Why do some actors use their own names in TV shows?
January 26, 2008 3:26 AM   Subscribe

Why do some actors use their own names in TV shows?

To clarify, I mean an actor playing a role, but using his own first name. The two examples that come immediately to mind are Michael J. Fox playing a "Michael" in Spin City, and Charlie Sheen playing a "Charlie" in both Spin City and also Two and a Half Men.

This came up between my wife and I today and we can't work it out. It seems fairly inconsistent, with some actors doing it, and others not. At first we thought it might be a fame thing (like calling it the Bill Cosby show or the Lucille Ball show, to make sure your audience knows what they're getting), but other equally-famous came-from-the-movies actors do it as well and I don't see it with them (think Keifer Sutherland in 24, or James Caan in Las Vegas).

So, what's the story here? Does anyone have any insight?

(I promise my next AskMe won't be about TV shows, my history is getting a little one-dimensional!)
posted by ranglin to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's for charactor actors. So we can anticipate what they're gonna do. Now that's Commedia! Keifer's supposed to keep us guessing, so it doesn't work for him, and James Caan is too fancy an actor for that. Tom Hanks syndrome. What I really want to know is why they can't use kookier names than Charlie. Like Sambrosius Foyer and stuff.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 3:52 AM on January 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not strictly an answer, but it's worth noting (from your examples) that it seems to be something that can happen in sitcoms, but is much less likely in a drama.
posted by juv3nal at 4:12 AM on January 26, 2008

I was just formulating a theory along the lines that, maybe their being producers, or financiers of the project has something to do with it, but a quick glance through the IMDb pages doesn't bring up anything for Charlie, although Michael was an executive producer of the show for 100 episodes.

Maybe Charlie just likes his name a lot.
posted by hadjiboy at 4:15 AM on January 26, 2008

Like Sambrosius Foyer and stuff.

I'm totally using that for my alternate female internet persona. (Is it supposed to be feminine? Kind of rhymes with Ambrosia.)
posted by hadjiboy at 4:19 AM on January 26, 2008

i think you see it mostly with standup comedians who land a tv show where they basically play themselves - roseanne, everybody loves raymond, the cosby show, seinfeld, i love lucy, ozzie and harriet, bob newhart, etc.

these were not just actors but established entertainers acting out a popular persona - their own - in the environment of the sitcom. in that sense, the main character having their name is natural. the whole point of the show is just to see everyday situations happening around and from the point of view of [already funny person].
posted by sergeant sandwich at 4:37 AM on January 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Do you think it's possible that when the creators of the show first invisioned the character and/or pitched the show idea to the network they had that specific actor in mind for the part and used their first name as a placeholder, only later to realize that the identity had gelled and didn't want to change it?
posted by Rhomboid at 4:39 AM on January 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've wondered about this too, coining the phrase "vanity sitcom". Michael J Fox is an exception but otherwise it seems to crop up in shows where the main selling point is the presence of a celebrity, who may not otherwise be known for their comedic / dramatic chops. Also see "The Chris Isaak Show", "Cybill", "Reba", "Bette", "Pauly" etc. Less charitably, I suspect some of the stars like their name to be in the title of the show or their presence to be advertised widely. The equating of character and actor names makes this easy.
posted by outlier at 4:52 AM on January 26, 2008

Seconding Rhomboid. The few instances I've heard writers or producers commenting on using the same first name for a character as the actor portraying them, it is down the part having been written for that person.
I can't for the life of me remember which project I'm trying to remember, but I would put money on it being the case with Spin City (especially since Bill Lawrence had J. Fox in Scrubs later as well).
posted by opsin at 4:53 AM on January 26, 2008

Matt (Albie/Perry) in Studio 60, Opsin?
posted by kxr at 5:02 AM on January 26, 2008

Tony Danza always plays a "Tony", too.
I think it sometimes has to do with the fact that they're just not very good actors, and they'll only instinctively respond to someone saying their own name.
posted by jozxyqk at 5:11 AM on January 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Producers use "Name-bait" as a sop to flatter certain actors into playing the part.
Most (not all) secure, talented actors don't fall for it.
Some, like "Lucy", et al, find it helpful as a brand to maintain an already justified career.
But it is mostly a red flag signifying a lack of imagination, a lack of confidence, or worse...
posted by Dizzy at 5:25 AM on January 26, 2008

While The Cosby Show was called The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby's character was named Cliff Huxtable. How the heck are we supposed to figure *that* out???
posted by spinturtle at 6:34 AM on January 26, 2008 [3 favorites]

I actually read an interview with Tony Danza where he said that his character on Taxi was named Tony because, when he started, the producers were worried that he wouldn't respond to another name.
posted by winston at 7:35 AM on January 26, 2008

See also Tracy Morgan's character on 30 Rock, Tracy Jordan.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:07 AM on January 26, 2008

Dave Barry in Dave's World.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:13 AM on January 26, 2008

Woody Boyd (as played by Woody Harrelson) in Cheers.
posted by deadmessenger at 9:17 AM on January 26, 2008

Also Brendon Small from Home Movies, and Bret and Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords-- although these examples use their full name entirely, so it seems more like sergeant sandwich's idea that it's commonly done with comedians who aren't playing another character but themselves in comedic situations...
posted by actionpact at 9:22 AM on January 26, 2008

