Section: ARTS,  Page: I1

Date: Sunday, July 11, 1999

When ``Law & Order'' creator Dick Wolf was asked recently to name the best television character ever, he immediately and literally took a step back. ``No way,'' he said. ``I can give you 100, or 50. Not one.''

Trust us, 100 is no easier.

In coming up with the 100 best characters from television history, spanning more than half a century, some ground rules were needed.

For one, ``best'' is defined as being a recurring character who was important, memorable, original, singular, well-crafted and/or had impact on culture. In other words, it is highly subjective.

Secondly, the characters had to appear on shows that ran in America in prime time. Sorry, ``Saturday Night Live'' and soap fans.

Finally, only one character per show could be named. This prevents some great ensemble shows (``The Mary Tyler Moore Show'' and ``M*A*S*H'' spring to mind) from dominating too many slots on the list. Besides, you wanted B.J. AND the Bear?

This keeps some great characters (Ed Norton, Oscar Madison, Samantha Stephens, Cosmo Kramer, Ted Baxter) off the list. Also missing are some legends who were not characters, like Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, Dick Clark and Ed Sullivan.

The following list was compiled after consulting resource materials like the Museum of Television and Radio, books (most notably ``The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows: 1946-Present,'' Sixth Edition), and informal queries to co-workers, family, friends, acquaintances, viewers, readers and people associated with the television industry. No other similar ratings lists were consulted.

Some worthy characters are missing, while some others may be ranked too high or low for some tastes. Let me know.

And, please, use my proper title. It's ``You Idiot.''

Here are my Top 100 television characters of all time: 1. Archie Bunker, ``All in the Family,'' ``Archie Bunker's Place.'' Almost 30 years after he debuted on American television, Carroll O'Connor's crude, prejudiced, uneducated and opinionated loading dock worker from 704 Houser St. in Corona, Queens, remains an icon of an era, one who not only introduced ``terlit,'' ``Dingbat,'' ``Meathead'' and, of course, ``stifle yerself'' into our lexicon, but a character who changed television.

After the bland family comedies of the 1950s, and the escapist 1960s sitcoms chocked with genies, friendly monsters, wacky Nazis and lovable hicks, America was ready to get serious by 1971. And ``All in the Family'' was seriously funny.

Race. Sex. Abortion. Education. Religion. Politics. Anything and everything that people murmured and argued about behind closed doors became fair game for humor and social commentary, usually through Archie's jaundiced eyes. We learned that father did not always know best.

O'Connor, in real life a liberal, became the face of the reactionary right, spouting racial and religious epithets while expressing (usually with malaprops) confusion with a world that somehow had radically changed on him. To some, though, he still made sense.

Like the 1974 satiric anti-racism movie ``Blazing Saddles,'' it is questionable whether ``All in the Family'' could get on the air today (it took some time for the mid-season replacement to catch on with viewers). Some just wouldn't be able to see the satire through the goggles of political correctness.

But O'Connor, who with Bill Cosby (Nos. 11, 43) is the only actor with two roles on this list (see No. 91), crafted a character honed by producer Norman Lear (and based on the British series ``Till Death Do Us Part'') who is just as relevant and fresh today as he was during the Nixon administration.

Those truly were the days.

2. Lucy Ricardo, ``I Love Lucy.'' Here was a woman in the 1950s, in a mixed marriage, who was not happy with the traditional role of housewife. Lucille Ball's forte was her wacky unpredictability, but as Lucy Ricardo she sent a not-so-subtle message that women need not be content with confinement in the kitchen. Along the way, Lucy, et al., defined the sitcom.

3. Ralph Kramden, ``The Honeymooners.'' A tough call only because selecting the Jackie Gleason blowhard means leaving out sidekick Ed Norton (Art Carney). But for our vote, Ralph, baby, you're the (third) greatest.

4. Perry Mason, ``Perry Mason.'' Lawyers of today can still learn something about courtroom mannerisms from this archetype of attorneys played by Raymond Burr.

5. Mary Richards, ``The Mary Tyler Moore Show.'' Mary showed us that, yes, a single woman could have a rewarding life, and even sex, without prospects of a spouse. Like Ball, Moore played a critical character in the terms of the evolution of women in the medium.

6. Homer Simpson, ``The Simpsons.'' Homer, well, his writers, stole the show from its original star, Bart (the fact it's animated is probably the only reason Bart hasn't stormed off the set). ``The Simpsons'' jump-started the prime-time animation renaissance.

7. J.R. Ewing, ``Dallas.'' Wretched excess and amorality abounded in this Larry Hagman series that captured the 1980s. ``Who Shot J.R.?'' was the television cliffhanger of the decade.

