Casting famous actors to play characters’ parents on television shows has long been the medium’s equivalent of the Pointing Leonardo Dicaprio meme: It gets audiences to sit up, pay attention and maybe send out a Tweet or two about this fun appearance. It’s also frequently a nice way for the show to score some attention from Emmy voters.
“I think there’s a good point where it begins and then it really moves forward in the ‘90s,” with shows like Will & Grace and Friends, says Ron Simon, head of the curatorial department at The Paley Center for Media in New York.
Now, he says, “you almost have to do it now if you create a sitcom.” Although, dramas are not immune either.
But what are some of the best examples of how well this trend can work? We’ve rounded up a short list:
“In many ways, stunt casting is a way to get your audience to tune in. But it’s also a way that the producers and stars can pay homage to the actors who sort of laid the foundation for the shows they’re doing,” says Simon. He says it was probably the latter that was at work when it came to casting respected comedic actress Card as Lucy Ricardo’s (Lucille Ball) daffy mother on I Love Lucy (after she’d already appeared on the sitcom in another part).
Similarly, he says, casting Nanette Fabray—a Broadway legend and comedic actress who had partnered with Sid Caesar—as the mother to Mary Tyler Moore’s lead on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then, comedian Nancy Walker as the mother to Valerie Harper’s Rhoda on that show and the subsequent spin-off, “was a way of learn about the history of television and the history of the arts.” And, casting Elaine Stritch—whom Simon describes as “one of the great New York veterans of stage”—as the mother to Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock “might encourage people to go ‘who is this woman?’ if they don’t know her and to go back and look at the documentaries and so many different things that she has done.” [Photo courtesy of CBS]
Paley Center’s Simon says a similar approach to the Lucy casting was probably involved when The Honeymooners cast esteemed theater actress Owen as Alice Kramden’s (Audrey Meadows) needling mother who knew just how to get at lead character Ralph (Jackie Gleason) in this classic sitcom.
“That was sort of the tradition to go for talent in New York who was secure talent who won’t take away from the star power of Lucy or Jackie Gleason to play off,” Simon says. (He also cites The Dick Van Dyke Show, where “even in this Carl Reiner[-created] universe” of star-power, you still had two sets of lesser-known, yet respected, actors playing the lead’s parents; in this case Carol Veazie and Isabel Randolph as his mother, Clara, and Tom Tully and J. Pat O’Malley as his father, Sam). [Photo courtesy of CBS]
Simon says this 1960s-70s drama about a thief who repays his debt to society by working with the U.S. government was doing OK in ratings when they went big in casting a father to lead Robert Wagner’s character during the show’s third season.
“They went for one of the biggest icons in American cinema,” he laughs. “That was sort of the prototypical way you could go if you’re looking for … a reason for viewers to tune in because he would be on multiple times.” [Photo courtesy of ABC]
Over its 12 seasons, the popular multi-camera comedy The Big Bang Theory was filled with stunt-casting, especially when it came to the parents responsible for this friend circle of brianacis and those who love them. Just some names: Kathy Bates as the absurdly old-fashioned mother of Mayim Bialik’s Amy (a part previously played by Annie O’Donnell) and the oft-silent comedian-magician Teller as her put-upon husband who can’t get a word in edgewise.
But the show also wins points for its meta casting. Katey Sagal played Penny’s mother after previously playing the actress Kaley Cuoco’s mom on the comedy 8 Simple Rules …. And while Laurie Metcalf received an Emmy nomination for playing the over-protective mother of Sheldon (Jim Parsons) on this show, her daughter, actress Zoe Perry, now plays the part in the series’ prequel, Young Sheldon. [Photo courtesy of CBS]
Sally Field’s turn as Maggie Wyczenski, the bi-polar mother of Maura Tierney’s Abby Lockhart on ER, was so powerful that it awarded her one Emmy win and another nomination. Fans particularly recall a mother-daughter showdown in the rain during “Rescue Me,” the seventh episode of the medical drama’s seventh season. Neal Baer, who wrote the episode, told ETOnline in 2016 that “I love when they’re not listening to each other and it is so intense. They’re
both telling their own stories and not listening to the other’s story.” [Photo courtesy of NBC]
Once a police officer, always a police officer? NYPD Blue alum Smits plays a retired cop and father of NYPD sergeant Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) on this comedy.
Fellow B99 star Stephanie Beatriz told journalists at the summer 2018 Television Critics Association press day that the casting happened after she met Smits at an event and he told her how much he liked her show—a huge honor, she says because “he was one of the first Latinos that I ever remember seeing on television that was in a role that was taken really seriously, not only by the show itself, but by, you know, the audience in the United States.”
