8 Memorable TV Uncles

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Extended family members always seem to figure more prominently in TV-land than in real life; in this first part of an occasional series, we take a look at some of the more memorable uncles who have graced our airwaves.

1. Uncle Joe

Prolific character actor Edgar Buchanan is probably best remembered as the gravelly-voiced Uncle Joe, who was always movin' kinda slow on Petticoat Junction. Uncle Joe Carson was one of a handful of Hooterville residents who also made semi-regular appearances on Green Acres. Buchanan was born in Missouri but moved to Oregon at the age of seven. He graduated from the North Pacific Dental College and ran a successful oral surgery practice in Altadena, California, until (at age 36) he finally gave up his spit sink and succumbed to the acting bug that had first bitten him back in college.

2. Uncle Bobby

If you were a kid in Canada during the 1960s and 70s, chances are you watched The Uncle Bobby Show (most likely you were home for lunch and just waiting for The Flintstones to come on). Uncle Bobby was Bobby Ash, who was born in Staffordshire, England, in 1924 and began acting on stage at the tender age of five. He emigrated to Canada after reading an ad for a new TV station starting up in Toronto that was looking for talent. The Uncle Bobby Show aired from 1962 to 1979 on CFTO and was also syndicated across Canada. Sadly, Uncle Bobby always remained something of a second-string children's TV host in a market that included the Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup, and he had to moonlight as a school bus driver in order to make ends meet.

3. Uncle Bill

Family Affair's Uncle Bill (portrayed by Brian Keith) was almost more of an indulgent grandpa than the bewildered uncle who was unexpectedly made the guardian of his nieces and nephew when their parents were killed in a car accident. Of course, as a successful consulting civil engineer living in a luxurious penthouse apartment on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, swinging bachelor Bill Davis could afford to be benevolent. Basic care and feeding (as well as discipline) of Cissy, Buffy and Jody were all left to his gentleman's gentleman, Mr. French, to handle while Uncle Bill was off overseeing a construction project or dating a socialite. Uncle Bill's idea of parenting was to open his wallet in case of any emergency (such as the time he hired a baby elephant to entertain Buffy at home in the family living room when she was depressed over her broken leg).

4. Uncle Jesse

TV viewers (particularly the moms in the audience) can't resist a man who goes gooey over children, so it's no surprise that heartthrob John Stamos as Uncle Jesse lured as many fans to Full House on Friday nights as did the Olsen twins. Darkly handsome, long-haired, brooding Uncle Jesse rode a motorcycle and was a staunch Elvis wannabe. When such a "bad boy" gave up his carousing ways in order to help take care of his deceased sister's daughters, what red-blooded female wouldn't swoon? During the first season, Stamos' character was called "Jesse Cochran," but by Season Two Stamos had enough clout to ask the producers to change his name to "Jesse Katsopolis" in recognition of his own Greek heritage (Stamos' original family name was Stamotopoulos).

5. Uncle Charley

uncle.jpgWilliam Demarest was hired to portray Uncle Charley, the chief cook and bottle-washer, on My Three Sons after William Frawley ("Bub") became too ill to be insured. Demarest was no youngster by the time he joined the Sons cast "“ he'd appeared with Al Jolson in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, back in 1927. Crotchety Uncle Charley was definitely the antithesis of easy-going Uncle Bill; he was famous for threatening the Douglas kids with things like the "Watusi red ant torture" if they didn't straighten up and fly right.

6. Uncle Junior

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Uncle Junior of The Sopranos was not as warm and fuzzy as your typical TV uncle, but he did have a soft spot in his heart for his nephew, Tony Soprano. In the final episode of Season Three, Junior starts singing along with a guitarist in the restaurant where the family has gathered for a post-funeral meal. It is an old Italian classic, originally written for Enrico Caruso, and the mourners are visibly moved. Uncle Junior continues into a medley of sentimental favorites, and subtly re-establishes his status as boss (even if temporarily) of the family. Dominic Chianese, who portrayed Junior, had been singing on Broadway since 1965, and music has always been his first love, so it's no wonder he was able to evince such a range of emotions in one scene via song.

7. Uncle Fester

When the bald, hunched man in the black coat appeared in Charles Addams' cartoons, he had no name. Addams himself christened the character "Uncle Fester" when his macabre family was turned into a sitcom in 1964. On the TV series, Fester was Morticia's maternal uncle, but in the subsequent films he was Gomez Addams' brother. Uncle Fester was played by Jackie Coogan, who first gained fame as Charlie Chaplin's sidekick in the 1921 silent film The Kid. Young Coogan's image was used to merchandise everything from peanut butter to dolls, and he earned an estimated $4 million before he hit his teens. Sadly, his mother and stepfather spent most of his fortune on luxuries for themselves, and when Coogan turned 21 he found that his bank account was nearly empty. An ugly legal battle ensued, with one result being the California Child Actor's Bill, which safeguards a portion of the earnings of juvenile performers.

8. Uncle Leo

It took some serious talent to stand out as an oddball among the Seinfeld cast, since every character had his or her own set of neuroses, but Len Lesser as Uncle Leo was up to the challenge. Uncle Leo was certain that anti-Semitism was behind every perceived slight, he believed seniors could get away with shoplifting by pleading senility, and he gripped folks by the forearm when talking to them just to make sure they didn't walk away while he raved about his son Jeffrey, who worked for the Parks department. Lesser mentioned in a 2006 interview that total strangers still approach him on the street with open arms, shouting "HELLO Uncle Leo!" but he doesn't mind; after playing a multitude of "faceless" character roles since 1955, he's pleased with the recognition.

Any favorite uncles we've omitted? Feel free to suggest aunts and cousins for future columns, too!

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May 8, 2009 - 9:50am
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