After reading about That Girl and what a tough time Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell had finding new roles that did not stereotype them as Don and Ann, I thought about actors who were able to transcend that hurdle. I could think of numerous actors and actresses who were able to have two important television roles. Mary Tyler Moore began as Laura Petrie but Mary Richards was also a strong character. Ron Howard grew up from Opie Taylor to Richie Cunningham. Kristy McNichol lived out her adolescence in Family and then moved to Florida as Barbara in Empty Nest.
I started to do some research and found the following actors who had numerous television series.
Alan Alda – Of course, his iconic role was Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H. From 1972-83 he kept us laughing or crying in Korea. Since M*A*S*H he has taken on roles in several television series including ER (1999), West Wing (2004-06), 30 Rock (2009-10), The Big C (2011-13), and The Blacklist (2013-14).
Fun Fact: He got his start on the Phil Silvers Show in 1957.
Meredith Baxter – Most people remember her as Elyse Keaton in Family Ties (1982-89), but for me it was Nancy in Family (1976-80). Other shows include Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-73), The Faculty (1996), Cold Case (2006-07), The Young and the Restless (2014), and Finding Carter (2014-15).
Fun Fact: Her mother was Whitney Blake, Missy on Hazel.
Sally Field – I think most people will always think of Sally Field as the Flying Nun (1967-70). Her first show was Gidget (1965-66). As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, she had a role in the forgettable Hey Landlord (1967) and she was The Girl with Something Extra (1973-74). Like Alan Alda, she also had a recurring role in ER (2000-06), and her most recent show is Brothers and Sisters (2006-11).
Fun Fact: She won an Emmy for her appearance on ER.
John Forsythe – While younger people only know him as the voice of Charlie on Charlie’s Angels (1976-81) or Blake Carrington from The Colbys (1980-86) which led to Dynasty (1981-89), one of my favorite sitcoms of all is Bachelor Father which John starred as Bentley Greg from 1957-62. Before Bachelor Father, he starred in Lights Out (1951-2), Suspense (1951-52) and Studio One (1949-55). Before Charlie’s Angels, he was in the John Forsythe Show (1965-66) and To Rome with Love (1969-71). His last show was The Powers That Be (1992-93).
Fun Fact: Along with Harry Morgan and Meredith Baxter, he was on episodes of The Love Boat.
Harry Morgan – Harry Morgan is the king of shows, with 12 series to his credit. He is probably best remembered for three of them–Pete and Gladys (1960-62), Dragnet (1967), and M*A*S*H (1974-83). His first sitcom was December Bride (1954-59) which spun off Pete and Gladys. In the 60s before Dragnet he was in Kentucky Jones (1964-65) and Dr. Kildare (1965). The seventies saw him in Hec Ramsey (1972-74) and Gunsmoke (1970-75). After M*A*S*H, he literally was in After M*A*S*H (1983-85), Blacke’s Magic (1986), You Can’t Take It With You (1987-88), and Third Rock From the Sun (1996-97).
Fun Fact: He was in an episode of the Partridge Family in the first season.
Bob Newhart – Bob Newhart gets the award for having the most shows with his name it in. Fans fondly remember The Bob Newhart Show set in Chicago when he played Dr. Hartley (1972-78) or Newhart where he was the inn owner Dick Loudon (1982-90). His first show was The Bob Newhart Show (1961). After Newhart, he tried out Bob (1992-93) and George and Leo (1997-98). Like Alan Alda and Sally Field, he also had a recurring role on ER (2003) and most recently has had a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory (2013-15).
Fun Fact: The 1982-90 show had the best finale ever when the show ended with Bob in bed with his wife from the 1972-78 series thinking Newhart had been a dream.
Ed O’Neill – If any actor should have been stereotyped after a role, Ed O’Neill seemed doomed after Al Bundy in Married. . . With Children (1987-97), yet he now has an even bigger hit in Modern Family as Jay Pritchett (2009-16). In between he was on the Big Apple (2001), Dragnet (2003-4), a remake of Harry Morgan’s show, and John From Cincinnati (2007). Like Alan Alda, he took on a role on The West Wing (2004-05).
Fun Fact: He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969 but was cut in training camp.
Dick Van Dyke – Finally, we have Dick Van Dyke. Before I researched this blog, I thought he and Bob Newhart might have the most sitcoms to their credit. He comes in with only four starring shows overall. Like Bob, he never wanted to stray far from his name: We had the iconic Dick Van Dyke Show as Rob Petrie (1961-66), The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971-74), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1988), and then Diagnosis: Murder (1993-2001). Like so many of these actors who have something in common with Alan Alda, Dick Van Dyke’s first appearance in a sitcom was also The Phil Silvers Show (1957-8).
Fun Fact: He can trace his family line back to the Mayflower.
Why do some stars get locked into a role that they are never able to separate themselves from? Think Henry Winkler as the Fonz, Lucille Ball as Lucy, or Don Knotts as Barney. I think part of it is that we get so attached to these characters we almost want to believe they are real and the actor moving on destroys that image.
The above actors all had different situations that allowed them to move on more easily. Alan Alda never had that hit show again. After M*A*S*H, he took on dramatic recurring roles. Meredith Baxter was in a mixed genre of shows. Of her two hit shows, one was a drama, Family, and one a sitcom, Family Ties. Dick Van Dyke had the same formula: The first Dick Van Dyke Show, a sitcom, and Diagnosis: Murder, an action/mystery series. John Forsythe and Harry Morgan came into show business during the golden days of television. They were able to have extremely successful shows and characters and then start over. Forsythe had 10 series to his credit, Morgan had 12. Sally Field, although starting out in television, was certainly better known as a movie actress. Audiences were seeing her on the big screen as other characters so they perhaps don’t pigeon hole her into one role so much. Ed O’Neill actually had success on two sitcoms about families. Maybe Jay Pritchett is so successful because he shows what Al Bundy may have been like growing up in a more enlightened era where the fathers help parent and run the house. And Bob Newhart, I think, was successful because he actually plays the same character in most of his shows, and we love that character so we keep looking for him, no matter what the show is actually titled.