The Truth Behind TV’s Most Iconic Side Characters

Byron Fast

“There are no small roles, just small actors.” This famous quote—used to make an actor feel good about having only a few lines—can also refer to the character that shows up from time to time on our favorite TV shows. They are the mortar to the bricks who are the stars of the series. But once in a while, we enter a backward universe where these recurring characters become more of a draw than the main ones. You look forward to their appearance on your favorite show, but honestly, you have no clue what their name is. These are the recurring characters of popular television, and it’s time you got to know them.


1. She Owned These Three Words

One of the most famous of all recurring characters on TV is the one that precedes almost all of her entrances with three, sometimes soul-destroying, words: “Oh My God”. Of course, I’m talking about Janice on Friends. Actor Maggie Wheeler had a difficult task—making a very needy woman with an incredibly annoying nasal voice actually likable.

Well…let’s define likable. She was the one you had to love disliking.

2. She Came Through Loud And Clear

Audiences, and the creators of Friends, seemed to love Janice and they just kept bringing her back. It’s hard to define Janice’s best moment: her nasal version of “My Funny Valentine,” her outrageous reaction to her pet hair allergy, or Janice in labor—wow, that was loud. Janice, with all the regular characters avoiding her, still somehow managed to bed both Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Ross (David Schwimmer).

When she nasally announced that Joey (Matt LeBlanc) was next, for some morbid reason, I really hoped it was true. Aside from playing Janice on Friends, Maggie Wheeler’s career sounds like a study in missed opportunities.

3. She Missed Out

Wheeler obviously nailed the audition for Janice, but she actually missed out on playing some pretty unforgettable characters. Wheeler tried out for both Debra Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond and the Kathy Griffin role on Suddenly Susan. She also lost her job on Ellen after just one season. Wheeler recently admitted on TikTok her one complaint about her time on Friends: she thinks Janice and Chandler should’ve walked off into the sunset together.

Here’s another recurring romantic partner who probably walked off into the sunset very much alone.

4. He Was The Beeper King

Liz Lemon, Tina Fey’s character in 30 Rock, had her share of man trouble, but no one caused her more grief than on-again-off-again boyfriend Dennis Duffy, AKA the Beeper King. It seemed that once a year, Duffy, played by Dean Winters, would surface with a new scheme to make money that was more ridiculous than the one before.

He once even tried to throw Liz under a subway train for a completely selfish reason—to reap the rewards of being a hero. This, however, wasn’t the first time Winters had played a bad boyfriend.

5. A Career Playing Annoying

Back in season 2 of Sex And The City, Winters played John McFadden, Carrie’s “friend with benefits”. It turned out that McFadden had only one benefit—and that was in the bedroom. When Carrie, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, tried to take the relationship to the next level, she got a rude surprise. McFadden was a bundle of true annoyance.

It seems that Winters excels at annoying people—he did the same while locked up in the prison drama Oz. At least there, there were no women to torment.

6. They Threw Him Out

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Jazz was also a fan favorite, but also an annoying suitor to Hilary. Jazz was so annoying that his recurring shtick was receiving a not so gentle toss out of the house. It became an almost ritual occurrence. Jazz, played by DJ Jazzy Jeff, tended to get into trouble with Smith’s uncle and ended up being hoisted out the front door.

But, if you look closely at the scenes where Jazz gets the toss out of the house, you might notice something weird.

7. They Wanted To Save Money

Most of the time Uncle Phil tosses Jazz out of the house, there is something suspicious. He’s wearing the exact same clothes. There’s a reason for this and it’s typical for Hollywood—it was to save money. The producers didn’t want to go to the trouble of going to the exterior location every time Jazz got the toss, so they just used the same exterior clip.

A real giveaway is the sprinkler going off at the exact moment every time. But there was something else bizarre about Jazz In Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

8. It Was Meta Before There Was Meta

As many people know, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air starred Will Smith playing…er…Will Smith. But did you know that Smith’s real best friend played his TV best friend? Before there was the show, there was DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. They were a recording duo whose popularity led to the creation of the popular 90s sitcom. In fact, it was DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince who performed the opening theme song, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”.

