Legend: Several TV series have included leading characters whose full names were never revealed.
Origins: We might consider it anything from a testament to the power of television as an entertainment medium to a sad commentary on the state of modern-day
interpersonal relationships that we may know far more about characters on our favorite TV series than we do about the real people we interact with in our daily lives. For example, regular viewers of the popular NBC sitcom Friends know a fair bit about the background and life of the Ross Geller character: his education (he holds a doctorate in Paleontology), his employment (he worked at the New York Museum of Natural History before taking up a university teaching position), his marital history (he was divorced from his first wife, Carol, after seven years of marriage when she disclosed to him she was a lesbian; he’s since entered into two more marriages, both short-lived), his children (a son, Ben, by his first wife; and a daughter, Emma, by sometimes-girlfriend Rachel), and his family (his overbearing parents, Jack and Judy Geller, and his younger, formerly overweight sister Monica). Many of us don’t know as much about our neighbors or co-workers.
Fictional though television characters may be, we viewers come to know them and to care about them. Yet how we gain knowledge of them differs from our learning about real-life acquaintances in that it is wholly dictated by how much or how little the shows’ producers choose to display of their creations — we can’t, for example, ask our favorite television characters how they feel about certain past events, then use that intelligence to add to our understanding of their motivations and reactions. Because the control of what we know about TV characters is entirely one-sided (a quality sometimes used in furtherance of the shows’ goals), even the most basic pieces of information may be kept from us, leading to the oddest of situations.
One such odd situation involving incomplete information has been exemplified in several long-running television series that featured familiar leading characters about whom the audience never learned a most basic piece of information: their names. We thought it might be interesting to survey some popular television programs wherein this disconnect occurs to examine why certain important characters remained nameless, and how their nameless states were explained and preserved within the context of their shows:
Gilligan’s Island: Seven castaways spent three seasons (1964-67) marooned on an island in the South Pacific after the sightseeing boat S.S. Minnow was caught in a storm off Hawaii, but during that time we viewers heard little mention of the full names of the characters stranded on Gilligan’s Island. In line with series creator Sherwood Schwartz’s desire to make his castaways “prototypes rather than completely flesh and blood,” the characters were referred to only by first names or nicknames
(except the Howells, whose stature required they be addressed with the more formal “Mr.” or “Mrs.” followed by their last name).
We heard the full names of Mr. Howell, the multi-millionaire (Thurston Howell III), and Ginger, the actress (Ginger Grant), used many times throughout the series, of course, because they were both celebrities well-known to the world at large. But the only time viewers heard any mention of Mary Ann’s last name (Summers) or the real names of the Skipper (Jonas Grumby) and the Professor (Roy Hinkley) came during a radio announcement inserted into the very first episode. (The pilot for the series was unusable as a premiere episode because three of the cast members had been replaced after it was filmed, so a news broadcast was incorporated into the first aired episode [“Two on a Raft”] to provide viewers with some background information about who the characters were and how they came to be stranded on the island. Most of the pilot was later aired as flashback scenes during the first season’s Christmas episode [“Birds Gotta Fly, Fish Gotta Talk”].)
The script for the penultimate episode of the second season (“Mr. and Mrs.?”) noted that the real first name of Mrs. Howell (whom Mr. Howell always called by her nickname, “Lovey”) was actually Eunice. The show never did reveal Gilligan’s full name (a subject we cover in more detail on another page in this section).
Note: The Professor’s full name is sometimes mistakenly rendered as “Roy Hinkley, Jr.,” but as used in the series there was no “Jr.” at the end of his name. The confusion likely stems from a similarity between the Professor’s name and that of John Hinckley, Jr., the Jodie Foster-obsessed fan who attempted to assassinate President Reagan in 1981.
Get Smart: For five seasons (1965-70), CONTROL Agents and 86 and 99 strove to keep the world safe from the nefarious plotting of KAOS, the international criminal organization, in the spy spoof Get Smart. Befitting the nature of the super-secret intelligence organization for which they worked, CONTROL agents were generally referred to by number, but the lead character’s real name (Maxwell Smart) was used interchangeably with his CONTROL number. Although the show featured a bewildering array of minor characters — some known only by their numbers (such as Agent 13, who was always assigned to conduct surveillance while stuffed inside some cramped, uncomfortable station, such as a mailbox or a washing machine), and some known only by their names (such as Larabee, the Chief’s
aide) — the enduring mystery is the real name of the capable and intelligent Agent 99, Maxwell Smart’s most frequent CONTROL partner (appearing in all but a handful of episodes) and later his wife.
