Rerun Junkie–Best Characters to Join a Show After the First Season

One day a question floated across my Twitter timeline: Who’s the best character to join a show after the first season?

And my immediate response was, “I can’t answer this with a tweet. I need a blog post!”

So here I am, months later, finally getting around to answering that highly subjective question. In order to keep from rambling, I only picked characters from shows I’ve written about here. And even then, I restrained myself to keep it down to a dull roar.

Let’s start off with a couple of the more subjective ones and work our way (okay, my way) closer to objective.

Ben Kokua (Al Harrington) and Duke Lukela (Herman Wedemeyer), Hawaii Five-OYeah, you’re going to have to fight me on this one. Ben replaced Kono (Zulu) at the beginning of the fifth season and stayed through the seventh season. I feel he made a nice addition to the team. Solid, native, not flashy, except when he was undercover and had to wear ugly shirts as part of the gig. Al Harrington had already been on the show a few times, playing other (and usually bad) guys, and has since had a recurring role on the new show (playing yet another character). Clearly, every version of this show needs Al Harrington in some form, though I maintain Ben was the best.

Duke is a legend in my mind. Though Herman Wedemeyer was there from the beginning, the character of Duke didn’t actually happen until the fourth season. Of the 155 episodes that Herman Wedemeyer is credited for, only seven were not as Duke Lukela. Better yet, we get to watch as Duke goes from uniformed officer bit role to a detective with a starring credit in the final season. How marvelous is that? And if you still doubt that Duke should be on this list, then let me point out that the current show also has a Duke Lukela and he’s played by Dennis Chun, the son of the original Chin Ho, Kam Fong. Now that’s legend.

Sheriff Mort Metzger (Ron Masak), Murder, She Wrote–When Tom Bosley left the show, Cabot Cove needed a new sheriff. With Amos Tupper retired, the new law in town came in the form of Mort Metzger, a city cop who didn’t understand why the murder rate of a small town was so high and why some old woman was so involved in solving them. It was the fish-out-of-water aspect of Ron Masak’s character that not only separated him from Amos, but from everyone else in town. He spent half of his time bewildered by the goings-on of the locals, his hard line approach not so effective in a town where everybody knows everybody. Considering Ron Masak was in episodes of both The Monkees and Land of the Lost, it’s no wonder he was able to bring a touch of brilliance to this character and even make his never-seen, often-referred to wife Adelle come to life.

Detective Arthur Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) and Officer Carl Levitt (Ron Carey), Barney Miller–Both Steve Landesberg and Ron Carey appeared on the show as different characters prior to becoming the two of the characters on this list. Steve Landesburg first appeared as Father Paul in the first episode of season 2. The 12th episode of that same season, he made his first appearance as Dietrich, a dry-humored, incredibly intelligent detective who came in as Fish was going out. Of course, the two would appear together for over a season until Abe Vigoda’s official departure at the beginning of season 4. Many of his first episodes involved him trying to find a place in the 12th precinct. By the time the show ended, it was hard to imagine what it was like without him.

Ron Carey’s first appearance was as a character called The Mole in the last episode of the second season. It was only the third episode of the third season when he made his first appearance as Carl Levitt, a short, overly-enthusiastic uniform keen on making detective some day and taking every available opportunity to get into plain clothes. Not just a punchline, Levitt got to be the hero by saving some kids, ratted out the squad room with petty grievances to both protect them and to express his displeasure from being put down all the time, and eventually made detective in the final episode. As well he should.

Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis), Gunsmoke–This twenty-year show was on the air nine years before Festus Haggen settled in Dodge City permanently. It’s hard to imagine Gunsmoke without Ken Curtis, especially since most of the syndication packages typically show the later episodes, but Dennis Weaver played Chester Good for 290 episodes (1955-1964). Festus’s first appearance actually came in 1962, but he became a regular in 1964 after Dennis Weaver left and ended up becoming such an iconic character that it’s hard to imagine Ken Curtis as anyone else (he was, though, playing a few different characters on the show before becoming Festus). Dodge City wouldn’t be the same without him.

