When actress Marcia Wallace died last weekend at age 70, the headlines on the obituaries all identified her for having been on “The Simpsons.”
She provided the voice for sharp-tongued Edna Krabappel, who has had the unenviable job of trying to teach Bart Simpson and his fellow fourth graders on Fox’s animated TV hit for more than two decades.
For those of us of a certain age, it was double-take time. We had to read a sentence down, or several, to see in print what we already knew and loved her for best, that she had played Carol Kestor, the brassy, man-hungry receptionist who worked for Bob Newhart’s shrink on “The Bob Newhart Show” (1972–78).
To me, Wallace will forever be Carol. That version of “The Bob Newhart Show” — his later successful sitcom was simply called “Newhart” (1982–90) — aired when I was in high school and college. It was always a favorite, coming on as it did immediately after “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and before “The Carol Burnett Show” on CBS’s killer Saturday night lineup. (This was when Saturday night was still a big TV night rather than the graveyard for reruns and reality crime shows that it is nowadays.)
The vividness with which I recall Wallace as Carol is a reminder of the indelible magic that can happen between an actor and a character they create on a sitcom. Memories of them in those roles continue to shine long after a show itself has been canceled and even after it disappears from syndication and airings on the TV Land channel.
The reverse side of that coin is that the actors are often forever trapped in the public’s mind in a role that they left behind decades ago. Just think of William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who created the blueprint for sitcom second bananas as Fred and Ethel Mertz to Lucille O’Ball and Desi Arnaz’s Lucy and Desi Ricardo on “I Love Lucy” (1951–57). When one glimpses either Frawley or Vance playing someone else in an old movie or another TV show or commercial, it’s always a shock. “What is Ethel doing pitching Maxwell House coffee?” I used to ask myself as a kid when she’d pop up in ads for the java brand.
We may all be a lot more media savvy now and understand the difference between an actor and a role that they play, but some things never change. To this day, though Rob Reiner has directed such hit films as “A Few Good Men,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “Stand By Me,” he ruefully admits that for much of America, he will always be “Meathead.” That was the dismissive sobriquet constantly used by father-in-law Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) to dismiss Michael Stivic, Reiner’s character on “All in the Family” (1971–79).
Michael Richards, who weekly wreaked havoc as Tower of Power-haired Cosmo Kramer on “Seinfeld” (1989–98), created such a distinctive character that, post-“Seinfeld,” roles have been few and far between for him. (It didn’t help his case, of course, that his use of a racial slur when confronted by a heckler during a standup comedy gig in 2006 was captured on camera and posted on TMZ.)
Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally will forever be identified in the minds of most fans as Jack McFarland and Karen Walker on “Will & Grace” (1998–2006). While Hayes has forged a successful post-“W&G” career as a star in Broadway musicals and as a TV producer (“Grimm” and “Hot in Cleveland”) and Mullally has tried a talk show and other sitcoms, for most of us they’ll always be those endearing yet annoying best friends, the ones who never, ever seemed to leave Will and Grace’s apartment.
Even Lisa Kudrow, a marvelously talented and underrated actress who has given standout performances in several indie movies and currently is appearing on the hit drama “Scandal,” has a hard time not being identified as Phoebe Buffay, her lovable airhead on “Friends” (1994–2004). To this day, fans and journalists still beg her to sing “Smelly Cat,” a dopey ditty Phoebe once warbled on the hit sitcom.
There are, of course, exceptions that prove the rule. These actors play supporting characters so strong and distinctive that they get their chance to star in their own spin-off series. Think Jim Nabors with “Gomer Pyle: USMC” (1964–69), a character who originated on “The Andy Griffith Show” in 1962; Valerie Harper with Rhoda Morgenstern, who went from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “Rhoda” (1974–78); and Kelsey Grammer with Dr. Frasier Krane, who made the leap from “Cheers” to “Frasier” (1993–2004).
In each of these sitcoms, the actor was playing the same character that they had before, only now their character was the big cheese rather than just one of the pimentos. Once the run of the spin-off shows ended, none of them ever had anywhere near the same success with another show or role.
It would seem that, for Wallace and these others, finding major success as a supporting character on a sitcom is a mixed blessing. They gain permanent fame and riches and a permanent place in our hearts. Though most of them try to move on with their careers, we viewers and fans just won’t let them.