The Death of the TV Butler–Literally

A little break from politics today…

TV, movies, and literature used to be filled with Butlers, that manservant to the well to do. But the character device has fallen out of favor lately, so much so that if an actor was famous for playing a butler, he’s probably dead!

Of course, one of the most famous butlers in entertainment history is Reginald Jeeves of the novels penned by P. G. Wodehouse. Jeeves was brought to life on British TV in the early 1990s by comedic actor Stephen Fry. Thankfully, Fry still with us, of course, but the character is an old one having first made the literary scene in 1915.

The most recent TV butler is Mr. Carson on the well-loved British series “Downton Abbey.” Mr. Carson is played by actor Jim Carter who is also still very much alive as this show is still in production. We were also recently treated to actor Forest Whitaker in the schmaltzy movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” a 2013 film also starring Oprah Winfrey. Certainly Whitaker is still alive and working in Hollywood. But a whole host of other film and TV butlers have passed on to that great mansion in the sky and the role of the butler is not used much these days to bring us new ones to replace them.

Batman’s Alfred

Batman has quite a famous butler in the personae of one Mr. Alfred Pennyworth. With apologies to Mr. Wodehouse, I’d suggest that Alfred is the most famous butler in all of western entertainment as we’ve seen more of Mr. Pennyworth than any other butler in the last 70 years.

Alfred first appeared in the comic books in 1943, and most recently famed actor Michael Caine took the role for the Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” series of Batman movies. Caine is very much with us, granted. We also hear that Jeremy Irons will be taking the role of Alfred in next year’s Superman sequel, “Batman vs. Superman”–he’s also alive and kicking, naturally.

The two mentioned above aside, Alfred has also been personified on TV and in film by several other actors all of whom are dead. In the late 1960s Alan Napier took the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman’s trusted servant. Napier passed in 1988. Later, when the Batman movies started making headway in the series begun by director Tim Burton, Michael Gough played the famous manservant. Gough died in 2011. Ian Abercrombie also played Alfred for the one-season-long series “Birds of Prey.” He died in 2012. And at least two others who played Alfred in the 1940s era movie serials are also dead.

Famous Movie Butlers

Another famous movie butler is Godfrey from the film “My Man Godfrey.” He was played to a “T” by actor William Powell, one of the most famous actors to ever appear as a butler. Powell went to his reward way back in 1984. Another great movie butler was Mr. Coleman from “Trading Places.” Actor Denholm Elliot died in 1992. Then there was the patient and wise Hobson from the movie “Arthur.” Sir John Gielgud filled the role perfectly. Sir John is now serving in the afterlife having died in the year 2000.

TV’s Major-Domos

There is also a long list of TV butlers, many of whom are dead.

One of the earliest to pass away on us–and tragically so in his case–was “The Green Hornet’s” Bruce Lee who played kick butt steward Kato. Lee died in 1973 from a bad reaction to pain medication prescribed to him by a doctor.

Next we lost the amiable Sebastian Cabot, Mr. Giles French from TV’s “Family Affair.” Cabot left us in 1977. Only a few years later, in 1979 we lost Ted Cassidy who was Lurch from “The Adams Family.” In 1980 Chinese-American actor Victor Sen Yung died. He played the Cartwright’s Chinese major-domo Hop Sing on “Bonanza” from 1959 to 1973. Next, in 1983, William Demarest died. Demarest played the avuncular Charley O’Casey on “My Three Sons.”

In the 1980s TV was still using the occasional butler character and one beloved iteration of the role was the character Max from “Hart To Hart.” Actor Lionel Stander died in 1994 a decade after his show was canceled. Another beloved butler was Lynn Belvedere from the show “Mr. Belvedere.” The man who brought Belvedere to life, Christopher Hewett, ended his in 2001 (As did Clifton Webb who played the same character in the 1948 film “Sitting Pretty.” Gone in 1966).

Those Still With Us

Granted some of our latest most loved TV butlers are still alive, though some, like actor Robert Guillaume, are not doing well. Guillaume, who played the character Benson DuBois on “Soap” and the later spinoff series “Benson,” has had several strokes and is not in good health. But he is still hanging in there.

As to some other keepers of the house, John Hillerman, who played Jonathan Higgins of “Magnum PI” fame, is still with us–though he was more like an estate manager since his master was never around, so maybe this character doesn’t apply as a “butler”. Regardless, a few other butlers are still among us. Joseph Marcell, who starred as Geoffrey the butler from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” is still plodding along we hear. And Daniel Davis, Niles from “The Nanny,” is also still alive and working. Two other actors who played sort of butler-like characters, Tony Danza of “Who’s the Boss” and Scott Baio of “Charles in Charge” are also with us yet today–though they weren’t strictly butlers as they mostly tended to the children instead of masters.

Where is Today’s Dutiful Manservant?

In any case, the idea of having a butler on a TV show may seem somewhat old fashioned, or shockingly too bourgeoisie for today’s TV writers to contemplate these days, but it is a tried and true character nonetheless.

