Every now and then it happens. And when it does, it’s like magic, taking producers, writers, even the actors themselves by surprise. We’re talking about those characters, usually supporting characters, on television shows to whom not much consideration may have been given when the shows they co-starred in were in development but who ended up practically taking them over.
You likely know who they are, or at least some of them. The star’s best friend, the odd man out, the kid brother. They were intended by writers as foils for the star, or straight men, or characters from which story springboards might happen. For a while, they might chug along in the background; popping into a scene and popping out. Delivering a punch line or tickling the star’s conscience. Then, for no special reason, the spotlight might shine on them for an episode and something happens. At home, viewers sit up in their easy chairs or delay that trip to the bathroom. Something about how the co-star has delivered his lines or used body language has cast a new light on his character. With his new side revealed, creative possibilities emerge. Writers and producers take notice and the order goes out to shove a little more action in the co-star’s direction. In following episodes, the same thing happens again. Sometimes the transformation can take place within the pilot season, sometimes more gradually over many seasons; but however it happens, lightning has struck and television has an unforgettable character, one that can often make or break a series. Remove him, and the series loses much of its energy.
This phenomenon used to happen more often in the “golden age of television” when studios were cranking out dozens of new series every year covering every genre (although westerns predominated). Moreover, a full season might have more than 33 episodes a year (instead of the measly 13 or 22 that today’s shows boast) to develop plots and flesh out characters. Finally, even the worst performing shows of the past routinely drew millions more viewers than the most popular of today’s programs.
But what does it take for such breakout characters to make a top ten list? Characters like Happy Days‘ Fonzie don’t make the grade. Popular as they might have been, they never progressed beyond vehicles for punch lines or never developed in any kind of meaningful three dimensional way. Real breakout characters have to feature a number of positive qualities. First, they have to come from nowhere, virtually unexpected even by their creators and the writers of the show. Second, they have to have depth of personality, a quality that might develop over a number of episodes (but not too many!). Third, the actors portraying them have to possess the innate qualities of talent, personality, and maybe a certain amount of unconscious actualization, to bring an essential cipher to life.
10) John Locke
At first the character of John Locke (played by Terry O’Quinn) seemed like nothing special. Just another unlucky passenger aboard Oceanic flight 815. Then, in the first episode of Lost, the plane crashed on a mysterious desert island and Locke joined the survivors as they wrestled with figuring out where they were, running from invisible monsters, and learning about each other. In his early scenes, Locke hung back from the more aggressive survivors until episode three when viewers were shocked to discover that Locke had been handicapped and confined to a wheelchair when he boarded the doomed flight. But since the first episode on the island, he’d been walking around normally! What was that all about? Viewers were instantly hooked as Locke put most other characters on the show in the shade. The mystery of how he could walk while on the island was one that would unfold slowly as the series progressed, along with other idiosyncrasies all adding up to one of the most intriguing characters in recent TV history.
9) Daryl Dixon
Like many breakout characters on late period TV, Daryl Dixon (played by Norman Reedus) was just another member of a group of survivors following a zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead show. Created specifically for the show and not based on the original comic book series, Dixon was introduced unostentatiously as one of two lowbrow hillbilly type brothers. He began to blossom as a character however, after his older brother is left behind and he adopts a crossbow as his personal weapon against the zombies (walkers are attracted to noise and the crossbow is silent compared to a gun). With a romance of sorts hinted at between Dixon and an unlikely female member of his band and a later rejection of his more evil brother in favor of loyalty to his new survivor “family,” more layers were added to the character’s personality that helped to grab the attention of fans who have made Dixon-based spin-off products such as posters and action figures ubiquitous throughout the marketplace.
8) Londo Mollari
While not a household name, among fans of science fiction television, the character of Londo Mollari (played by Peter Jurasik) broke out of the ensemble cast of Babylon 5 with an unfolding story that took him from pitiful drunk to formidable statesman to ruler of an interstellar empire. The character of Londo Mollari sort of sneaked up on viewers. At first unprepossessing until making a deal with the Shadows, a powerful race of evil alien spider things intent on conquering the galaxy. With their help, he rises among the ranks of his homeworld’s government until, discovering that the Shadows intend on reducing Centauri Prime to a slave state, he cuts himself loose. But in doing so, he creates an implacable enemy that even in defeat, exacts a terrible revenge upon him. Mollari’s story arc over the five years that Babylon 5 was aired presented one of the most amazing evolutions in character growth ever and set the tone for all other subsequent television series where multiple story arcs and ongoing mythologies are the norm.
7) Danny Partridge
Starting out as the annoying kid brother, Danny Partridge (played by Danny Bonaduce) was more or less grouped with two younger siblings who were used by writers primarily for walk ons and jokes about pop culture references they didn’t understand. But soon, as the Partridge Family‘s debut season in 1970 progressed, Danny quickly became a riotous foil for teenaged heartthrob and older brother Keith Partridge, sister Laurie, and especially manager Ruben Kincaid. In no time, entire episodes began to be written around the character concentrating on early hints of his accounting and business-related precociousness that contrasted with his naiveté as a ‘tween. Those hints were built up and over the years, the Danny Partridge character eventually gained script equality with those of the other adult members of the cast.
