When Unseen TV Characters Come out of the Shadows

Unseen characters have been a staple of TV since at least that gosh-darn Will Thornberry who lived next door to Ozzie and Harriet. Among the popular characters that remained talked about, but unseen are Carlton the Doorman from Rhoda, Norm’s wife on Cheers, Maris from Frasier and, of course, Charlie who gave his Angels a new reason to jiggle every week.

When you start thinking about, there are many characters who are talked about or whose voice is heard, but whose face remained hidden from view. (Not to include Wilson from Home Improvement where the gimmick of hiding half his face got to be downright annoying.) Remember that you never saw Orson, Mork’s employer and you never saw the boss of Magnum, P.I., Robin Masters. (The great Orson Welles did provide a voice, however.) There’s also any adult from a Peanuts special and Diane, Agent Cooper’s…something…on Twin Peaks. And, leave us not forget, Mrs. Columbo. (The real wife of Detective Columbo, not that horrid and misguided spinoff in which the missus played the lead and which writers eventually decided merely shared Columbo’s name, but wasn’t married to him.) Then there’s Juanita, the girl at the diner whom Barney Fife cheated on Thelma Lou with on more than a few occasions.

What do you think would have been end result of getting to see Consuela, Suzanne Sugarbaker’s maid from Designing Women? Or how about Lars Lindstrom, the wife of Phyllis from the titular Rhoda spinoff…Phyllis? To be honest, there might have been some upside to seeing Crazy Rhoda Zimmerman, Oscar Madison’s oft-

discussed but never seen goodtime party good and fallback date. Anyone regularly referred to with the word “Crazy” in front of their name should definitely have some potential mileage; unless the casting process goes haywire. Some characters that have been inserted into the consciousness, but were never seen did eventually make an appearance not just by voice, but by flesh and blood. The results were less than stellar. Blame the casting for most of these disasters.

Does anybody even remember that another sister was talked about on Empty Nest? Emily was often spoken of, but never seen. At least not until Kristy McNichol left the show and the Empty Nest was just too empty without two sisters. Enter Emily played by Lisa Rieffel. You probably don’t even remember Empty Nest as it was another in the long and depressing list of formulaic comedies churned out by Susan Harris.

Then there was the father of Nanny Fine who, when he was seen, was only seen from the back of his toupee-wearing head. Steve Lawrence popped up to play Daddy Fine on the show’s final episode. Do you even remember that?

Sometimes shows get it right. Alan Brady was only heard and talked about on the Dick Van Dyke Show for the first season. Then he was given life in the form of the amazingly talented Carl Reiner. Such successes are fleeting and tragic.

The most egregious and unforgivable attempt to make a talked-about character come to life was on Happy Days. Perhaps the writers of the-by-then-dead show thought they could trap lighting in a bottle for the second time. After all, the owner of Arnold’s drive-in was talked about, but not seen for a couple of years. When it was finally revealed that Arnold was Japanese and played by the gifted Pat Morita, it represented one time when introducing a character previously only talked about made sense.

For many years, Joanie Cunningham talked of her best friend Jenny Piccalo as a true rebel without a cause. Jenny Piccalo represented the anti-Joanie. She was mouthy, she was sexual and she was funny. So how come she wasn’t a memorable character when she was introduced after Happy Day jumped the shark and became travolting? As played by the daughter of legendary comic actor Phil Silvers, the Jenny Piccalo that saw the Happy Days come to an end was simply not the same character.

Too bad. The Completely Mental Misadventures of Jenny Piccalo would have made a much better spinoff than Joanie Love Chachi. But then, what wouldn’t?