8. Benjamin Franklin ``Hawkeye'' Pierce, ``M*A*S*H.'' Alan Alda's Hawkeye was the ultimate party-animal-with-a-social conscience (until the wimpy last years) in this Vietnam parable set in Korea.

9. Spock, ``Star Trek.'' A conflicted bundle of contradictions (with a first name you couldn't pronounce), Leonard Nimoy's Spock was an emotionless character who sparked the most emotion.

10. Joe Friday, ``Dragnet.'' The stoicism and staccato delivery of Jack Webb made Friday the quintessential cop of the 1950s, even as the show moved into the hippy 1960s. ``Just the facts, ma'am'' remains in our vocabulary.

11. Cliff Huxtable, ``The Cosby Show.'' Despite some early criticisms, Cosby presented a realistic portrayal of an upper-middle-class black family.

12. Arthur ``The Fonz/Fonzie'' Fonzarelli, ``Happy Days.'' The epitome of cool, especially in the early years. Advice: Don't watch the show now; it is not as good as you remember it.

13. Andy Sipowicz, ``NYPD Blue.'' Poor Andy. He loses two partners -- his sidekick and his wife -- in the same season. Dennis Franz has taken this character from a racist drunk to a sympathetic but flawed man.

14. Bugs Bunny, ``The Bugs Bunny Show.'' Bugs qualifies since he was in prime time from 1960-62. This was the original wascally rabbit from the movie shorts.

15. Fox Mulder, ``The X-Files.'' Why do so few network shows begin with the letter ``X''? Mulder (David Duchovny) would eventually uncover the government/alien conspiracy behind this.

16. Kunta Kinte, ``Roots.'' The slave of the legendary miniseries qualifies (for our purposes) as a series because ``Roots'' originally aired on eight consecutive nights, giving it a longer run than many sitcoms.

17. Marshal Matt Dillon, ``Gunsmoke.'' The role was played by James Arness for two decades (rotund William Conrad of ``Cannon'' fame was the marshal on radio), but he got the role only because he was recommended by CBS' first choice -- John Wayne.

18. Felix Unger, ``The Odd Couple.'' This is THE toughest call, the ``Honeymooners'' dilemma amplified. Feel free to insert Jack Klugman's sloven Oscar Madison as a substitute for Tony Randall's meticulous Felix.

19. George Costanza, ``Seinfeld.'' Jerry was never a consideration. Kramer was. Costanza was less zany, but much more layered.

20. Barney Fife, ``Andy Griffith Show.'' As a goofy sidekick, he ranks second only to Norton.

21. Maxwell Smart, ``Get Smart.'' ``Would you believe ... '' the first season of this show was brilliant, thanks to Don Adams (Smart) and writers Mel Brooks and Buck Henry.

22. Jack Benny, ``The Jack Benny Show.'' Unlike Ed Sullivan, et al., Benny was playing a character -- the skinflint Jack Benny. ``Your money or your life'' ... ``I'm theeeenking'' is still a great bit.

23. Gracie Allen, ``The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.'' Gracie played dumb smarter than anyone before and possibly since.

24. Frank Pembleton, ``Homicide: Life on the Street.'' Andre Braugher's brash, black Catholic cop was one of the most complicated characters of the 1990s.

25. Columbo, ``Columbo.'' Peter Falk's trench coat almost made the list by itself.

26. Rod Serling, ``The Twilight Zone.'' Serling as the narrator qualifies as a character. Honorable mention here would go to Alfred Hitchcock (``Alfred Hitchcock Presents'').

27. Freddie the Freeloader, ``The Red Skelton Show.'' Skelton made you laugh and cry at the same time, all with brilliant pantomime.

28. Murphy Brown, ``Murphy Brown.'' Driven, divorced and loving it, Candice Bergen was a force. Ask Dan Quayle.

29. Gilligan, ``Gilligan's Island.'' Here is a great nugget: Although never said on the show, Bob Denver once said ``Li'l Buddy'' did in fact have a first name: Willie.

30. Danny Williams, ``The Danny Thomas Show,'' ``Make Room for Daddy.'' Thomas said television was ``only for idiots,'' but that was before he became a star in one of TV's longest-running comedies.

31. Rob Petrie, ``The Dick Van Dyke Show.'' With Petrie, Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell writing it, the mythical ``Alan Brady Show'' had to be the funniest on television.

32. Lone Ranger, ``The Lone Ranger.'' Sure, there was campiness, but this is also a moving story of Ranger John Reid, who sets out to avenge the deaths of five fellow rangers.

33. Richard Kimble, ``The Fugitive.'' Harrison Ford just borrowed the role; it belongs to David Janssen. The narrator? William Conrad.

34. Ally McBeal, ``Ally McBeal.'' Calista Flockhart's character and show blurs the lines between comedy, drama and reality.