That isn’t to say that her character, detective Rosa Diaz, doesn’t come with some respectable parentage either: Danny Trejo plays her dad. (And Bradley Whitford plays the father of Andy Samberg’s lead, Jake Peralta). [Photo courtesy of FOX]
Sometimes the casting department doesn’t have to look too far to fill these parts. Queen Latifah and Kim Fields’ Living Single characters, Khadijah James and Regine Hunter, had been known to be joined on screen by their actual mothers, Rita Owens and Chip Fields.
This fun twist has also been seen in Happy Endings, PEN15 and Master of None (and Fabray played the mother of her real-life niece, Shelley Fabares, on Coach). Meanwhile, mother and daughter Lea Thompson and Zoey Deutch will soon appear together in a scripted podcast on Audible. [Photo courtesy of FOX]
Maybe it depends on how you define “father.” TV legend Danny Thomas had a bit appearance as a priest on his daughter, Marlo Thomas’, sitcom That Girl, (there’s a memorable exchange where they bump into each other; she says “excuse me, Father” and he responds “oh that’s all right, my child”).
The younger Thomas’ sister, Terre Thomas, plays a nun in the episode and her brother, Tony Thomas, plays a musician. Of course, the episode is titled “My Sister’s Keeper.” [Photo courtesy of NBC]
Marlo Thomas would carry the torch of famous people playing characters’ parents on to a new generation when she played the mother of Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel on Friends. Simon says she was “the perfect person” to play a parent of a 20 and 30-something figuring out her life because “she defined the single woman living around in the ‘60s in New York.” (There’s even an episode of Friends where Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe is wearing a That Girl T-shirt). [Photo courtesy of NBC]
Paley Center’s Simon says that, while Penny Fuller and Nancy Dussault each played Theresa Stemple—the mother to Helen Hunt’s Jamie on Mad About You—earlier in the series, it was when Carol Burnett eventually took it over “that made sense because she brings you back to the history” of women in comedy. Burnett received an Emmy award and nomination for the role and also reprised it for the series’ 2019 revival on Spectrum Originals. [Photo courtesy of NBC]
Sometimes it’s not always about casting parent roles because of their history on screen. Paley Center’s Simon says it made sense to cast actor, director, frequent Saturday Night Live host, and Get Smart co-creator Buck Henry as the father to Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon on 30 Rock because, like him, “the tradition that she writes out of is sardonic.”
“For those in-the-know, Henry was the perfect choice because he was her father, in a way,” Simon says. [Photo courtesy of NBC]
John Ritter’s appearance as Sam Dorian—J.D.’s (Zach Braff) broke and weary traveling salesman of a dad on Scrubs during the first season episode “My Old Man”— was a great example of an adult character finally seeing past any lingering childhood issues to view a parent’s human fallibility through adult eyes. And the fourth season episode, “My Cake,” which paid tribute to the late actor after his shocking death, was equally memorable with creator Bill Lawrence telling TV Guide at the time that “we’re not going to be maudlin about it.” (They weren’t).
“My Old Man” was also noteworthy for introducing Lane Davies and Markie Post as Simon and Lily Reid, the parents of Sarah Chalke’s Elliot, and Hattie Winston as Margaret Turk, the mother of Donald Faison’s Chris. We also may have also been introduced to a character played by R. Lee Ermey, who may have been the father of the hospital janitor/ J.D.’s nemesis (Neil Flynn). [Photo courtesy of NBC/ABC]
Paying homage or just being self-referential? Either way, there really wasn’t any other choice to play Barry Allen’s (Grant Gustin) dad on The CW’s version of The Flash than Shipp, who played the character in the short-lived Fox version of the series—especially since the actor had also worked with Flash executive producer on Dawson’s Creek.
“I think he was sort of surprised that [his version of The Flash] had meant as much to us and to a lot of people as it did, because I think it ended far too soon for him as well,” then-series executive producer Andrew Kreisberg told journalists at the show’s summer 2014 Television Critics Association press day, adding that “it’s not just a gimmick either. It’s not a cameo. He’s playing one of the most important parts on the show. So much of what Barry is doing, he’s doing for his father. That last scene between the two of them was … they did it, like, four or five times, and we all cried every time we watched it.” [Photo courtesy of The CW]
Considerably more fantastical than any other episode of this list, the penultimate episode of the original version of Roseanne—titled “Arsenic and Old Mom”—is set in the show’s infamous alternate reality final season and has Reynolds guest-starring as the mother of John Goodman’s Dan (the part was previously played by Ann Wedgeworth). She also may or may not be trying to kill him and even sings “Danny Boy” at one point. The episode takes on an even deeper meaning once audiences realize it’s penned by Reynolds’ own daughter, Carrie Fisher, and the duo’s infamous co-dependent relationship is taken into account, as Vulture pointed out in 2016 after the women died in close proximity to each other.
Reynolds would eventually guest star as a considerably more stable mother to Debra Messing’s Grace on the sitcom Will & Grace (and would receive an Emmy nomination for the part). [Photo courtesy of ABC]
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.