Call them They Who Must Not Be Seen. Call them the Faceless. Call them Invisible. By whatever term they may be known, they are that group of television characters who may be heard and may even be slightly seen, but may just as often be only spoken of and referred to. Unseen characters have been a staple of TV since at least that gosh-darn Will Thornberry who lived next door to Ozzie and Harriet. Among the popular characters that forever remained a mystery known only through reference or voice recognition include Carlton the Doorman from Rhoda, Norm’s wife on Cheers, Maris from Frasier and, of course, Charlie who gave his Angels a new reason to jiggle every week.
When you start thinking about, there are many characters throughout the history of television who are only talked about or only heard and never seen. (Not to include Wilson from Home Improvement where the gimmick of hiding half his face got to be downright annoying.) Remember that you never saw Orson, Mork’s employer and you never saw the boss of Magnum, P.I., Robin Masters. (The great Orson Welles did provide a voice, however.) There’s also any adult from a Peanuts special and Diane, Agent Cooper’s…something…on Twin Peaks. And, leave us not forget, Mrs. Columbo. (The real wife of Detective Columbo, not that horrid and misguided spinoff in which the missus played the lead and which writers eventually decided merely shared Columbo’s name, but wasn’t married to him.) Then there’s Juanita, the girl at the diner with whom Barney Fife cheated on Thelma Lou on more than a few occasions.
What do you think would have been end result of getting to see Consuela, Suzanne Sugarbaker’s maid from Designing Women? Or how about Lars Lindstrom, the wife of Phyllis from the titular Rhoda spinoff? Some characters that have been inserted into the consciousness of the viewing public, but were never seen by them, did eventually make an appearance not just through voice, but through flesh and blood.
In most cases, the results were less than stellar.
Does anybody even remember that another sister was talked about on Empty Nest? Of course, for that matter, one might well ask if anyone even remembers the show Empty Nest at all. Well, if you do recall Empty Nest, do you also recall that Emily was often spoken of, but never seen? At least not until Kristy McNichol left the show and the Empty Nest was just too empty without two sisters. Enter Emily played by Lisa Rieffel. You probably don’t even remember Empty Nest as it was another in the long and depressing list of formulaic comedies churned out by Susan Harris, so as far as those characters who belong to the They Who Must Not Be Seen gaggle of the Faceless, she’s hardly a representative example.
Much like the father of Nanny Fine who, when he was seen, was only seen from the back of his toupee-wearing head, not terribly unlike how the character of George Steinbrenner was always presented on Seinfeld. Steve Lawrence popped up to play Daddy Fine on the show’s final episode, which open the discourse up to debate on the merits of waiting until the series finale to do a big reveal. A gift to loyal viewers or a cynically and usually misplayed stunt? Do you even remember Nanny Fine’s dad showing up on the final episode? Do you even remember she had a dad?
Sometimes shows get it right when they decide to actually show us a character only talked about or whose previous presence was through voice only. Alan Brady was only heard and talked about on the Dick Van Dyke Show for the first season. Then he was given life in the form of the amazingly talented Carl Reiner. Such successes are fleeting and tragic…probably because most actors chosen to give mundane life to a character who has been constructed on a foundation of mystery are no Carl Reiner.
The anti-Alan Brady example has to be what many would probably agree was the most egregious and unforgivable attempt to make a character who had only been talked about for year and years finally come to life. The show was Happy Days. The character was the precocious friend of Joanie Cunningham, Jenny Piccalo. Perhaps the writers of the-by-then-dead show thought they could trap lighting in a bottle for the second time. After all, the owner of Arnold’s drive-in had originated as one of Those Who Must Not Be Seen only to take on unexpected life in the form of a short Japanese man played by the gifted Pat Morita. That attempt to bring life to the Faceless also represents one of the few times when introducing a character previously only talked about made sense.
Since the very start of the run of Happy Days, Joanie Cunningham had talked of her best friend Jenny Piccalo as a true rebel without a cause. Jenny Piccalo represented the anti-Joanie. She was mouthy, she was sexual and she was funny. So how come she wasn’t a memorable character when she was introduced after Happy Day jumped the shark and became travolting? She was brought to life–in a manner of speaking–by the daughter of the hilarious Phil Silvers, so genetics alone should have resulted in some kind of funny. Unfortunately, the Jenny Piccalo we saw was nothing like the Jenny Piccalo we’d heard about for so long.
Too bad. The Completely Mental Misadventures of Jenny Piccalo would have made a much better spinoff than Joanie Love Chachi. But then, what wouldn’t?