Character Studies 12: Five Great Guest Appearances

“Starsky and Hutch” is dominated by its charismatic, handsome stars. Not only are their characters are fully realized and continually evolving, but the raison d’être of the show is the partnership itself, so there’s not a lot of room for much else. If the entire series consisted of a Pinteresque dialogue about love, death and teddy bears as Starsky and Hutch sit in the Torino, one suspects it would work just fine. Better, maybe.

As co-stars Huggy and Dobey make a nice counterbalance, often providing a kind of refreshing drollness to the action, but neither Antonio Fargas nor Bernie Hamilton are taxed much as actors. Rather, they tend to play archetypal roles with little need for variance. Huggy is the voice of invention and risk-taking, Dobey the voice of administrative rules. Help from below, help from above.

However the series boasts some really memorable guest-starring performances. Strangely, these come not from the more recognizable or “serious” actor, most of whom seem to phone it in (I’m talking to you, John Carradine. You too, Ron Moody). Instead they come from the stable of hardworking character actors who get little recognition for their work. Here are my favorites, in order of appearance. You may have others, and if so, I’d like to hear about them.

Stefan Gierasch as Artie Solkin in “Vendetta”. Nobody does sweaty fear like Stefan Gierasch. He throws himself into the thankless role of a squirming, weak, pathetic, dangerous loser like nobody’s business. Like all the bad guys in the series, Artie isn’t a cardboard cut-out of badness. Rather, he’s a complex individual with a messy past and a smidgen of principles that lift him marginally out of the “evil” category. Watch his body language, from a petulant lower lip giving him a why-me look to the way he cowers by moving his shoulders inward when seeing his nemesis Hutch. Runner-up to the sweaty villain award category would be John Quade, playing the toupee-wearing gasbag Vic Humphries in “Survival”.

Aesop Aquarian as Simon Marcus in “Bloodbath”. Looking like a psychotic member of the Beach Boys, Aesop Aquarian is riveting in his less-is-more performance as a messianic cult leader tormenting Hutch with riddles. He’s physically perfect for the role, with full beard and slight smile, his silky, even voice, the way he can keep his eyes empty of emotion. One can easily imagine him as murderously persuasive with his followers. Writers Christopher Joy and Wanda Coleman have obviously modeled him after Charles Manson, but Aesop makes it all his own. He allows a shadow of long-ago suffering to fog his performance. It makes him softer, more difficult to decipher, which in turn elevates Hutch’s fear and frustration.

Allan Miller as Joe Collins in “Psychic”. Miller’s bitter, thwarted psychic is an entirely original character written by Michael Mann. Miller imbues him with an extra dimension: he uses a strangled, teary voice that makes him sound as if he’s about to break down and wail at any moment. Miller appears four times throughout the series, and while this is obviously his standout performance, he always goes to his strength, which is the intelligent, steely-eyed, principled man caught in a bind. He’s a deft actor whose emotions can spin on a dime: witness how he slams the girl’s photo on the counter in a rage only to be knocked sideways into a vision.

Karen Valentine, as Diana Harmon in “Fatal Charm”. Actresses rarely get meaty roles in this series but Valentine has been handed a couple of juicy steaks from the refrigerator. Let’s not forget she was seen at the time as angelic and respectable, so this performance might have come as a bit of a shock to contemporary audiences. She has a nervous, energetic, high-octane presence and you can’t take your eyes off her. Mesmerizing, but more than that: surprising. The spurned-lover road is well-traveled, but there’s something about Valentine’s timing, and her expressive face with that big ingenuous grin that keeps the viewer continually off-guard. A great script by Jeff Kanter helps too.

Robert Viharo as Jack Cunningham in “The Collector”. The grinning death mask of Irish assassin Cunningham gave me nightmares for years. There’s nothing scarier than his cheery “well, bye-bye then, Joe” as he blows a recalcitrant customer into a million pieces. Viharo goes to town with his neat, exacting, suit-and-tie wearing lunatic, and of all the guest stars he appears to enjoy himself the most, and why wouldn’t he? He has none of the grime or hardness of the typical criminal, and there’s lyricism and sycophantic desperation in everything he does. He’s more leprechaun than brute, and somehow that makes it worse.

Runner up: Sylvia Sidney in “Gillian”. With her husky, life-hardened voice and little cherubic face, this elderly crime boss cuts a formidable figure. Sidney chews up the scenery with this role. She’s alternately manipulative, powerful and crafty. Her incestuous, controlling grip on her son is implied without ever being spelled out. Just look what she’s done to him: he’s a boneless, slobbering brute. All this while smiling sweetly and offering candy to Starsky and Hutch.

Not every great moment is a big one. Next in character studies: exceptional secondary performances.

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