PRIME TIME COLOR:
A Complete Guide To All Ethnic Characters Appearing On Prime Time TV Shows
Broadcast From 1947-2007
By Jerome A. Holst
Historical background (a quick look)
Television is a time capsule of on-air portrayals of ethnic groups (favorable or
unfavorable) who lived, cried, played, and died in America. From the 1940s
through the mid 1960s with very few exceptions, however, television programming
in America consisted of white European-descended actors and actresses. There
were program exceptions, like the sitcoms AMOS AND ANDY or BEULAH, in the case
of African-American actors, but in most cases, ethnic characters were portrayed
in extreme stereotypes or as workers in underpaid, service industry occupations
like maids, servants gardeners etc, or in subservient positions of authority
like an assistant to someone in authority. It wasn't until the mid 1960s that
persons of color began to appear with more frequency on the television tube.
As the racial complexion of the American audiences changes and the prediction
that Caucasians will become a minority themselves by the years 2050 outnumbered
by Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minority groups, there will inevitably be
a shift in the programming psychology of the television networks simply because
television is motivated to make a profit and they will be forced to eventually
accommodate the portrayal of the nation's diverse ethnic groups in the medium.
The future aside, however, let's address the purpose of this book which is to
chronicle ethnic characters as they appeared in the first fifty years of
Purpose of this book
This book is intended to give easy access to the characters who represented
various ethnic groups (Native Americans, Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, etc.) on
television over the last fifty years in both major and minor roles (mostly on
American television, but some productions from Great Britain will be included in
To begin my research, I extracted, as best I could, all the ethnic characters
that have appeared on television over the last fifty years. To be as
comprehensive as possible, I included ethnic characters that have appeared in
sitcoms, adventure series, dramas, miniseries and TV commercials.
After I gathered all of the characters, I then set about analyzing in a limited
fashion what kind of occupations or lifestyles these particular ethnic groups
were assigned to over the years. By looking at the overall numbers, some
interesting facts arose (some of which may already be obvious to the avid
television viewers). In the case of the Italians, they have overwhelmingly cast
as criminals and cops. The Irish similarly have been placed in the roles of law
enforcement. The Arabs were rarely portrayed as the good guys but rather seen as
villains, covetous desert rulers and warmongers. The Russians and Germans in
their limited appearance have been portrayed as spies and war criminals; and the
American Indians have been portrayed as savages and second class citizens.
Ethnic Character breakdown
About one-third of the book includes information on African-Americans (a.k.a.,
blacks, negros, colored. etc.) simply because of all the ethnic groups outside
of Caucasians, this category is the one of the largest represented. The
remainder of the book will include references to characters from Hispanic,
Asian/Pacific, Mediterranean, Mid-eastern, Northern-Europeans, North American
Indians, and Russian/East Block national backgrounds.
Because, much of American television history is primarily filled with Caucasian
characters, references to white European based cultures are included but only if
a TV program mentioned their cultural heritage in the script or their background
though not mentioned - is obvious to the viewers.
Many programs like THE
ADVENTURES of OZZIE and HARRIET, BEWITCHED, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, are just
portrayals of Caucasians of generic descent probably white Anglo-Saxon
protestants. These programs will not appear in this book. However, a program
like MY THREE SONS which mentioned the Douglas family heritage as Scottish, and
even had a programs about Old World family members visiting the United States,
will be included in this text.
In reference to the BRITISH characters, this book (taken from a United States of
America perspective) covers only those British characters that have appeared in
shows broadcast in America. So, for instance, this book will include characters
from such American productions as the sitcom FAMILY AFFAIR that featured a
British butler (Mr. French) in the employee of a New York City engineer. But, it
will also list characters from British productions such as the BBC produced
series FAWLTY TOWERS (which appeared on American television via Public
Television and other cable networks) about a zany, often frustrated British
innkeeper played by John Cleese.
Scope of the book
The programs that I have investigated are generally those broadcasts during
primetime (evening hours between 7-11pm). And although most of the programs in
this book are based on the common genres (sitcoms, westerns, dramas, etc), I
have also included those variety and news programs, which featured characters of
For instance, I would include a show like THE FLIP WILSON SHOW that
starred comedian Flip Wilson, the first black American to host his own comedy
variety program. Other exceptions in this book include characters that starred
in children's programming such as THE ADVENTURES OF POW WOW, a five-minute
cartoon segment about a North American Indian brave that appeared on the CAPTAIN
Entry formats and contents
Each entry will include the name of the program, the network that it aired on,
and how many years the program ran. Also included will be the real name of the
actor who portrayed the ethnic character, followed by the name of the character
and a small summary of what this character did on the show.
On occasion, if the
actor playing a particular ethnic character happened to be a high profile
celebrity or became involved in a controversy related to his ethnic background,
other information would be included.
Note: Each entry in the book does not
attempt to give a summary of the show as much as it summarizes the ethnic
characters who appeared in the program. In addition each entry is coded with the
following asterisks identification.