Neither Agent 99’s first name or last name was ever disclosed on the show, in accordance with the wishes of series co-developer Buck Henry: “I always thought that 99 should have no name. I fought in the first or second year — I fought a battle with someone somewhere to keep her nameless. She stayed that way all through . . .” (Agent 99’s non-named condition reinforced her character’s status as a second banana, the straight woman to Maxwell Smart’s comedic lead role.) When 99 once quit CONTROL and unknowingly got engaged to a KAOS agent named Victor Royal (in the episode “99 Loses Control”), she told her fiancé that her name was Susan Hilton, but she later confided to Max that “Susan Hilton” was a false identity. (When Max addressed her as Susan, she responded, “It’s 99, Max. Susan isn’t my real name.”)
Keeping 99’s name a secret got to be something of a running joke in the series. Max, the Chief, and other CONTROL agents always referred to her as “Agent 99” or simply “99”; her mother called her only “dear” or “sweetie,” never by name; and even when she got married to Max, the portion of the wedding ceremony in which the bride’s name would typically be announced (e.g., “Do you, Jane, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?”) was drowned out by a guest’s snoring.
Perhaps the most amusing aspect of 99’s namelessness was Max’s lack of curiosity about it. When he found out that she had revealed her name to Victor Royal, he pouted that she had never told him about it, but when she disclosed that “Susan Hilton” was a false name, he didn’t bother asking her what her real name was. Moreover, even after Max and 99 were married and had children together, Max continued to call her “99.”
Get Smart included many minor and recurring characters whose full names were not used, but the only other major role with a non-disclosed full name was the Chief — officially Agent Q (he joined CONTROL back in the days when agents were assigned letters rather than numbers), the Chief disclosed (while being badgered on the witness stand by Max in the episode “The Day Smart Turned Chicken”) only that his first name was Thaddeus.
Columbo: For six seasons (1971-77) as an entry in the NBC Mystery Movie series (and in revivals and specials that continue to this day), Lieutenant Columbo, the unkempt Los Angeles homicide detective whose trademarks were a rumpled raincoat, an ancient, rusting Peugeot, and an ever-present cigar, combined “the deductive genius of Sherlock Holmes with the dogged determination of Inspector Maigret” to
ensnare dozens of killers who thought they had covered their tracks beyond any chance of discovery:
Lt. Columbo drove a beat-up old car, wore a dirty, rumpled trench coat that looked at least ten years old, and acted for all the world like an incompetent bumbler. He was excessively polite to everyone, went out of his way not to offend any of the suspects, and seemed like a hopeless choice to solve any crime, especially a well-conceived murder. But all that was superficial, designed to lull the murderer into a false sense of security. Despite his appearance, Columbo was one of the shrewdest, most resourceful detectives on the Los Angeles police force. Slowly and methodically he pieced together the most minute clues leading to the identity of the killer, who, when his guilt was revealed, was always incredulous that such an unlikely cop had managed to find him out.
Coulmbo’s creators, writers Dick Levinson and Bill Link, paradoxically believed the less viewers knew about Lt. Columbo the more interesting he would appear, so he has always been a rather mysterious figure. The only setting in which we see Columbo is while he’s actively working on a case — we don’t observe him at home or away from the job, and we rarely see him at the office. (Even when Lt. Columbo occasionally goes on vacation, it’s simply a framework for his being caught up in a murder investigation somewhere else.) His interactions with colleagues and civilians are strictly professional, not social. All we know about Columbo are the indirect tidbits about himself he sometimes drops in the course of conversation — although he may speak of his wife, his relatives, or other acquaintances, we never meet any of them. (Even when Columbo faked his wife’s murder in one episode [“Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo”] to frame a killer, Mrs. Columbo was merely referred to, not seen.) We don’t know so much as his wife’s first name, because he never mentions it. We don’t even know his first name.
