Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Question of the Week: Who’s the best guest star in television history?

Philip Baker Hall died today at the age of 90, and he inspired this Question of the Week (the one I was going to do can wait!). He inspired it, of course, because he’s the answer. Hall made his film debut in 1970 in Zabriskie Point, and he kicked around for 20 years guest-starring on shows and getting small roles in movies. He was a very funny politician on Cheers late in its run, and he broke through in movies with Hard Eight in 1996, which was Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature. Hall took advantage of his late-career Renaissance, putting together an impressive run that included roles in Boogie Nights, The Insider, the Rush Hour movies, The Rock, Air Force One, and his absolutely stunning work in Magnolia. But would he have gotten any of those roles if not for the single greatest guest-starring role in television history? Of course, I’m talking of his role as Mr. Bookman in “The Library,” the Seinfeld episode that aired on 16 October 1991, when Hall was already 60. You know the role! Jerry didn’t return Tropic of Cancer in 1971, and Bookman is on the trail! Hall delivers his lines, which are very, very funny lines, with a gravitas that should have turned him into the new Leslie Neilsen, if someone had been able to give him a comedic vehicle worth his talent:

“I’ve seen your type before: Flashy, making the scene, flaunting convention.” Hall is brilliant, and Jerry can just barely keep himself from cracking up. Hall got, what, four minutes of screen time (he talks to the librarian whom Kramer is dating briefly in addition to these scenes), and he’s the best guest star in television history. Of course, that’s just my opinion.

So what’s your answer? Let’s keep to a one-time guest star – no recurring roles that are obviously guest stars for a few episodes. Those are worthy, but the actors have a bit more time to work, so they make a different impression. Who’s your best one-episode guest star in television history? And raise a glass to Philip Baker Hall. The dude seemed cool as fuck.


  1. Darthratzinger

    Luke Skywalker, Artoo-Deeto and C-3PO on the Muppet Show. Didn´t even think about anything else. I read that as a kid in our TV guide and couldn´t wait. Unfortunately I must have misbehaved or something so I wasn´t allowed to watch TV for a couple of days. It was finally on Saturday afternoon so what I did was to turn on the TV and watch it with my head sticking up from behind the couch, hoping my parents wouldn´t enter and notice my cunning plan. What can I say, I am a criminal genius!

    1. Greg Burgas

      My daughter is a big Muppet Show fan, and we have the first three seasons on DVD (inexplicably, the last two were never released). Finally, they showed up on Disney+, so she can watch them (she doesn’t like them as much as the first three seasons, because she hasn’t memorized them yet). That one is downright weird, but like all Muppet Show episodes, quite good. Hamill playing himself and Luke is awesome. I’m not sure if the Muppet Show should count, because the point is that you had guest stars every week, but I’ll allow it! 🙂

      1. Darthratzinger

        Dammit, Your graciousness makes me withdraw my entry. When I re-watched the Muppet Show as an adult I noticed that as a kid I probably didn´t know 80% of the guests ( as an adult I didn´t know about 40%, too many US-television people, I guess), so that also made this one episode special.
        Then I say Anthrax on Married With Children. Probably one of my least favorite TV shows ever but they had a Thrash Metal band on. My first “second” choice was Michael Stipe sitting in the cupboard on the Colbert Report, but that was a repeat performance.

        1. Eric van Schaik

          I haven’t seen a lot of episodes of Married with Children, but I’ve seen the Anthrax one. 🙂 There wasn’t a lot of Metal on tv back then (and still is I guess).

      1. Greg Burgas

        Man, Alice Cooper trying to get the Muppets to sell their souls to his “master” is a thing that happened on prime-time television in the United States. The Seventies were weird, man.

  2. HAL 2000

    Great choice, Greg.
    There’s too many for just a single “greatest one-shot guest star of all time” but some of my favourites include: Alan Fudge in the M*A*S*H episode Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler; John Hurt as the War Doctor in the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special, Day of the Doctor (will the 60th Anniversary special be better than that of have anything to equal JOHN HURT AS THE DOCTOR?! No, no it won’t. Call me psychic! No, I didn’t say psyCHO. Tsk, tsk); William Windom in Star Trek’s The Doomsday Machine; Jenny Agutter for her cameo in Red Dwarf VI’s Psirens; Philip Madoc as but all mad scientist Solon in the Doctor Who story The Brain of Morbius; Vincent D’onofrio for the Homicide: Life on the Street in which plays a doomed man trapped under a train; a bit of a cheat but Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the “blind” lawyer in Arrested Development was/is hilarious (she did return once but that doesn’t entirely qualify her as recurring…sez I and I’m specifically referring to her original appearance cos I’m tricky!); Edward Asner *and* Lilly Tomlin (another semi-cheat!) in the X-Files episode How the Ghosts Stole Christmas; yet another act of prestidigitation: Christopher Lloyd as Reverend Jim in Paper Wedding from Taxi, he returned as a regular in Season Two but this is his one real guest shot on the show: he was so good they made him a regular, that HAS to count… Right? Right? Helloooo? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?
    Jenna Coleman as the Victorian Clara Oswald in Doctor Who’s The Snowmen, yes she played Oswin in her first appearance and would return as a different Clara as a regular but all three are – technically! – different characters and Clara I is immediately appealing so it is even more devastating when she -SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER for a soon-to-be ten year-old Christmas special – dies at the end. Plus, she’s played by Jenna Coleman and is therefore close-to-perfect. *ahem*

    1. Greg Burgas

      Hal: I honestly have not seen most of those (I’ve seen Lloyd on Taxi, of course!), but I agree that “being played by Jenna Coleman” would make most guest stars memorable!

