One would think that to be a TV star you’d have to be actually visible. But these characters became household names despite the fact that you could be sitting next to them on a bus and not know who they are. We may have only caught glimpses of them or heard their voices, but these unseen characters were “stars” to faithful viewers.
10. Maris Crane (Frasier)
The snobbish, spoiled, neurotic, and demanding ex-Mrs. Niles Crane became legendary with her “fetching under bite” and inability to make tracks in the snow or set off a whoopee cushion. Although we never actually saw her (except in bandages or in shadow), her antics were among the funniest in sitcom history. Disliked by the Cranes, Frasier’s fondest compliment was saying “she’s like the sun, except without the warmth.”
We did learn that Maris was born in 1952 in Seattle, she was older than Niles, and enormously wealthy thanks to her dad, “The Commander’s,” money. (Niles later found out the family gelt came from selling urinal cakes, which gave him the upper hand during their divorce.) Her oddities became even more extreme throughout the run of the show. Her ideal weight was 45 pounds, a pathology brought on by being an overweight child. She also couldn’t produce saliva, had abnormally tight quadriceps, a rigid spine, and a light webbing of her hands. Producers ultimately couldn’t cast the strange being they’d created.
9. Stanley Walker (Will & Grace)
Hugely rich — and huge — Stan was strangely “sexy” to his boozy and quirky yet lovable wife Karen, a.k.a. Karen Delaney St. Croix Popeil Walker. Stan was her third husband, and his children from a former marriage spent time with their Dearest Stepmom. Though Karen barely know their names (she called his son “the fat one”), she did interact with them. For example she stuck food to the floor to see how long her stepson would spend trying to eat it. The boy, like his dad, was unseen, however we did catch a glimpse of Stan’s arm and a leg. We do know that Stanley was … gross.
Rounding out his charm, he wore a toupee since adolescence. In the fourth season Stan was imprisoned for tax evasion, then had an affair which kicked up Karen’s wisecracks and showed her vulnerability. The couple separated and with government help, Stan faked his death. Eventually, he and Karen got back together. It was not only short-lived, but in the finale we learned that Stan lived on borrowed money, leaving the drunken fashionista broke. The unseen character was so popular for his love of fast food that upon his release from prison, Pizza Hut took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, and Taco Bell arranged a flyover at his “funeral.”
8. Charlie (Charlie’s Angels)
From 1976 to 1981 John Forsythe phoned it in as Charlie Townsend, the ladies’ man, pool-lounging investigative agency owner on Charlie’s Angels. Unlike other “unseens” the voice behind the character was no secret to viewers, who tuned into the crime drama to see his gorgeous employees solve crimes, often clad in as little as possible. As a result, the show became known as “Jiggle TV.” Producer Aaron Spelling believed keeping Charlie unseen talking to his “angels” on a squawk box would add intrigue to the show. (We did see him from the back, often surrounded by gorgeous gals.) Forsythe never even set foot on the set (his pay was too low) or even visited.
7. Carlton (Rhoda)
“Hello, this is Carlton, your doorman.” This oft-repeated line was voiced by the late, great Lorenzo Music, the show’s creator and producer of The Mary Tyler Moore Show spin-off. What set him apart was his character, who delivered most of his intercom messages to Rhoda totally smashed. Rhoda’s answer? “Carlton, I know you’re the doorman. Is that what you called to tell me?” He once said: “I have no problem drinking….I have a problem stopping!”
His slurred portrayal was so popular that in 1975, a novelty single of “Carlton the Doorman” was released. The only time we “saw” him he was wearing a gorilla mask at Rhoda’s New Year’s Eve party. Carlton had so much appeal that at one time there was a Carlton Fan Club. Lorenzo Music described Carlton as being “in his 20s, blond, skinny with sloping shoulders, messy hair and droopy eyelids. Carlton is lazy, Carlton is slovenly, Carlton is a moocher and a lush.”
Music was considered a legendary voice over personality. Among others, he was the voice of Garfield. He was also a producer, actor, writer and songwriter. He was, for example, a writer on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and created The Bob Newhart Show. Though short-lived, Carlton the Doorman became a cartoon special. Though the pilot wasn’t picked up, it won an Emmy Award in 1980.
