Ken Osmond, who played the two-faced Eddie Haskell on the 60s sitcom “Leave It to Beaver,” died last week. It’s been nearly a half century since I watched the show, but I remember Osmond’s Haskell character with great clarity and fondness.
Osmond’s passing got me to thinking about my other most memorable TV supporting characters. To qualify for my list, a show had to be off the air for more than three decades.
Mr. Wilson on “Dennis the Menace” (played by Joseph Kearns)
Mr. Wilson was TV’s original cranky old white guy, a stereotype still very much in vogue. Without Mr. Wilson there wouldn’t have been much of a show, as it was his annoyance with young Dennis that provided much of the entertainment. Eerily, the last episode before Wilson died suddenly at 55 featured him making out a will and explaining that Dennis would inherit his gold watch.
Fun Fact: Wilson was an accomplished chef and organist.
Voice of “Mr. Ed” (provided by Allan “Rocky” Lane
It’s been decades since I watched “Mr. Ed,” the 60s show about a horse that talked, albeit only to its owner. I can’t remember any episodes or characters, except the name of the owner. That’s because of Mr. Ed’s signature way of calling him: WILLLLBURRRRR!
The voice was that of Allan Lane, star of dozens of B-westerns, but whose name never appeared in “Mr. Ed” credits. In 2003, Lane posthumously was awarded TV Land’s “Favorite Pet-Human Relationship.” I’ve linked to Mr. Ed’s opening theme song, whose catchy lyrics I amazingly still remember.
Fun Fact: Lane played varsity football, baseball, and basketball at the University of Notre Dame.
“A horse is a horse, is a horse, of course, of course …”
Milburn Drysdale on “Beverly Hillbillies” (played by Raymond Bailey)
Mr. Drysdale was the greedy Beverly Hills banker who managed the millions Jed Clampett received in oil money royalties. Drysdale’s efforts to keep Clampett from withdrawing his money provided considerable comedic fodder. Bailey’s portrayal of a banker still rings true to me.
The Clampett’s for decades were the most famous fictional family from the Ozarks. They’ve been joined by the Byrdes, the Snells, and the Langmores.
Fun Facts: Before pursuing an acting career Bailey really was a banker. He also made multiple guest appearances on “Mr. Ed.”
Corporal Maxwell Klinger on “M*A*S*H” (played by Jamie Farr)
Farr was originally hired for a one-day shoot to appear in a dress as a way to convince that he was crazy and deserved a psychiatric discharge. The character proved popular and Klinger became a series regular appearing in various women’s outfits. Eventually, Klinger was promoted to sergeant and played a more serious role as company clerk where he abandoned his Section 8 antics, but my memory of Farr will forever be of him in women’s clothing (not that there is anything wrong with that.)
Fun Fact: Farr was one of three M*A*S*H regulars to have served in the US military in Korea. (the others were Alan Alda and Mike Farrell.)
Mr. Haney on “Green Acres” (played by Pat Buttram)
The notion of a hot-shot New York attorney getting ripped off by a local country hustler provided great irony. It was Haney who sold Oliver Wendell Douglas his ramshackle Hooterville farm and then stripped the property of everything of value down to the plumbing. Haney always appeared out of nowhere whenever Douglas needed something and everything the flim-flam man sold was guaranteed “genuine.”
Buttram’s distinctive voice, which he joked “never quite made it through puberty” was as memorable as Allan Lane’s.
Fun Fact: Buttram was lifelong Republican and was dismayed that Hollywood was “taken with that whole country-boy image” Bill Clinton tried to project. “I’m from Alabama – I can see right through that,” he said.
Mrs. Howell on “Gilligan’s Island” (played by Natalie Schafer)
The opening theme of Gilligan’s Island identified everyone by name or function except Mrs. Howell, who was referred to as the “wife,” so I’m counting her as a supporting cast member. Despite playing the rich, spoiled, socialite from New York and Palm Beach, Schafer managed to make her cartoon character quite likable.
