A truly great TV character doesn’t cease to exist when his show ends — he remains entirely real in the memory of fans and, in some cases, the consciousness of a culture he helped shape. Whether you loved or hated Will & Grace, that’s certainly true of Will Truman, who became Middle America’s first gay best friend (an archetype that we hasten to add is troubling in itself) around the turn of the millennium. The question is, can the actor who portrayed Will, Eric McCormack, shake his association with the character to make viewers believe him as neuroscientist Daniel Pierce in the new TNT crime drama Perception? Although we’re pulling for McCormack, we can’t ignore the curse that tends to befall stars who are best known for playing a certain iconic and/or distinct TV character. After the jump, we round up 10 actors who haven’t managed to shake their most memorable roles.
Aside from helping teach tolerance to the mainstream, Will & Grace introduced us to two unforgettable characters — not the titular best friends but their pals, Sean Hayes’ flamboyant, narcissistic Jack and Megan Mullally’s spoiled, debauched Karen. But while Mullally soon moved on to great and different roles on Party Down, Parks and Recreation, and Childrens Hospital, we tend to see Hayes doing a lot of Jack-like guest appearances (and reminding us of Jack even in supposedly different roles, like his run in Broadway’s Promises, Promises). Although it certainly wasn’t a critical favorite (and it wasn’t a big hit at the box office, either), this year’s The Three Stooges did find Hayes doing an entirely different kind of comedy and may well help launch the second act of his career.
Sarah Michelle Gellar
We wanted so badly to like Ringer, the CW thriller that debuted last fall and found Sarah Michelle Gellar playing a pair of twins caught in a web of intrigue. The dual role was her first starring TV gig since Buffy the Vampire Slayer wrapped in 2003 — and even those of us who wanted to see Gellar move beyond Buffy Summers mostly tuned in to see whether she would revive some of her old character’s plucky toughness. She certainly had her moments on Ringer, and it wasn’t just the Buffy-level expectations that sank the show; unfortunately, it just wasn’t as great as it should have been by virtue of the cast and premise alone. We’re sure Gellar has more great characters in her, but Siobhan and Bridget just weren’t compelling enough to make us forget about Buffy.
What was your favorite George Costanza moment? That time when he pretended to be a marine biologist and then had to save a beached whale? Or when he succeeded at life simply by doing the opposite of his impulses? How about the Summer of George? Based largely on Larry David, George was Seinfeld’s funniest and most fully realized character. This may help to explain why in 2012, while Jerry Seinfeld is doing big-ticket comedy tours and producing TV shows and Julia Louis-Dreyfus is on to her second great post-Seinfeld starring role, Alexander is mostly doing guest-starring gigs. It’s a shame, because he’s a talented guy — as anyone who’s ever heard George Costanza sing can attest.
There’s no denying that the Saved by the Bell kids all went on to have fairly odd careers. Jessi became a camp icon in Showgirls, Slater apparently hosts every second-tier entertainment/dance show on TV, and Kelly turned her good-girl reputation on its head as 90210’s Valerie Malone years before landing her current role on White Collar. Screech, meanwhile, has had a pretty cringe-worthy public profile in the past decade, and while we’re not sure exactly what’s going on with Lisa, perhaps in this case pictures say more than words. All of which is to say that Mark-Paul Gosselaar is doing at least as well as any of his cast mates. He’s starred in a number of shows over the years and recently kicked off his second season playing lawyer Peter Bash on TNT’s Franklin & Bash. And yet, despite his success, we can’t look at Gosselaar without seeing Zack Morris. Considering that everyone under 35 went nuts when he appeared as Zack on Jimmy Fallon in 2009, we can’t imagine we’re alone.
Speaking of Beverly Hills, 90210, that show’s cast members also had a fairly rough time transitioning to grown-up roles. But as far as we’re concerned, it’s Shannen Doherty whose career has been most associated with her character — Brenda Walsh, one of TV’s most realistic (which is to say, realistically melodramatic) teenage girls. In case you’ve forgotten, the line between Brenda and Doherty was blurring as early as 1993, when detractors launched the “I Hate Brenda Newsletter.” And just as Brenda feuded with Kelly, Doherty’s tension with female cast members has resulted in her early departure from more than one show. These days, she and her husband co-star in the reality TV series Shannen Says, which you probably would have heard of if someone had thought to call it Brenda Walsh Gets Married.
There are difficult roles to shake, and then there’s Steve Urkel — the most distinctive, abrasive, and memorable of all ’90s TV geeks. As has been well documented, Jaleel White was never much like his socially awkward character, but it’s still been fairly difficult for the actor to find other characters post-Family Matters. He’s mostly done voice acting and web series, along with appearing as himself on Dancing with the Stars and hosting the Syfy game show Total Blackout. We assume this is at least partially due to the fact that the press still can’t report on him without putting “Urkel” in the headline.
From 1988 through 1997, Barr portrayed one of the best characters in the history of television — a tough, smart, bossy, sharp-tongued working-class matriarch who was also a sort of alternate-universe version of her creator. Roseanne was wildly popular, hugely influential, and critically acclaimed, a sitcom about a functional and loving family that prevailed through hard times and never slipped into saccharine. Unfortunately, perhaps because no one can imagine her playing anything other than her alter ego, Barr hasn’t had much success on TV since the series wrapped. Her 1998 talk show, The Roseanne Show, only lasted two seasons, and two reality programs — The Real Roseanne Show and Roseanne’s Nuts — got the axe after just one cycle. What’s most disappointing, though, is that Barr was planning a return to sitcoms with Downwardly Mobile, only to have NBC shelve the pilot. But hey, at least we can still support Roseanne’s presidential campaign.
No ’80s TV dad is more memorable than Cliff Huxtable, with his loud sweaters and wisecracks and jazz obsession, and even 20 years after The Cosby Show went off the air, we can’t stop conflating Bill Cosby with his iconic character. This ongoing association certainly explains why so many of us were shocked — and even hurt — to learn that the comedian was caught up in a sexual assault scandal. It probably also accounts for why the 1996 sitcom Cosby found him re-teaming with his Cosby Show wife, Phylicia Rashad, despite playing an entirely different character.
At nearly 75 years old, Marlo Thomas isn’t a “girl” by any stretch of the imagination. But (and perhaps this is also a testament to how well preserved she is) we still can’t look at her without seeing That Girl, the archetypal young, single woman of late-’60s TV. Ever since the sitcom ended its run in 1971, Thomas’ roles have generally been confined to the guest-star and made-for-TV movie realm — a fact that may well have as much to do with the time she’s devoted feminist causes and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital as with the lasting cultural impact of Ann Marie.
Like others on this list, Ray Romano found success playing a character who was basically himself — an affable, easygoing man-child with three kids and a penchant for cracking jokes. As a result, it’s difficult to imagine him portraying, say, a callous asshole or a charming lady’s man; his real and fictional personalities have coalesced to the extent that seeing Ray Romano play anyone who isn’t Ray Barone would cause some serious cognitive dissonance. Perhaps that explains why, while there were some important differences between the two, Romano’s Men of a Certain Age character Joe Tranelli often seemed like an older, more embattled version of Ray Barone.