Much is made of computer animation and other technology in movies and TV, but I think one of the best special effects goes on top of an actor’s head. It shapes our whole attitude about a character, without so much as a transposed pixel. Here, without commentary, are some of my favorites.
HARRISON FORD AS INDIANA JONES
CHARLIE CHAPLIN AS THE LITTLE TRAMP
THE LADIES OF “DOWNTON ABBEY”
CLINT EASTWOOD AS THE MAN WITH NO NAME
SALLY FIELD AS “THE FLYING NUN”
JON HAMM AS DON DRAPER
THE CAT IN THE HAT
JIMMIE WALKER AS J.J. EVANS
ALAN HALE JR. AS THE SKIPPER
MARY TYLER MOORE AS MARY RICHARDS
BASIL RATHBONE AS SHERLOCK HOLMES
MIKE NESMITH IN “THE MONKEES”
FESS PARKER AS DANIEL BOONE
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS AS ABRAHAM LINCOLN
THE SORTING HAT FROM “HARRY POTTER”
ART CARNEY AS ED NORTON
B.D. IN “DOONESBURY”
LARRY HAGMAN AS J.R. EWING
JOHNNY DEPP AS THE MAD HATTER
BUDDY EBSEN AS JED CLAMPETT
ARETHA FRANKLIN AT THE PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION
LIDSVILLE TV SERIES
GENE HACKMAN AS POPEYE DOYLE
ERROL FLYNN AS ROBIN HOOD
HUMPHREY BOGART AS SAM SPADE
MARGARET HAMILTON AS THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST
That’s a LOT of hats! But even so, feel free to suggest a few more!
Lip syncing gets a bad rap, but it’s not always deserved. Over the years, many directors, actors and comedians have used it as a device that amplifies the emotion of a particular character or scene. There’s no logical reason for it to work – but it does. Consider these examples of good (and bad) lip syncing, and see if you don’t agree.
ASHLEY SIMPSON ON “SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE”
We’ll start with an infamous example from 2004. Simpson was the musical guest on SNL one night, and at the beginning of her second performance a vocal track of the previous song began to play loudly. Clearly flustered, Simpson did an odd little dance for a few seconds, then she fled the stage. She later said she used a vocal “guide” track to help her sing because she had severe acid reflux. That’s why I take Pepcid.
DEAN STOCKWELL IN “BLUE VELVET”
Everything you need to know about “Blue Velvet” is right here in this scene, in which Dean Stockwell, cigarette holder and all, mouths the words to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” It’s weird, mesmerizing, frightening and inviting.
JEAN HAGEN IN “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN”
Who can forget the climax of “Singin’ in the Rain,” where evil Lina Lamont (Hagen) forces Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) to sing for her from behind a curtain at the premiere of her new movie? It’s one of the great moments in movie history – especially when Lina gets caught.
THE CAST OF “THE COSBY SHOW”
Everyone knows this scene and for good reason. It has an enduring sweetness that speaks volumes about those moments when family life is transcendent. The entire Huxtable clan gets together on a lip sync version of “Night Time is the Right Time,” by Ray Charles. Each person gets his or her moment in the spotlight and each one is happy to be part of the whole. And then, of course, you get Bill Cosby’s perfectly timed facial contortions. Well done!
MATTHEW BRODERICK IN “FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF”
There is no better expression of self-aware, youthful cool, than this scene in which Ferris takes over a parade in downtown Chicago. Of course, a huge amount of credit also goes to the juxtaposition of the two songs, “Danke Schoen” and “Twist and Shout.”
BEYONCE AT THE INAUGURATION
Let me just say I’m a big admirer of Beyonce as a performing artist. However, I’m also something of a purist when it comes to the presidential inauguration. I’d rather have heard a sour note or two of the national anthem in a live performance than a lip sync rendition. But that’s me.
ANDY KAUFMAN ON “SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE”
Kaufman was sort of the King of Comedic Absurdity in the 1970s and 1980s. A key, early example was his lip syncing take on the theme to “Mighty Mouse.” It was too strange for words, but it was funny, as well. Definitely one of the best moments of the early years of SNL.
