One of the last survivors from the golden age of TV character actors, Arab-American actor and all-purpose ethnic Michael Ansara died last Wednesday at the age of 91. Given his versatility, it's a shame that the obits I've read identify him mainly with one role he played: Kang the Klingon, who appeared on three different Star Trek series. Mind you, Ansara made a kick-ass Klingon in both the greasy mode of the 1960s and the knobby mode of the 1990s. But he did so much more besides. Just to keep the Trekkers' attention, I just saw Ansara and Leonard Nimoy playing brother marshals in an episode of The Virginian a few weeks ago. Not typed ethnically for once, the actors portrayed hard-assed Earp-like unpopular lawmen. The episode played on expectations that the marshals would prove the heavies of the piece, despite Ansara having played heroes on two different series previously. It takes our ever-unnamed title character (I call him "Virge.") a while to figure out that the grim lawmen are actually in the right. Seeing the light finally, Virge (that's James Drury, by the way) challenges the Ansara character to smile for once. Only after Virge boards the train to leave does Ansara give us a hint of a grin.
I miss the days when character actors made any given episode of a series, when the focus was on the guest star and, more importantly, a truly complete story, at least as much as on the regular stars of the show. The old format created ample opportunities for the actors of Ansara's generation to show their stuff and make lasting names for themselves. There were names you could trust to provide a solid hour of entertainment when they showed up as guest stars on any given show. I use those names to decide what I'm going to record on my DVR when the old shows turn up on cable today. It doesn't seem like there's a similar generation of character actors worthy of the "guest star" label now, and that makes Ansara's passing all the more sad.
In addition, he was married to Jeannie-era Barbara Eden and had the stones to defy the jihadis a generation ahead of the rest of us by appearing in Muhammad, Messenger of God. The movie isn't really that great, but Ansara makes a good villain as usual and the gesture deserves an additional salute.