    2. Alan Fudge in M*A*S*H is a great pick; as you no doubt know, Hal, this episode is where Radar’s first name Walter is revealed. Ed Winter as Col Flagg & Al Arbus as Sidney Freedman (spell?) were also great occasional M*A*S*H guest stars and thus sadly ineligible for this category. Arbus appears in this episode since he’s the local shrink who visits airforce Captain Chandler who thinks he’s Jesus.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Dang, that’s pretty funny. I don’t remember that at all – I watched Night Court only sporadically, so I probably missed that one.

  3. Rantel

    Albert Brooks as Hank Scorpio in the classic Simpsons episode You Only Move Twice.

    Perhaps fudging the rules slightly, as Brooks appears in multiple episodes of the show’s earlier years, but as a different character each time.

  4. As always I’ll use my lack of a long term memory to throw out a weird one: episode three of the most recent attempt to revive the X-Files.

    Specifically Rhys Darby as Guy Mann in “Mulder and Scully Meet The Were-Monster”.

    His exceptionally long narration of life as a lizard living as a human – that they dare not interrupt with an ad break and I was just gobsmacked they let it go on so long – was hilarious start to finish. Maybe it wasn’t that long? Maybe it was just jam-packed with ridiculousness it seemed longer than it was. It barely seemed like I was watching the X-Files.

  5. mike loughlin

    Okay, please hear me out on this one:

    I used to live with someone who liked The Big Bang Theory.

    No, no, come back, it’s good I swear!

    I watched it sometimes because I was in the room, and it… wasn’t a good show. I’m not going to lie and say it was the worst show I’ve ever seen or that I never laughed, but the joke-to-laugh ratio was pretty low.

    Then, in one episode, Sheldon met James Earl Jones. Now, the laugh track is obtrusive and dialogue isn’t amazing or anything, but the way JEJ sells it cracked me up. Another Star Wars alum has a cameo later in the episode that’s pretty funny, too.

    Is it the greatest guest appearance of all time? Probably not, but getting me to enjoy The Big Bang Theory is a monumental feat of acting that deserves a place in the guest star hall of fame.

    The scene in which Sheldon meets James Earl Jones (about 1:10 long):


    (My actual choice might be Hank Azaria as Frank Grimes in The Simpson’s episode “Homer’s Enemy.” I also loved that the episode of Legends of Tomorrow that had John Noble playing himself was called “Guest Starring John Noble.” He also played another role in the show that played into the plot, but he only appeared as himself in the one episode so I’ll count it)

    1. Greg Burgas

      Azaria is so good in that role! And I haven’t seen the John Noble episode, but now I have to, because that has be excellent.

      For some reason, I can’t remember the James Earl Jones episode of TBBT. I didn’t watch the show when it was first broadcast, but TBS plays it on an infinite loop right now, so I’ve ended up seeing a lot of it. I know he appeared, but for some reason, it’s not sticking in my head. No, wait, is that the one where he and Sheldon get ice cream or something? Or am I insane? Wait, don’t answer that.

  6. Adrien

    Am I allowed to pick an ensemble.l guest cast? Because if so,.I’m going with the cast of the original star trek on Futurama. At the very least, it’s Shatner’s best performance.

    “Now my ship, whom I love like a women, is disabled”.

    I believe John Hurt as the Doctor was already mentioned.

    Jack Black’s guest star on the community practically defined the rest of the show

    I wish I could say Alber Brooks on the Simpsons, but, despite playing different characters each time, he’s been on too many episodes and even the movie to count. Which is a shame, as he just steals the show, even in the newer stuff.

    1. Greg Burgas

      That works. I missed that one – my record with Futurama has became very spotty after the first season, even though I liked it. It just fell by the wayside, but that sounds like a fun episode.

      1. Le Messor

        It was. It’s where we get lines like:
        George Takei : You see, the show was banned after the Star Trek wars.
        Captain Zapp Brannigan : You mean the mass migration of Star Wars fans?
        Nichelle Nichols : No, that was the Star Wars trek.

  7. John King

    spent some time thinking about thins and jogging my memory
    With a quick answer I would have said something like William Shatner in Police Squad or, maybe, Buster Crabbe in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

    I believe the best of all time is probably Peter Sellers as Tommy Grando in 1970s sitcom Sykes in the episode “the Stranger”
    (there are claims he may have made an uncredited second appearance
    I have not found details and suspect it may have been a clip of the first appearance rather than a real second appearance -plus the second episode was the reveal that the whole thing was a TV show so if a new appearance he would probably be playing himself )

    A runner-up would be Leonard Rossiter’s appearance as an escaped convict in the Steptoe and Son episode – the Desperate Hours (breaking into their home to steal their car only to find out that their only transport was a horse and cart)

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