Playing alongside a real cartoon character like Jim Backus (the voice of Mr. Magoo) was a challenge, but Schafer played a very credible spouse to Backus’s Thurston Howell III, who said their “brilliance together was exceeded only by their greed.”
Fun Facts: Schafer’s wealthy WASP portrayal notwithstanding, she was in fact Jewish. And she was a real-life millionaire, having made a fortune in real estate.
Endora on “Bewitched” (played by Agnes Moorehead)
Apologies to Ms. Moorehead for including her in this list, as it was a role she wasn’t proud of on a television show that she thought little of. Moorehead was an accomplished actress who appeared in Citizen Kane and on the radio broadcast of The War on the Worlds, two of the most significant productions in American cultural history. She was the first woman to host the Oscars.
Unfortunately for Moorehead, her portrayal as Endora, the mortal hating witch mother of Samantha on “Bewitched” is how the TV Land generation knows her. Moorehead’s brought a formidable intensity to her role, which garnered her six Emmy nominations.
Fun Facts: Moorehead appeared in two Twilight Zone episodes; Bewitched co-stars Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York also had memorable Twilight Zone roles.
Peggy Fair on “Mannix” (played by Gail Fisher)
Without Peggy, Mannix wouldn’t have lasted beyond one season. The show did badly in its first year, which featured detective Joe Mannix working for a high-tech agency that relied on computers to solve its investigations. Lucille Ball, who owned the studio that produced the show, convinced CBS to let her retool it and make it more personable.
Peggy was Mannix’s loyal secretary, a widow forced to raise her child alone after her police officer husband was killed in the line of duty. She was Mannix’s confidante, and on some episodes, his active partner and problem solver.
“Mannix” was ahead of its time in multiple ways. Gail Fisher was the first black actress to have a featured role on a television show. And Mannix’s split-screen opening sequences and theme song are as engaging by today’s standards as they were nearly a half century ago. (Warning: the theme will stay in your head if you hear it again.)
Fun Fact: Fisher was a member of the Repertory Theater at Lincoln Center, where she worked with Elia Kazan and Herbert Blau.
Alice Nelson on “The Brady Bunch” (played by Ann B. Davis)
The Brady Bunch was hardly high-brow television, but even the snooty obituary writers at the New York Times felt compelled to acknowledge the death of Ann. B. Davis, who played the beloved, wisecracking housekeeper on the show (As astute Times readers noted, the publication betrayed its elitism referring to the Alice character as a maid, when the Brady family always characterized her as their housekeeper.)
What can I say? If you didn’t like Alice, then you have some issues.
Fun Fact: Romance eluded Alice and “Schultzy,” another popular character Davis played on the “Bob Cummings Show.” Davis never married and was never publicly romantically linked to anyone.
Mel Cooley on the “Dick Van Dyke Show” (played by Richard Deacon)
“Dick Van Dyke” is my favorite comedy series ever and Mel Cooley’s role as Alan Brady’s bald doormat producer contributed mightily to the show’s success. Without Mel, Buddy Sorrell wouldn’t have had much to say.
Fun Fact: While appearing on the “Dick Van Dyke Show,” Deacon also appeared on “Leave It to Beaver” as Lumpy Rutherford’s father Fred.
For other Mel Cooley fans, here’s a treat:
Janet Tyler on the “Twilight Zone” episode Eye of the Beholder (played in the final moments by Donna Douglas)
Donna Douglas is more widely remembered as Ellie Mae, keeper of the critters on the “Beverly Hillbillies.” But avid “Twilight Zone” fans remember her for the reveal in “Eye of the Beholder,” a classic episode about a woman who undergoes 11 plastic surgeries in order to look “normal.” The woman wearing the bandages was played by Maxine Stuart, but it was Douglas who played Tyler when the bandages were removed. While Douglas appeared on screen only briefly, the scene is one of the most memorable in television history.
If you’ve never seen the entire episode, I urge you to watch it. If you have, here’s a link to the final scene.
Sadly, with the exception of Jamie Farr, all the mentioned supporting stars have passed. Here’s to wishing Farr good health as the last of the living supporting TV character greats.