And speaking of meta, here’s a sitcom that used a real person as a source for a recurring character.

9. We Only Saw His Backside

Strangely, there’s more than one recurring character on this list that was actually a real person. 1990s sitcom Seinfeld had George Steinbrenner, a hilarious character based on the real-life New York Yankees owner known for his over-the-top statements. On the show, we only ever see Steinbrenner from behind, but his rants have become famous: from delicious calzones to a brother-in-law with an obsession for lactating women.

There was, however, something strange about the casting of this iconic character.

10. The Picked Him From Behind

Seinfeld co-creator Larry David knew he wanted to voice the character of Steinbrenner, but he realized he didn’t have the right build to be the body. The audition for the body of Steinbrenner soon began—and it was an odd one. They lined the actors up against a wall, and then asked them to do something strange: turn around. The actor who most resembled Steinbrenner from behind was the winner, and it was a man named Lee Bear.

To shoot the scenes, Bear simply reacted and gestured to match whatever David was saying. It was as simple as that. Playing a role on the mega-popular Seinfeld—even a non-speaking one—should have jump-started Bear’s career. Well…not quite.

11. He Got Cut

Because of an odd union rule, Bear didn’t receive any credit for being the body of Steinbrenner. Bear tried to have a career in movies after his stint on Seinfeld, but it never really happened. He worked on a film called I Am On Film but his scenes all ended up on the cutting room floor—making the title a rather harsh burn.

If you think it was strange to never see Steinbrenner’s face, this next character you never see at all.

12. You Never Saw Him

You wouldn’t recognize his face, but what about his voice? In 1974, when Rhoda spun off from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the creators wanted a clever gimmick for her doorman. Rhoda, played by Valerie Harper, had just moved back to New York City, and the show’s creators wanted to make a joke about doormen in the big bad city.

Carlton was never seen, but his voice—provided by Lorenzo Music—was enough to send audience members into peals of laughter.

13. His Voice Said It All

Every time Rhoda’s intercom buzzed, Carlton would answer in exactly the same way: “This is Carlton your doorman”—as if he always needed an introduction. It was also Music’s voice that worked. He had the perfect tone of complete disinterest that allowed you to picture exactly what he looked like. Well, that lazy voice turned out to be a huge moneymaker for Music.

He became the official voice of another lazy character: Garfield. Music gave the voice to the lasagna-loving cat in animated TV shows and commercials from 1988 to 2001.

14. He Knows The Hottest New York Clubs

Saturday Night Live has no shortage of recurring characters, but there’s one that fans seem to almost beg to see on the little screen: “city correspondent” Stefon. Stefon appears alongside Seth Meyers on Weekend Update to give recommendations to tourists visiting the Big Apple. The problem is that Stefon only seems to know about the most outrageous, family-unfriendly events that have the most bizarrely specific themes.

15. It’s Always The Craziest

Stefon’s description always starts the same: “New York’s hottest club is…” and always includes examples of security (“jacked up homeless guys in period swimming costumes”), patrons (“groups of guys with fros in graduation caps”), and entertainers (“a 300-pound Chinese baby deejay”). None of it is meant to make sense, but the joke is about how most tourists to New York don’t really want to know the real New York—or at least not Stefon’s New York.

Stefon’s outrageous lines are, however, only half the fun.

16. He Tries Not To Laugh

It’s Bill Hader, a confessed nightclub hater, who plays Stefon. Part of the love for this character comes from seeing if Hader can get through the segment without dissolving into laughter. The reason this is difficult says a lot about how SNL is created. You see, because it’s written at the last minute, Hader often doesn’t know what’s going to be on the teleprompter for the segment.

So, when Hader is reading as Stefon, some of these almost random-sounding descriptions of Big Apple parties are news to him, as well as to the audience. Hader seemed born to play Stefon, but the character is actually the brainchild of two SNL writers.