I know this doesn't answer the original post, but the U.S. version of "The Office" does this with a few of it's minor characters/actors, like Angela, Creed, and Oscar.
posted by jk252b at 9:29 AM on January 26, 2008

Hooray for folksonomies. IMDB has a tag for this, called actor-shares-first-name-with-character. There are 1,888 entries. 512 of those are also tagged character-name-in-title (but not necessarily the same character).
posted by mumkin at 9:37 AM on January 26, 2008

Which I know doesn't answer the question, but hopefully is a superset of all the "I remember this one show where this was the case" answers, so we can get back to the OP's question of why.
posted by mumkin at 9:40 AM on January 26, 2008

What sergeant sandwich said. A lot of comedians develop a brand identity which extends into sitcom work. "I Love Lucy," and "Sinfeld" for example are built on character sketches that the leading actors had developed for stage and radio. Lucy was a brand identity. Likewise Bill Cosby and Rosanne both made their fame doing monologues about family, so keeping their name attached to the show was about building the brand. If you watched The Bill Cosby Show, you were getting Cosby's bemused confusion about family life, while Rosanne was about Barr's sarcastic dysfunctional vision of family life.

Although I'd disagree somewhat that the actors are playing themselves. We often know that performers have radically different personnas on stage and off stage. So while Lucy often played the ditzy woman desperate to get a spot on Desi's show, it was the other way around with Lucy attempting to get Desi on a show she produced in an attempt to save their marriage. I think it's reasonable to have some skepticism about the truth behind the brand.

There are a couple of reasons why this doesn't extend to dramas. Sitcoms are extensions of stage comedy, and were originally and sometimes still are flimed on stage in front of a live audience. So you can get away with devices such as the blatant character cameo. Also, I don't think that Sutherland really wants to be entirely identified with his character in "24."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:43 AM on January 26, 2008

I agree that in some cases, it has to do with brand ID, and with the actors playing versions of their original acts. Often times, they also help write the show as well, which is part of it I think. Tracy Morgan is definitely playing a version of himself as Tracy Jordan, and so was Ray on ELR (and Jerry on Seinfeld, and Lucy on ILL, and . . .)

Although, I have to say, there are counter examples like the Cosby Show with Cliff Huxtable, and the Dick Van Dyke show with Rob Petrie.
posted by bluefly at 11:42 AM on January 26, 2008

Response by poster: Woody Boyd (as played by Woody Harrelson) in Cheers.

This one is an expecially interesting case, as none of the other Actors on cheers used their own first name, just Woody... I always thought that with this one they probably DID just happen to have the same name, especially since the character of Woody and the actor aren't the same at all (the character is much more ditzy!)

Are there any examples of dramas where this is done? I'm starting to see the connection here for sitcoms that you all mention tho... :)

(Oh, and I didn't even think about The Cosby Show having Cosby as a character called Cliff Huxtable... Doesn't really make much sense, does it?!?)
posted by ranglin at 2:31 PM on January 26, 2008

One example from dramatic TV is the character of Snoop on The Wire. The character's real name is the same as the actor's real name. Considering that she hadn't acted before, and was obviously chosen for her undeniable street cred, they probably gave her the same name just to make it easier for her to act.
posted by bingo at 3:00 PM on January 26, 2008

Also, re the Cosby show...by the time that show aired, Bill Cosby was so famous that he didn't need his character to be named Bill anymore. He was literally a household name before the show started. Compare to Seinfeld, who had a following before the show, but it was the show itself that made him really famous.
posted by bingo at 3:04 PM on January 26, 2008

Matt (Albie/Perry) in Studio 60, Opsin?

I suspect that in that particular case, Matthew Perry may have insisted on it. The guy spent ten years answering to one of the most unfortunate character names in television history.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:20 PM on January 26, 2008

I think it sometimes has to do with the fact that they're just not very good actors, and they'll only instinctively respond to someone saying their own name.

It's a two-way street. A bad actor will often accidentally refer to other actors by their real names.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:24 PM on January 26, 2008

"Dave Barry in Dave's World."

No. That was Harry Anderson. Unless you think Dave Barry was on Night Court.
posted by klangklangston at 7:10 PM on January 26, 2008

(Though Anderson's Night Court character was named Harry).
posted by klangklangston at 7:11 PM on January 26, 2008

TV Tropes calls this The Danza. There are actually a handful of dramas in the list.

I think a lot of the 90s and on examples are not so much about the actor's ego as about the shrinking TV audience, which was believed to respond well to persona-based shows. That is, sitcoms with no-name actors were often cancelled before they could catch on, but a celebrity sitcom (e.g. Cybill) was pretty much guaranteed at least a "fan" audience.

In any case, the "same-named" comedy show has a long history dating back to vaudeville and the early days of live television.

In some cases, like Bob Newhart (who played a character named Bob in three or four sitcoms), it is absolutely about the brand -- Newhart had practically patented his befuddled and reactive everyman for his successful comedy albums in the 1960s, and most of his shows had him reacting the same way to insanity around him. Seinfeld and Home Improvement are probably two of the most successful recent examples of a stage comic bringing his schtick to TV, followed by Drew Carey and Ray Romano.

An extreme example is probably Jennifer Grey who played ... an actress named Jennifer Grey (in It's Like ... You Know).

The guy spent ten years answering to one of the most unfortunate character names in television history.

Yes, but he had a quality!
posted by dhartung at 10:41 PM on January 26, 2008

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