35. Larry Sanders, ``The Larry Sanders Show.'' Garry Shandling's comedy remains the most realistic take on television by television.

36. Marcus Welby, ``Marcus Welby.'' Robert Young was the doctor we all wish was still around.

37. Niles Crane, ``Frasier.'' Kelsey Grammer may be the title character, but David Hyde Pierce (of Saratoga Springs) gets the biggest laughs.

38. Mary Hartman, ``Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.'' Louise Lasser and company offered a dead-eye satire of soaps.

39. Roseanne Conner, ``Roseanne.'' Surprisingly, this blue-collar series starring Roseanne (a k a Roseanne Barr, a k a Roseanne Arnold) holds up well.

40. Jim Rockford, ``The Rockford Files.'' James Garner's private detective had the best answering machine messages and car on television.

41. Eunice, ``The Carol Burnett Show.'' Burnett had to be on the list somehow, and her loud-mouthed Eunice is as good a choice as any.

42. Superman/Clark Kent, ``The Adventures of Superman.'' People couldn't figure out his only disguise was glasses and a gray suit?

43. Alexander Scott, ``I Spy.'' Bill Cosby was the first black to have a starring role in an America drama (1965).

44. Jim Ignatowski, ``Taxi.'' Christopher Lloyd at his best. Jim at a DMV test: ``What does a yellow light mean?'' Tony: ``Slow down.'' Jim: ``Whaaaaat .... doeeees .... a ...''

45. Maude Findlay, ``Maude.'' Edith Bunker's cousin, played by Beatrice (Bea) Arthur and spun off into her own series, was the liberal version of Archie.

46. Bullwinkle, ``The Bullwinkle Show.'' This Cold War satire worked as well for adults as it did for kids, and later ran as a morning series. The narrator? William Conrad.

47. Steve McGarrett, ``Hawaii Five-O.'' Jack Lord is still an idol in Hawaii, and Five-O is still street slang for police.

48. Lassie, ``Lassie.'' How come Timmy's collie was smarter than any dog we ever had?

49. Ben Cartwright, ``Bonanza.'' Lorne Greene's Ben was a positive influence on everyone -- except maybe his wives, who kept dying on him.

50. Robert Hartley, ``The Bob Newhart Show.'' The Chicago psychologist beats out Newhart's Vermont inn owner/writer.

51. Donna Stone, ``Donna Reed Show.'' The ultimate housewife.

52. Sonny Crockett, ``Miami Vice.'' You know that flamingo-pink sports coat you still have in the closet? Blame Don Johnson. And, by the way, shave.

53. Julia Baker, ``Julia.'' In 1968, Diahann Carroll became the first black female lead in a comedy series to hold a position of prestige (rather than as a servant).

54. Jim West, ``Wild, Wild West.'' James T. West was the coolest undercover agent of the 19th century.

55. Batman/Bruce Wayne, ``Batman.'' The story of the tortured Caped Crusader was played for camp -- two nights a week.

56. Carla Tortelli LeBec, ``Cheers.'' So many could have made it, but Rhea Perlman's Carla was the most biting and memorable of them all.

57. Kwai Chang Caine, ``Kung Fu.'' ``Grasshopper'' combined the Western hero, kick-butt fight scenes and heavy swaths of philosophy.

58. John Boy Walton, ``The Waltons.'' The paradigm of preachiness, but the homilies about family and responsibility were just what America needed in the early 1970s.

59. Fred Sanford, ``Sanford and Son.'' Redd Foxx could make a screen door laugh.

60. Robot, ``Lost in Space.'' The coolest toy of childhood. ``Danger! Danger, young Will Robinson.''

61. Jessica Fletcher, ``Murder, She Wrote.'' Between the widowed Fletcher's investigations and Stephen King, Maine does not seem like all that safe a place.

62. Alexis Carrington Colby, ``Dynasty.'' J.R. Ewing in sequined gowns and padded shoulders.

63. Sgt. Ernie Bilko, ``The Phil Silvers Show.'' Silvers was the ultimate con man long before David Leisure's Joe Isuzu.

64. Mick Belker, ``Hill Street Blues.'' In this stellar ensemble cop show rooted in realism, this man-biting, mom-doting detective stood out.

65. Number 6, ``The Prisoner.'' Patrick McGoohan's short-lived summer series (1968-69) was only around for a cup of Kafka, but it was unlike anything on television.

66. Alice Hyatt, ``Alice.'' Widowed mom slung hash before heading to Nashville.

67. Steve Austin, ``The Six Million Dollar Man.'' How could he run so fast in bell-bottoms?

68. Fred Flintstone, ``The Flintstones.'' The stone-age Ralph Kramden proved animation could work for adults in prime time.

