A sitcom's success depends on the strength of the main characters, but the supporting roles are key, too. The best sitcom sidekicks might be friends, business partners, family members, romantic interests, or sometimes enemies. Some supporting actors might appear in every episode, while others may show up just a handful of times. But no matter how often they appear, sitcom sidekicks leave a lasting impression on the viewer.
Here are some behind-the-scenes stories about actors who have played some of the most memorable supporting roles in sitcom history - from the young son on I Love Lucy to the awkward, intrusive mayor of Schitt's Creek.
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Ratzenberger lived in London in the 1970s, where he began his career in show business as part of the improvisational comedy duo Sal's Meat Market. According to his comedy partner, Ray Hackett, the duo "built characters and situations based on our experiences growing up in blue-collar America." The act broke up in 1977, and Ratzenberger later used his improvisational skills to create the role of Cliff Clavin in Cheers.
He auditioned for another role, but at the end asked the show's creators, "Do you have a bar know-it-all?" They didn't, so he performed a five-minute improv showcasing his idea, complete with a Boston accent. The show's creators loved it. Cliff Clavin was created, with Ratzenberger cast in the role.
The actor ended up playing the postman/bar regular for 11 seasons; Cliff was one of four characters who appeared in every show during the series' run. The actor told The Hollywood Reporter how his character evolved:
In the beginning, Cliff was more a font of knowledge. Coach (Nick Colasanto), his character was always amazed at how brilliant Cliff was. I enjoyed playing the character because it really comes from the premise that, if you say something with enough authority, people will believe you. So I always got a chuckle out of that. And then later, down the line, Cliff became less of a perceived expert [and more] as someone who just interrupted conversations, who was more of an annoyance.
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Keith Thibodeaux, AKA Richard Keith, was just 4 years old when his father took him to audition for the role of Little Ricky on I Love Lucy. Despite his young age, he was already a talented drummer who got his start in show business on the Horace Heidt variety show. In 2015, Thibodeaux spoke to ABC News about his audition:
I walked on the set and there was Lucy... She said, "Okay, he's cute, but what does he do?" My dad said, "Well, he plays the drums," and she said, "Oh, come on - I can't believe that." Then, she says, "Look, we have a drum set over there; go ahead and let him play." Eventually, Desi Arnaz himself came over and started jamming with me on the drums, and then he kind of stood up and said, "Well, I think we found Little Ricky."
He ended up playing the part in more than 35 episodes. Off-screen, Thibodeaux said, Ball and Arnaz treated him as if he were part of their real family:
Lucy was naturally very motherly to me, and Desi kind of made me feel at ease - that was his role. They were very generous towards me, and I was best friends with their children. Whenever I was over there, Desi would give his kids gifts and he'd never leave me out - whether it was customized bowling balls or LA Rams jerseys, he'd give me the same thing.
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After Wearing A Pillow Under His Shirt In Season 1, Chris Elliott Had A Prosthetic Belly Made For His 'Schitt's Creek' Character In Season 2
In Schitt's Creek, Chris Elliott played Roland Schitt, the intrusive mayor who is initially an antagonist but becomes a friend of Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy). In one interview, the actor, also known for the comedic sketches he wrote and appeared in on The Late Show with David Letterman, joked about why he was cast in the part: "Roland is a guy who has blinders on, so he really just, you know, thinks a lot about himself. So, I guess he's kind of narcissistic in that way. And I think that's why I was cast because it's so natural to me."
Elliott is, however, unlike his character in another way: Roland dresses in clothes that emphasize the fact that he has a beer belly, which Elliott does not. So, instead of the actor putting on weight, he improvised. In the first season, he wore a pillow under his clothes. But for the second (and subsequent) seasons of the show, he had a prosthetic stomach made for him.