17. It Was A Frankenstein Situation

Stefon is actually the amalgamation of two real-life people. SNL writer and actor/comedian John Mulaney knew a guy who would always tell him about, and beg him to go to, the most outrageous New York nightclubs. Unfortunately, the guy was a bit of a bore as a person, so they needed a new inspiration for the personality. This idea came from a barista that often served Hader coffee.

Hader copied the cafe worker’s dress and mannerisms to a T. Let’s just hope the poor guy never recognized himself. SNL’s Stefon had a real-life inspiration, these next recurring characters may also seem familiar: they’re your parents.

18. Meet The Parents

A tough, but probably rewarding task is casting the parents for the main characters on beloved TV shows. One show that was amazing at it was Friends. Ross and Monica Geller certainly had their hang-ups—Monica was a complete control freak and Ross…well, he had a lot of wives. So, it was hilarious to see where these two kids came from: enter Jack and Judy Geller.

These two apparently kind-hearted souls were actually nightmare parents who every son or daughter could relate to.

19. They Played Favorites

Jack and Judy Geller break one of the most fundamental parenting rules: favoring one child over the other. They give Ross over-the-top praise for his academic skill—there’s a shrine of his trophies in their house—and expect Monica to go nowhere. They even spend Monica’s wedding money on a new beach house—cause they expected that she’d never find a man.

Unfortunately for the kids, they break another parenting rule: as you get older, you should be less amorous.

20. They Loved To Do It

It’s refreshing to see an aging couple still going strong in the bedroom—if only Jack and Judy could keep it there. When they’re in London, there’s a reference to Judy “riding the tube” that has another meaning. Once at a party at their own house, Monica, who’s hiding behind a shower curtain, has the unfortunate experience of listening to her parents doing it.

Her numb expression walking away from the scene is absolutely priceless—she knows she can’t “unhear” that. But who were the actors behind these incredible roles?

21. The Real Deals

British-American actress Christina Pickles played Judy Geller—she received an Emmy nomination for her work on the sitcom. Eliot Gould, who was once married to Barbra Streisand, played Jack. Gould starred in the 1970 film M*A*S*H, which inspired another hit TV show. If you want to see where Jack got his bedroom appetite from, check out Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice: a 1969 film about wife-swapping.

The creators of Friends seemed to have a thing for parents with strong libidos. Well, hang on to your hat, cause here comes Chandler’s mom.

22. This Apple Fell Far From The Tree

Chandler while side-splittingly funny, was meant to be the boring one of the group, with his sad cardigans and even sadder job in data processing. When it came to casting his mother, the creators decided to go to the extreme opposite—with hilarious results. So, what’s the opposite of boring, cardigan-wearing Chandler Bing?

A hot mom who writes romance novels and lives like she’s the starring character.

23. She Was A Hot Mom

Nora Bing is about as comfortable talking about action in the bedroom as Chandler isn’t—which is the source for most of their tension. The creators made a brilliant move by casting gorgeous soap star Morgan Fairchild—who had already made a career playing beautiful, driven women—as Mrs. Bing. Fairchild is still working today, mostly in TV movies and reality shows.

And here’s an odd fact: she claims to have been an abduction victim—twice. While Chandler and his mom seemed from different planets, this next parent was the spitting image.

24. They Looked The Same

Of all the characters on Modern Family, Phil Dunphy was probably the most lovable. Phil is a man-boy who inexplicably has equal measures of both low and super high self-esteem. When it came to casting his father, it was vital to get it right. Show creators brought in Fred Willard to fill the shoes of Frank Dunphy, and they couldn’t have picked a better stand-in father. First of all, the resemblance was amazing.

But it was something else that made him the perfect choice. He was just as goofy and good-natured as Phil. But the creators of the show didn’t stop there.

25. She’s Completely Aggressive

Another parent they got right on Modern Family is Claire and Mitchell’s mother DeDe. It was great to see Cheers’ most famous bar waitress, Shelley Long’s Diane, back on the small screen. DeDe is a hilarious extension of the character Long played on Cheers. While Diane was artsy and uptight, DeDe is artsy and a flake…until she becomes dangerously aggressive. Then it’s every man, woman, and child for themselves.

