Michael Pataki and TV Character Acting

The veteran TV character actor Michael Pataki died last week, which wasn’t covered much in the press despite his long career and his presence in just about every television show ever made by anyone. (Variety printed the only obituary, but it’s behind a paywall.) That’s because he was one of those actors who worked consistently, but rarely played regular roles, and never had a regular spot in a hit show. (One of his shows as a regular was Friends and Lovers, MTM’s attempt to do for comedian Paul Sand what they’d already done for Bob Newhart. That didn’t work out.) He appeared on many hit shows, but in one-shot guest roles: as a Klingon in Star Trek‘s “The Trouble With Tribbles,” as the evil drag racer who competed against the Fonz and Pinky Tuscadero, as King Tut’s henchman on Batman, to a perp who gets taken down by Lee Marvin on M Squad, because nobody messes with Lee Marvin. He also went into voice work, most famously as George Liquor on Ren and Stimpy; John Kricfalusi has posted a tribute to him. He was, in other words, a “hey, it’s that guy!” actor with a great “hey, it’s that guy!” résumé.

It reminds me of something I’ve noticed lately, which is that the number of professional guest actors — the pool of men and women who do guest roles on many different shows, and build a reputation largely based on their guest shots — seems to be shrinking. Nowadays when a show has a big guest part, they’ll either give it to someone who is genuinely well-known, maybe even someone visiting from another show (Dana Delany on Castle, to give one recent example) or someone without a long list of guest-starring credits. There are a few guys left over from the golden age of character acting, like Sam Anderson, and a few guys who still make a good living that way, like Stephen Root (though even he often gets brought in for multiple episodes, as he did on 24 and West Wing). But shows — particularly dramas — have larger regular casts than they used to, and they often fill supporting slots with “hey, it’s that guy!” actors rather than complete unknowns, e.g. all the veteran character actors who were regulars on Deadwood. That takes them out of contention for a lot of guest shots. And I think there’s a sense now that an actor who has made any kind of name should be signed up as a regular, or at least more than one episode. Which is good for the actors, but means that you don’t always get to see one guy build up a huge, diverse body of work on television.

Anyway, even a “hey, it’s that guy!” usually has a signature guest role, something he’s remembered for even by people who don’t remember his name. For Pataki, it’s “Trouble With Tribbles,” because he was the first actor to speak the fake Klingon language. For me, it’s his role in WKRP in Cincinnati as a Russian defector whose main knowledge of U.S. culture comes from Elton John’s then-recent Russian tour. The episode also had Sam Anderson in it, meaning it’s like a “Hey, It’s That Guy!” festival.

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