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5 Minor TV Characters who Hijacked the Show

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Ed note: we're having a few technical difficulties here, so we're highlighting a few best-of posts starting with this terrific one from Kara. Enjoy!

Things don't always work out as planned in Television Land. A snappy catchphrase, an adorable mannerism, a bodacious bust line"¦there's no telling what might capture the audience's attention. The problem is, it often comes at the expense of another actor.

1. The Fonz Upstages Opie

Picture 11.png The idea for a sitcom set in the 1950s was inspired by a vignette on the 1970s anthology series Love, American Style. One year after "Love and the Happy Days" aired, Ron Howard starred in the blockbuster film American Graffiti, which solidified his ability to play a retro-teenager. Howard had previously played "Opie" on The Andy Griffith Show, and with his recent film triumph under his belt, it was clear that he was the intended star of Happy Days. But the producers were caught by surprise when Fonzie, portrayed by Henry Winkler, who was only an occasional character during the first season started getting a substantial amount of press. Suddenly "Ayyyy" was on everyone's lips and you couldn't walk past a storefront without seeing some sort of Fonz replica giving the ol' thumbs up. The ABC brass even suggested changing the name of the show to Fonzie's Happy Days, but Henry Winkler himself vehemently opposed such a change. In fact, Henry has always staunchly credited the success of Happy Days to the work of entire cast, particularly Ron Howard and Tom Bosley.

2. Alex P. Keaton's Hostile Takeover

Picture 3.pngWhen Gary David Goldberg was casting Family Ties, a sitcom about liberal 60s-era parents raising 80s-era children, he envisioned Matthew Broderick for the role of Alex P. Keaton. But Broderick didn't want to leave New York for a long-term project, so Goldberg was left at square one. At the urging of a casting director, he gave a young Canadian actor named Michael J. Fox a second screen test, and reluctantly hired him (his infamous comment at the time about Fox was "There's a face you'll never see on a lunch box.") Much to everyone's surprise, Michael J. Fox had that on-screen charisma that quickly made him an audience favorite; he could deliver the most extreme right-wing political rhetoric and make it palatable because he was so darned cute. Meredith Baxter-Birney was miffed, because her understanding when she signed on for Family Ties was that the parents would be the focus of the series. But teen magazine profiles and posters can have a unique impact on a celebrity's "Q-factor," and soon many of the show's plots revolved around Alex. During the taping of the episode where Alex lost his virginity, the audience's laughter went on so long that the show ran 12 minutes overtime. Goldberg was standing backstage with Baxter-Birney at the time and commented, "If you want to leave the show, I'll understand."

3. Jack Tripper Gets Bested by a Blonde

Picture 2.pngWhen Three's Company was being cast, John Ritter was the only actor hired who any sort of name recognition, having played the Reverend Fordwick on The Waltons. Luckily, he also had a knack for slapstick comedy, and managed to make the most out of what was basically a one-joke role (a closet heterosexual living platonically with two beautiful young women). But even though Ritter was the acknowledged star of the show (and won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Jack Tripper), it was Suzanne Somers who got her picture on all the magazine covers and had her own mega-selling poster. Actually, as soon as Somers landed the role of Chrissy, she contacted powerhouse manager Jay Bernstein and begged him to take her on as a client. She wanted to be "bigger than Farrah," and although (according to Somers) Bernstein questioned her looks and her talent, he was impressed by her passion, and agreed to manage her. Of course, it probably helped that Somers also pledged to give him every penny of her salary from the first six episodes of Three's Company. Nevertheless, thanks to Bernstein's savvy promotion, soon every episode of Three's Company, no matter what the plot, focused heavily on Chrissy prancing around in tight T-shirts and short-shorts.

4. Yes, Urkel Did That

Picture 4.pngFamily Matters was officially a spin-off of Perfect Strangers (Harriette Winslow was the elevator operator at the Chicago Chronicle). The show was supposed to focus on the everyday trials and tribulations of a department store employee, her police officer husband, and their three children. Midway through Season One, their nerdy neighbor Steve Urkel (portrayed by Jaleel White) appeared, oversized glasses, suspenders, high-rise pants, squeaky voice and all. Urkel was originally intended as a one-episode character, but after White's initial appearance, studio audiences started chanting "Urkel! Urkel!" during subsequent tapings. Several first-season episodes were hastily re-written in order to feature the whiny-voiced, clumsy character. Interestingly enough, Jaleel White had been acting (mostly in commercials) since the age of three, and just prior to being cast as Urkel had told his mother that he wanted to quit the business in order to play JV basketball when he entered high school the next fall.

5. Mr. Kotter's Lukewarm Welcome (in comparison to John Travolta)

Picture 5.pngVeteran comic writer Alan Sacks had seen stand-up comic Gabe Kaplan's act a few times and thought that there might be a viable sitcom to be mined out of Kaplan's tales of his days in remedial high school classes. When previewing Welcome Back, Kotter in front of test audiences, network brass noted that John Travolta (whose character was then known as "Eddie Barbarina") elicited unsolicited random squeals from the crowd and decided on the strength of a possible teen heartthrob plus Kaplan's jokes to green light the series. Travolta, for his part, didn't discourage the Tiger Beat aspect of his fame, but he also craved acceptance as a bona fide actor, and he spent much of his Kotter salary on a high-priced agent, who landed him progressively larger film roles, from The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, to Carrie, to Saturday Night Fever. By the fourth (and ultimately final) season of Welcome Back, Kotter, John Travolta was billed as a "special guest star" and appeared in less than half of that season's episodes.

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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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