26. She Tried To Ruin It

In DeDe’s first episode we see a flashback of her ex-husband’s second wedding. It’s a great introduction to DeDe, as she full-on tries to ruin the entire wedding. She drinks too much, makes rude toasts, and tries to destroy the cake. We also learn about one of her biggest fights with her ex—because he taped over her episode of Dallas. It all adds up to a complete train wreck of a character—kept lively and likable by the expert Long.

27. She Likes To Duke It Out

Another part of the fun with Long’s DeDe is her relationship with her ex-husband’s new wife Gloria—played by Sofia Vergara. DeDe sees Gloria as nothing more than the gorgeous trophy wife that her ex replaced her with. But what DeDe can’t stand is when she realizes that Gloria is much more than just a trophy and the two are actually in love.

This tends to send DeDe into a rage and…well…usually a fight breaks out. Some parents just aren’t up to the task of raising their kids, so a parent substitute has to step in. In the case of this next show, the parent substitute is a ghost.

28. He “Lives” In The Attic

When Big Mouth’s Nick Birch, voiced by Nick Kroll, needs advice that his overly open-minded parents just aren’t capable of giving, he goes up to the attic to talk to Duke Ellington. Wait, Ellington, as in the 1920s jazz musician? Well, sure. Ellington appears as a ghost that lives in the Birch’s attic. Duke, like most of the characters on this one-track mind sitcom, has an obsession with all things “bedroom-y”.

There is, however, something mysterious you may not know about this ghost.

29. He’s A Real Horror

The voice for the ghost of Duke Ellington is none other than Jordan Peele. Peele directed one of the most talked-about horror movies of 2017: Get Out. For that film, he won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and nominations for directing and best picture. And Peele’s wife? She’s Chelsea Peretti, who plays Gina Linetti on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Besides parents and parent substitutes, there’s another terrifying source of recurring characters: villains.

30. He Got Hungry

1997’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer had most of its fun with its outrageous collection of vampires and demons. The series regulars were great, but so were some of the recurring ones. One favorite was a vampire named Trick played with glee by K. Todd Freeman. Trick, unlike some other vampires, was hopelessly dependent on modern conveniences.

In one particularly gruesome moment, Trick gets hungry and uses the drive-through at a fast-food outlet to order a burger—and then feeds on the helpless attendant as an afterthought. Trick had no desire to live in the past, and there was a good reason for that.

31. He Wasn’t Welcome

Trick, being a vampire of color, had first-hand historical knowledge of feeling unwelcome in certain places. There’s one scene where the mayor of Sunnydale suggests Trick is not welcome in his small town—because he’s a vampire. Trick cleverly gives the mayor’s comment a double meaning and responds: “If this is the part where you tell me that I don’t fit in here in your quiet little neighborhood, you can just skip it. ‘Cause, see, that got old long before I became a vampire, if you know what I’m saying.” Snap.

While this next TV villain may not bite you in the neck, she may really hurt your feelings.

32. She Stood Out

Because TV’s Glee boasted a large—and brightly dressed—cast, it was difficult for recurring characters to actually stand out. Enter Lauren Potter as Becky Jackson. It’s true, Potter has Down syndrome, but when she played the evil minion of Sue Sylvester, Jane Lynch, you soon forgot about that and just kept waiting for her deadpan one-liners.

While Potter may have played tough on TV, her real-life was something different.

33. She’s Avoided The Curse

While the Glee curse continues to wreak havoc on major cast members from Glee—three so far have passed in tragic circumstances—Potter’s life has been spared. Luckily, she’s been busy fighting for her many causes and working with the Special Olympics. Potter is still active and making speeches across America. While Potter’s Becky may have been a minion for the evil Sylvester, this next villain was in it for one person only: himself.

34. He’s The Perfect Villain

Every superhero needs an arch-nemesis. While 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is only a superhero of business, his nemesis, Devon Banks is as complex and evil as the Joker. First off, Banks, played with absolute glee by Will Arnett, seems to have no morals whatsoever about business. He even tempts Jack, who has heart issues, with steak to see if it will take him down. Thankfully, like all villains, Banks has a weakness.

