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They've Come a Long Way

The pioneer was Ethel, and later on came Rhoda. But sitcom sidekicks of the '90s are neither frumpy nor frowzy. These women wear their libidos on their sleeves.

May 26, 1996|Michele Willens | Michele Willens in an occasional contributor to Calendar

It is said that Elaine May's million-dollar contribution to the much rewritten script of "Tootsie" was a simple but critical one: Give the lead character a sidekick, she suggested, enabling him/her to have someone to let it all hang out with.

In the world of television, the sidekick--specifically the female sidekick--has been a decades-long staple. From Ethel to Rhoda to Maryann, she has been the one to be confided in, confessed to, kibitzed with. She has been consistently funny, occasionally downright wacky and a necessary counterpoint.

"We were two very different people who were together because we loved each other," says Valerie Harper, who played Mary's pal Rhoda Morgenstern on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" for four years and then on her own series for five more. "People are willing to go with you on that."

The same holds true all these years and trends later. "We balance each other out," says Amy Pietz, one of today's more memorable sidekicks, Annie, on NBC's "Caroline in the City." "Annie is impulsive, to the extreme, and Caroline thinks things out, to the extreme."

Let's face it, impulsive is a lot funnier than pensive, which is why the sidekick is so often the scene-stealer, the award winner.

"We've all talked about the fact that sometimes she gets the best stuff," Pietz says of the sex-minded Annie. "I think it takes longer to define central characters like Caroline."

"In the beginning, Amy, because of her Midwestern upbringing, got a little embarrassed about what she has to say," says Lea Thompson, who plays Caroline. "But I was jealous. I told her, 'Wait until you're the star and won't be able to say those things.' "

The balancing act may be changing a bit with the proliferation of stand-up comics-turned-stars. Some sidekicks now have to find fodder in the setups.

"It's a constant concern for the side players to stay present and have funny stuff to say," says Joely Fisher, who plays best friend Paige to Ellen DeGeneres' title character on "Ellen" on ABC. "Especially with such a strong lead."

"A lot of times I have to find my comedy through the cracks," explains Julie White, who plays Nadine, Brett Butler's much-married neighbor and buddy in ABC's "Grace Under Fire." "I think that's one reason they hired a stage actress like me. If you're going to take a stand-up and teach her to act on the job, it's a lot easier if you surround her with people who are used to finding layers in characters and reacting a lot."

For viewers, the sidekick is often a favorite character and even can take on epic proportions symbolically. Something about how we see our lot in lives: "I always was Ethel, and I'll always be Rhoda," feature film sidekick extraordinaire Rosie O'Donnell has said. Bonnie Hunt, who used to play sidekicks and then starred with one on CBS' recently canceled "Bonnie," is even blunter: "If I couldn't be Dick Van Dyke, I wanted to be Art Carney."

One would assume that with "Friends" and all its wannabes, the singular sidekick has been diminished. But there are still more than enough to go around. Aside from Pietz, Fisher and White, there are Leila Kenzle as Jamie's best friend and now business partner on "Mad About You," Holly Wortell as the makeup artist and best friend on "Bonnie" and Christine Baranski as the perpetually intoxicated and revenge-seeking Maryann on "Cybill."

This does not count female sidekicks to men, a la Julia Louis-Dreyfus on "Seinfeld," Liz Torres on "The John Larroquette Show" and Jessica Hecht on "The Single Guy." Nor does it count the sister as sidekick, such as Laurie Metcalf on "Roseanne" and Meagan Fay on "Mad About You."

*

Girl-to-girl stuff is the essence of what series sidekicks have been about from Laura Petrie's Millie on up.

But where once the talk revolved around recipes and kids, now there are layers of gold to mine. We're talking sex, infertility, work, PMS--and did we mention sex? Never have female friendships rung so true, and no one doubts the sincerity behind the hilarity when Cybill abandoned her family on Thanksgiving to accompany Maryann on a trip: "I'm not letting you wallow in this alone," she stated.

Certainly the kinds of issues discussed now by female sidekicks make those of years past seem almost laughably tame (if comforting).

"Don't forget, we were all still in twin beds," says Ann Morgan Guilbert, who played Millie Helper for five years on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." "Laura and I got into some messes together, but they'd be like her apartment in a flashback was so small that I had to cook half her dinner on my stove and bring it to her."

Still, Gilbert says the idea of Millie as sort of an Every Neighbor obviously hit home. She still gets mail from fans who watch the show in reruns on Nick at Nite. "I have no idea why people related to her," she says with a laugh, "but she was kind of nice and kind of dippy."

One thing hasn't changed. As Laura needed Millie, today's female stars need friends to depict the right stuff.

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