6) Gomer Pyle
A mid season replacement character on the Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle (played by Jim Nabors) was introduced as a bit player garnering laughs as a good-natured but dumb auto mechanic in the town of Mayberry. His big chance for fame came when the actor playing Floyd the barber needed a leave of absence and Gomer’s role was expanded. He was featured in 23 episodes of the show over 1962-1964 before Floyd returned but by that time, Gomer had become such a popular fixture on the show that he was spun off into his own feature in 1964 called Gomer Pyle, USMC. That program, aired on Friday nights on CBS, became a top rated show for its entire five seasons.
5) Ted Baxter
Already America’s sweetheart by the time she starred in her own self titled show, Mary Tyler Moore was fortunate in being surrounded by a host of popular, even unforgettable characters in the offices of WJM-TV. But the show’s real breakout character turned out to be the station’s vain but oblivious news announcer Ted Baxter (played by Ted Knight). In no time after the show first aired in 1970, audiences began to look forward to Ted Baxter’s brief walk ons which often dominated the laugh track. The Baxter character was made even more interesting when he was teamed with girlfriend Georgette Franklin (played by Georgia Engel) a sort of latter day Gracie Allen who was often as oblivious as Baxter was. Later in the series, the two characters were wedded, bringing out unexpected character nuances from Baxter that deepened and broadened him beyond his buffoonish early appearances.
4) Mr. Spock
It’s hard to believe today that when the original Star Trek TV show was in pre-production, studio heads were fearful that Mr. Spock’s arched eyebrows and pointy ears would be offensive to audiences who might see him as an attempt to mainstream the devil. But their fears were unfounded as the emotionless, logic-oriented Mr. Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy) became the breakout character of the crew of the USS Enterprise, threatening to overshadow the show’s star, William Shatner as Captain Kirk, spawning a vast legion of fans, and even the romantic fantasies of uncounted female fans!
3) Ed Norton
Upstairs neighbor and best friend of Ralph Kramden, Ed Norton (played by Art Carney) was immortalized in the Honeymooners television show which ran for 39 legendary episodes in 1955. Although the show’s scripts largely revolved around bus driver Ralph’s get-rich-quick schemes and his tangles with wife Alice, his partner in peril was upstairs neighbor and city sewer worker Norton who often stole the show and drew the loudest applause from live audiences when making his entrance. Although comic timing was key to Carney’s portrayal of Norton, his use of body language was just as important as he transferred the classic comedic schtick of the double take to arms and hands. The combination allowed Carney to create one of the most unique and loveable characters in the history of television.
2) Barney Fife
One of the most amazing career boosts of all time occurred during the Andy Griffith Show when actor Don Knotts was cast as the self-important and naïve Deputy Barney Fife. Unbelievably, when the show was first being cast, the character of Barney Fife was to have played the straight man to Andy Taylor’s local yokel sheriff. That was quickly reversed and by the very first episode of the series, the character of Barney Fife was established as Taylor’s comedic foil. From that point, Knotts owned the character, making it impossible that he could ever be replaced (as was attempted after the fifth season). Knotts’ tightly wound performance combined Barney’s bumbling, boastful mannerisms with a sensitive side that inoculated the character from viewer resentment. (Think Lost in Space‘s Dr. Smith for a Barney Fife without any positive virtues.) In no time, Barney became the heart of the Andy Griffith Show that was only underlined by its dullness after he left. Winner of five Emmy Awards for his portrayal of the bumbling deputy, Knotts was able to parlay his success into a film career that spanned the 1960s.
1) Eddie Haskell
So ingrained in American culture has the persona of Eddie Haskell become, that his very name is a byword for deceit and insincerity. Played by Ken Osmond, the character first appeared in 1957 during the first season of Leave it to Beaver as best friend of Wally Cleaver. Over the show’s six seasons, the character’s outward personality changed little. He began as a pushy know it all and quickly developed into a conceited jerk who wore the face of a polite young man around adults but who revealed his true conniving self among his peers. His worst instincts were frequently reined in by straight arrow Wally but more often than not, even Wally would be taken in by Eddie’s smooth talk. Eddie didn’t improve with age, remaining his old blowhard self right to the end of the series (and beyond when the series was revived in 1984 as Still the Beaver) but along the way, there were glimmers of a nascent maturity in the character, even heart; but if it ever threatened to show, Eddie would quickly conceal it behind some self-deprecatory patter. Although his brilliant interpretation of the Eddie Haskell character never translated into an ongoing TV or film career (subsequent roles would only have diluted his performance as Eddie), Osmond will forever be immortalized as the wisecracking patronizer par excellence!
image illustration via shutterstock / Refat