JON CRYER IN “PRETTY IN PINK”
You have to give the young Jon Cryer a lot of credit for absolutely putting it all out there in “Pretty in Pink.” His character, Duckie, is just trying to be noticed – leading him to a heartfelt, over-the-top rendition of “Try A Little Tenderness.” Lip synced, of course.
ALLISON JANNEY IN “THE WEST WING”
If you’re not familiar with Janney’s lip sync version of “The Jackal,” then I suggest you click over to Netflix and toggle down to Season One of “The West Wing.” It comes out of left field, but anyone who spends a lot of time with co-workers understands that it’s just the sort of nutty thing that people do when they unwind.
Any more lip syncing highlights? Add them to The List!
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
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.
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,” 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.
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
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
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?”
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
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.
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?
Newspaper reporters make great bad guys. They’re nosy, they’re impertinent and they often dress lousy. Here are my picks for the worst of the lot.
KATE MARA IN “HOUSE OF CARDS”
TV audiences are getting a real treat with Mara’s performance on the Netflix original series, “House of Cards.” She’s a talented, twisted scribe who has no ethical boundaries in her pursuit of personal fame. She’s scary good.
BURT LANCASTER IN “SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS”
Lancaster is pure evil as columnist J.J. Hunsecker in “Sweet Smell of Success.” He makes and breaks reputations, reveling in the tremendous power he wields. That’s not a good thing if you’re trying to marry J.J.’s beloved sister. Burt is like a coiled snake.
BRUCE WILLIS IN “THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES”
This is not one of Bruce’s better films, for a variety of reasons. However, his tabloid reporter character here is highly memorable. He opportunistically pounces on a scandal involving race, class and politics and holds on for dear life.
MIRANDA RICHARDSON IN “HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE”
I love her name: Rita Skeeter. She’s the snarky reporter in the Harry Potter series, and she definitely puts a spin on her stories – complete with questionable quotes and outright lies. She can’t even get poor Harry’s age right.
BRODERICK CRAWFORD IN “SCANDAL SHEET”
Crawford, who plays the gruff editor of a tawdry “scandal sheet,” has a bit of a situation on his ink-stained hands. The wife he used to beat up and then abandoned has threatened to expose him. He deals with her in the way film noir characters usually do, but then he has to assign one of his reporters to cover the story and hope he doesn’t get caught. Get me rewrite!
HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN IN “SHATTERED GLASS”
This is perhaps the most frightening item on The List, because it’s a true story. “Shattered Glass” is the story of disgraced journalist Stephen Glass, who fabricated parts of dozens of stories in The New Republic magazine. It’s one of those movies that slowly, painfully reveals the depths of the villain’s deception. Peter Sarsgaard is very good as the editor who gets to the truth.
ROBERT DUVALL IN “THE NATURAL”
Sports reporters can be sleazy, too. In the great baseball movie, “The Natural,” Duvall is clearly more interested in a juicy yarn than in the game. He’s just as corrupt, in his own way, as a greedy owner or a player on the take.
BARBARA STANWYCK IN “MEET JOHN DOE”
Because this ends up being a comedy-drama with social overtones, you tend to forget that Stanwyck’s character did something pretty bad. She’s being laid off from her gig as a newspaper columnist, and she decides to print a letter from a made-up person threatening to kill himself on Christmas Eve because the world is unfair to the downtrodden. It gets even worse when the paper hires Gary Cooper to be the fictional “John Doe.”
ORSON WELLES IN “CITIZEN KANE”
I had to include good, old Charles Foster Kane, although he’s more of an executive than a lowly reporter. Apart from the film’s overall greatness, it is also a testament to the notion that information is power. You can even start a war with it.
AUBREY PLAZA IN “SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED”
Even interns need to follow this rule: Don’t get emotionally involved with your source. That’s especially true if he claims to be a time traveler.
