Some of my favorite TV characters were real smarty pants, and thrilled to show that quality to the whole world. More often than not, the characters around them found them insufferable, which was what made them so entertaining and endearing. Arrogant characters get all the best dialogue, because they're more interesting than nice guys.
My first arrogant hero on TV was Professor Charles Kingsfield, played by the great John Houseman, in CBS's version of The Paper Chase.
Houseman was nominated for an Oscar for the movie version; astonishingly, it was his first TV role. Even though the show was aimed at families, the writers did little to soften Kingsfield, which was great, but the show only lasted one season on network TV. Houseman reprised his role in a hilarious episode of another one season show, the sitcom The Associates
, opposite Wilfred Hyde White. Watching these two old nemeses engage in a battle of wits was hilarious. Showtime revived the show a few years later, and it ran for three seasons. Kingsfield's students were terrified of him, but felt the need to impress him. Kingsfield's greatest move was to pretend he didn't remember the name of whomever he was speaking to. In the final episode, James Hart graduated form Harvard Law School, and Kingsfield was permitted a slight smile as he handed over the "paper" of the title.
William Daniels played egomaniacal Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere
, which used a similar teaching scenario to allow Craig to berate and intimidate resident doctors. Unlike the other characters on my list, he often received comeuppance. In later seasons he lost the use of his hands and his wife left him. People love an underdog, even when his bark has bite. Craig was the first in a long line of arrogant surgeons on TV -
- beginning with Mandy Patankin on Chicago Hope
. Patankin was the breakout star of the show, and pulled a David Caruso and left a few episodes into the second season, dooming the series, which struggled without him. He returned for the last season and fired most of the regulars, which was great fun, but it was too late.
Sian Phillips as Livia, wife of Augustus Caesar, on BBC's I, Claudius
, is probably my favorite TV villain. Showtime has been talking about remaking this mini-series, and while it may be fun to see the stories told with a budget, there is no way a remake can match this perfect cast. Mocking Claudius's stutter: "Clau-Clau-Clau..."
Ray Sharky made a comeback from heroin addiction as mobster Sonny Steelgrave in the first arc of Wiseguy.
Sunny was a sympathetic mafioso for much of the show, at his most vulnerable following the murder of his brother. The storyline depicted other mobsters moving in on his territory, and in the two-art finale - right before his downfall - he trumped them all and made himself king...and figured out his right hand man was an undercover FBI agent. Sonny: "Bury him someplace ugly
Ian Richardson played diabolical whip-turned-prime minister Francis Urqhart in three BBC mini-series, beginning with House of Cards
. The US version starring Kevin Spacey is fine, but the original is better, and Richardson is amazing. Defining dialogue: "You night well think so; I couldn't possibly comment."
Bonus bastard: Paul McCrane played egomaniacal record producer Johnny Medley on Wiseguy
, and an egomaniacal surgeon in the Dr. Craig mold on E.R
Degrees of arrogant separation: John Houseman was a longtime collaborator of the brilliant actor Norman Lloyd, who played kindly Dr. Auschlander on St. Elsewhere
. James Stephens, who played law student Hart on The Paper Chase
, played a younger version of Auschlander in a brilliant two-part flashback episode of Elsewhere
. Kevin Spacey is the second best Francis Urqhart, and the second best villain on Wiseguy
: he was fantastic as arms merchant Mel Profitt.
Missing arrogance: House and Sherlock would surely have made my list if I ever watched them, although I understand Sherlock has softened Holmes in its third season.