By Cory Barker, Greg Boyd, Les Chappell, Emma Fraser, Andrew Rabin, Anthony Strand, and Cameron White
Welcome to the first This Was Television Hall of Fame of 2013, ladies and gentlemen! As regular readers will know, last month’s ballot got more than a little contentious as the staff tried to select the most noteworthy theme songs of television history. Several of our choices were met with scorn, and the omission of other titles led to heated words in the comments section. There was rioting in the streets, an active campaign calling for the resignation of the site’s founding members, a UN delegation had to be called in—without hyperbole, we can say it tore the nation apart. We apologize to anyone who was upset, hope that we can all get along in the new year, and ask that you quietly recite the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mantra to calm down.
With that out of the way, let’s get down to it. January’s ballot marks the continuation of our Hall of Fame trend of recognizing individual parts of a show rather than the show as a whole. In the next few months, we’ll be recognizing outstanding performances throughout TV history, looking at the men and women who have left a lasting impression on television by way of one great role. Like the major award shows, we’ll be dividing into categories to help sharpen the field, looking at the combinations of actors and actresses, lead and supporting performances, comedy and drama. Of course like those award shows, the lines between lead/supporting and comedy/drama are blurry at times, so it’ll fall to the nominating staffer to justify their inclusion in a particular category.
The criteria are slightly different this time around as well. In order to be considered, a performer must have played the same role for at least one season of a show. Performers who appear as the same character on more than one show may be considered for both, but the shows considered must be tonally similar enough to fall under the same umbrella. For example, Kelsey Grammer’s nomination as Frasier Crane would encompass his work on both Cheers and Frasier, but Ed Asner’s nomination as Lou Grant couldn’t consider both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant as one was a comedy and one was a drama. (However, Asner could be nominated as both comedy lead actor and drama lead actor in those circumstances.)
Again, the five-year eligibility rule applies, except this time it applies to the time a character was on a show rather than how long the show ran. For example, Jerry Orbach could be nominated as Lennie Briscoe’s final Law & Order appearance was in 2005, whereas Sam Waterston is still ineligible as Jack McCoy was with the series until its 2010 cancellation.
For our first month, we’re going to go with the big guns: lead actor in a drama. Lights, camera, action!
Jerry Orbach as Detective Leonard “Lennie” Briscoe, Law & Order (1992-2004)
When I’m channel-surfing and come across a rerun of Law & Order, it’s usually a 50-50 chance that I’ll stick with it for a few minutes, but that chance goes up astronomically when it turns out to be an episode with Detective Lennie Briscoe. The third-longest tenured member of the longest-running crime drama on American primetime televison, Jerry Orbach’s Briscoe was indelibly linked to the series’ popularity and certainly responsible for much of its early success, a solid brick of continuity on a show that regularly cycled through junior detectives and ADAs. And with good reason: Orbach invested Briscoe with a wonderfully dry sense of humor, and his witticisms went a long way towards keeping the investigation portion of the show easily watchable and free from the darker moods that often pervaded spinoffs like SVU or Criminal Intent.
This isn’t to say that Briscoe was just there for comic relief—nothing could be further from the truth. While he had a strong sense of humor, as an investigator he was always methodical and prepared, and when it came time to interrogate suspects his tolerance for bullshit was nonexistent. He was also another cop who’d given his life to the job, and a cop who’d seen his personal life destroyed by alcoholism, both of which were facts that would regularly pop up on the instances where the detectives’ personal lives were put into focus. And Orbach always nailed the emotional beats of the character, with notable moments being the season six finale “Aftershock” when he fell off the wagon with tragic consequences, and season eight’s “Damaged” which saw him deal with the ramifications of his daughter’s murder.
Sadly, Dick Wolf and company never allowed Orbach a chance to call up his musical theater training to sing in the role, but in doing the job he was asked to do—a reliable, sardonic, dedicated detective—it’s hard to think of anyone who could have done it better.
Ian McShane as Al Swearengen, Deadwood (2004-2006)
In discussions of memorable television antiheroes, one name has tended to be a bit overlooked: Al Swearengen. Maybe it’s the fact that Deadwood, though beloved by practically everyone who’s seen it, isn’t quite as entrenched in popular culture as The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. This is a shame, because to me he’s possibly the greatest of them all. Or at least, Ian McShane’s performance is the greatest of them all (sorry, Bryan Cranston). I watched Deadwood over a period of roughly a month, almost two years ago, so its brilliance does kind of blur together for me at this point (I really need to rewatch the show, if I can ever find the time). As such, it’s impossible for me to pick a single Swearengen moment that sums up McShane’s genius in the role. (Editor’s note: We recommend any monologue delivered either to a severed head in a box or to whatever girl was servicing him at the time. – LC) But he brought the character’s evil and ruthlessness out in every profane line and speech he delivered, while giving us rare glimpses of the humanity that lurked underneath the surface. Obviously great writing plays a role in this, and Deadwood features perhaps the best writing of any dramatic series in history. But creating one of the best characters in television history takes more than that. It takes an extraordinary actor giving an extraordinary performance. And this is surely one of the finest of all time.