SALLY FIELD IN “ABSENCE OF MALICE”
This is a tough one, because Sally Field’s reporter character isn’t intentionally trying to do harm. But that’s the point. By being so easily manipulated (thanks Bob Balaban!) she indeed does great harm to Paul Newman and Melinda Dillon. It’s an excellent film.
KIRK DOUGLAS IN “ACE IN THE HOLE”
My man Kirk is magnificently malevolent in this picture, directed by the brilliant Billy Wilder. Kirk is a former New York City reporter, now working in New Mexico, who stumbles across a gripping story of a man trapped in a cave. Not only does he delay the rescue operation in order to string out the story an extra day or two – he seduces the wife of the guy in the cave! That’s just wrong. “Ace in the Hole” is a smart, snappy tale of sensationalism gone wild.
We’re all subject to the occasional daydream, but some of our most indelible pop culture characters take it to the extreme. And thank goodness they do. Their little fantasies are hilarious, illuminating and endearing.
Some may prefer his Joe Cool persona, but I was always a sucker for Snoopy’s exploits as the adversary of World War I flying ace the Red Baron. It’s amazing how effective those “Peanuts” cartoon strips were. Just a beagle in a scarf and aviator goggles, sitting atop his doghouse, mixing it up in the skies over France.
Played devilishly by Tom Courtenay, Billy Fisher is the title character from the 1963 film, “Billy Liar.” He’s a lowly clerk in England who fuels his juvenile behavior with wild fantasies about heroic deeds and power. Naturally, his situation spins spectacularly out of control.
MARY KATHERINE GALLAGHER
Mary Katherine Gallagher is one of the many brilliant characters to come out of “Saturday Night Live.” Intense, misunderstood and stubbornly independent, Mary Katherine is a Catholic school girl who lives almost entirely in her daydreams – which consist mainly of after school TV specials and coming-of-age movies. The reason it works is because comic actress Molly Shannon surrenders herself completely to Mary Katherine’s single mindedness.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” started out as a short story published in The New Yorker in 1939. Written by the great James Thurber, it had to do with a mousy, henpecked husband who escaped his mundane world via reveries of being a fighter pilot and a surgeon. In 1947, a film version of the story starred Danny Kaye. He was a great Mitty. A 21st century Walter Mitty is set to debut later this year, in a new movie starring Ben Stiller.
As long as we’re talking about Thurber, let’s say a word about the 1969-70 sitcom, “My World and Welcome to It.” It used many of Thurber’s drawings and starred William Windom as John Monroe, a guy with a lot of similarities to Mr. Thurber. Windom was excellent, separating the character from Walter Mitty by making him crusty and somewhat sarcastic. But the daydreams were still there, front and center.
Paging Spaceman Spiff! This is a case of personal fantasy as sheer joy. Little Calvin, the human half of the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” loved nothing more than to place himself smack in the middle of a made-up adventure. My favorite was his intergalactic imp, Spaceman Spiff.
Those who are unfamiliar with the 2004 comedy, “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” are missing out on one of pop culture’s most engaging dreamers. Pirate Steve, played by Alan Tudyk, is a dude who finds meaning by dressing and talking like a pirate, 24-7. That’s living the dream.
BARON VON MUNCHAUSEN
Fantasy doesn’t get any more epic than old Baron von Munchausen (John Neville), who may or may not have have been to the Moon, the Underworld and back with an odd band of superhuman characters.
Here was animation brilliance, circa the 1960s. In cartoons that didn’t run beyond two minutes, you had a retired British military man, McBragg, relating some crazy adventure halfway around the world. It had all the elements I loved: an absurd British accent, an exotic setting and a series of bad puns. Jolly good.
