At 5’2″ she’s proven herself to be a paradigm of “small but mighty.”
Career highlights: Dominating the ’90s, breaking the “Seinfeld Curse” with The New Adventures of Old Christine and now Veep
Extra versatility points: Playing Maggie Lizer, mother of Michael Bluth’s fake baby on Arrested Development. Louis-Dreyfus is also a criminally underrated choreographer — in a 2007 interview on Inside the Actors Studio she took full responsibility for the famous Elaine dance.
She’s sported a number of ‘dos in her career — from Peg Bundy’s iconic red bouffant to Gemma Morrow’s signature blonde chunks — but Katey Sagal has proven her range goes far beyond the ability to change hairstyle.
Career highlights: Permanent installation on the Bundy couch before watching hours of TV was cool (Married With Children), one-eyed sewer mutant (Futurama), supportive mother and family mainstay after the tragic death of actor John Ritter (8 Simple Rules), and now motorcycle club matriarch (a modern-day mash-up of Queen Gertude and Lady Macbeth) who, according to Sons of Anarchy showrunner Kurt Sutter, won’t be usurped any time soon.
Extra versatility points: A longtime singer-songwriter, Sagal performed on the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack. Also, Lost fans (if do you still exist) would kill us if we didn’t mention her stint as Locke’s love interest Helen Norwood.
The beauty of Friday Night Lights drawing such a small original viewership is that we get to meet a new person every week who is discovering the show for the first time. Which means they also are in the beginning stages of a giant Tami Taylor crush. We can’t tell them with certainty that they’ll ever truly get over Tami, but if they need some help moving on, American Horror Story is a good place to start.
Career highlights: Holding her own in TV government, not to mention Sorkin dialogue (Spin City and The West Wing), a quick dalliance with Jack Bauer (24), defying the submissive coach’s wife role on Friday Night Lights, and then defying that role in American Horror Story’s creepy Season 1 rubber-man plotline.
Extra versatility points: Britton added dramatic radio work to her repertoire when she performed on This American Life ’s “Will They Know Me Back Home?” (see Act 1). And no extra points just yet, but she’ll be singing on the forthcoming Nashville .
She’s one of the most beloved character actresses in TV history — the type who stirs up blogger fantasies of a world in which Constance Carmell, Sue Sylvester, and Christy Cummings from Best in Show meet.
Career highlights: Cindi Lightballoon (Arrested Development), Cybill Shepherd’s love interest (The L Word), tragically short-lived cater-waiter gig (Party Down), and on-again, off-again nemesis of those diva Glee kids.
Extra versatility points: Name a show and chances are she’s been on it. Her repertoire of guest-star roles includes, but is not limited to: 7th Heaven, Felicity, The West Wing, Desperate Housewives, Friends, Dawson’s Creek, Weeds, Boston Legal, Gilmore Girls, Criminal Minds, Psych, and Monk. OK, fine, we guess we won’t leave out that she’s also had a reoccurring spot on Two and a Half Men since 2004.
It made sense to put Mullally next to Lynch on this list, given the similarities in their resumes (iconic TV nemeses/serial guest-stars); in fact, Mullally became Lynch’s replacement after she left Party Down in Season 2.
Career highlights: Eight years torturing her boss, staff, and friends on Will & Grace, the “Chief” on Childrens Hospital, and playing evil ex-wife to real-life husband Nick Offerman on Parks & Rec.
Extra versatility points: As Mullally admitted to Conan O’Brien this past March, she just can’t say no to a job, which helps account for her massive list of guest spots, including Happy Endings, 30 Rock, 3rd Rock From the Sun, Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, My Life and Times, Wings, Frasier, Batman, and Murder, She Wrote. Now here’s a question: who wins between Mullally and Lynch in the best guest star of all time category?
Playing a 13-year-old boy while starring on Californication goes down as one of TV’s most incredible acts of versatility, in our book.
Career highlights: Voice of Bobby Hill (King of the Hill), playing Marcy Runkle on Californication and Pamela, the woman Louis C.K. just won’t give up on.
Extra versatility points: She also has a considerable repertoire of children’s cartoon work in her past, including a gig as Spinelli on Recess !
Edie Falco has demonstrated the many vicissitudes of playing a hardass over the past decade, making Carmela Soprano vs. Nurse Jackie a fun game (the winner in a fight according to Falco would apparently be Carmela due to her “serious firepower”).
Career highlights: Correctional officer Diane Whittlesey (Oz), six years as the First Lady of the New Jersey mob, and one of the most complicated medical-drama leads to ever hit the small screen (Nurse Jackie).
Extra versatility points: Her stint as Jack Donaghy’s girlfriend C.C. makes her one of the nicest people to ever appear in 30 Rockverse
Are you a Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Monica, Chandler, or Joey? When a character becomes a personality type, it means that somewhere, in the future, an actor or actress is being typecast. Which is why even Friends haters have to give Kudrow props for defying the odds and reinventing herself in the most un-sitcomy ways possible.
Career highlights: 10 years as the quirkiest, most sexually enlightened friend, star of the adulated yet short-lived The Comeback, and medical revolutionary on Web Therapy.
Extra versatility points: Kudrow experimented on the web before every celebrity was doing it.
We’ve enjoyed Maya Rudolph in recent films like Bridesmaids and Friends with Kids, but it’s on the small screen where she’s wackiest, and therefore where we love her the most.
Career highlights: Member of arguably the best female cast SNL has seen and pop star turned talk-show host on Up All Night — a role critics have lauded as being a watershed in breaking down the “Black Best Friend” archetype.
Extra versatility points: From Donatella Versace and Paris Hilton to Beyonce (see above), Rudolph has proven herself a master of celebrity impressions. Also, this woman can croon a real bad national anthem.
She may be less seasoned than most of the actresses on this list, but we’re giving her a spot for adeptly juggling roles on two of TV’s best shows.
Career highlights: Furnishing some depth beneath the burnished exteriors of Trudy Campbell (Mad Men) and Annie Edison (Community).
Extra versatility points: The woman can Charleston and do a world-class freak-out (or as Jeff Winger put it: “acting like a little school girl and not in a hot way”).