In fact, we viewers can’t be sure that we can trust what little we do learn about Columbo by observing and listening to him. According to Peter Falk, the actor who has portrayed Lt. Columbo for close to four decades, his character’s ambiguity is a deliberate trait:
Ask [Peter Falk] about specifics and he responds, “Oh, I’m not going to talk about that. That’s the beauty of it. Everyone can think about what the wife should look like. Did he have children? Did he have one? Did he have ten? That’s up to them to decide. You never know when Columbo is genuine. I tried to play it so you could never tell whether the politeness was part of his nature or part of his act. Let the viewers decide. You always have that ambiguity. Almost anything he does can be taken two ways. A lot of what he says he might be making up while he’s sitting having chili somewhere.”
With so many details of Lt. Columbo’s life and person deliberately obscured, his first name remains one of the enduring enigmas of series television. It has never been mentioned (or even hinted at) in the show itself, although the series has included a few in-jokes providing the lieutenant with opportunities to deftly deflect any inquiries about his given name. In one episode (“By Dawn’s Early Light”) Col. Lyle C. Rumford asks Columbo, “Do you have a first name?” to which the lieutenant responds, “I do; my wife is the only one who uses it.” In another episode (“It’s All in the Game”) Laura Staton poses the question more directly, inquiring “What’s your first name?” prompting Columbo to answer, “Lieutenant.”
Although fans have come up with a variety of guesses about Columbo’s name over the years, the given name most commonly (and mistakenly) attributed to the gumshoe is “Philip,” an error that apparently came about through a bit of protective chicanery. In the 1970s, Fred Worth published several compilations of trivia, including The Trivia Encyclopedia and The Complete Unabridged Super Trivia Encyclopedia. Into one of his Super Trivia books he inserted a “false fact” as a copyright trap, similar to the mapmakers’ technique of including fictitious elements in maps (such as non-existent streets) to serve as evidence of unauthorized borrowing when their works were copied by others. The phony tidbit he chose to plant was the revelation that Lt. Columbo’s first name is “Philip.” Sure enough, when the trivia-based board game Trivial Pursuit took the market by storm in the early 1980s, Worth noticed that about a third of the question-answer combinations used in the game duplicated information (along with typos and misprints) published in his Super Trivia books — including a “smoking gun” question about Columbo’s first name:
Worth filed a lawsuit against the game’s inventors and distributors for copyright infringement, but he ultimately came away with nothing. (One cannot copyright facts, only their presentation, and the judge in Worth’s case ruled that a board game such as Trivial Pursuit was a substantially different type of presentation than a book.) Nonetheless, Fred Worth’s bit of fiction lives on, cited as fact in a variety of books, periodicals, and Internet resources.
Note: Some sources claim the 1962 play by Levinson and Link that introduced the Columbo character to the world, Prescription: Murder, specified a first name for the lieutenant (“Philip,” of course), but it did not. When NBC tried to revive the Columbo franchise in 1979 with a short-lived mystery series featuring his wife (a suburban newspaper reporter who naturally became involved in all sorts of murder investigations), they chose “Kate” for the character’s given name, although that name was never mentioned in any of the original Columbo episodes. (NBC eventually tried to disassociate their female crime solver from her better known husband, altering the series title from Kate Columbo to Kate the Detective and then to Kate Loves a Mystery, changing her last name to Callahan, and omitting any further references to her having a spouse.)
Quincy, M.E.: The police drama Quincy, M.E. began as one of the four rotating elements of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie (of which the aforementioned Columbo was another element) in 1976, but it soon proved so popular that it was spun off as weekly series, lasting through seven seasons (1977-83). Quincy, the main character, was a strongly
principled doctor who gave up his private practice to take a position with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office as a medical examiner. Dr. Quincy’s superior forensic skills enabled him to discover that many cases of supposedly natural or accidental deaths were actually murders, turning him into an activist pathologist who pushed his superiors and colleagues on the police force to assist him in solving crimes and righting social injustices, no matter what the cost.
