Supporting players often the fuel that drives star vehicles

The standard sitcom often presents a certain disparity between fact and truth. The sitcom is frequently identified as a star vehicle: an established star might play a character not unlike his or her regular screen persona; or a character has spun off another sitcom to create a new star. In either case, the star is the brand name, the titular head of the series pointed up in anthologies, tributes and historic retrospectives to mark an era, a look, a cultural atmosphere.

The truth is, however, that no one can carry a sitcom series for long based on star power alone, not, for example, the way Carol Channing or Pearl Bailey carried “Hello, Dolly!” in the theater or the way Harrison Ford can be counted on to keep a movie thriller in high gear. Sitcoms are ensemble vehicles.

The star’s function, as director James Burrows (co-creator of “Cheers”) sees it, “is to occupy the bottom rung of a ladder of lunatics. In ‘3rd Rock From the Sun’ John Lithgow is the rock. Everyone around him is crazier than he is. You need someone to act as the audience’s eyes, someone the audience feels comfortable with in sharing the truth.”

In short, the star is more acted upon than active. It’s the supporting players who get to cut loose and shimmy out onto the edge of a character’s eccentricities (imagine how limp “Seinfeld” would be without Michael Richards). They are the writers’ and producers‘ comedic darlings, the characters audience likes to watch with amusement and affection.

And they’ve never been more crucial to the success of a show, now that so many standup comics with no acting or performance skills take up center space in their own sitcoms. Still, in the hierarchic — not to mention financial — scheme of things, the supporting player occupies a lower level, somewhere between sine qua non and colorful accessory. They get the best lines, but most find that a ratings championship season or two as a crazy neighbor forces early retirement in syndicate city.

“Very few can make that transition from supporting to lead player, which is why spinoffs rarely work,” says Burrows. ” ‘Rhoda’ moved towards the center, but ‘Phyllis” didn’t. ‘Maude’ worked because they added Walter (the husband played by Bill Macy). The most successful spinoff I know is ‘Frasier,’ and that’s because Kelsey Grammer is a gifted, classically trained actor. But even he was thrown at first, until I told him, ‘You’re not the old crazy drunken shrink anymore. You’re (“Cheers” lead) Sam Malone. David Hyde Pierce is the old Frasier now.’ “

A case in point of how a memorably brilliant supporting role can pigeonhole an actor is the career of Art Carney after “The Honeymooners.” A versatile comedy performer who worked in radio toward the end of its golden age, he originated the role of Felix Unger in “The Odd Couple” on Broadway. He won an Oscar for “Harry and Tonto,” and earned glowing notices for the films “Going in Style” and “The Late Show.” Still, after Ed Norton, it became an ordeal just to walk down the street and hear someone yell, “Hey Ed, how’s it down in the sewer?”

Carney’s struggles with alcohol and “personal demons” have been well-noted, but the overall puzzle of his career led Michael Seth Starr to write a new biography (“Art Carney: A Biography”) that’s just been published by Fromm Intl.

“Like Lucille Ball and Milton Berle, he was one of the early figures who established television as a medium,” says Starr, who’s deputy TV editor at the New York Post. “He acted on Playhouse 90, LuxTheatre and the Kraft Playhouse during those great years of TV drama. He was a success in ‘The Rope Dancer’ on Broadway in 1957 and two years later made the cover of Newsweek. In 1970, he tried his own series out of Miami, but he never really wanted his own show. He just got stuck with being second banana.”

Not that that’s such a bad thing. “I think people who really watch acting understand what a good supporting player can do,” adds Starr. “Gleason was funny, he was great. But he was always Gleason. You watch him in a scene with Carney and see all the subtle things Carney does to keep it interesting. Keep in mind that Don Knotts won five Emmys while Andy Griffith got none. Art got five too, where Gleason got nothing. Watch how, when a supporting player leaves, a show deflates.”

The Curse of the Second Banana may not make a good camp movie title, but it must be a scourge for those who bear it. What could it mean for a distinguished actor like Carney to receive an invitation from the Mayor of Scottsdale to dedicate a new sewer, long after “The Honeymooners” had finished its first run?

Christine Baranski takes a caveat actor approach. A two-time Tony Award winner, she was a comic foil on “3rd Rock From the Sun” before she lounged into “Cybill” as the rich, dipso divorcee Maryann Thorpe, a soignee characterization that won her a 1995 supporting actress Emmy.

“If you’re carrying a show you have to be authentically human, you’re the ice cream cone,” she says. “As supporting player you get to be wonderfully foibled and audacious. You’re more free. And sitcoms have been great for women, where in another medium you’re considered washed up at 35. I started ‘Cybill’ when I was 41.”

How does she plan to avoid the cul-de-sac life of supporting zany?

“Fame isn’t the mark of a successful career, longevity is,” she says. “As great as visibility is, it can also be a trap. The trick is not to be identified with a specific character. I hope I can do X number of ‘Cybills,’ and then move on.”

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