And finally, inevitably, there is Don Quixote. One of the greatest characters in all of literature, he has been thrust into any number of movies, stage productions and TV shows. It’s remarkable, considering the guy dates back to Spanish novels of the early 1600s! Don Quixote is an ordinary man so taken with his favorite heroic books that he envisions himself as a knight, riding into the horizon and fighting for all that is good and true. So what if that angry giant over yonder is actually a windmill? This brings us to why we put up with the beautiful dreamers of the world in the first place. Who is to say that their delusions of grandeur are any less valid than the positive images and reinforcements we all use to inspire and motivate ourselves? Dream on, I say.
If you have a few more dreamers to add, I’m all ears.
Roses are red, violets are blue. Great poetry scenes? Here are a few.
BULL DURHAM (1988)
Adding to the richness and fun of this bawdy baseball classic are some nice flourishes of poetry. My favorite is when Susan Sarandon tosses a William Blake line from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” at Kevin Costner and he replies, “William Blake?!” Beautiful.
MAGIC TOWN (1947)
At the time, this satire about a pollster who found a town with perfect demographics was considered somewhat edgy. Today it’s decidedly on the hokey side. But there’s one scene that I love, where Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman are flirting with each other and give an impromptu, dual poetry recitation.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)
Kirsten Dunst is a side character in this terrific movie about memories, love and pain, but she gets a nice poetry moment thanks to Alexander Pope’s “Elisa to Abelard.”
MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004)
In the excellent Clint Eastwood film “Million Dollar Baby,” old Clint uses lines from “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” by W.B. Yeats, to convey a deep well of love and a sense of comfort to his tragic young boxing protegee, Hilary Swank.
THE OUTSIDERS (1983)
Actor C. Thomas Howell, as Ponyboy, does right by Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Totally appropriate for a bittersweet story of youth and the yearning to find your place in the world.
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)
Painful and perfect use of poetry here, as married man Michael Caine attempts to woo his sister-in-law, Barbara Hershey, with the e.e. cummings poem, “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond.”
EL DORADO (1966)
Yes, even westerns can have poetry. James Caan made fine use of Edgar Allan Poe’s “El Dorado” in this one. Of course, John Wayne thought he was nuts.
BACK TO SCHOOL (1986)
I doubt very much that Dylan Thomas, when he wrote “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” envisioned a day when it would be recited by comedian Rodney Dangerfield in the slob comedy, “Back to School.” Having said that, Rodney rocks.
APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
Like the rest of his performance in “Apocalypse Now,” Marlon Brando’s reading of “The Hollow Men,” by T.S. Eliot, is haunting, ominous and captivating.
DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989)
The liberating, soul-nourishing nature of poetry is part of the theme of “Dead Poets Society.” Robin Williams is an English teacher at a rigid Vermont boarding school who shows his students that poetry and literature help you see the world from a different perspective. If you read poetry while standing on your desk – Whitman’s “Oh Captain! My Captain,” for instance – it’s even better.
THE GATHERING (1977)
Ed Asner belts out a fine rendition of “Christmas Day in the Workhouse,” in this old TV movie about a dying father trying to bring his family back together for one last holiday.
Here we have poetry being used to add gravitas to the proceedings. Judy Dench, in “Skyfall,” deals with some government bureaucrats in a hearing by reciting part of Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” It didn’t help her situation, let me say.
SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982)
At the end of the almost unbearably sad “Sophie’s Choice,” Stingo lets some words from Emily Dickinson try to make sense of the world’s senselessness. That sort of grace is a much appreciated counterpoint to the sudden, harsh choice that haunts the story.
JIMMY STEWART ON “THE TONIGHT SHOW” (1981)
One night on Johnny Carson’s old “Tonight Show,” Jimmy Stewart pulled out a couple of pieces of paper and read a poem he’d composed about his late, beloved dog, Beau. It was sweet, incredibly corny and amazingly moving.
Now that the shocking Season Three finale of “Downton Abbey” is concluded – poor Matthew – “Downton” fans are no doubt going through some withdrawal pains. It will be a while before we see how Lord Grantham & Co. are able to soldier on, after their latest loss. But not to worry. The staff here at The Jimbo List has turned up some interesting nuggets of info that will give you a few things to consider as you wait for new episodes. Carry on.