35. He Has A Weakness

When Donaghy finds out that Banks is gay, he hilariously states that it makes Banks even more powerful than he’d thought before. Banks’ weakness is not that he is gay, but that he has feelings for Kenneth Purcell: the smooth-skinned but simple-minded NBC page played by Jack McBrayer. Banks seems to lose all his business acumen when Purcell in his snug-fitting page uniform is in the picture, and it’s hilarious to watch Banks sink into his desires.

36. He Has No Morals

Once Devon Banks manages to control his attraction to Purcell, he’s even willing to give up being gay. In a heartless career move, he marries the daughter of the CEO at GE: Kathy Geiss. Sure, Purcell was simple-minded, but Geiss makes him look like Einstein. It is pure joy to watch Banks do whatever it takes to succeed in business.

In real life, Arnett received four nominations for his role as Devon Banks. Playing a gay villain proved to be comedic gold for Arnett.

37. She’s Easily Distracted

Fans of The Good Wife know it’s going to be an interesting episode when lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni is on the roster.  Tascioni, played by Carrie Preston, comes across as someone with some kind of attention deficit problem. During important meetings,  Tascioni’s eyes ultimately lock on to something appealing: someone’s jewelry, hairstyle, or really, anything that’s shiny.

This leads her to ask inappropriate, or at least time-wasting, questions. But there’s a reason behind it. The puzzling thing about  Tascioni is that half of the questions seem to end up helping with the case, while the others…well, I guess they were just distractions.

38. She Took A Bite

Before The Good Wife, Preston easily caught viewers’ attention in the bloodthirsty vampire cult hit: True Blood. Before and after her leading role in True Blood, she has appeared in what I can only describe as zillions of TV shows. It seems that her role as  Tascioni had brought her the most fame, including loads of nominations for awards and a guest actress Emmy win.

She has also directed some episodes of the sequel to The Good Wife, The Good Fight. Tascioni may have fought the good fight for her clients, these next characters fought it for all Americans.

39. They Came As Three

For ardent conspiracy theorists, some of the best X-Files episodes contained the Lone Gunmen. This trio of “counterculture patriots” appeared in several episodes of the sci-fi series and took their name from the Warren Commission’s belief that there was just one person working alone to assassinate President John F. Kennedy.

They generally showed up to help when Mulder or Scully needed some computer hacking done to solve a mystery.

40. They Didn’t Look Right

One thing that made this trio a little creepy was that they all looked so different. I guess you could call them the Village People of computer hacking. Bruce Harwood’s John Fitzgerald Byers was always well-groomed and looked a bit like an accountant. Dean Haglund’s Richard Langley, on the other hand, with his albino-type features, came off like a skateboarder. The oldest of the three, Melvin Frohike, played by Tom Braidwood, looked like an action figure—complete with combat boots and fingerless gloves.

The three were completely incongruous and it just made them even more mysterious. It turns out, however, that there was some actual intrigue behind the scenes. 

41. They Were Suspicious

First of all, isn’t it strange that all three actors aren’t even American? As it turns out, Harwood, Haglund, and Braidwood are all from Canada. Stranger still was what happened in their short-lived spin-off series, The Lone Gunmen. On March 4, 2001, they aired an episode where some members of the US government remotely took control of an airliner that departed from Boston.

And what was the plan for the airplane? Eerily, they were going to crash it into the World Trade Center. This was six months before the 9/11 tragedy. This was a clear example of life imitating art. But how about art imitating life?

42. He Needed A Lawyer

In season seven of Seinfeld, Cosmo Kramer—Michael Richards—burns himself with a latte and needs a lawyer. He hires Jackie Chiles, a very excitable solicitor with a penchant for using a comically large vocabulary. Chiles calls Kramer’s problems with the coffee, “outrageous, egregious, preposterous”. In season eight, Chiles describes Kramer’s face as “sallow, unattractive, disgusting”. I guess the idea is: why use one word when you can use three?

