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?

Rerun Junkie–Barney Miller

That opening baseline. That opening shot of the New York skyline. That eclectic bunch filling a rundown squad room. Do you know what I’m talking about? Even if you don’t, you’ll be humming it soon enough.

Barney Miller is a 70’s classic, running from 1974 to 1982, that took place in the detective’s squad room of the 12th precinct in New York City. Cops cite the show as one of the most realistic cop shows to be on TV. It showed the funny, ridiculous side of crime. While other cop shows dealt with the more serious crime like murders and drug rings, Barney Miller and company dealt with blind shoplifters, philosophical bums, and purse snatching stockbrokers. And they did it all while dealing with staff shortages, budget cuts, and a poorly working toilet.

Though they occasionally tackled heavier subjects (racism, homicide, rape), the show mostly centered on the detectives getting by and dealing with a host of criminals and victims just as varied and interesting as they were.

The original cast consisted of Barney Miller (Hal Linden), Stan “Wojo” Wojciehowicz (Max Gail), Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda), and Chano Amaguale (Gregory Sierra). Ron Harris (Ron Glass) and Nick Yemana (Jack Soo) were officially added as regulars by the second season. In the beginning, Barney’s wife Liz (Barbara Barrie) played a bigger role, but by the second season had diminished.

In the beginning…

The cast changed over the seasons. Gregory Sierra and Abe Vigoda both left for other series, which led to Steve Landesburg as Arthur Dietrich and Ron Carey as the long suffering Officer Carl Levitt joining the show. James Gregory also joined as Inspector Frank Luger. Jack Soo passed away in 1979 and was never replaced.

…at the end.

The integration of the new characters was pretty smooth. It felt like what would happen at a real precinct. People get transferred or retire and new people move in. Personalities didn’t have to be replaced. This kind of show called for individuality. And it allowed for growth.

Barney was the wise leader, gifted with compassion and a desire to do the right thing. Wojo started off as kind of a thick-skulled muscle head, but over the seasons revealed a big heart and actually showed some growth. Harris was a styled intellectual with a gift for writing and a love for the stock market. Dietrich was also an intellectual, but he was more of a walking encyclopedia with a wit so dry it could be used for kindling. Chano was a street smart guy that never failed to go out on a limb to get his job done. Nick hated filing, made terrible coffee, and had a love for gambling. Fish may have acted like life was the pits, but he dreaded enforced retirement and even kidney stones couldn’t keep him off the job. Inspector Luger was always going on about the good ol’ days, but he always had his detectives’ backs. Officer Levitt longed to be a detective and was enthusiastic about his job, but was often overlooked (he felt because he was short).

The great part about the show was that the guest stars were as much fun as the detectives and many of the actors were on several times as different characters. Peggy Pope, Oliver Clark, Don Calfa, Florence Halop, Sal Viscuso, Doris Roberts, Michael Tucci, A. Martinez, Phil Leeds, and Christopher Lloyd were all on multiple times.

They also had some great recurring characters. Jack DeLeon and Ray Stewart as Marty and Mr. Driscoll are two of my favorites (and two of the few gay characters on at the time). They also had Florence Stanley as Fish’s wife Bernice, Stanley Brock as Bruno Bender, George Murdock as Lt. Ben Scanlon, and Jack Somack as the often robbed Mr. Cotterman.

So many of the episodes are fan favorites, such as “Hash” in which Wojo brings in brownies made by his girlfriend and the detectives eat them not knowing that they’re laced with pot, and “Werewolf” in which Kenneth Tigar brilliantly plays Stefan Kopeckne who believes he’s, well, a werewolf (he comes back in an episode in a later season as the same character, this time believing he’s possessed by a demon). All of the episodes are quotable. My personal favorites (that I watch over and over again online) are “Smog Alert”, “Rain”, “Hair”, “Group Home”, and “Bus Stop”. And of course, “Jack Soo, a Retrospective” is a touching, out of character episode reflecting on Jack Soo and the character of Nick Yemana after Jack Soo passed away from cancer. When they raise their coffee mugs to him in the end, it’s a guaranteed tear jerker.

Also, the last scene of the series is probably one of the best done in television. No gimmicks, no tricks, just turning off the light and closing the door.

The female cops were few and far between (Linda Lavin, June Gable, and Mari Gorman all did time at the 12th), but that never bothered me much. I’d rather have an all male cast than a woman shoehorned in just because they think they have to have a woman in there. Those cases never end well. (For the record, I didn’t care much for Linda Lavin’s Detective Janice Wentworth, but I did like June Gable’s Detective Maria Battista and Mari Gorman’s Officer Rosslyn Licori.) And not all of the serious material was handled well (“Rape” is an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable episode, even more so now because of just how differently things are handled and viewed now as opposed to how they were then).

But the shortcomings are easily overlooked (particularly if you just skip “Rape” all together, which hurts me to say it since Joyce Jameson is in it and I love her). Despite the 70’s suits and references, there’s a timeless quality to the stories and the jokes. Granted, you probably couldn’t take a bomb into a New York police department so easily today (it happened at least four times during the show that I can remember off of the top of my head), but we can relate to the budget cuts and the layoffs and trying to do right even if it is against the rules.

Not to mention the desire for a cup of coffee and a decent toilet.

 

Where I Watch It