Still, it is telling that the only butler on TV today is one invoking the late days of the British Empire on “Downton Abbey,” a character that if he were real people would long since be dead today.

Speaking of dead butlers, another recent butler character was German immigrant Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura) on HBO’s 1920s era gangster series “Boardwalk Empire.” I invoke “dead” here because this character committed suicide in season four after betraying his master.

In that case, the butler is dead, indeed. Quite dead. And so, maybe, is the role of the butler for future entertainment.

Yes the butler is a character that has been out of fashion so long that most of the actors that famously had the opportunity to bring such a part to life are now long dead.

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  • Vagabond661

    Now when are you going to do the maid?

    • warnertoddhuston

      Ha, I was thinking of that, too. The same pretty much holds true. Most of TVs maids are dead, too. But there are more live maids than Butlers, though. There were also more famous TV maids, so the list and gathering photos would take quite a while.

    • Walter_Cronanty

      Well, that’s quite a rude question.

      • Brucehenry

        I always wanted to do “The Nanny,” but only if I could wear earplugs.

        • warnertoddhuston

          Gawd that show was annoyingly stupid.

          • Brucehenry

            Well yeah but whatshername was hot.

          • jim_m

            Seeing as Fran Drescher is a victim of rape your comments are rather unfunny.

          • Brucehenry

            So what? She played a hottie on TV. She wore sexy clothes. You were SUPPOSED to think she was hot. That was part of the show.

            Spare me the PC bullshit. No gotcha this time.

          • jim_m

            I’m just telling you that I think it’s creepy. No gotcha intended.

          • Brucehenry

            It’s revealing that you apparently think that a woman who has been raped can never be seen as sexy or desirable again.

            I had forgotten about Fran Drescher’s story. But she was quite sexy and attractive in the 90s.

          • jim_m

            I didn’t say that. I just thought that creepy comments about having sex with her (when she doesn’t know you) were exactly that: creepy. Saying that she is very attractive is another thing entirely.

          • Brucehenry

            God, Jim, jokes ain’t funny if you have to explain them, but I was riffing on somebody’s question about when Warner was gonna “do the maid.” If it was inappropriate, it was inappropriate regardless of whether Fran Drescher had been a rape victim. That was a gotcha attempt, and a lame one.

            And since when is wishing you could bang a movie star creepy? Sex symbols are sex symbols for a reason, you puritanical prude. Talk about the “feminization of America.” What a weenie.

          • jim_m

            So just remember that should a family member of yours ever get raped (you have a daughter right?) that you are OK with people saying publicly how they want to have sex with her. In fact you would want to encourage such statements as they would demonstrate that she is still a desirable person.

            And no, I am not suggesting that such a horrible thing should happen to someone in your family. I am just pointing out that you may think differently of your comments if it were someone else who you actually saw as a real person. But then being a lefty, you probably have great difficulty in recognizing others as real people with real feelings and real rights.

          • Brucehenry

            If my daughters were movie or TV stars whose job it was to look sexy and be a sex symbol I guess it would come with the territory. Since they don’t have that job or that ambition I figure it’s a safe bet that most people would be polite about it if they ever found out such a terrible thing — hypothetically, mind you I’m sure you mean no ill will yeah right — had happened to one of them.

            Let me guess. You never played sports or had a lot of “guy friends,” right Jim? Because it’s not uncommon for one guy to remark to another how hot, say, Scarlett Johannsen or Charlize Theron is, and the fun he might like to have with her. It’s kinda what guys do, Jim.

            During World War Two there were pinups of Betty Grable all over the Armed Forces barracks wherever they were. I’m pretty sure a GI or two remarked to his buddy what he’d like to do with Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth. WHY DO YOU HATE AMERICA’S GREATEST GENERATION, JIM???

            LOL you weenie.

          • jim_m

            I played sports and was in a fraternity, so I guess you are completely wrong. the difference is that I have a sense of empathy for others where you do not.

          • Brucehenry

            Chess Club is not a fraternity.

            What a sad, petty little man you are.

          • jim_m

            Greek letter Fraternity. You wouldn’t understand being an uneducated Luddite that likes to fantasize about raping public figures.

            Petty. That’s funny coming from the man for whom this is considered a reasoned argument in defense of your ideas.

            I also draw a distinction between appreciating how beautiful a woman is and carrying on about how you want to “do” her. Apparently you cannot draw any such distinction. I’d hate to be your daughter. I sure as hell hope you don’t find her attractive since obviously that would only mean one thing to you.

          • Brucehenry

            Of course, Greek letter fraternity. And no one in it ever talked about banging starlets. Simply unheard of in the rarefied circles from which the brothers were recruited, I’m sure.

            Hey was that in the same college that taught you about church-state relations in Western history? LOL.

            And figure skating isn’t the kind of sports I was talking about. I didn’t even know they offered that at Pensacola Bible College.

          • jim_m

            Funny that you want to keep on engaging in someone that you think is so far over the line. Apparently not that far in reality.