THE DOWAGER COUNTESS WAS ORIGINALLY A CHARACTER ON “SESAME STREET”
IN AN EARLY DRAFT, BATES’ PRISON SCENES WERE TO BE NARRATED BY MORGAN FREEMAN
ACTRESS SHIRLEY MACLAINE ACTUALLY WAS A RICH HEIRESS FROM 1920 IN A PAST LIFE
ONE VERSION OF THE SEASON ONE PILOT INCLUDED APPEARANCES BY BATMAN’S BUTLER ALFRED AND MANUEL THE WAITER FROM “FAWLTY TOWERS”
SEASON TWO BLOOPER: O’BRIEN IS SEEN LIGHTING UP A CIG WITH A ZIPPO
COLLEGE STUDENTS IN BRITAIN DO A SHOT EVERY TIME CARSON SAYS “MILADY”
IN REALITY, VERY FEW BRITISH OFFICERS WENT HOME TWICE A WEEK DURING WORLD WAR I TO ATTEND BLACK TIE DINNERS WITH THE FAMILY
THE SHOW’S CREATORS SETTLED A COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT SUIT OUT OF COURT, BROUGHT BY ADULT FILM STAR “DOWNTOWN ABBY”
SEASON FOUR WILL BE SET AT HOGWARTS
UPCOMING “DOWNTON” DEATHS: O’BRIEN (LUNG CANCER), LADY GRANTHAM (CURLING IRON MISHAP), MRS. PATMORE (EXPLODING SOUFFLE) AND LORD GRANTHAM (MISTAKEN FOR A BADGER DURING A HUNT)
The private eye is an evergreen character for a very good reason. No matter what era or locale you choose for your story, there’s going to be greed and there’s going to be the occasional crime of passion. And the only way to sort it all out is to find an intrepid sleuth-for-hire. Here are the ones I prefer.
HUMPHREY BOGART IN “THE MALTESE FALCON”
For a good many people, Bogey is the gumshoe gold standard. His whole vibe told you that he expected the worst from people, but hoped for the best. In “The Maltese Falcon,” a true classic, he gets to rub elbows with such stellar character actors as Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.
JACK NICHOLSON IN “CHINATOWN”
Nicholson channeled more than a little bit of Bogart in “Chinatown,” one of the best movies of the 1970s. He was feisty and dogged in his search for answers in a case that reached operatic heights (and depths) of corruption and depravity. Yet Jack also managed to be a real smartass. That’s saying something, considering what happens to his nose.
RICHARD ROUNDTREE IN “SHAFT”
The most excellent “Shaft” song gets so much attention, you tend to forget how cool Richard Roundtree was in the title role. Unlike a lot of private eyes, he looked damn good while was chasing down leads and busting heads.
DAVID JANSSEN IN “HARRY O”
“Harry O” wasn’t on TV for all that long, and it wasn’t a hit, but it featured a rich, nuanced role for David Janssen. His Harry Orwell was complicated, compassionate and filled with deep reservoirs of unspoken feeling. And get this – he didn’t have his own car! He would actually ride the bus around San Diego to work on his cases.
WILLIAM POWELL AND MYRNA LOY IN “THE THIN MAN”
Powell and Loy were terrific as a team of married sleuths in “The Thin Man” and its sequels. More often than not, Powell’s Nick Charles was nursing a bad hangover, which wife Nora loved to point out. Loy and Powell’s dialogue just sparkled, no matter what sort of situation presented itself. Few movie duos since have matched their obvious chemistry.
HARRISON FORD IN “BLADE RUNNER”
The juxtaposition of old-time, private eye tropes and futuristic gizmos served “Blade Runner” very well. Ford was a grim investigator trying to track down a bunch of violent, artificial life forms trying to blend in with the general populace. He discovered it wasn’t quite that simple. That’s how it is with private eyes. They always see the shades of gray.