6. Vera Peterson (Cheers)
Norm Peterson, the first character to permanently occupy a Cheers bar seat, appeared in all 275 episodes. The former accountant made his lack of ambition an art (although he tried his hand at decorating), along with not paying his bar bill. In the final episode, Sam had NASA calculate Norm’s tab. Norm’s long-suffering wife, Vera, was “seen” only twice — covered in pie thrown by Diane in a Thanksgiving food fight, and waving from a car. We did know that the couple had an odd love/hate relationship. On the one hand, Norm described her as a battle ax, and when she got a job at the restaurant upstairs, Norm was deeply upset at her invading his territory. Yet he was also strangely devoted and turned down an affair.
Though unseen, Vera did leave some messages. She told Rebecca off-camera that Norm’s real first name was Hillary, after his grandfather. In the 1982 episode “No Rest for the Woody,” Vera called after hours and got the bar’s answering machine with Sam’s voice. Vera said: “Norm, this is Vera. Please pick up. Norm! Norm!” She kept calling throughout the episode. “Norm, I know you’re there. Pick up the phone, Norm. It’s three o’clock in the morning. I want you to come home. Norm? Norm!” Her final message was “Hi, Sam? This is Vera Peterson again. Listen, uh, ignore those messages. It turns out, Norm was here in bed next to me the whole time. And I thought that big lump was our dog. Who knew?” During the run of the show they did separate, but reunited at the show’s finale. Who else but Vera would stay with an alcoholic, absentee, lazy, often unemployed husband?
5. Mrs. Columbo (Columbo)
Although unseen as the wife of the quirky, rumpled, cigar-smoking, easily mistaken genius Lieutenant Columbo, Mrs. Columbo was a constant topic of conversation with his suspects. Some have even speculated that she was just a myth he used to throw them off guard. She was described as shorter than Columbo, with long black hair worn in a bun and was pleasingly voluptuous, which he loved and she despised. Columbo said, “She was “always a happy woman, but for a while got depressed, thought she was getting too fat — she was binging on lasagna and rigatoni. But a TV exercise show ‘saved our marriage.'”
Throughout the years, we learned that she was energetic, vivacious, and as quirky as her husband. Although she stunk at solving TV murder mysteries, she was fascinated by her husband’s famous group of murderers. He would frequently say “My wife is a big fan of yours…” whether the suspect was a writer or head of a cosmetics firm whose product she swore by. When asked her name, he’d say: “Mrs. Columbo.”
In her own way, she helped him solve crimes. In “Lady In Waiting,” we learned that she had a proverb for everything. In the middle of an argument, she told him “You’re putting the cart before the horse.” That solved the crime for Columbo: he realized the killer’s boyfriend heard the shots before he heard the burglar alarm. In “The Conspirators,” Columbo was trying to figure out the meaning of a note left by the victim — “LAP 213.” Thanks to his wife’s obsession with every part of the newspaper she read that a ship bound for Ireland would be loading at Los Angeles Pier 213, which was the key to the murder. In “Murder in Malibu” Columbo solved the case by remembering that his wife always put on her Maidenform panties with the label on the left.
In 1979, producers made an odd and fatal mistake by launching Mrs. Columbo, starring the young, beautiful Kate Mulgrew. Viewers naturally thought this was the Mrs. Columbo, Peter Falk’s character’s wife. In a wildly confused message, producers let it be known she was not “that” Mrs. Columbo. Falk himself was furious and, predictably, viewers were turned off. The series ended within a year.
4. Sheridan Bucket (Keeping Up Appearances)
This Britcom had a simple premise and starred top British comedy actors, with Pamela Routledge as the pretentiously pompous and obnoxious Hyacinth Bucket and Clive Swift as her long-suffering husband, Richard. The series ran from 1990 to 1995 and is unique in that it was produced directly for the American PBS market, with breaks so the station could take time out for pledge appeals.
In each episode, Hyacinth obsessively looked for ill-conceived ways to climb the social ladder. Her plans were always thwarted, landing her in embarrassing situations. Her pretentions and quotes are virtually legendary, as she tortured all around her who loathed her and ran! She, however, was not only unaware of how she landed, but re-interpreted insults as compliments. Among the many running gags was her unseen son, Sheridan (she pronounced it “Sheridaaaaaaan!”) with whom she talked on the phone.
