08 June 2024

A Golden Age of the Guest Star?

I just streamed my way through Elsbeth, the new CBS howcatchem series, and it has me wondering if we're amid an important renaissance. Folks, we might be witnessing another Golden Age of the Guest Star.

You need some years on you to remember the Columbo era. This was my parent's prime time era, that Sunday Night Mysteries era, today's well-ripened pop culture cheese. You know the drill: Grab a bankable actor, give them a persona for sleuth, and each week load on the not-quite-A-List suspects. 

In Elsbeth, the True Blood guy (Stephen Moyer) arranges a fatal stage accident, Blair Underwood poisons a tennis star, and even an Agatha Christie-like murder conspiracy led by Jane Krakowski (30 Rock) takes out a co-op tyrant. It plays out in inverted mystery fun. In Columbo's howcatchem day, it was Janet Leigh (1975), Julie Newmar (1973), Leonard Nimoy (1973), Vincent Price (1973), and Dick Van Dyke (1974), among others. Roddy McDowell did an episode (1972) because of course he did. 

I'm not being flip about this. Yes, many of these stars had shined brighter in earlier days. Some guest actors were, shall we politely say, long awaiting the next vehicle. Others were working actors or taking advantage of runs in other series. We loved that guy or lady in that other thing, and here they are tonight with murder in mind. And they're totally getting busted.  

It's easy to understand why the guest stars sign on. It's a decent paycheck, and in today's content-hungry, gotta-stay-relevant world, opportunity abounds. But importantly, the howcatchem is uniquely a character. There isn't a cast of suspects. We watched that week's main guest do it. Onscreen, with motive, means, and opportunity laid right out there. These are stories about a dark heart, their machinations, their cat-and-mouse with the persona sleuth. I tune in for character more than for puzzles, so this format is my kind of entertainment (I blogged last year about loving Poker FacePeacock's comic--and yes, guest star-studded--howcatchem). 

There are other suspects, of course. It's the sleuth's show and ultimately their character test, so the format doesn't work unless the sleuth engages the problem, encounters the red herrings, and hones in on the truth. These side tests are one reason Columbo ages well. He sparred with bit parts or third billings like Kim Cattrall, Jamie Lee Curtis, Martin Sheen. Jeff Goldblum was an extra. 

Whodunnit franchises are in on the act. Today's "I know them" stars feed the Benoit Blanc and Kenneth Branagh Poirot formulas. But older whodunnits were playing Columbo's game, too. McCloud had Don Ameche (1975), Milton Berle (1972), and Ricky Nelson (1972), among others. The original Hawaii 5-0 fed on guest appearances, including Patty Duke, Helen Hayes, and William Shatner. 

Monk, one of my favorite crime shows ever, brought the guest star angle regularly. Jason Alexander was a two-bit investigator. Stanley Tucci was a method actor who came to believe he was Monk. James Brolin, Snoop Dogg, and Jon Favreau all had turns. 

As for Poirot, the revered David Suchet ITV/PBS series has its own power list of guest stars: Elliott Gould, Barbara Hershey, and Elizabeth McGovern, to name a few. Two future Doctor Whos appeared, Christopher Eccleston and Peter Capaldi, as did pre-breakout Emily Blunt ("Death on the Nile"), Jessica Chastain ("Murder on the Orient Express"), and Michael Fassbender ("After the Funeral"). 

Then again, whodunnits don't come and go from fashion. There may be fewer classic mysteries running from time to time, but there's always a core set going. And if I googled more, I would no doubt find whole databases of the guest star scene. 

Such evidence suggests maybe we're not seeing a renaissance of guest stars but my noticing them more. Doesn't matter. It feels like howcatchems and their one-and-done casts are having a moment, and I hope it sticks around.


  1. That's one of the reasons I love British mystery shows - they have guest stars out the wazoo. New Tricks has an episode ("Old Dogs") that brings together Michael Maloney, Richard Brier, and Frances De La Tour - PRICELESS!!!! I just watched Celia Imre on a very old Lovejoy. And another with Tom Wilkinson and Jennie Linden ("One Born Every Minute").

  2. Fun post, Bob. I remember when Burke's Law starring Gene Barry used to cast name actors as suspects and the occasional killer back in the early sixties. Just about everyone who was anyone appeared there at least once. It was kind of a status symbol. My parents and I had lots of fun seeing who showed up from week to week.

  3. Yes! Guest stars are spice-of-life stuff.

  4. Oddly, I recalled only one Columbo guest star, Patrick McGoohan, who appeared more than once. In looking up his name to ensure I spelled it correctly, I learned he was far more intimately involved. He wrote, directed, and produced several of the shows, but I didn't like him as a bad guy!

    David Suchet's Poirot appeared at a pinnacle in time when brilliant actors arrived concurrently, Poirot, Miss Marple, and of course Sherlock Holmes. Elliott Gould? Say it's not true!

    But Monk seemed to have a knack of directing guest stars without hogging the stage. So many stars full of themselves exude that look-at-me stage presence while pretending not to. Can I say Elliott Gould again?

    I haven't seen Elsbeth yet, but I plan on it.


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