LEVINE: Small screen produces big stars

The Old Rocker

From left, Andy Griffith and Howard Morris are pictured in a scene from “The Andy Griffith Show.” (Special photo)

From left, Andy Griffith and Howard Morris are pictured in a scene from “The Andy Griffith Show.” (Special photo)

The history of television is inundated with performers who were superstars. Besides those whose stars shined brightly on the small screen, there were those who gained recognition playing subordinate and limited roles.


Barry Levine

In many cases, their real names are unknown to TV watchers.

Take the case of Howard Morris.

Howard who?

While the name Howard Morris, a classically trained Shakespearean actor, is probably not familiar to most TV fans, his character, Ernest T. Bass on “The Andy Griffith Show,” certainly is.

Ernest T. was an uneducated mountain man who had a knack for causing problems for Sheriff Andy Taylor, Deputy Barney Fife and the fictitious town of Mayberry, N.C. Ernest T. would greet Mayberryans by saying, “It’s me, it’s me, it’s Ernest T.”

The scruffy and rude Bass character appeared in five of the show’s episodes. And those five episodes are among the show’s most memorable.

In one episode, Andy tried to make Ernest T. into a gentleman in order to take him to a party given by Mrs. Wiley. His line, when introduced to the hostess, was “How do you do, Mrs. Wi-lee?” The line worked, but the transformation of Ernest T. didn’t.

In another show, the Mayberry troublemaker wanted to marry mountain man Briscoe Darling’s daughter, Charlene, even though she already was married to Dud Wash. The Darlings decided to hold a fake wedding, leading Ernest T. to concoct a plan to steal the bride. Unbeknownst to Ernest T., the “bride” was Barney in disguise and not Charlene.

In another episode, Ernest T. wanted to impress Ramona, his love interest, by getting an education, so he was placed in the kindergarten class at the local school. He was given a diploma — “for learning.”

While Morris earned his reputation portraying Ernest T. Bass, Allan Melvin made his imprint through multiple TV roles, including stints on “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Melvin got his TV break in his role as Cpl. Steven Henshaw, conniving Master Sgt. Ernest Bilko’s right-hand man on “The Phil Silvers Show” that aired from 1955 to 1959. The show was set at Fort Baxter, a U.S. Army post in Kansas.

During the 1960s, Melvin appeared on “The Andy Griffith Show” in eight episodes, all in different roles and usually as a heavy.

He returned to his military roots in his 16-episode stint as Staff Sgt. Charlie Hacker on “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” which ran from 1964 to 1969.

Also during the 1960s, Melvin appeared in eight episodes as Sol Pomerantz on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which ran from 1961 to 1966.

Melvin also had a recurring role in “The Brady Bunch” as Sam Franklin, owner of a local butcher shop and Alice’s boyfriend. Alice served as the Brady’s outgoing housekeeper. The show ran from 1969 to 1974.

The noted character actor also played Barney Hefner, Archie Bunker’s neighbor, friend and confidant, in “All in the Family,” appearing in 25 of the show’s 209 episodes during its run from 1971 to 1979.

Melvin had an expanded role in “Archie Bunker’s Place,” the successor to “All in the Family.” He appeared in 60 of the show’s 97 episodes, which aired from 1979 to 1983.

G.W. Bailey is another actor who played subordinate roles in multiple series.

He got his first recurring TV role playing Staff Sgt. Luther Rizzo, a pool hall con artist, in “M*ASH” from 1979 to 1981.

Bailey then played Dr. Hugh Beale on “St. Elsewhere” in 1982 and 1983. He followed by playing lieutenant and then Capt. Thaddeus Harris in the series of “Police Academy” movies.

In 1996 and 1997, Bailey had a recurring role in “The Jeff Foxworthy Show” as “Big Jim” Foxworthy.

Bailey returned to television in 2005 as crusty Lt. Louis Provenza on the TNT show “The Closer,” which starred Kyra Sedgwick. When the show ended its run in August 2012, “Major Crimes” succeeded it the following week with the cast remaining virtually intact with the exception of Mary McDonnell, who replaced Sedgwick as the star of the drama series about a Los Angeles Police Department’s murder unit.

Long before there was an Ernest T. Bass, Steven Henshaw/Sam the Butcher/Barney Hefner and Luther Rizzo/Louis Provenza, there was Uncle Tonoose.

Character actor Hans Conried played Uncle Tonoose, Danny Williams’ eccentric Lebanese uncle, on “Make Room for Daddy” from 1953 to 1957 and then on “The Danny Thomas Show” from 1957 to 1964.

The series was based on Thomas’ experiences as a standup comedian and father who tried to juggle his career and his responsibilities as a husband and parent.

Every time a major problem arose in the Williams family, the bombastic Uncle Tonoose, the family patriarch, would travel from his Toledo, Ohio, home to New York with his goat cheese to help resolve the issue.

Tonoose’s Lebanese heritage was selected in order to pay homage to Thomas’ roots, as both of his parents were from Lebanon.

While Conried appeared in guest roles in more than 45 series during his career, he will be most remembered for playing Uncle Tonoose.

Barry Levine writes about entertainment for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at dot0001@yahoo.com.