Besides the verbose vocabulary, there was something else strange about this case and this TV lawyer.

43. The Case Was Real

First of all, the idea of Kramer burning himself with a latte came from a real case where a McDonald’s customer sued the company for coffee that was too hot. The iconic case shined a light on the American justice system. People used it as an example of the desire to sue for ridiculous reasons. But there was more to the case than meets the eye.

In the real-life case, the coffee really was way too hot, and it caused severe damage to the plaintiff in the case. The media then villainized her, regardless. But there was something else about this episode that was ripped from a headline.

44. He Seemed Familiar

It wasn’t just the story that seemed a little familiar to many viewers: it was also Kramer’s lawyer. The character, played by Phillip Morris, first appeared on Seinfeld around the same time as the almost never-ending OJ Simpson murder trial was on every TV in America. The creators of the show wanted to parody real-life lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who was defending Simpson.

They named the fictional lawyer Jackie Chiles—the same initials as the real one—and gave him the same straight out of a thesaurus vocabulary that Cochran was famous for. It was a gold mine for Morris—until everything went wrong.

45. He Took It Too Far

The real lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, didn’t seem to mind that Morris and Seinfeld were parodying him. But when Seinfeld ended, Morris decided to milk his impersonation for all it was worth. Morris appeared as Cochran in commercials for both the Honda Odyssey and Diet Dr Pepper. That was the moment when Cochran decided that Morris had crossed a line.

Eventually, Morris received a strongly worded letter from Cochran asking this recurring character actor to cease and desist. Morris’ easy money gig had come to a sad end.

46. He Was A Big Presence

HBO’s The Wire had a huge cast, but there was one recurring character that kept getting picked out by critics as the one they loved to watch. Omar Little, brilliantly played by Michael K Williams, was a Robin Hood-type character on the show. He often took money from drug dealers, and he did also on occasion help the detectives. The fact that Little was gay—a tad unusual for a tough guy gangster—was certainly an interesting side bar, but it was Williams’ humor and intelligence that made us love Omar Little.

47. He Was Simply The Best

It’s almost impossible to overstate the accolades Williams, who’d previously been a backup dancer for Madonna, received for his work on The Wire—they even came from the White House. Actually, Barack Obama was not quite president when he said that The Wire was his favorite TV show and that Omar Little was his favorite character.

USA Today put him on a list of the “10 reasons we still love television.” Sadly, playing Omar Little caused Williams to take a dark turn. 

48. It Got Too Real

When Williams was portraying Little, he got deeply into his character—maybe a bit too deep. When he was playing the role, he wanted everyone to call him Omar, even off the set. He did something even weirder—he started a drug habit he hadn’t had before. A ministry helped him kick the habit, but, as it turned out, not completely.

Sadly, in 2021, Williams died due to an accidental overdose.

49. He Was Supposed To Stay In The Background

Perhaps TV’s most famous recurring character came about only by chance. James Michael Taylor got the call from his agent to appear as an extra in a brand new sitcom called Friends, which was filming in front of a live audience. Likely, Taylor was not that excited as he was trying to be a real actor—with actual lines of dialogue.

The night before he was to start the show, his hairdresser friend came over and the two started experimenting with peroxide. That’s when something clearly went wrong.

50. He Tried To Blend In

To his horror, Tayor woke up the next morning with blazing white hair. He wasn’t sure how the producers would feel about it and, hoping to go unnoticed, he got behind the counter at Central Perk and prepared to be a non-speaking extra as per his contract. Episode after episode, Taylor’s blonde hair kept drawing the interest of the audience and the makers of the show.

One day, Taylor noticed the producers staring at him, and wondered if he was going to lose his job.

51. They Called Him Over

Eventually, the creators of the show called Taylor over and made his dreams come true: they gave him a line and even a name: Gunther. Flaxen-haired Gunther soon developed a major crush on Rachel, and he became the unofficial seventh friend. Taylor’s Gunther had another distinction: he was the Friends recurring character with the most appearances.

Sadly, Taylor passed on in 2021.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34

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