I grew up on television. Television was a friend of mine. I knew television and to the television programs of today, you are no match for the television shows of yesterday. There are memorable performances and then there MEMORABLE characters that stay with us forever. Here is my list of the men and boys who are seared into television history and in our hearts forever…
7. Tony Soprano. “The Sopranos.” I remember tuning into this show for the first time by accident and seeing a scene with this character who then proceeded to beat the stuffing out of some mobster and I thought to myself, “Who IS this guy?” I was once mesmerized and intimidated by him. As I watched faithfully every week (and it seems every other two years!) I could not get enough of his angst, anger, domination, stubborness, evil, inconsistency, selfishness, loyalty, frustrations, cluelessness and ability to run a mafia family even as he consistently run his personal one. The next to last episode that ended with him sitting on the bed with a shotgun across his lap watching the door in case someone comes into kill him is one of the most memorable scenes in television history. If you ever wondered what captured the essence of a mafia don this was it. I loved him when he dove into a pile of pasta and hated him when he ordered the hit on Adriana. I laughed at his interactions with Paulie Walnuts and cringed when he tossed his troubled son around. But, he made a weekly offer to watch him that we could not refuse. 6. Mork from Ork. “Mork and Mindy.” Never had television seen such a character! Robin Williams didn’t debut in the pilot episode he set off a comedic EXPLOSION that is still defining him and all his characters to this day. We didn’t follow Mork’s script lines, we hung on for dear life. Trying to keep up with him was like the rest of the field chasing Secretariat around the track. Simply put, Mork was a charming meteor that flashed across our consciousness with such verve and brilliance we needed a week to rest up for the next episode. He put the funny into funny. He also put fun there, too. 5. Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton. “The Honeymooners.” It is impossible to separate these two characters. They are forever melded into one entity. From their ridiculous schemes to make easy money to their fumbling attempts to succeed in just about anything, they came into our homes every Saturday night and reminded us that our dreams would probably never come true but that was okay because of all the fun that went into them! Norton never had a chance around Ralph. He desperately sought validation and friendship from his buddy which stunted his own potential on a weekly basis. Not that a man who spends all his time in a sewer has a lot of potential anyway. I can still see them in their raccoon caps or holding what they believe is a winning lottery ticket. Two lovable losers of grandiose proportions winning our hearts weekly. 4. Archie Bunker. “All in the Family.” If there ever was a show that defined a new generation, it was this one. Saying goodbye to the innocent families of, “Father Knows Best,” “Donna Reed” and, “Ozzie and Harriet” Archie symbolized a crasser, meaner and more racist culture. He was as gentle as a wrecking ball. The Brady Bunch represented all that was good about the American family. The Bunkers represented all that was honest about it. Archie was humbled on more than one occasion but, like a cork in water, he kept bouncing to the surface with new bigotry every week proving you can never underestimate the stupidity of petty, uneducated adults. His main foils consisted of his airy wife, Edith, who packed more wisdom in an inadvertant one liner than Archie did in the entire episode; and, his son-in-law, Meathead who used his college education to parry with his wayward patriarch. It was shock television and it worked because of the brilliant character Carroll O’Connor portrayed with flaws leaking out everywhere like the Titanic on its final voyage. A landmark show. 3. Fonzie. “Happy Days.” Heyyyyyy! A character that became a national idol culminating in his leather jacket winding up in the Smithsonian Museum. Fonz was so cool he only had to look at his hair in the mirror and it was perfect. He never raised his voice or got angry, he just snapped his fingers or shot you a glare and his world was ordered just the way he liked it. He took the thuggery of a motorcycle gangster and transformed it into a hip, charming and vulnerable character that still had total control over his universe. Fonzie didn’t just enter a room, he transformed and mesmerized it. He had babes drooling, Pottsie and Ralphie worshipping and Richie doing his best to imitate him. In one episode, he got his own library card and the following week, hundreds of thousands of children followed suit all over America. He was a national treasure. A gentle and yet powerful greaser that we all loved and will miss forever. 2. Barney Fife. “The Andy Griffith Show.” If you were the sheriff of a small town he would be the last man you would hire as your deputy. He was not just helpless in a few chores as a lawman, he was completely useless in every aspect of his life. Barney didn’t impress you because he was a lawman. He kept you in awe because he was the worst lawman you had ever seen. Andy Taylor understood this concept so clearly he only gave Barney one bullet for his gun which was still one too many for this guy. You laughed when he tried to act tough. You laughed even more when he would sniff his nose as he considered himself an expert on a particular subject. He was so hapless he made GOMER look smart! Opie was cute, Aunt Bee was charmingly dominant, Andy was folksy and wise but Barney was the bomb that could go off at any moment and the reason we loved that show. 1.J.R. Ewing. “Dallas.” The most memorable character in television history. He was slithery, powerful, mean-spirited, lethal, accomplished, resourceful, dangerous to his enemies and riveting. Miss Ellie was the koala bear matriarch. Jock was the faded lion. Bobby was the tiger cub but, J.R. was the saber tooth. In his philosophy having integrity was a weakness and behaving with character was worthless. If you want things done as an independent Texas oilman you did it with the three “B’s,” booze, broads and booty. J.R. added a few more arrows to his quiver: Intimidation, blackmail, planting false evidence, digging up shameful pasts and extortion. He went after his enemies and those he wanted to persuade with every trick and evil ruse he could think of until he got his way. But, as a villain, he did it in the most charming ways at times making him likable despite his evil. Larry Hagman pulled off the most unique bad guy in history with his smile, his laugh and his sense of justifiable methods almost convincing us that J.R. was not such a bad guy after all.
There you have it. The list of great male characters in television history. Next up: the seven greatest female characters. But, before I go, my apologies to Matt Dillon, Rob Petrie, Hawkeye Pierce and B.J. Hunnicutt, Hoss Cartwright, Ted Baxter, Captain Kirk, George Costanza, Sam Malone, Eddie Haskell and others who were fun to watch but sparkled within a brilliant ensemble group lessening their individual impact. Television is a friend of mine. I love television.
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