Thursday, April 19, 2007


This season, Toobworld has given us two TV shows which splained the physical characteristics of one of their actors in the context of the character they play.

On 'Brothers & Sisters', we found out how Tommy Walker got that scar in his right eyebrow - during the last "Game Night", Kitty threw the trophy at her brother in anger.

And on 'Lost' we learned all about the meanings for the tattoos on Dr. Jack Shepherd's arm, and how he got them while in the Far East.

The difference was that with 'Brothers & Sisters', it was a passing mention; 'Lost' built a whole flashback sequence around it and nearly derailed the audience again.

Those are just trivial details that were dealt with. (My specialty!) But there have been more noticeable traits addressed in Toobworld.

Right now over in the "reality TV" category (Ugh), you have Heather Mills kicking up her heels - so to speak - on 'Dancing With The Stars'... with bookies ready to pay off should her artificial leg go flying!

This hasn't been the first time the physical characteristics of an actor were worked into their character's background. And I'm not referring to such attributes as the ample endowments of Jennifer Marlowe on 'WKRP In Cincinnatti', or the fact that Bailiff Bull Shannon, like CJ Cregg on 'The West Wing' and Detective Michael 'Raines', was "freakishly tall".

Robert David Hall plays Dr. Al Robbins on 'CSI' as having an artificial leg; he was seen putting it on in an early episode when caught unawares by either Catherine or Sara (can't remember now, but I'm pretty sure it was a female member of the forensics team).

Jim Byrnes, who played Lifeguard on 'Wiseguy', lost both his legs in a motorcycle accident, and his character was played that way. It didn't have to be so, as Byrnes can walk on both of his artificial legs. They could easily have splained away his gait (as he walked on the show with a cane) to some crippling nerve damage sustained during his tenure with the Bureau. (I'm not sure whether or not Byrnes' character of Joe Dawson on 'Highlander' was portrayed as missing his legs or not.)

Speaking of 'Wiseguy', when former 'Lancer' star James Stacy guest-starred in one of the show's "arcs", his missing arm and leg - lost in a traffic accident - not only were acknowledged for his character, but proved to be integral to the plotline.

Geri Jewell has cerebral palsy, but that hasn't stopped her from staking out a couple of memorable characters for the Tele-Folks Directory. She's probably best known for playing Cousin Geri on 'The Facts of Life' and most recently as Jewel on 'Deadwood'. (Strange how both characters ended up with names similar to her own in the real world.)

When Madelyn Rhue was diagnosed with MS back in 1977, she continued working for as long as she could, and sometimes her condition was written into the role for her. Angela Lansbury made sure a recurring role as the Cabot Cove librarian Jean O'Neill was created for her so that she wouldn't lose her union's medical coverage.

But all of that is a far cry from the old days in Toobworld. For example, Gary Burghoff has a deformed hand and tried to keep it out of view when he was portraying Corporal Walter "Radar" O'Reilly on 'M*A*S*H'. If it was an accepted part of his character, the producers would have had to find some reason as to why he was accepted into the Army with it.

During World War II, James Doohan gave the finger to Hitler. Literally. His middle finger was shot off while he was among the thousands of troops storming the beaches at Normandy. But unless you go looking for it, it's not noticeable. I was standing right next to him on the old FX "apartment" set when he was the special guest star for a charity auction they were holding, and I never noticed it!

Like Burghoff, Doohan kept his four-fingered hand out of view while he was playing Commander Montgomery Scott on 'Star Trek'. But there was a time when his right hand was integral for a shot - Scotty once had to put his hand on a visor/plate that could read the veracity of his statements when he was giving testimony under oath.

For the shot of his hand on the panel, a stunt hand was brought in to show a hand with all five fingers.

Had the same scene been filmed today, there would have already been some kind of splainin as to how Scotty lost the finger during an accident in Engineering; perhaps while trying to fight off Khan's genetic supermen when they tried to commander the department.

Yet over twenty years later, they missed the perfect opportunity to address his missing finger when Scotty was rescued from an endless transporter booth transmission on an episode of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'. It could have been splained that the finger didn't survive the completed transmission after eighty plus years, and that Scotty was lucky it was only that finger that didn't make it through!

Leo McKern had a glass eye, but that was never mentioned in any of the episodes of 'Rumpole of the Bailey', nor in his episodes of 'The Prisoner' as Horace's identical cousin, Number Two.

I never even knew he had a glass eye until after his death, but now I can't help but notice it when I see him on TV......

I would have put Peter Falk into that same category for 'Columbo', but the fact that he has a glass eye was finally addressed in the 25th anniversary special, "A Trace Of Murder". While looking at some evidence with his forensics partner (as well as suspect), the rumpled detective mentioned that "three eyes are better than one".

At some point in his later career, Lt. Columbo had to have lost that eye; and it had to have happened after the episode of "Negative Reaction" (the one where Dick Van Dyke is the murderer). I'm not clear on the details, but the question of his eyesight came up during Columbo's encounter with Mr. Weekly of the DMV (played by Larry Storch). As I remember it, the Lieutenant indicated that there was nothing wrong with his eyes.

Definitely, Peter Falk's other series role, that of my televersion's relative Daniel J. O'Brien in 'The Trials of O'Brien', was portrayed as though he had two real eyes and so that's what sets the lawyer apart from the guy who played him.

There must be plenty of other examples in which an actor's physical characteristics were worked into the role they played as a regular or semi-regular on a TV series. If you know of any to add to the list, contact me and let me know!

Toby OB

No comments: