In the 1970s, movie theaters and drive-ins started to dip in popularity when people realized they could stay home and catch something entertaining on television instead. There were dozens of shows from the era that have stood the test of time with original, three-dimensional, and relatable characters who stole the screen. Characters such as Fonzie from Happy Days and Archie Bunker from All in the Family made audiences laugh, cry, and keep watching for years to come. Now, take a look back at the most memorable TV characters of the ’70s.
Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli Is An American Symbol
Originally written as a minor character, Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli became the fan-favorite on Happy Days. Played by Henry Winkler, Fonzie was the epitome of 1950s Americana. He wore a black leather jacket, always kept his hair perfectly in place, and had a signature catchphrase.
Not only was Fonzie an iconic TV character, but he became a symbol for America during the ’70s and ’80s. Fonzie was the most merchandised character of the era and his popularity inspired several spin-offs. He is still mentioned in American pop culture with references from Pulp Fiction to Friends, his own statue in Milwaukee, and his own cheese snack.
Fred G. Sanford Redefined African American Sitcoms
While Fred G. Sanford on Sanford and Son had some major character flaws, his faults were usually balanced by his son Lamont Sanford. Comedian Redd Foxx played the grouchy, bitter patriarch of the Sanford family who often was preoccupied with “get-rich-quick” schemes.
The views Foxx’s character expressed on the show helped redefine African American sitcoms because of how Fred’s harsh humor was handled. There were some instances of him showing acts of kindness, which gave him a little more depth. The success of the series helped the entire NBC Friday night lineup, with the show running for six seasons.
What Fans Didn’t Realize About Jack Tripper
John Ritter was best known for his portrayal of culinary student Jack Tripper on Three’s Company. His character was usually doing some kind of physical humor to exaggerate his clumsiness such as bumping into things or falling down. He, along with his two female roommates, would often get into funny hijinks on the sitcom.
Jack was one of the first TV characters whose sexual orientation was questioned, which was monumental at that time. Much of his appeal came from his slapstick comedy, suave personality, and loyalty to his friends.
Alex Reiger Was The True Leader On Taxi
Alex Reiger was the main protagonist of the ensemble sitcom, Taxi, and was considered to be one of the more serious and compassionate of the bunch. He was played by Judd Hirsch who won two Leading Actor in a Comedy Series Emmy Awards for his performance.
His character was often the one the others would go to if they had a problem and was the only one who believed that taxi driving was their true profession. While he had some character flaws, such as being a recovering gambler and a cynic, his heart was always in the right place.
Alice Nelson Was The Glue Of The Brady Family
While The Brady Bunch wasn’t too popular during its original run, it became a worldwide phenomenon during syndication. Although it included an ensemble cast, the family’s housekeeper Alice was one of the most memorable characters. Played by veteran actress Ann B. Davis, Alice was the glue of the Brady family.
She did all the household chores, cared for the children, was the peacemaker between Mr. and Mrs. Brady, and always had a smile on her face. Alice was also the funniest of the bunch by giving her sarcastic commentary as other members of the family got into wacky predicaments.
Laverne Marie DeFazio Was Always Outspoken
Laverne & Shirley was a spin-off of Happy Days and became the most-watched television series by its third season. It focused on best friends and roommates who worked as bottle-cappers in a factory. Laverne Marie DeFazio, played by Penny Marshall, was the “tough-talking tomboy” who balanced out the more reserved Shirley.
While there was no Laverne without Shirley, Marshall was able to make the character relatable and lovable for millions every week. Also, the show’s creator, Garry Marshall, was her brother, so she always had support during her performances.
John Travolta Almost Passed On Vincent “Vinnie” Barbarino
Many know John Travolta from his expansive film career with roles in Grease, Saturday Night Fever, and Pulp Fiction, but he rose to fame on Welcome Back, Kotter. He played Vincent “Vinnie” Barbarino, a loudmouth leader of a remedial high school class.
Fans loved his character due to his unique swagger, funny catchphrases, and effortless charm. Most of the characters, including Vinnie, were based on classmates of creator and lead star Gabe Kaplan. Travolta’s mother almost forced him to not take the part because she thought he would get typecast as an unintelligent delinquent.
Playing Laura Ingalls Wilder Was An Escape For Melissa Gilbert
While the majority of television characters are fictional, Laura Ingalls Wilder on Little House on the Prairie was based on the real author of the novels. Laura was played by Melissa Gilbert, who beat out over 500 girls for the role when she was nine years old.
Gilbert remembers loving her life on set because her home life was difficult. “I liked everyone, really. They were all nice. Who wouldn’t like being around people who showered you with affection and always had a kind word, a joke, or a funny face? Compared to the real world, it was like make-believe,” she shared in her memoir.
George Jefferson Tackled Tough Issues Of The Era
George Jefferson and his wife Louise were originally characters on All in the Family, but received their own spin-off called The Jeffersons from 1975 to 1985. Sherman Hemsley played George, an ambitious entrepreneur who owned several dry cleaning businesses around New York City.
His character had to tackle several difficult issues of the time through comedy, which was common for a Norman Lear-led series. The show was monumental because it was the longest-running sitcom with a primarily African American cast, one of the first to include affluent African Americans, and the first to feature a married interracial couple.
Mary Richards Was An Early Feminist Icon
The 1970s was the perfect time for The Mary Tyler Moore Show to come out. Mary Tyler Moore played Mary Richards, a career woman who tries to make a name for herself at her local TV news station. Many women and girls saw themselves reflected in Mary.