69. Charles W. Kingsfield Jr., ``The Paper Chase.'' The law professor played by John Houseman was pendanticism personified.

70. Lou Grant, ``Lou Grant.'' The editor in this dramatic ``MTM'' spinoff ranks among the most accurate portrayals ever of a newspaperman.

71. Endora, ``Bewitched.'' You think you've got mother-in-law problems?

72. Jean-Luc Picard, ``Star Trek: The Next Generation.'': The cerebral anti-Kirk could also kick Borg butt.

73. Jan Brady, ``The Brady Bunch.'' The ultimate middle child, Jan (Eve Plumb) was the only character on the show with any depth.

74. Kermit T. Frog, ``The Muppett Show.'' A triumph of puppetry, Jim Henson's creation made a smooth transition from ``Sesame Street.''

75. Eliot Ness, ``The Untouchables.'' The Robert Stack character and show resulted in cries against violence ... in 1959.

76. Mr. Ed, ``Mr. Ed.'' Just the theme song earns the nod.

77. Lucas McCain, ``The Rifleman.'' Revolver? Chuck Connors didn't need no stinkin' revolver.

78. James Phelps, ``Mission: Impossible.'' Peter Graves was reserved covert professionalism before he became the drooling pilot of ``Airplane!''

79. Dr. James Kildare, ``Dr. Kildare.'' Young hospital intern works his way up the ranks. Are you watching, Dr. Carter?

80. George Jefferson, ``The Jeffersons.'' Sherman Hemsley's George was the black version of Archie Bunker, his old neighbor.

81. Jodie Dallas, ``Soap.'' Billy Crystal's gay character sparked protests from religious groups in the 1970s, long before ``Ellen'' or ``Will & Grace.''

82. Vinnie Barbarino, ``Welcome Back, Kotter.'' You could tell this Sweathog kid Travolta was going places even back then.

83. Eddie Haskell, ``Leave it to Beaver.'' The king of sucking up, played by Ken Osmond, remains the best role model for dealing with the parents of your girlfriend/boyfriend.

84. Les Nessman, ``WKRP in Cincinnati.'' You've worked with a Les Nessman, who put tape on the floor around his desk to mark his ``office.''

85. Grandpa Amos McCoy, ``The Real McCoys.'' Walter Brennan's character and show spawned a host of rustic-themed sitcoms, from ``The Beverly Hillbillies'' to ``Green Acres'' and ``Petticoat Junction.''86. Doug Ross, ``ER.'' Irresponsible but good-hearted, George Clooney's springboard character has touches of Hawkeye in him.

87. Jed Clampett, ``The Beverly Hillbillies.'' Buddy Ebsen's Jed was actually a wise sage among those sitting 'round the cement pond.

88. Phil Fish, ``Barney Miller,'' ``Fish.'' Abe Vigoda had the best deadpan face since Buster Keaton.

89. Bob Collins, ``The Bob Cummings Show.'' Cumming's bachelor photographer Bob Collins was an original '50s swinger, baby.

90. Gomez Addams, ``The Addams Family.'' Suave yet geeky, gentle yet destructive, Gomez would be the coolest uncle in the world.

91. Chief/Sheriff Bill Gillespie, ``In the Heat of the Night.'' Carroll O'Connor proved there was life after Archie, but it took some time.

92. Hans Schultz, ``Hogan's Heroes.'' Schultz may have known ``nut-ting, NUT-ting,'' but John Banner knew how to make us laugh.

93. Livia Soprano, ``The Sopranos.'' The only rookie on the list, Nancy Marchand's Mafia mom left an indelible mark in only 13 episodes. She will move up.

94. Herman Munster, ``The Munsters.'' Fred Gwynne was a serious and accomplished actor, but will always be remembered as the Frankestein-esque family man.

95. Paladin, ``Have Gun Will Travel.'' Richard Boone's Paladin was the dapper Old West hero, the cultured gunslinger.

96. ``The Expert,'' ``Your Show of Shows.'' Like Burnett, Sid Caesar had to make the list, as his show featured the greatest single group of television writers: Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon and Woody Allen.

97. Jeannie, ``I Dream of Jeannie.'' Great song, better costume.

98. Ben Stone, ``Law & Order.'' When Michael Moriarity's assistant district attorney called you ``sir,'' what he really meant was you were a life form lower than a plankton.

99. Xena, ``Xena: Warrior Princess.'' Lucy Lawless is the toughest female on television since Wonder Woman.

100. Mike Torello, ``Crime Story.'' Dennis Farina knew how to play a cop: He used to be one in Chicago.

Mark McGuire is the Times Union TV/Radio writer. His column generally appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call him at 454-5467 or send e-mail to