This list is far from complete, of course. And it’s far from objective, as I warned. I might just answer this question again sometime in the future. New list, new shows, new characters. The answers are endless.

Who do you think the best characters are that joined a show after the first season?

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Rerun Junkie–They Didn’t Have Native Americans Back Then

As I discussed in a previous post, all of your favorites are problematic. All of my favorites, too.

One problematic aspect of reruns that’s probably the most glaring is the racist casting. White actors playing non-white roles has been common place for decades and was probably at its most popular in the Westerns of the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s. That’s right. Those Native Americans were not actual Native Americans. Those Mexicans? If they had a speaking role, they were most likely not actually Mexican.

John Saxon played a Native American on Bonanza and a Mexican on Gunsmoke. Martin Landau played a Mexican on both The Rifleman and The Big Valley. Michael Ansara not only played a Mexican in a couple of episodes of Rawhide, but he was frequently cast as a Native American, including starring in his own short-lived series called Law of the Plainsman playing Deputy Marshal Sam Buckheart, a character he originally played on The Rifleman.

Sadly, one of my favorites, F-Troop, was notorious for casting white actors as their Hekawi tribe members. Frank DeKova, Don Diamond, Edward Everett Horton (who also played a Native American chief on an episode of Batman), J. Pat O’Malley, Jamie Farr, hell even Don Rickles all played Native Americans. It seemed comedic timing was more important than racial accuracy. Not that there aren’t funny Native Americans; but back then, they didn’t even bother to look for them.

Of course, Native Americans and Latinos/Latinas weren’t the only ones having white actors step in for them. Boris Karloff played an Indian Maharaja on an episode of The Wild Wild West. Wende Wagner played a native Hawaiian on an episode of Perry Mason, and her aunt in that same episode was Miriam Goldina, a native Russian. Jim Backus’s wife, Henny, played a native mother on an episode of Gilligan’s Island. Spoiler alert! Russ Grieve, who played her native husband, and Mary Foran, who played her native daughter, weren’t natives either.

Two of the most curious examples of racist casting I have ever seen happened on two of my favorite reruns, both of which I’ve mentioned before, but I’m going to mention again because they are worth mentioning at every opportunity.

In an episode of Hawaii Five-O called “Samurai”, Ricardo Montalban played a Japanese criminal. Yes, you read that correctly and aren’t you glad that you did. In the second oddest case of yellow face I’ve ever seen (we’ll get to the first one very soon), a very Mexican Ricardo Montalban had his eyes artificially slanted to play a Japanese man. Like, his accent didn’t change at all. And whatever they did to his eyes made him look less Japanese and more like an eye lift gone wrong. The entire effect is very disconcerting and I highly recommend you try to catch that episode because descriptions and pictures don’t do it any justice.

To make an already confusing casting decision even more curious, Hawaii Five-O was typically good at casting Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders to play Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

The truly oddest case of racist casting I’ve ever seen, however, belongs to the pilot episode of The Wild Wild West called “The Night of the Inferno”. In this episode Victor Buono played Juan Manolo aka Wing Fat.

Yes, let me break that down for you.

White actor Victor Buono played a Mexican man in disguise as a Chinese man. It’s basically a turducken of racist casting and I can’t help but gawk at it because I have no idea how to even begin to process it. I suppose if you’ve ever watched the series, then you can agree that at the very least, it sets you up nicely for some of the more bonzo episodes of the show.

Thankfully, this sort of whatthefuckery is largely in the past and though racist casting does still happen (whitewashing Asians and Pacific Islanders is still unnervingly common), the backlash is swift and loud. A new normal has been and is being established and even if I don’t watch current shows all that much, I’m still all for it.

After all, one day those shows will be reruns.