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Although Larry Thomas had acted in theater, he didn't have much experience on TV or in films before playing the "Soup Nazi" on Seinfeld. Jeffrey Tambor, a substitute teacher for an acting class Thomas took, set up a meeting for him with the casting director for The Larry Sanders Show - and Seinfeld. The casting director asked about his ability to do different dialects because Seinfeld often cast actors who needed that skill. Shortly after the meeting, his agent said Seinfeld wanted him to audition for a role with a Middle Eastern accent.
In a video interview with Jane Wells, Thomas explained that he "had an image of this guy pushing a cart down the streets of New York with soup in it. And he's like in an Army uniform. He's just some really crazy, militant guy who was in the Army or whatever." He patterned his Middle Eastern accent after Omar Sharif's voice in Lawrence of Arabia. A friend who was a stand-up comedian asked Thomas to improvise when the actor told him he didn't know if he'd have sides to read at the audition. So Thomas came up with:
You, small fry! You, yes... the bald one. I don't like your looks. Go to the end of my line or no soup!
His friend told him he really liked the "no soup" line. When Thomas went to the audition, he was surprised to find a "no soup for you" line in one of the scenes. A few weeks later he got a callback to read for Jerry Seinfeld and the producers. Seinfeld, he said, was "laughing his fool head off," even when Thomas realized he had to read scenes he hadn't looked at yet. Seinfeld then told him:
"You know, what you did was really funny, man, it was really funny, but I don't understand why you made the character so mean. So could you do it again and, y'know, give it a little bit of this, be a little nicer in some spots."
The second time around went badly. No one laughed at anything the actor did. So Thomas thought he had blown it. But just as he was about to leave, he got a call from his agent telling him he had gotten the role and needed to report to the set later that afternoon. And he ended up playing the role the way he had conceptualized it.
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Maggie Wheeler Came Up With Janice's Memorable Nasally Voice On 'Friends'
Maggie Wheeler played Janice, Chandler Bing's on-and-off girlfriend on Friends. Although Wheeler is a New York City native, in real life she sounds nothing like her nasally voiced character, as she told Digital Spy in 2014:
I grew up surrounded by every sound that you imagine can come from a New Yorker. All of the different boroughs and all of the different sounds. Janice is kind of an amalgamation of people that I had come in contact with in my life. When I saw the script and it said "fast-talking New Yorker," and I looked at the language, I just thought, "Oh, yeah, I know this girl, she talks like this." When I went into the audition that is what I did - for better or worse!
Wheeler worried she'd blown the audition when she saw the reaction of the show's creators and producer: "Everybody sort of moved back, and I thought, 'Oh, dear, I think I've made the wrong choice - they're mortified at what I've done to their writing!' But really, that's not what happened. They were excited about it."
Janice ended up being one of the most popular recurring characters on the show and was one of the few supporting actors who appeared at least once in every season of the series. Wheeler told Digital Spy her appearances on the show were always kept a secret from the live studio audience until the last possible moment. On one episode, "the audience was so incredibly shocked that the reaction went on for [what] felt like 10 minutes."
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Wil Wheaton first appeared on The Big Bang Theory during Season 3, playing a version of himself: an enemy Sheldon can't forgive because the Star Trek: The New Generation actor failed to make an appearance at a Star Trek convention he attended as a child. But eventually, Wheaton became part of the scientist's group of friends.
During an appearance on Larry King, Wheaton said one of the writers on The Big Bang Theory invited him to a taping after seeing the actor's tweets about how much he loved the show. A few days later, he got an email asking him to meet with the showrunner to discuss making a guest appearance: "He said, 'We're looking for a nemesis for Sheldon, and I wonder if you'd be interested in playing a delightfully evil version of yourself?'"
After he became a recurring character, the writers made him less evil and more of an ally to Sheldon, but Wheaton said it was "always more fun" to play the villain. He told TV Insider:
When we started to transition from that Wil Wheaton... being a villain to ally and part of the “friend” group, he started to become more like who I am. That was an adjustment. First, I had to adjust to being a villain to, basically, being myself. It took me about 10 years, but I could finally make that separation and be comfortable about being a heightened version of myself.