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The Animation Retirement Plan

The new fall season is almost upon us, and I think it is time we took a moment to reflect on how fleeting fame can be. As all these young, hip, freshly-scrubbed faces descend upon us through our television screens this autumn -- Breckin Meyer, Donald Faison, Melissa George, Jennifer Garner, Julia McIlvaine, and the rest -- it it would be a good time to sit back and reflect on being a television actor.

These professionals, mostly young, mostly hard-working, are probably relaxing in their trailers right now, sipping imported bottled water and checking the large bowl on the table for any brown M&Ms which slipped by their assistants. They're thinking they've got it pretty good right now, and from here it looks like the world is their oyster. And it is; but it's an oyster which has been in the sun too long. And it's about to go very, very bad.

Because most of their careers will never recover. A steady gig on a TV series might look peachy, but the sad fact is, TV is where most careers go to die. That most of those careers never even lived before is beside the point. Next year or two years from now, you will be hard-pressed to remember these actors' names. You will not be able to recall their faces. And they will never be heard from again.

Not everyone can be Tom Hanks. Not everyone can even manage to be Michael J. Fox, whose career actually looked like it might reach TV escape velocity before it plunged back to the tube. If they're very lucky, if they get all the right breaks and meet all the right people and manage to roll their dice just so, they might end up a Rhea Perlman. A Daniel Stern. A -- dare we say it? -- a Tony Danza.

Otherwise it's back to obscurity for them. Maybe, if their TV series is very popular, they can look forward to a few weeks as the comedy relief in a Broadway revival after Rosie O'Donnell is done chewing through it. Or else it's back to the Kwik-E-Mart, the auto body shop, the high school woodworking class. Because there's no pension for a failed TV star.

But there is one last beacon of hope. One last buoy to cling to before being washed out to the sea of actual work. One final safety net: Animated children's shows.

Did you ever wonder what happened to Dabney Coleman? After his brilliant but audience-depleting turns in Buffalo Bill and The Slap Maxwell Story, after he sank through a few other forgettable shows, good ole Dabney apparently gave up being any good and appeared in horrible things like "Inspector Gadget" and "Stuart Little." In the meantime, though, he's been feeding his family by voicing Principal Prickly on Disney's answer to Nickelodeon, Recess.

When last we saw Allyce Beasley, she was smooching Curtis Armstrong back on Moonlighting. Enough to destroy anyone's career, yes -- but she's right next to Dabney Coleman doing voice work on Recess, too.

We all miss Katey Sagal's polyester pants from Married... with Children. Alas, Katey is not nearly as visible but she is just as high-profile: She's got a great thing going on Futurama, and she's also helped out on -- yes, you guessed it -- Recess.

That show has done a lot to keep faltering sitcom actors in chips & dip, but others are helping out as well. Nickelodeon's hilarious SpongeBob Squarepants has Clancy "Kurgan" Brown. He's managed to burn through a zillion TV series in addition to his only truly memorable role -- in "Highlander," where he got out-acted by Christopher Lambert. If he weren't doing voice work... but, thankfully, he is, and not just on SpongeBob: He's on Jackie Chan's Adventures and a big bodybuilder's armful of other shows.

SpongeBob isn't done yet, either. If there's any erstwhile resident of Sitcomland we still love dearly, it's Bill "Dauber" Fagerbakke from Coach, and he's the voice of Patrick, everyone's favorite pink starfish.

Kipper, one of Nick's British imports, has Julia Sawalha, refugee from the equally British Absolutely Fabulous. Buzz Lightyear of Star Command has an all-quasi-star cast consisting of Patrick Warburton and Wayne Knight (Seinfeld), Stephen Furst (St. Elsewhere, Babylon 5), Nicole Sullivan (Mad TV), Diedrich Bader (The Drew Carey Show), Adam Carolla (The Man Show, Loveline), and Larry Miller (a great many failed sitcoms).

John Ritter, sort of the dead-end career master, is on Clifford. Little Bill stars none other than Gregory Hines (who blew his own self-titled sitcom a few years back) and Phylicia Rashad. Well, Little Bill is produced by Bill Cosby, and apparently he thinks there are no other black actresses deserving of work in Hollywood. Aside from Ruby Dee, who is also on the show, but she'd probably round up Ossie Davis and picket the studio if she weren't included. (Ossie himself won't stoop to TV animation but he will do movies like "Dinosaur.")

Edie McClurg and Henry Gibson pop up on Nick's Rocket Power. Disney's Teacher's Pet is a cornucopia of near-talent: Nathan Lane (Encore! Encore!), Debra Jo Rupp (countless shows, right now That '70s Show), Jerry Stiller (most recently The King of Queens but he's been hanging around forever), David Ogden Stiers ("Better Off Dead" -- er -- M*A*S*H), and Wallace Shawn (Clueless). Tim Curry is inexplicably on The Wild Thornberrys, along with Lacey "Claudia Salinger" Chabert. Ron Glass (from Barney Miller) and Debbie Reynolds (who was in Eddie Fisher and Roseanne) are on Rugrats.

You might think, having run through names like Tim Curry and John Ritter, we have reached what the French call le Bottom of le Heap. But you'd be wrong. Just beginning its run on Nick Jr. is their latest animated creation, a show starring a blue octopus and his friend, a penguin, called Oswald. Bad enough Laraine Newman and Tony Orlando -- yes, that Tony Orlando -- are calling this show home. Worse: Oswald is voiced by Fred Savage, who bubbled up from the wreckage of The Wonder Years only to tear himself to bloody strips on the coral reef that was Working.

But there's worser and then there's worst: The voice of Henry the penguin is David Lander.


I'd write more, but none of you will ever read it, since you'll all be running around the room screaming for the next hour or so.


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