          • Brucehenry

            Look at the time stamps stupid.

          • Brucehenry

            Way too far you petty pathetic slug.

            Instead of being furious, though, I’m glad you posted on this thread. First your imaginary, overly PC gotcha. Then your silly attempt to say that’s not what it was. Instead, it’s “creepy” to express a bro-talk wish to bang a TV star as if I was the only one who ever said anything like that. Ever see an old Bob Hope routine? (BTW my creepy little joke got 6 up votes and counting. Are all those guys creeps too?)

            After a little insult swapping, though, you go full blown into ACTUAL creepiness, with your unimaginable insinuations and insistence on dragging my daughters into it. And not for the first time, either, even though I’ve warned you you don’t wanna go there.

            So let’s talk about your failed marriage instead. Or we could agree that some things are going too far.

            But I’m glad we had this little talk, and I hope it stays up a long time. The better for all the regulars to see what kind of miserable human being you are. A man who would say such a thing about another man’s daughter is no man at all, as you have demonstrated here.

          • jim_m

            I didn’t drag them into it. I dragged your unscrupulous morality into it.

          • Brucehenry

            It’s plain for all to see, there’s no wriggling out of it now. I hope it stays on the front page all week so everyone can see it.

          • jim_m

            Alas, you keep on making more comments…

            What is so vulgar about asking what your daughter looks like?

            Or did your thoughts immediately go to having sex with your daughter? THAT says something quite a lot about your mind.

          • Brucehenry

            Keep it up you’re doing great.

          • jim_m

            Whatever. I can’t help it if your lack of education means you don’t understand syntax.

          • Brucehenry

            Oh, SYNTAX yeah now I get it hilarious.

          • Brucehenry

            Yes your sense of empathy was evident in your Max Cleland joke last week. The one I chose not to call you out over, because everyone makes a joke that falls flat once in a while.

          • Commander_Chico

            You’re so funny when you’re all PC, jim. Like Andrea Dworkin.

            Fran Drescher was hawt!

          • Paul Hooson

            Hey Commander! Not everyone knew it, but Andrea Dworkin was actually an optical illusion – Actually wider than she was tall. Believe it or not!

          • jim_m

            Sorry if I think that stating that you want to screw a woman who was raped is more than a little creepy. I wouldn’t expect that you would have any compunction about saying this. Hell, I would think that you would have wanted to join in.

          • Brucehenry

            Weenie. Loser. Nosepicker.

          • jim_m

            Ooh, the incisiveness of your commentary just cuts me to the quick. How am I to counter such a sophisticated argument for your cause?

          • Brucehenry

            Sorry, I meant lonely, awkward, know-it-all know-nothing blowhard with no friends. Excuse me.

          • Paul Hooson

            It was an earlier attempt by CBS to build quality comedies. Today, CBS has done a much better job. – But, that shrill voice of hers had all of the quality of nails on a chalkboard. – Here’s a little trivia bit here. – In MAD Magazine parodies, Alfred the butler was always called Neuman….

    • Who cares? Oprah is all I know that wants this done. O is mad because her movie was nothing but terrible acting and lies.
      Heard it from the grape vine.
      Never saw it, don’t plan to, GRRRRRRRRRRRR

  • stan25

    And then there is the old melodrama plot, the Butler did the dastardly deed.

  • Paul Hooson

    I actually have a little bit of the same thing around me. I have a loyal organization that surround me. Some will help me on any project I have, while others are mostly for protection and able to fend of most any threat to me.

  • Retired military

    I have to take Bruce’s side on this one.
    He didn’t mention thinking she was sexy because she was raped. He said he found her attractive and desireable. Something which a lot of women would like to be thought of as. Yes he was a bit cruder about it but his comments had nothing to do with rape.
    I mean look at the poster of Farrah Fawcett from the 70s. That poster alone was responsible for the death of more semen (Seamen) than WW2.
    I think you are way off base with this one. Just my opinion.

    • Brucehenry

      Check out the stuff he’s been saying since you posted this, RM. He’s a sick little man.

    • jim_m

      Very well. He doesn’t respond well to the goading that he so likes to give out.

  • Lawrence Westlake

    Like everything else this is a function of the West’s decline. You need good actors to play the roles of butlers. Remember Anthony Hopkins in “The Remains of the Day?” And for every Jim Carter as Carson on “Downton Abbey” there are a dozen walking mannequins out there who got to where they are in today’s Hollywood by smoking someone’s pole. Then there’s the race issue. You can’t portray a black butler, because that wouldn’t be PC. You can’t portray a black butler to a white master, because that would lead to protests and to candlelight vigils. TV plots have been dumbed down to nothingness and character development has been reduced to trying to make gays and lesbians as normal as apple pie. Not much room anymore for butlers.

  • Commander_Chico

    Forgot to say, this was an interesting and amusing piece Warner. I guess Alfred is the last butler standing.

    Greatest butler movie ever was “The Remains of the Day.”