Considering how many butlers have appeared on various TV shows over the years, one very question cannot help but rear its ugly head. Why have so few of these butlers done it? Commit murder, that is. “The butler did it” is one of the oldest narrative devices in the creative arts. And yet you can find very TV butler who actually committed murder. What you have instead is a dizzying variety of character types who have donned the butler gloves, such as they are.
Lurch: The Addams Family
You probably already have an idea of what a butler is supposed to look like and I’ll wager that he doesn’t look much like Lurch from “The Addams Family.” But, seriously, if you were able to afford a butler, would you rather have some effete Jeeves or Lurch? A butler is not just there to serve tea and crumpets. He needs to take a hand in protecting you from unwanted guests, right? Give a butler better than Lurch for this purpose?
Like Alfred, for instance. Here’s a butler who doesn’t have nearly the imposing presence of Lurch but not only is able to keep Aunt Harriet from discovering a mammoth cave equipped with the latest in jet age technology beneath Wayne Manor, but even occasionally fills in for the Caped Crusader when needed. Alfred may well be the ultimate American butler to Jeeves’ position as the ultimate British butler.
Benson from “Soap” is a memorable TV butler. Benson from “Benson” is a great butler. The difference is not that subtle. When he was on “Soap” Benson was an acid-tongued addition to the great legacy of sarcastic black butlers in film and TV. Once he got his own show, he paradoxically became more submissive. Tamed and finally removed of the quality that made him so funny he was seen as deserving of his own spin-off, Benson improved as a human being, not devolved as a character.
Mr. French: Family Affair
More than a butler, Mr. French was a caretaker. Not just of Buffy, Jody and Cissy, but of Uncle Bill as well. The very versatile Sebastian Cabot could go from playing an Oxford Professor of Criminology to a butler without skipping a beat. Something about the man positively exuded self-confidence and the very best meaning of the word competence.
Higgins: Our Man Higgins
I think it says something about the job of butler that so many of those who pop up on American TV were born in the U.K. Stanley Holloway’s most famous role was as the father of “My Fair Lady” but in 1962 he too joined the ranks of British actors to serve the every need of an American. An American family that inherited a properly trained Scottish butler at the bequest of their ancestral line back in the Old Country. “Our Man Higgins” is memorable for no other reason that its very existence is probably a symbol of America’s deep-seated feelings of inferiority to the country that still insists on referring to us as colonists.
Igor: Count Duckula
On while we’re on the subject of ancestral lines. The titular character of this British cartoon that used to air on Nickelodeon back when that channel was worth watching is a vampire who can be resurrected after he has been been successfully dispose of once a century. The most recent attempt at breathing new life into this undead duck did not go according to plan. Ketchup was accidentally used in place of blood during the ritual and as a result the latest incarnation of Duckula is a vampire. Which is very displeasing to Igor, the centuries-old butler who has served every one of the previous incarnations of Count Duckula. What makes Igor such a memorable butler is that he is in constant conflict with the fact that vegetarianism also seems to have affect the vampire’s thirst for things dark and violent as well as as appetite. He never stops trying to get the new Duckula to behave like his lineage, but he also remains forever his obedient and faithful servant.