ROBERT MITCHUM IN “OUT OF THE PAST”
Quite simply, it’s one of the best film noir performances ever put on film. Mitchum personifies fatalistic stoicism as a smitten gumshoe who falls under the spell of a dangerous, mysterious dame. When the bad guy shows up, it’s – holy crap – Kirk Douglas!
JAMES GARNER IN “THE ROCKFORD FILES”
Garner was smooth as silk as Jim Rockford, an LA private eye who lived in a trailer on the beach. Like most of the folks on this List, he was a jaded guy who still managed to be a soft touch when someone was in trouble. Garner gave the character easy humor, natural charm and a hard-earned intelligence.
JASON SCHWARTZMAN IN “BORED TO DEATH”
The private eye as a Brooklyn hipster/struggling writer. It’s a brilliant twist on the genre, with Schwartzman perfectly cast as the self-involved, yet surprisingly effective, investigator. The supporting cast is great, too, headed up by Ted Danson.
ROBERT URICH IN “SPENSER: FOR HIRE”
Urich’s likability, combined with the literary pedigree of Robert B. Parker’s source material, made “Spenser: For Hire” a pleasing way to spend an hour. I also liked that the show was set in Boston, that Spenser drove a Mustang and that he had the best side character on TV. That would be Avery Brooks as Hawk.
MIKE CONNORS IN “MANNIX”
Okay, I’ll admit it. My favorite part of “Mannix” was the theme song. Connors did a fine job – but that theme song was dynamite.
JIMMY STEWART IN “VERTIGO”
In “Vertigo,” Jimmy Stewart’s character isn’t so much trying to solve a case as he is surrendering to a personal obsession. He becomes unhinged by Kim Novak’s death and goes completely off the deep end when he encounters a woman who looks exactly like her. As always director Alfred Hitchcock pounces on the dark side of human personality.
DONALD SUTHERLAND IN “KLUTE”
This is such an underrated performance, mainly because it’s Jane Fonda’s character who dominates the film. But Sutherland is masterful as the quiet, conservative investigator who watches everything with a piercing gaze. As the plot plays out, his strength and resolve radiate wonderfully.
KRISTEN BELL IN “VERONICA MARS”
“Veronica Mars” took the private eye story to a scary place: high school. These weren’t soft mysteries. Young Veronica, played with plucky toughness by Kristen Bell, had to deal with murders, sexual assaults and spurned lovers, as well as a gaggle of mean girls who hated her.
DENZEL WASHINGTON IN “DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS”
Here we have a wonderful blend of politics, a search for a missing woman, hidden motives and a dash of racism in 1940s Los Angeles. Denzel Washington plays Easy Rawlins, a guy who loses his job and tries to pay his mortgage as a private investigator. Luckily for him, he’s got crazy Don Cheadle helping him out of a few jams.
ELLIOT GOULD IN “THE LONG GOODBYE”
For the life of me, I don’t know why this version of Philip Marlowe works so well. It’s set in ’70s California, with lots of drugs, free love and groovy people – not exactly the usual surroundings. Gould is the key. He’s still a dour, relentless seeker of truth, like this brethren of other eras.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IN “SHERLOCK”
I thought long and hard about whether Sherlock Holmes belonged anywhere on this List. Ultimately, I decided he did, and for me the very best Sherlock is the one on British TV, played by Cumberbatch. He’s set in the current day, but he retains the razor-sharp mind and massive quirks that make the character iconic.
PAUL NEWMAN IN “HARPER”
Here’s the one I put at the head of the table: Paul Newman as Lew Harper, based on novelist Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series of books. Everything about this performance is excellent. He’s able to seem smart and dumb, honorable and sleezy, energetic and exhausted – all without breaking character. Newman would return as Harper years later in 1975’s “The Drowning Pool.”
Feel free to add your own favorites. And may all your herrings be red ones. Also, here’s a little treat for you:
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!
No matter how elaborate the world of special effects becomes, there’s one gimmick that never seems to go out of style: Slow Motion. It draws attention, heightens emotion and allows a director to be master of the universe. And it’s cheaper than 3D! See what you think of these examples.
