Happy Days” wasn’t one of my favorite shows, but I loved the local burger joint, Arnold’s. It looked the way a 1950s teen hangout was supposed to look, right down to the jukebox and booths. There’s only one TV teen hangout I like better…

THE SHAKE SHOP

“The Patty Duke Show” wasn’t trying to rekindle nostalgic memories of an earlier era; it was part of youth culture. It just happened to be centered around a ridiculous premise about identical cousins. The local malt shop was the scene of much action. Viva la Shake Shop!

DOC MAGOO’S

Doc Magoo’s was the dive diner a block away from the hospital on “ER.” As with so many of the places on this List, it reflects something important about the show itself. The characters on “ER” had no lives outside of the hospital, for the most part. They put love, family and even food on the back burner, reducing their meals to something they could run and get down the street from work.

MACLAREN’S PUB

Another shrewd choice of place. “How I Met Your Mother,” like many sitcoms, is about building your own family of people who care about you. This pub, with its cozy booths, warm brown tables and unending stream of attractive visitors, is just the right spot.

TEN FORWARD

Even intergalactic explorers need a place to unwind. On “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” that place was Ten Forward, the Enterprise’s very own bar. Whoopi Goldberg was the proprietor. Best. Romulan. Ale. Ever.

BAR ON RESCUE ME

“Rescue Me” was all about personal demons: alcohol, guilt, you name it. What better place to work on some of those issues than a New York City bar? At its best, this show was an absolute gem, with several incredible scenes set in the tavern owned by the guys from the firehouse.

BOSTON LEGAL ROOFTOP

In all weather and states of being, James Spader and William Shatner made beautiful music together on their law firm’s rooftop on “Boston Legal.” These scenes came to be the real soul of the series. That’s what a great hangout is for, frankly. It’s a place to confide, regale and bask in the glow of belonging.

MONK’S DINER

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think there’s any question that this coffee shop on “Seinfeld” is the best TV hangout of all time. It’s where George told the blowhole story, for crying out loud! And the place serves up a fine Big Salad. Monk’s was something special in a show about nothing.

Of course, this is all a matter of opinion. Which TV hangouts do you like best?

Great Breakup Scenes

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Breaking up is never hard to do in Hollywood. Movies and TV shows are full of characters going through breakups of all sorts. Here are some examples we here at The Jimbo List find particularly memorable.

LOUIE (2012)

Full disclosure: this scene from Louis C.K.’s brilliant TV show is the inspiration for today’s List. Like everything else in the series, it’s original and realistically off-kilter. Louie and his not-really-a-girlfriend April break up almost by osmosis. She has to do all the talking, putting into words all the complicated feelings Louie has but can’t say. This guy is a genius.

ANNIE HALL (1977)

Let’s proceed to another New York City genius, Woody Allen. His films are brimming with breakups, plus a line about them that will live on forever in film history. In “Annie Hall,” he says that a relationship is like a shark. It has to keep moving forward in order to survive. “I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark,” he tells Diane Keaton.

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (2008)

I’m not certain about this, but I’m guessing Jason Segel is the first guy to do a movie breakup scene with full-frontal male nudity. Daring, but also smart. His character, who is getting dumped by Kristen Bell, is naked in every way.

WAITING TO EXHALE (1995)

Angela Bassett shows us the only thing you can do in a movie when your husband leaves you for another woman: you blow up his car. That way, there’s no ambiguity about the breakup.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

This Oscar winner for Best Picture is a perfect example of the kind of stoic, do-what-you-have-to-do spirit that was such a part of American life – even in breakups. Dana Andrews is a returning World War II veteran with a menial job and a cheating wife. Then he meets Teresa Wright, the daughter of another veteran. They fall in love, but the father tells Andrews to do the right thing and leave his daughter alone. And that’s what he does, in a terse, no-whining breakup scene.

SEINFELD (1993)

“Seinfeld” featured many great breakups during its run, but my fave is when Gwen dumps poor George with the line, “It’s not you, it’s me.” This infuriates George, not because he got dumped, but because he insists he “invented” the it’s-not-you-it’s-me strategy.

THE FOOT FIST WAY (2006)

Not many people have seen “The Foot Fist Way.” It’s a weird, weird film, but features a fearless performance by the hilarious Danny McBride. He’s a martial arts instructor with a whole mess of problems. In one scene, his unfaithful wife asks him to take her back. He responds by urinating on his wedding ring.

KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979)

Is it any surprise that Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep have one of the most painful, incredible breakup scenes of all time? Every one of their scenes together in “Kramer vs. Kramer” is amazing. Here, Streep’s nerves, determination and fear are all right on the surface, as are Hoffman’s initial arrogance, denial and frustration.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)

Aptly, this movie’s take on the oddly anti-social underpinnings of Facebook begins with an Aaron Sorkin verbal assault of a breakup. Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg are terrific handling Sorkin’s intricate dialogue. It’s like watching a prizefight.

NETWORK (1976)

Let’s not forget the other “Network,” while we’re at it. William Holden is a network news exec who leaves his wife for Faye Dunaway, a ruthless network programming exec. When he gets fed up with Dunaway, he tells her she’s “television incarnate, indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy.” That sort of line was devastating in the ’70s.

500 DAYS OF SUMMER (2009)

It was fun while it lasted, but eventually Zooey Deschanel has to lower the boom on Joseph Gordon-Levitt. She does it by invoking doomed punk rock couple Sid and Nancy. Gordon-Levitt is stunned to learn that he’s Nancy. Yikes.

SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (1993)

Meg Ryan was the queen of the amicable movie breakup, wasn’t she? Here, and in “You’ve Got Mail,” she calmly, earnestly sits the guy down and explains that the organization has decided to make a change. Bill Pullman is the target in “Sleepless,” and he reacts with a sad dignity. But hey – she’s got to get to the Empire State Building, pronto.

CLOSER (2004)

“Closer” is like a sampler of breakup scenes. The whole cast – Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen – gets at least one good breakup to chew on during the proceedings. Director Mike Nichols has covered some of this bitter relationship territory before, in classics such as “Carnal Knowledge” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” This one isn’t quite in the same league with those.

MANHATTAN (1979)

To me, the scene where Woody Allen ends his relationship with young Mariel Hemingway is utterly heartbreaking. It’s a decidedly creepy relationship to begin with, of course. But Hemingway’s tears, and her quiet pain, are deeply moving.

GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)

Best breakup scene. Best breakup line. It comes at the end of a long, eventful story, but it’s worth the wait. People have been quoting it, and Clark Gable’s delivery of it, for more than 70 years.

I know there are plenty of other good examples out there. Which ones are your favorites?