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Accept No Substitutes: Stars and Their Signature Roles
November 28, 2012  | By Ed Bark  | 3 comments

The death of J.R. Ewing — er, Larry Hagman — leaves us with another vivid reminder of television's power to imprint an actor or actress with a single, signature role.

It doesn't much matter what else they've accomplished. Hagman also had a nice run as astronaut Tony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie. But he'll always be diabolical J.R. in the public's mind while all of Barbara Eden's obits someday will be topped by her ties to a sexy genie named Jeannie.

Movies generally don't work this way, at least when you're a long distance runner. What was Robert De Niro's signature role, for instance? Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull? Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver? The young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II?

Successful television roles go on and on and on. But on the big screen, a sequel or two will pretty much do it. Even then, will Clint Eastwood be best remembered as "Dirty Harry" or a bearded loner in a cowboy hat?

Some enduring TV stars have two or more long-running series in their arsenals. But very few can provoke a debate as to which starring role is their everlasting calling card. Michael Landon is one of those, though. Do most people know him as "Little Joe" Cartwright from Bonanza? Or Charles Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie? Or maybe even Jonathan Smith from Highway to Heaven?

Dick Clark also is a player. American Bandstand vs. New Year's Rockin' Eve. A fairly tough call, although Bandstand probably deserves the nod over those countless Times Square countdowns.

Here's another one: Robert Young as Jim Anderson in Father Knows Best or as the title character of Marcus Welby, M.D.? And there also might be a strong division of opinion over whether James Garner's signature TV role is Jim Rockford or Bret Maverick.

It's almost always pretty clear cut, though. So let's keep playing, and see if you agree.

LUCILLE BALL — She had several incarnations as a title character named Lucy. But "Lucy Ricardo" is the only one that matters.

CARROLL O'CONNOR — We'll always think of him first and foremost as Archie Bunker, although he also had a long run as Southern-fried Sheriff Bill Gillespie in the TV series version of In the Heat of the Night.

MARY TYLER MOORE — She came to stardom as Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show, but TV newswoman Mary Richards is her signature role.

ANDY GRIFFITH — This one's a bit closer call. But Sheriff Andy Taylor still ends up winning every time opposite Ben Matlock.

RAYMOND BURR — His portrayal of Perry Mason will always stand taller in competition with Burr's wheelchair-bound Robert Ironside.

BEA ARTHUR — Maude Finley still wins hands-down against Dorothy Zbornak of The Golden Girls.

WILLIAM SHATNER — Capt. James T. Kirk continues to fly high over either T.J. Hooker or Denny Crane.

SHERMAN HEMSLEY — His ever-cantankerous George Jefferson wins in a walk over Deacon Ernest Frye of Amen.

TED DANSON — Bartender Sam Malone on Cheers will alway out-pace his title role on Becker or his lead character on the latter day version of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

BUDDY EBSEN — Jed Clampett is an easy call over Barnaby Jones or Davy Crockett's wingman, Georgie Russell, in those timeless Walt Disney adventure yarns.

TOM SELLECK — It doesn't matter how long Blue Bloods lasts. He'll always be private investigator Thomas Magnum.

BOB DENVER — Maynard G. Krebs got him started, but call him Gilligan.

CAROL BURNETT and JOHNNY CARSON — As themselves, although very nice work on all of those supporting characters they created for their respective variety and talk shows.

Others are slam-dunk indelibles, with no other TV role remotely close. To name just a few:

James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon

Kelsey Grammer as Frasier Crane

Roseanne Barr
as Roseanne Connor

Alan Alda
as Hawkeye Pierce

James Gandolfini
as Tony Soprano

Jackie Gleason
as Ralph Kramden

Bill Cosby
as Cliff Huxtable

Angela Lansbury
as Jessica Fletcher

Jack Lord
as Steve McGarrett

Sarah Jessica Parker
as Carrie Bradshaw

Peter Falk
as Columbo

Michael Richards
as Kramer

Ed Asner
as Lou Grant

Leonard Nimoy
as Mr. Spock

Henry Winkler
as "The Fonz"

Richard Thomas
as "John Boy" Walton

And their beats go on.

Read more by Ed Bark at unclebarky.com

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As far as Raymond Burr, he is more well know for Perry Mason, but I think his acting ability shown with his role on Ironside. The series was groundbreaking with the main character using a wheelchair and one of the earliest roles for an African-American actor on TV. Perry Mason had a formula for most of the episodes. Raymond Burr presented multiple shades
May 5, 2015   |  Reply
I think the determining factor is which series (and the role that came out of that series) went on to be the most successful in after-network syndication. In all of your examples (except, arguably, Carson and Burnett), it was the year-in/year-out overexposure of those shows in syndication that made the roles iconic.

I'd posit that, in another ten years, Tina Fey's SNL body of work, even the Sarah Palin caricature, will be an afterthought to the Liz Lemon character, which has gained a bigger audience in syndication than it ever had on NBC.
Nov 29, 2012   |  Reply
Bob Newhart is a person who bloomed wonderfully in two series. Same for Betty White.
Dick Van Dyke could be added to the latter section.
Thanks for a fun-to-read, inventive story.
Nov 28, 2012   |  Reply
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