Let’s start with the ultimate, thinking man’s use of slow motion. There are MULTIPLE layers of it in Christopher Nolan’s modern sci-fi classic. Frankly, it’s so challenging to keep up with the various stories-within-stories (the plot has to do with dreams you can create and insert into someone’s subconscious mind) that you almost need the slow motion as a tiny respite. Cool beans.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
Director Stanley Kubrick will be mentioned more than once on this List. In “2001: A Space Odyssey,” he expertly lets slow motion convey a sense of the vast, impenetrable nature of both space and time. I think we’re still waiting for that animal bone the man-ape threw in the air to come down.
Rarely, if ever, has slo-mo been more badass than in “The Matrix.” Come on! That dude, Neo, limbos his way out of the path of bullets without so much as adjusting his sunglasses! On a related note, I can’t reach back to grab my TV remote without spraining something.
Thanks to the advent of slow motion replays in televised sports, fans everywhere can judge for themselves how bad the umpires are. Unfortunately, it also means we occasionally have to endure Tim McCarver or some other knucklehead repeat the phrase, “He missed the tag!” about eight zillion times.
THELMA AND LOUISE
The slow motion ending of “Thelma and Louise” driving off a cliff was so perfect, I’m surprised more movies don’t use the device. Who knows? “Battleship” might have made some money if they’d steered the boat off a cliff.
BONNIE AND CLYDE
This was some cutting-edge, slow motion violence. In 1967, audiences were stunned by the stylized way Arthur Penn had “Bonnie and Clyde” meet their demise.
I believe “Brian’s Song” was what they call a “male weepie.” Man, that sounds bad. Anyway, Billy Dee Williams and James Caan starred in this 1971 TV movie about about real-life Chicago Bears players Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. There’s friendship, there’s loss – and there’s slow motion to wring out every last ounce of emotion.
Oh, but the opening of “Zombieland” is a bit of gory genius. With snazzy graphic elements and a witty voice-over, a series of zombies chase down dinner in slow motion to illustrate the rules of staying out of their hungry clutches.
Kubrick again creates an iconic image in slow motion for 1980’s “The Shining.” Something yucky and unexpected is about to issue forth from this elevator, and it takes its sweet time.
Sports and slow motion are a natural combination. It’s all about savoring certain moments, such as the big shot in the big game of the big tournament. Everyone has his or her favorite, and mine is the old-fashioned, high school basketball saga, “Hoosiers.” What makes it particularly nice is that the slow motion here is incredibly subtle.
Robert Downey Jr.’s “Sherlock Holmes” series very effectively speeds up and slows down the action as a way to illustrate the hero’s brilliant, lightning fast mind. You get to experience what Holmes thinks will happen, then see if it actually transpires.
Slow motion accentuates the sex appeal of Bo Derek in “10,” showing her running along a beach as Dudley Moore gapes admiringly. This is a device often used to indicate physical beauty or desire.
CHARIOTS OF FIRE
Or it can stand in for basic sentimentality and reverie. In “Chariots of Fire,” you have slow motion as an ode to the pure joy of pursuing a personal quest for God and country.
“The Untouchables,” starring Kevin Costner, featured an elaborate scene in which a gangster pushes a baby carriage down a flight of steps in order to escape the law. It’s grand, operatic – and based on a scene from the 1925 silent film, “Battleship Potemkin.”
THE WILD BUNCH
Nobody did masculine, gritty violence quite like director Sam Peckinpah. For “The Wild Bunch,” which deals with a band of aging mercenaries, Peckinpah decided to slow the camera each time one of his geezers bit the dust at the end of the film.
THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN
Back in the 1970s, pretty much every wisenheimer worth his bell-bottoms did a stupid impression of Lee Majors in slow motion, as bionic agent Steve Austin in “The Six Million Dollar Man.” There was a silly sound effect to go along with it. Thanks, slow motion!
And now comes the part where I encourage you to add to The List. No rush. Take … your … time.