George Clooney as Dr. Douglas “Doug” Ross, E.R. (1994-1999)
Movie star, director and humanitarian are all words that could be used to describe my choice for lead actor, but TV is where George Clooney became a household name as Dr Doug Ross on NBC’s E.R. Doug Ross is the classic conflicted bad boy archetype; he’s a rogue when it comes to women, he ignores authority figures but he will do anything for his patients. Dr. Ross is a pediatrician—that’s right, he does it all to save the kids—and this extra layer could make this character a giant cliché, however thanks to the performance and writing this pitfall is avoided.
I rewatched both the E.R. pilot and the Doug-centric season 2 episode “Hell and High Water” last night to ensure that I hadn’t chosen this performance out of some kind of nostalgia or due to Clooney’s recent film work. Both episodes confirm that I am more than happy with this choice and while E.R. is an ensemble show, Doug is definitely a lead and one that is vital to the early success of this show. What really impressed me about the pilot is the constant shift in tone from light hearted moments to serious bleak ones. Doug’s character is part of this shift going from drunk and easygoing to having his world shattered when Carol is admitted after taking an overdose. What he does in both of these scenes is show range; yes, he can play the drunken womanizer, but he also displays a combination of guilt, confusion and fear all in a series of subtle facial expressions and gestures.
“Hell and High Water” is a flashier affair that could have been an audition piece for Clooney’s burgeoning movie career, but it also contains smaller moments with Doug reassuring the child as the tension (along with water) is increasing. If Doug thinks it will benefit a patient then procedure and authority figures are ignored; it’s this maverick quality that helps save this child as we take a trip outside of the hospital setting and is something we see time and time again with this character. “Hell and High Water” was watched by 48 million viewers, a staggering figure that matches the grand scope of the work in this episode.
Doug Ross has oodles of chemistry with all that come into contact with him from lovers to best friends and even enemies. The key relationships for this character are both turbulent at times; with on/off girlfriend Carol Hathaway and best friend/boss Mark Greene. Those elements that make Doug compelling are also the things that cause conflicts with those around him, but thankfully despite a difficult exit for the character we got to see that all is well for Doug and Carol in the final season of the show (not so good for Dr. Greene).
George Clooney’s work post-E.R. has been eclectic and garnered positive critical attention, but Dr Doug Ross is where this all began and Clooney received several Emmy and Golden Globe nominations as a lead actor in E.R. long before the ‘Academy Award winner’ could be written before his name. After George Clooney left E.R. there were attempts to recreate this type of character with both Dr. Kovac and Dr. Gates and while both were good, you can’t simply recreate a character like Dr. Doug Ross.
James Garner as Jim Rockford, The Rockford Files (1974-1980, 1984-1999 [occasionally])
It took a lot of restraint on my part to not pick James Gandolfini for his remarkable work on The Sopranos, but one of my 2013 resolutions is to really highlight the ‘was’ part of the web site title. Thus, I’m going with another performer in an iconic namesake role: James Garner from The Rockford Files. Although Les originally conceived of this theme to celebrate people not showered with Emmy love and Garner certainly does not fit that designation (he garnered six nominations and a win in the role), sometimes, the Emmys voters make correct choices. As Rockford, Garner brought a load of charisma to a show—and really, an era of shows—that could be very formulaic. Garner’s shaggy dog qualities fit perfectly in the role, and I’ve always admired how the character regularly talked his way out of trouble instead of shooting out of it. That’s not so abnormal now—a Rockford Files reboot would slide right onto USA Network’s schedule with no problems—but held significant novelty during the series’ original run. Throughout Rockford‘s run, Garner displayed range, but managed to do so amid a clear procedural story engine. Although he wasn’t asked to produce Gandolfini levels of complexity, Garner did great work and created one of television’s most incomparable characters.
Tom Baker as The Fourth Doctor, Doctor Who (1974-1981, 1983 “The Five Doctors”)
2013 is a big year for Doctor Who. Fifty years ago, the show about a time-traveling alien, his distinctly out-of-sorts police phone box that is his main method of transport, and the associates he scoops up in his whirlwind flight throughout the universe debuted. It was the beginning of a cultural sci-fi juggernaut, years before Star Trek appeared on the scene. Since its inception, 11 men have played the Doctor in the TV series canon, with Matt Smith being the most recent. Each actor has a rather unique challenge: to play an established character in a way that ensures the audience that he’s still the same man, while also seizing on aspects of the character they particularly enjoy and playing to them in order to make the character their own.