In determining to which nationality an ethnic character belonged, I used the
* Indicates the person was the star or costar of the program.
** Indicates the person was a regular or a recurring actor on the show.
Sample category entry - "Vietnamese"
**(Gedde Watanabe) Tran Van Din, a Vietnamese immigrant working as a short order
cook at McCrorey's Landing, a cafe/bait shop located in Hadley Cove, Texas. He
came to the U.S.A. by misrepresenting the fact that he was an oriental
mail-order-bride. He had sent a picture of Connie Chung to his love-starved
suitor (who paid for his airfare to the states).
How I determined who was what nationality or ethnic group?
- If the character's ethnic origin is openly mentioned in the script.
- If the person looks or follows the stereotypical behavior of a particular
(such as all the character's on the show are Italian actors or characters or
Italian surnames, therefore creating an identifiable ethnic background - n other
words "if it quacks like a duck...etc.
- Use of ethnic phrases or identifiable speech patterns that alert the
viewer of a character's country of origin.
In many cases, I could not find the specific ethnic nationality of a
character, so I used my gut instinct to place that character. This can probably
be translated as the error factor found in a poll or survey which indicates the
results could be accurate within a plus or minus percentage rate. If you are in
possession of a more correct ethnic origins, by all means let me know, so I can
update the text.
In the case of Blacks (Africans-Americans) I grouped all black actors of African
heritage under AFRICAN-AMERICANS section, unless I discovered that the black
character came from elsewhere. So, for instance, if a black character appears to
be Jamaican (through speech or actions), this character would be placed under
the category JAMAICAN. If a character is black and actually lives in Africa,
then that character would be assigned an AFRICAN category to correspond to the
country from which they came.
In the case of Hispanics (Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Chicanos, etc) many
characters are not given a specific identifiable ethnic origin but they look the
part or have a surname that identifies them as being part of that culture.
unidentifiable Hispanic characters who appeared in programs based in the
Northeast (New York City, for example) I placed them under the Puerto-Rican
Unidentifiable Hispanics who starred in shows based in the southern and
western states I placed under the MEXICAN category. If an Hispanic character is
identified as being someone living in a country other than the North
American/Mexico region then their background ethnic origin will be listed in
that specific country such as Cuba, Spain or Central or South America
territories like El Salvador or Brazil.
This same process has been used for other ethnic groups such as Asian
characters. Many times, a script will only mention that a character is an
Oriental or Asian. In these cases, I try to best identify which ethnic
background to assign the characters. If the character is not specifically
identified in the script as say Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc., then I use
the actor's or character's last name to try to figure out where I should place
If the character's last name does not obviously correspond to the
person's apparent ethnic background (their name is "Jones" but they are
obviously Asian in appearance), then the actor's surname will help determine the
If an actor with a Japanese surname plays a character with a
Chinese surname, then the character's Chinese surname is used to identify them
as Chinese. So, for example, names like Fong, Chen, Tong or Chang, are
classified as Chinese.
In like manner, if the name is Nakamura, Kurasawa or
Myagi, I classify them as Japanese; and if the character's name were Tran Van
Din, or Lien Troung or Nguyen, then I would assign a Vietnamese ethnic
designation. It's not an exact science but it gets the characters grouped as
closely as possible to their correct ethnic group.
Occasionally I will include an entry twice in the book. For instance, if a
person is both Italian and Japanese (like Kimiko Fannuchi played by Maggie Han
in the sitcom Murphy’s Law) then this character can be found in both the ITALIAN
section and the JAPANESE section.
The most notable yet nebulous ethnic character in the book is Latka Gravas
(played by Andy Kaufman), an East European immigrant whose country of origin was
never specifically mentioned in the script of the sitcom “Taxi.” In this case, I
chose the country of Russia as his country of origin because Kaufmann‘s “Foreign
Man” comedy sketch which inspired the Latka character claimed to be from an
island in the Caspian Sea. (The Capsian Sea borders the USSR and Iran).
If the old adage "Your are what you eat" is true then the American public and
its attitudes about the many ethnic groups in the country are certainly impacted
by that statement and therefore "We are what we watch."
With this in mind, by doing some tentative research into how ethnic
characters have been portrayed on television, we discover in some part how we
perceive them or at least how the writer's and producer's perceptions of those
groups (their prejudices, likes or dislikes of certain groups) were transformed
into television characters and programming. [“this problem raises the public
acceptance of the favored groups and the public dislikes of the resented
In the end, I hope the information that I have accumulated in this text will
assist others doing research in the fields of television history and ethnic
Ethnic Categories in this book :
Proposed Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
Holst, Jerome Alphonse, 1951-
Ethnic Characters on Television: A Complete Guide to Ethnic Characters Appearing
on Prime Time TV Shows Broadcast from 1947-2007 / by Jerome A. Holst.
1. Television programs--United States--Encyclopedias 2. Television
programs--United States--Miscellanea 3. Popular Culture--Miscellanea
Back to Top