Sheridan Bucket, unseen except for the back of his head, was her spoiled son who “rings his mommy” for the money. He was away at a technical institute that Hyacinth told all was “university standard” studying Tapestry Design and Advanced Needlework. This, along with other stereotypes, were meant to suggest Sheridan was gay. While Richard “got it,” Hyacinth was oblivious, and referred to him as “artistic” like his mummy. In addition to boring others with massive photo albums of Sheridaaaaaaan, she also told them of his pearl button collection.
3. Orson (Mork & Mindy)
Mork & Mindy ran from 1978 to 1982 and starred the then unknown Robin Williams as Mork, the alien from Ork, and Pam Dawber as his earthling roomie turned wife, Mindy. The premise was simple: Mork arrived on Earth in an egg-shaped spacecraft, assigned by his superior, Orson, to observe human behavior. The unseen Orson also had an ulterior motive — to get rid of the wacky, riotous Mork, whose home planet didn’t permit humor. Attempting to fit in, Mork dressed in an Earth suit, which he wore backwards. He encountered Mindy, told her the truth, and she allowed him to move into her attic. Given Williams’ comedic gifts, his attempts to understand human behavior was the key to the show’s success. At the end of each show, Mork summarized what he’d learned to the unseen Orson. His greeting and sign-off became a pop culture saying: “Na-Nu Na-Nu.” We do know that Orson, voiced by Ralph James, barked like the Wizard of Oz — and zapped Mork for misbehaving.
Although Orson was never seen, he was heard. Mork described Orson as fat, confused by how humans survived, and why they fought rather than hid as Orkans would. He also didn’t understand the concept of jokes (on Ork a laugh was illegal), friendship or love.
2. Lars Lindstrom (The Mary Tyler Moore Show)
Snooty, controlling, and judgmental Phyllis, Mary’s downstairs neighbor was married to Lars, a boring Swedish dermatologist we never got to meet. To give an idea of his personality, Lars was a member of the Society of Concerned And Responsible Dermatologists, or SCARD.
Lars was the wind beneath her arrogance driving her backhanded insults, and her boredom that fueled her obnoxious involvement in everything from politics to real estate. We got the impression that Lars, whose Swedish accent Phyllis imitated hysterically, was not Mister Fascinating and was controlled by his acid-tongued wife, at least until an episode that aired on September 15, 1973. Phyllis learned that Lars was having an affair with Sue Ann Nivens. It became a sitcom classic, with the actors and writers at their best. Phyllis’s response? “I’ll wait it out. Sooner or later, Lars is going to get tired of her. And he’ll come back to me. And then I’m going to… punish him for this.”
That didn’t quite work out as intended — after five seasons Lars suddenly died and Phyllis learned he was broke, which triggered the Phyllis spin-off.
1. Consuela (Designing Women)
Designing Women, which ran from 1986 to 1993, was a sitcom that centered on the professional and personal lives of four very different women who operated a design firm, Sugarbakers, in Atlanta. Created and often written by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, for its time it was highly political. Its main characters originally included Julia Sugarbaker, who as boss was intellectual and sharp-tongued, her sister Suzanne, a self-centered, spoiled former beauty queen, Mary Jo Shively, a divorcee with two children and the sweet but naïve Charlene Frazier.
Suzanne’s live-in maid, Consuela Valverde, was unseen, but we did learn that she came from San Salvador and had a large family in the meat-packing business. She took control by making long distance phone calls, wearing Suzanne’s wigs, and bathing in her tub. Suzanne was scared to death of Consuela’s behavior (when learning how to drive, the maid drove through the window of the DMV), and then there was her infamous sword-throwing tantrums and “voodoo powers.” Anthony Bouvier, a former prison inmate who was falsely convicted, also worked for the firm and eventually became a partner.
In one episode, Suzanne was so frightened that Consuela put a fatal voodoo curse on her to kick in at midnight that the “designing women” threw a slumber party to calm her down. But eventually the two seemed to make peace, as we know Consuela waxed her spoiled boss’s legs. In the classic episode “Foreign Affairs” the INS threatened to deport Consuela, as her work permit had expired and she needed to get either a green card or citizenship. Fearing her maid couldn’t pass the test, Suzanne convinced Anthony to impersonate her. Dressed as a woman, Anthony did his job so well he evoked the romantic interest of the government official.