William Hartnell, the First Doctor, was able to use his age to his advantage, playing the youngest version of the Doctor as an old man flinging about the universe having a good time. To watch him slide about the Wild West or stand off against the Daleks with a big grin plastered on his face was a joy few could overlook. Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor, was an adventurous type, always looking for trouble and always finding it, though never turning tail when the lives of many were at stake. Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor, was an action hero. As the Doctor became an outcast from his own race, the show began to drink up pulp stories and spit them out one by one, in order to stand next to the new British cultural contribution: the film version of James Bond, Ian Fleming’s spy character brought to life by Sean Connery. Pertwee himself was a fan of motor vehicles and had a dislike for sci-fi technobabble, which led to the creation of his most commonly-used phrase “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”
One thing the first three Doctors share in common, though, is a stereotypical “stiff upper lip” quality to them. For all the eccentricities the three brought to the character of The Doctor, he never really comes across as an alien. That was helpful for Hartnell, who originated the role when the show was an edutainment series about science and history, and it’s generally helpful to be able to trust the man playing the Doctor, because the Doctor often knows more about what’s happening than he lets on. But as the show shed its edutainment value in favor of good stories, it also shed its need for us to trust the Doctor; he is, after all, an alien capable of great destruction as much as he is capable of helping people.
Enter Tom Baker. From his first scene in the serial “Robot,” the Fourth Doctor is spouting complete nonsense (“I tell you, Brigadier, there’s nothing to worry about! The Brontosaurus is large and placid! And stupid! If the square on the hypotenuse equals the sum of the square on the other two sides, why is a mouse when it spins?”) and seems more out-of-control immediately post-regeneration than his other incarnations. Later, we get a good look at him, and he is… well, weird. Alien, even. Baker’s buggy eyes, his curly brown hair, his ability to seem extremely attentive yet also spacing out at the same time: long before he ever put on his distinctive outfit (coats, fedora, ridiculously long scarf), Tom Baker embodied the alien quality of the Doctor. As he continued to play the part, he made it his own by seizing the dualities inherent in the character. “There’s no point in being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes,” he chides in “Robot.” And in “Genesis of the Daleks,” he stops himself from killing his greatest enemy at their source because he believes he would become just as bad as them by committing this genocide… at least according to the script. But Baker plays the scene as if the Doctor has already accepted this quality about himself, that the reason he is the only one who can constantly stop the Daleks is because he is very much like them in many important ways. The creative team reacted in kind by throwing him into a wide variety of stories. From science fiction to Gothic horror to historical fantasy, Baker played it all with magnificent gusto, and yet still managed to seem out-of-place wherever and whenever he went.
It could be argued that Baker overstayed his welcome; his regeneration came at an inopportune moment, as the creative team was preparing a multi-serial arc that could not be stopped by bringing in a new Doctor. But of all the regeneration scenes in the show’s history, Baker’s is arguably one of the most important. It signaled the end of a long and fruitful era for a show that now had a long and fruitful history. “It’s the end,” he says, seeming almost at peace for the first time since “Robot,” “but the moment has been prepared for.” A lot of great men have played the Doctor, but few so thoroughly embody him like Tom Baker.
Jack Webb as Detective Joe Friday, Dragnet (1951-1959)
Jack Webb isn’t anyone’s idea of a great actor. His motions are stiff, he speaks in a near-monotone, and he often seems to be staring past the other actors in any given scene. If this poll were on TV’s Most Objectively Skilled Actors, Webb wouldn’t stand a chance. But it’s been over sixty years since Dragnet made its TV debut, and Sgt. Joe Friday is still one of the most recognizable, parodied, and homaged cops in popular culture. Rather than holding him back, those qualities I mentioned earlier are exactly what made Webb’s portrayal indelible.
As Dragnet’s executive producer as well as its star, Webb strove for realism in every aspect. The stories were famously based on actual cases, and Webb’s no-nonsense performance added to the realism. In real life, Dragnet told viewers, many police detectives aren’t charismatic and handsome. They don’t deliver well-timed jokes at the end of every interrogation. They just ask questions when they need to, figure out how to put the clues together, and hopefully put the bad guys behind bars.
It didn’t matter whether the show was actually accurate. Thanks to Jack Webb’s blank-slate calm, it seemed like it was. And for twelve TV seasons, that was enough.
Martin Sheen as President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlett, The West Wing (1999-2006)
Martin Sheen was never supposed to be the lead of The West Wing (right now, in a city hall in a small town in Indiana, Rob Lowe is nodding). In fact, according to series creator Aaron Sorkin, President Bartlet was never supposed to be on The West Wing at all. The plan was for the show to be entirely about the working staff of the White House, centered around Lowe’s Sam Seaborn, with the President never appearing on screen. Then Sorkin decided that would be cheesy, and cast Martin Sheen for a four episode arc as the president.