Many TV characters have helped shape my life over the years. My original list had 25, which I somehow was able to pare down to ten. One friend observed that no women were represented on this list, which is an excellent point that I feel I should address as best as I can. First, I think that since I’m looking at characters that I to on some level, I naturally identify with men. That said, I don’t think television has done justice to women characters for most of its history. For a long time, women were simple housewives (June Cleaver), buffoons (Lucy Ricardo, Edith Bunker), or if they were strong or smart characters, they tended to be domineering (Maude), wimpy
(Mary Richards, Diane Chambers), or sex symbols (Police Woman, Charlie’s Angels). All of these characters are well-played (well, with the possible exception of Charlie’s Angels), but they aren’t necessarily people you want to emulate.
I think modern television programs do a better job with female characters on the whole, but I don’t watch much current TV, so I’m not familiar enough with them to comment. The only examples I can bring up off the top of my head are Capt. Kathryn Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager and Maj. (later Col.) Samantha Carter from Stargate SG-1, who are brilliant and strong, but they don’t emasculate the men in their lives like Maude.
Similarly, I don’t include Archie Bunker in my list (oops, spoiler alert) because he is not a character I want to emulate (a bigot), even though I could say everything about Carroll O’Connor that I said about Jack Klugman: he was a great serious actor who played his character straight instead of for laughs.
Okay, here is the remainder of my list. I may make another list of honorable mentions because there are several that I wish I could have included in this one.
4. Cmdr. Spock (Star Trek TOS) “Fascinating.”
I’ve written about Spock’s influence on me in an earlier entry, so I won’t go into it much more here. Spock gave me strength as a young boy to deal with the troubles of youth. He also spawned a menagerie of characters from the Star Trek franchise (Data, Odo, Tuvak, T’Pol) as well as other sci-fi characters (my favorite being Ficus from Quark). It has almost become necessary in science fiction to have this emotionless point of view present to help us explore our humanity. Even in the great remake of Battlestar Gallactica, there were machines that looked and acted human and struggled with what they really were. Don’t they owe a debt to half-human/half-Vulcan Spock, who could never completely ignore his own humanity?
3. Cliff Clavin (Cheers) “It’s written in iambic pentathlon with rhyming couplets, every couple of couplets.”
Anyone who knows me knows that I consider myself to be a Warehouse of Useless Knowledge. They
generally seem to like me nevertheless, which is encouraging considering how Cliff Clavin’s friends often treat him in Cheers. Along with my father and oldest brother, I love learning new things, and I like to share those things with the people I spend my time with—family, friends, colleagues—because if I think it’s interesting, then I figure they do too. If I do realize how boring one of my stories is, it is not until I’m so far into it that I can’t stop now, even though I may see my audience’s eyes glazed over.
It is this part of Cliff that I identify with. Now, part of the charm of Cliff is that his facts aren’t always right, which I try to avoid, but his effect on people is the same. I once met a guy from Boston who was more like Cliff Clavin than anyone else I have ever met. “You’ll find that many musically inclined people are from the eye-talian persuasion,” he told me at a party as Frank Sinatra was playing on the stereo. The funniest part was that he was not in on the joke. Though he had the accent and the sense of sharing his knowledge with his friends, he had never seen Cheers, and therefore had no idea why people laughed so much at his snippets of wisdom.
2. Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife (The Andy Griffith Show) “Here at the Rock, there are two rules.”
When Albert Einstein was 36, he had completed his theory of general relativity, and along with his theory of special relativity ten years earlier, he completely changed the way humanity looks at the way the universe works. And although he continued to work for some 40 years after that, he never achieved that level of greatness again. Despite this fact, the name “Einstein” remains synonymous with the word “genius.”
When Don Knotts was 36, he started his work on The Andy Griffith Show and created one of the greatest fictional characters in Western civilization. We tend to look at his career after this show (The Incredible Mr. Limpett, The Apple Dumpling Gang, Three’s Company) as somewhat pathetic, but we must remember that like Einstein, Knotts remains no less a genius simply because he couldn’t create another pivotal character.
The brilliance of Barney Fife cannot be over-stated. Never was someone so earnest as Gilgamesh and inept as Shakespeare’s Falstaff, but as familiar to us as our own selves. Don’t we all want to be the hero who saves the world (or our little part of it), but don’t we also feel unqualified for the position and reluctant to let others know we feel that way? Isn’t Barney, in a sense, everyman? And where would characters like Cliff Clavin or those created in recent memory by Will Farrell be without Knotts’s Fife? Would we have such I-don’t-know-how-obnoxiously-stupid-I-am type characters without Barney to blaze that trail? No, I contend, the medium of television was created so Barney Fife could live and breathe in our collective experience. If Barney Fife didn’t exist, it would be necessary for us to create him.
1. Lt. Col. Henry Blake (M*A*S*H) “Did you really yell, ‘Give me an incubator, or give me death’?”
Although he received third billing on the show, I think Henry was the character in M*A*S*H that I most identified with. The show’s story is told through the point of view of Hawkeye Pierce, but only Hawkeye can afford to be Hawkeye: he was the best, and he knew the army needed his expertise, so he fought the good fight as often as he could. Henry was the guy in the real world who had to deal with Hawkeye’s shenanigans. Henry sympathized with Hawkeye’s position, but he was the one who had to explain to the brass why this or that stunt was going on.
In the book and movie M*A*S*H, Henry Blake was regular army but not an effective commander. It was smart of the TV show’s producers to change his position, so he had been called away (as a member of the Army National Guard most likely) from his comfortable life as a practicing family doctor in Illinois. He doesn’t want to be there any more than the draftees, but he’s forced into this position by the U.S. Army, and all he wants to do is get through the war as stress-free as possible and get home to his family. Captains Pierce and McIntyre do everything in their power to keep that from happening.
Why can’t they just keep their heads down, do their jobs, and make his life easier? Why does Cpl. Klinger keep trying to escape by any means necessary? Why can’t Majors Burns and Houlihan recognize that the 4077 M*A*S*H is not a strict military base but a hospital doing the best it can to keep soldiers alive? WHY CAN’T EVERYONE JUST LEAVE HIM ALONE?
I’m a manager where I work, and these thoughts go through my head, in one form or another, almost every day. I’m trying to do the best I can at my job, and sometimes my staff gets me caught up in things that I would rather just leave be. Life doesn’t work that way, however, and anyone who works in a management position needs to understand that, or life will be very difficult. The cruel joke that’s played on Henry Blake at the end of his service, though, shows how life doesn’t always go the way we want, and War generally keeps us from what’s important in life.