Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

I’m not there

One of the opportunities or, if you prefer, pitfalls of the age we live in is that we have vast video choices from such media sources as satellite and cable television`—not to mention DVDs and the internet—and this fact allows us, if we so choose, to live virtually in another country—or even another decade.

I should know. I have spent much of the past six years, during which I was technically residing in the Republic of Ireland, inhabiting a North American media bubble. After a late night of TV news watching, it is easy for me to forget where I am. When we set out on a weekend somewhere, I sometimes unexpectedly get a bit of culture shock, as I am reminded, by people’s accents and the scenery, that I am actually in what is, for me, a foreign country. Maybe this is a bit arrogant or anti-social of me not to want to immerse myself completely in the local culture full-time, but it’s not as if, with a bit more time and effort, I will get to the point where everyone starts calling me Paddy and forgets, even for a moment, that I wasn’t born here.

Anyway, there is no harm in being a foreigner in modern Ireland. Goodness knows there are enough of us. As much as everyone loves the Irish and the culture that makes them unique, the country—like the rest of Europe—is becoming more and more of a melting pot. In other words, it’s becoming more like, well, America.

But I’ve gotten away from what I starting out talking about. If I sometimes worry about not really “being” in Ireland, I sometimes get really concerned about not being in the 21st century. As I mentioned last week, the Missus and I started watching Northern Exposure, thereby transporting us, for an hour at a time back to the 1990s. And a guilty pleasure of my own for a while has been recording and watching episodes of Miami Vice (reprising a habit I have discussed before)., thereby allowing myself to escape not only to a warmer climate but also to the 1980s. Another regular excursion to the 1990s that we began recently involves the sitcom Cybill. When I noticed that the Paramount Comedy channel was airing it, I starting capturing it because I thought the Missus might like it. It’s about Los Angeles and the entertainment business and modern families, but it is mainly about female friendship and women dishing. As often happens with character-driven sitcoms, the second banana stole the show, and that was Christine Baranski as the affluent-lifestyle-addicted, serial-martini-sipping wisecracking best friend, Maryann.

What all of this is getting to is that, on an episode of Cybll the other night, there was a sort-of appearance of Maryann’s ex-husband, invariably referred to by the two friends, in harsh tones, as “Doctor Dick.” We never saw his face, and the actor did not receive a credit. (The IMDB lists him as Ray Baker.) That got me to thinking about how many TV shows have used this conceit of the character you never actually see.

The earliest instance of this that I can recall takes us all the way back to the 1950s. For most of that decade, CBS had a sitcom called December Bride, which starred a very charming seventyish woman named Spring Byington. Her character, Lily Ruskin, got into all kinds of shenanigans with her good friend Hilda, played by the dour-faced Verna Felton. Lily lived with her daughter and son-in-law, and their house was frequently visited by their neighbor Pete, played by Harry Morgan, who, before and after that series, would be Jack Webb’s sidekick on two different iterations of Dragnet and go on to even greater television fame as Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H. Pete was one of those wisecracking neighbors that always seemed to be living next door to so many sitcom families. Most of his best lines derived from sidelong references to his wife Gladys. We never got to see Gladys, so a lot of the humor came out of imagining what this woman must be like. We finally did get a look at her in a 1960 spinoff series, the year after December Bride ended its run, called Pete and Gladys, which lasted two seasons. A major component of the promotion of the new series was building up viewer anticipation of finally getting to see the mysterious Gladys’s face. It turned out to belong to Cara Williams, who was much more pleasant and attractive than we had been led to believe. The series was a variation on the I Love Lucy formula, with a husband trying to keep up with his wacky wife. Verna Felton was brought along for the ride.

There have been numerous instances of actors’ voices being used in a TV series but not their faces. Examples would include Ann Sothern’s turn in the classic (for all the wrong reasons) sitcom My Mother the Car, in which she had the title role. There is also the use of John Forsythe’s pleasing voice to play the titular Charlie in the original Charlie’s Angels series. Probably the most elaborate use of an actor over many years in a television series while consistently avoiding his full face was on the sitcom Home Improvement. On that series, Tim Allen’s advice-laden next-door neighbor Wilson was played by the late Earl Hindman. A conceit of the show was that we never saw most of Wilson’s face because he was always talking to Tim over the fence between their backyards. As time went on, the writers had more and more fun with this as Wilson was encountered occasionally in situations away from the backyard yet still always had his face obscured for some reason—not unlike the way movies have always managed to strategically place objects so as to obscure the most private bits of naked actors (cf. the Austin Powers movies for exaggerated examples). To cite a voice-without-a-face example for the current century, on the series Smallville Terence Stamp has been voicing the character of Jor-El, father of Superman, for several years. This despite the fact that Jor-El has supposedly been dead for a couple of decades. This is just one of the many links the series has to the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, since Stamp played a super-villain in the first two of them.

But these hide-the-actor’s-face cases are less interesting to me than the instances when entire, full-bodied characters are created without the use of any actor at all, not even his or her voice, i.e. where the character is developed entirely by other characters talking about him or her. Actually, it usually, if not always, seems to be a her. I cannot think of case off-hand where such a completely off-screen character has not been a female. The two best examples I can think of for this sort of character involved two sitcoms of which one was spun off from the other.

During its 11-year run, one of the best loved characters of the sitcom Cheers was perpetual barfly Norm Peterson, played by George Wendt. Norm had some of the best lines of the ensemble cast and, like Harry Morgan in December Bride before him, many of the best ones revolved around references to his unseen wife. Her name was Vera and, as these unseen characters tend to seem, she was bigger than life, mainly because we had only Norm’s exaggerated references to her to go by. Strictly speaking, there was an actor who played her. On four episodes her voice was heard, and it was spoken by Wendt’s real-life-wife, Bernadette Birkette. And in at least one of those episodes, part of her body was seen. In the episode “Thanksgiving Orphans,” she made an appearance in the very last scene only to have a pumpkin pie shoved in her face. (Birkette also appeared on a fifth episode playing a different character.)

There are probably other examples of these off-screen characters, which I have forgotten or never knew about. But the ne plus ultra of this concept has to be the character of Maris Crane on the Cheers spinoff Frasier. Over the course of 11 seasons, Frasier’s brother Niles went through a hellish marriage and outlandishly complicated divorce with a woman who was never seen, not even once. As far as I can attest, not so much as a hand or a finger of her was ever displayed. And not a sound was heard from her during more than a decade. The character of Maris exemplifies why writers would create such a character in the first place. Through (often sarcastic) references to her, we came to know her, even though she was apparently a creature too extreme to exist in the real world. She was so thin her waist size was not an integer. She was so pallid, her skin was transparent. She was so obsessive, she was not bound by any law of nature. If any actor had been brought in to portray her, or even just a part of her or even just to give her a voice, it would have destroyed a perfect illusion. Certainly, the writers toyed with us and teased us that we were finally going to see her, but it never happened. There was even a farcical episode aboard a cruise ship, in which she was along with a lover and people hid in her cabin and great suspense was generated that she would appear at any second. But the writers pulled it all off without ever revealing Maris. And yet, over time, we came to feel we knew her as well as we knew any human being in fiction or in real life.

Such creativity and discipline go a long way to explaining why Frasier was such a classic and immortal series. It also explains why writers keep coming back to this conceit. It isn’t just to save a few bucks on an actor’s salary. It keeps things interesting for both the writers and the viewers—and provides the opportunity to create a character based entirely on the writing and not on an actor’s performance. As the saying goes, sometimes less is more.

-S.L., 18 September 2008

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