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
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
(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
The script for the penultimate episode of the second season (“Mr. and Mrs.?”) noted that the real first name of
Note: The Professor’s full name is sometimes mistakenly rendered as
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
aide) — the enduring mystery is the real name of the capable and intelligent
Neither Agent 99’s first name or last name was ever disclosed on the show, in accordance with the wishes of series
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
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
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
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
Coulmbo’s creators, writers Dick Levinson and Bill Link, paradoxically believed the less viewers knew about
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
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
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
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
principled doctor who gave up his private practice to take a position with the
Our view of
The absence of a given name for
(In a creepy sort of coincidence, Anita Gillette, the actress who played
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
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
In the very first episode Carrie’s friend Samantha Jones identifies him as “the next Donald Trump,” and Carrie immediately tags him as
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.
Last updated: 4 July 2008
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