Our view of Dr. Quincy was the polar opposite of the glimpses we were afforded of his fellow TV police drama investigator, Lt. Columbo: We saw Quincy interact with friends and colleagues, socially and professionally, on and off the job; we saw him pursue a variety of leisure activities; we saw him at home (he lived on a boat); and we saw him romancing the many women in his life. (Columbo was married, but Quincy was a widower.) The only attribute Dr. Quincy had in common with Lt. Columbo was a lack of a first name.
The absence of a given name for Dr. Quincy served no obvious purpose other than as a gimmick. (The other characters referred to him as “Dr. Quincy” or simply “Quincy”; their lack of curiosity about his other name might be partially attributable to the fact that Quincy can be used as either a first name or a surname.) The only clue the audience was ever provided about Quincy’s first name occurred (in the episode “Accomplice to Murder”) when he handed a battered housewife his business card — sharp-eyed viewers noted the card identified him as “R. Quincy”. Those who tuned in for Quincy’s final-season wedding to Dr. Emily Hanover expecting his full name to be revealed were disappointed (just as viewers were at Agent 99’s wedding to Maxwell Smart) — they heard only: “Do you, Quincy, take this woman . . .”
(In a creepy sort of coincidence, Anita Gillette, the actress who played Dr. Emily Hanover, had also portrayed Quincy’s deceased first wife, Helen, in a flashback episode three years earlier — was it an accident of casting, or were the producers engaging in a sardonic joke by having a pathologist re-marry a dead woman?)
Actor Jack Klugman, who played Quincy, also took a page out of Columbo’s playbook, handling fan inquiries about Quincy’s first name by responding, “Doctor!”
Sex and the City: Although actor Chris Noth’s turn as columnist Carrie Bradshaw’s on-again, off-again boyfriend through all six seasons of Sex and the City (1998-2004) wasn’t a lead role (he didn’t appear at all in many of the show’s episodes), his character was nonetheless a dominant presence woven throughout the fabric of the series: he was there at the beginning, he was there at the end, and he always seemed to be on Carrie’s mind even when he wasn’t physically present.
His character was something of an enigma for most of the series, but viewers did get some glimpses into his background and life. We knew he was an obviously well-to-do businessman (although the nature of his business wasn’t specified); we knew he was divorced (and we were
introduced to his ex-wife when Carrie clandestinely met with her), we saw him get married a second time, we saw his house (where he and Carrie pursued an affair while his second wife was out of town), we saw him escort his mother to church on Sundays, and we knew he was a cigar aficionado. But we didn’t know a crucial piece of information about him: his name.
In the very first episode Carrie’s friend Samantha Jones identifies him as “the next Donald Trump,” and Carrie immediately tags him as “Mr. Big.” He retains that appellation throughout the series: Carrie never addresses him directly (by name or nickname) in any of their scenes together, and within her circle of friends he is always referred to as “Mr. Big” or simply “Big.” When a few instances arise requiring Big to announce his name, such as being introduced to an acquaintance of Carrie’s, something interrupts the process (e.g., someone spills a drink on him).
One might come up with a variety of reasons for Big’s lack of a name, one of the more obvious explanations being that it is representative of the emotional closeness lacking in his multiple attempts to establish a permanent relationship with Carrie. Only after he suffers a heart problem in a literal sense (undergoing an angioplasty procedure) does he finally open his heart to Carrie in a figurative sense and finally come to accept her into his life. With appropriate symbolism, in the very last scene of the very last episode — just after Carrie’s phone conversation with Big discloses that he’s planning to move back to New York from California to be with her — the caller ID on Carrie’s phone reveals to us that his name is John. Even more symbolically, in the 2008 Sex and the City movie we finally hear his full name when Charlotte reads the wedding announcement (as it appeared in the newspaper) over the phone to Carrie. Mr. Big’s name, we learn, is John James Preston.
Last updated: 4 July 2008
Dawidziak, Mark. The Columbo Phile: A Casebook.
New York: The Mysterious Press, 1988. ISBN 0-89296-376-X.
McCrohan, Donna. The Life & Times of Maxwell Smart.
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. ISBN 0-312-00030-8.
Schwartz, Sherwood. Inside Gilligan’s Island.
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. ISBN 0-312-10482-0 (p. 16).
- Brooks, Tim and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.
- New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. ISBN 0-345-45542-8.