Character Studies 13: Five Perfect Small Roles

These performances are peripheral to the main action, perhaps have only one or two scenes, but nevertheless add color and texture to the whole picture. I’m showcasing acting performances and not script writing: otherwise I’d have to include those many beautifully-written and endearing characters who make the series such a joy (first and foremost, the wonderful Eddie Hoyle, played by Doodles Weaver). It’s difficult to narrow down the choices to five, and I may have overlooked a few – if I have, let me know.

Norman Fell as Sammy Grovner in “The Shootout”. Fell was born to play a miserable down-at-his-heels comic. Lugubrious, full of false cheer, eyes like a basset hound, he’s about as sad a creature who ever crawled out of the rain. His stutter when admitting the only truth in his life – “I love you” to his sassy, much-younger assistant – is a heartbreak. And yet he’s not self-pitying: he’s courageous and stupidly optimistic, an old-fashioned vaudevillian baffled by contemporary times.

Nellie Bellflower as Sweet Alice in “A Coffin for Starsky” and “The Hostages”. It’s always surprising to realize Sweet Alice, the perennially exhausted Southern call-girl, only appeared in two episodes. She casts such a long shadow you feel her everywhere. Bellflower undercuts her own southern charm with a nihilistic indifference, indicating she’s been through hell and back, and her melty, unsuppressed (and unconsummated) crush on “Handsome Hutch” is really something to watch. The character of Sweet Alice is a great example of how Starsky and Hutch are respectful and nonjudgmental to people others view as worthless, and she repays the favor with what seems to be a long-standing bond of trust.

George Janek as Bobby Marsh in “Survival”. George Janek is so natural as a pre-teen with an unusual hobby you almost forget he’s acting. His nonchalant performance is completely devoid of the sugariness or self-consciousness one often sees in child actors. His part as the largely-neglected latchkey kid is well-written, and he never overplays it: he’s helpful but not too enthusiastic, wary without being suspicious. It’s a balanced mix of intelligence and eye-rolling whatever that Janek gets perfectly.

Rebecca Balding as Mickie in “Class in Crime”. Part automaton, part sex-pot, Rebecca Balding’s appearance probably doesn’t qualify as peripheral  – she has more than two scenes in this episode – but she’s still in a secondary role. Mickie is a truly disconcerting piece of acting, with a strange accent that comes and goes, and a rigid doll-like cast to her face. There’s more than a touch of sadism here and I suspect Professor Gage is a tiny bit afraid of her. I sure am. Probably the only woman ever be immune to the Starsky Charm Offensive.

Charles Pierce as Sugar in “Death in a Different Place”. Pierce is perhaps the greatest female impersonator of his era, which naturally makes him a great actor too. Elegant, bitchy, sparkling and charismatic, he should have had more air time, and maybe his own detective show while we’re at it. Sugar – this gal carries more than just a gun. Even while he provides background noise as an on-stage diva he’s riveting. He absolutely commands the few scenes he’s in and is given the best jokes, too, especially the wig scene.

Runner up: Ed Bakey as Fifth Avenue in “Lady Blue”. Bakey’s been handed it all on a plate: the ascot-wearing old-fashioned gentleman crook, but he really owns it. He’s absolutely assured, and physically perfect for the part. Both Starsky and Hutch seem quite careful around him, as if he’s made of porcelain, and there is a sort of precious, fragile quality to this elderly dandy. And we can’t forget actual crewmembers who make memorable appearances, like the show’s assistant director Eldon Burke as the staring mute in “Texas Longhorn” and makeup artist Shotgun Britton as the red-satin-wearing director in “Murder on Stage 17”.

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One Response to “Character Studies 13: Five Perfect Small Roles”

  1. Dianna Says:

    I loved Bobby in Survival. I felt like I knew him in Junior High school.

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