Rerun Junkie–Gunsmoke

It’s the longest running western. It’s tied for the longest running prime-time drama (thanks, Law & Order). Twenty years is a long time on the air and 635 episodes is a lot of episodes.

Twenty years also means different opening credits.
Twenty years also means different opening credits.

Set in Dodge City, Kansas, Gunsmoke is the story of Marshall Matthew Dillon (James Arness) as he tries to bring justice to the Wild West. Assisted over the years by friends Doc (Milburn Stone), Chester (Dennis Weaver), and Quint Asper (Burt Reynolds), deputies Festus (Ken Curtis), Thad (Roger Ewing), and Newly (Buck Taylor), and the saloon owner Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) and her bartender Sam (Glenn Strange), Matt faced off against a host of bad guys, troubles, injuries, moral quandries, and injustice.

And let me tell you, there was plenty of all of that. I haven’t seen every episode of this show. Probably haven’t even seen half of them (and it started out on the radio with William Conrad as the voice of Matt Dillon, so the saddle bag of history overflows). But I can tell you that they did not skimp on the drama, nor skirt some of the heavier issues. In addition to the usual robbery, revenge, and death you expect on a western, the show had episodes involving rape, white slavery, racism, bigotry, abuse of all kinds, greed of all kinds, murder of all kinds, and that’s just what I can remember off the top of my head. I think every one of the main cast was falsely accused at one point in time and a few even faced the rope, only to be saved at the last minute. I know Festus was nearly hung on several occasions, head in the noose and all before he was saved, and when he was saved NO ONE EVER APOLOGIZED. Really. Nobody ever bothered to be like, “Hey, sorry we nearly killed you. Our bad.” Nothing. I think if you nearly hang someone  and then find out he’s innocent just before you kick the horse out from under him, you should at least have the decency to say you’re sorry. But that’s just me.

This is the cast configuration I know best. See the smiles? The Wild West wasn't a total downer.
This is the cast configuration I know best. See the smiles? The Wild West wasn’t a total downer.

Not every episode was heavier than a blacksmith’s anvil. Many of them were light and quite funny. Typically, anytime Festus was heavily involved, especially if any member of his family showed up, it’s going to be a good time. Festus episodes tend to be my favorite. But no matter what the nature of the episode is, any conversation between Festus and Doc is going to be gold.

Gunsmoke is one of those shows that could have a post of it’s own on just the guest stars. That’s what happens when you’re on forever. Everyone ends up on your show. But here area  few I find worth mentioning: familiar names Nick Nolte, Gary Busey, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper, Richard Dreyfus, Jodie Foster, Diane Ladd, and Charles Bronson; Bruce Dern, Royal Dano, John Dehner, John Anderson, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Strother Martin, Harry Carey Jr, and Claude Akins, who were required by federal law at the time to appear in every western TV show; my favorites Ross Martin and Joyce Jameson; J. Pat O’Malley, Nehemiah Persoff, Virginia Gregg, and Vitto Scotti, who were required by federal law at the time to be in every TV show; Kurt Russell and his daddy Bing; Buck Taylor’s daddy Dub; Brock Peters, Cicely Tyson, Yaphet Kotto, and Keye Luke; Ron Howard and his brother Clint; John Saxon, Sid Haig, and Richard Jaeckel; and leading ladies Bette Davis, Vera Miles, Margaret Hamilton, and Gloria DeHaven.

This isn’t even the tip of the ice berg. It’s a mere clump of snow on an ice planet.

Like many of my reruns, I started watching Gunsmoke because there was nothing else on. Having seen episodes from the last eight or nine seasons multiple times now, I can see why this show was on the air for so long. There was always a problem to be solved, a danger to overcome, a gunslinger to tame, a thirst for revenge to quench. This show had it all, right down to the romantic tension between Marshall Dillon and Miss Kitty (how scandalous!).

Dodge City may have faced drought a time or two, the drama well never ran dry.

Bless Festus, his mule, and his abused hat.
Bless Festus, his mule, and his abused hat.