This was during one of the biggest feminist movements in history with women increasingly moving into the workforce and wanting equal representation with their male counterparts. Mary was a strong, independent woman of the ’70s who could put any disrespectful man in their place.
Why Audiences Loved The Despicable Basil Fawlty
While only 12 episodes of the British comedy series Fawlty Towers were made, Basil Fawlty remains one of the most popular ’70s sitcom characters. Played by John Cleese, Basil was a cynical, snobby hotel owner who would do anything to be seen as part of high society.
While Cleese thought of Basil as an awful person, he believes that audiences still loved him because of his comedic charm and dry, sarcastic sense of humor. The character was inspired by a hotel owner Cleese met while he was on a trip with the Monty Python comedy troupe.
Arnold Jackson Had A Well-Known Catchphrase
Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson on Diff’rent Strokes will go down in history as one of the most iconic sitcom characters of all time. His signature catchphrase, “What’chu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”, became a symbol of American pop culture and has been referenced in several movies and TV shows.
Coleman was praised for his performance as the wise-cracking little brother always trying to get his way. He received five Young Artist Award nominations and won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Young TV Performer four years in a row. The series lasted a total of eight seasons and Coleman was paid $100,000 for each episode.
Jill Munroe Was A Trendsetter
Farrah Fawcett became a cultural icon of the 1970s because of her starring role as Jill Munroe on Charlie’s Angels. She, along with the other two Angels, fought crime while working as private detectives in Los Angeles. The show was a massive success and was a top ten hit in the Nielsen ratings.
Fawcett never actually auditioned for the role because producer Aaron Spelling loved her performance in Logan’s Run and offered her the part. She was the most liked of the Angels and won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Performer in a New TV Program. Even her hairstyle was copied by people around the world during the ’70s and ’80s.
Millions Of Fans Tuned In For This Huge J.R. Ewing Cliffhanger
While audiences tend to remember the feel-good characters, there are also some legendary TV villains. Larry Hagman was a breakout star on Dallas for playing the egotistical oil tycoon, J.R. Ewing. The love/hate relationship between J.R. and his family kept viewers tuning in for 13 seasons.
Hagman earned two Emmy nominations, four Golden Globe nominations, and a Soap Opera Digest nomination for his performance. A Dallas episode where his character is involved in a shooting became one of the most-watched episodes on TV with a giant cliffhanger.
Playing Keith Partridge Made David Cassidy A Teen Idol
David Cassidy became a teen idol and shot to superstardom for his role as the oldest sibling, Keith Partridge, on The Partridge Family. He and co-star Shirley Jones were the only actors who actually sang on the show and the popularity of their music allowed Cassidy to have a solo career.
The Partridge Family ran for four seasons and was actually based on a real-life family band called the Cowsills. The fame took a toll on a lot of the cast, but they were grateful for the opportunity. Also, Cassidy won the Hippest Fashion Plate TV Land Award in 2003 for his truly ’70s style.
Mr. Roarke Was Unusually Mysterious
Ricardo Mantalbán was well-known for his role as Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island. Mr. Roarke and his assistant Tattoo would grant guests on the island their wildest fantasies, but there was always some kind of catch. Audiences could always see Mr. Roarke in his signature white suit and he usually had an air of mystery about him.
While he appeared in 152 episodes, viewers never knew Mr. Roarke’s true intentions when it came to his guests. “I decided this man was an angel that still had a little bit of sinner pride in him – too proud,” said Mantalbán.
Archie Bunker Will Go Down In American History
There are a few TV characters who receive the status of a cultural icon, but All in the Family’s Archie Bunker tops the list. Archie was played by Carroll O’Connor and was known for his harsh, conservative views on American society. Creator Normal Lear thought audiences would despise his character, but many Americans found him very relatable.
All in the Family tackled several modern-day issues that were extremely taboo for their time, especially on a prime-time network sitcom. Bravo named Archie as “TV’s greatest character of all time” and it was the first series to top the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive years.
Robin Williams Was Unknown Before Playing Mork
Mork & Mindy was one of several spin-offs of Happy Days and helped introduce the world to the late Robin Williams. Garry Marshall had seen Williams performing comedy on a street corner in Hollywood and knew he would be a great guest star for Happy Days.
When the live audience went crazy for Williams, Marshall created Mork & Mindy, about an alien who comes to Earth to observe humans. Williams would often improvise his dialogue and went all out for his physical comedy. Mork & Mindy was an instant hit with Williams even appearing on the cover of Time magazine after the first season.
Miss Piggy Continues To Be A Diva
The 1970s were filled with many variety shows, and one that remains iconic is The Muppet Show. While many of the Muppets have stood the test of time, Miss Piggy captures the screen at all times. Voiced by Frank Oz, she is a superstar diva who knows how to get what she wants.
She was introduced during a Herb Alpert special in 1974 and has continued to be one of the most popular Muppets several decades later. Many celebrities were eager to get a chance to do skits with her on The Muppet Show including Mark Hamill, Christopher Reeve, and Gilda Radner.
Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce Went Through An Emotional Roller Coaster
Alan Alda as Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce was considered to be one of the funniest and tragic characters on MASH. Hawkeye was the Chief Surgeon of an army unit during the Korean War and was deeply affected by the horrific events he had to endure.
While Hawkeye was forced to go through traumatic experiences, he was also good for a laugh by pulling pranks or making funny jokes with his unit. MASH became one of the highest-rated shows in television history and its 1983 finale had the most viewers of any single program until 2010.