There are those bit players


For years, many thespians have made a very good living appearing in films as character actors, playing those bit parts so vital to completing a story. Back when Westerns dominated both the small and big black-and-white screens, I’d often see the same faces filling various roles in movies and on TV shows like “The Rifleman” and “Gunsmoke.”

As TV and motion-picture industries evolved, some bit players often became pretty important to storylines, even those you couldn’t see. You’ll recall Tim Allen’s successful series “Home Improvement” and his character’s sage next-door neighbor Mr. Wilson, played by Earl Hindman, who was only seen from the nose up to his omnipresent hat on the other side of the backyard fence giving Tim nuggets of wisdom that somehow made every problem solvable.

You also may recall Lorenzo Music’s Carlton, The Doorman, on the “Mary Tyler Moore” show spin-off sitcom “Rhoda,” who was often heard but never seen.

Recently, now that I’ve joined the rest of the cool kids and am streaming, I’ve rediscovered one of my absolute favorite sitcoms from the early 1980s, “Cheers,” and am laughing just as hard at the characters who inhabit that Boston bar as I did when I wore my younger man’s clothes. You’ll, of course, recall George Wenz’s Norm, who, each episode, always received plenty of on-air time.

While Norm often speaks of his significant other, Vera, she’s never heard and is seen only once, well, sort of seen. If you can successfully squint into that rearview mirror, you may recall the episode “Thanksgiving Orphans.” The main folks from the bar find themselves with nowhere to go on Thanksgiving and decide to gather at Carla’s new house for a meal. Vera is invited to join Norm and arrives separately, appropriate since the husband and wife pretty much lead separate lives. Just as she walks in right after the event has devolved into a food fight, she’s hit in the face with a pie. The confectionary projectile, thus, robs the viewers of finally seeing what she looks like, an enigma in perpetuity.

Also worthy of mention is Charlie Townsend, the wealthy man who gives his gorgeous crime-solving Angels their case assignments from 1976 to 1981. The disembodied voice came compliments of the late actor John Forsythe, who received many main roles in movies and television prior to his “Charlie’s Angels” work.

My topic today got me wondering just who would be the real-life equivalents of those bit actors and actresses. Well, there would be those who serve us at restaurants and hotels as well as the folks who deliver our mail, solve our plumbing problems and even those who do nothing more than smile at us as they pass us or hold the door for us.

One of my favorite bit-player moments occurred many years ago during the time “Cheers” was so popular, a time when my kiddos, Shannon and Katie, were single-digit-aged. We were on a family vacation on Cape Cod, in Woods Hole, about to board a boat for Martha’s Vineyard.

You may recall the calligraphic “Cheers” as it always appears on the bar’s sign that begins each episode. Well, there was a very popular T-shirt with the same lettering on it back then, and my girls and, admittedly I (who’ve spent a lifetime crafting an unparalleled résumé of wearing clothing with writing on it) had looked in several souvenir shops and were told every time that the shirts were sold out.

While waiting for the boat, my little ladies and I were doing our fair share of grumbling about it when a man standing near enough to hear of our disappointment walked up to us and said he was the supplier for a T-shirt warehouse operation. He asked for our sizes and mailing address. Despite my skepticism, I gave him the information. When I asked for his address so I could send him payment for his efforts, he laughed and said he wouldn’t think of charging anything for his good deed.

Later that day while on The Vineyard, my girls were excitedly chirping about their eventually getting the shirts. I cautioned them as to the harsh realities of those who are so very long of promise yet so very short on delivery. It was my “Don’t-get-your-hopes-up” speech.

However, less than two weeks after our return to The Heart of It All, a UPS truck pulled up and delivered a box with no return address, a box that contained two “Cheers” Ts in kid sizes and two in adult sizes, two in royal blue and two in red. And, just as I had delivered my message about low expectations, a friendly bit player who I never saw before that vacation day and would never see again, delivered his own absentee message. That message was that there will be times in life when there is indeed veracity in Blanche DuBois’ famous line from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” that line about always relying on the kindness of strangers.

I can still be seen sporting my “Cheers” T from time to time. While we certainly cherish the everyday players in our life’s dramas, let’s not forget there will be those moments when bit players become so vital in filling in the cracks of our daily narratives.

John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a division of AIM Media Midwest, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected].

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