Rudolph. Charlie Brown. The Grinch. They're longtime favorites who always grab top billing when the networks roll out their holiday programs.
You have to wonder, though, whether they would have become big TV stars, or whether their shows would have earned "classic" status, if not for the extraordinary contributions of solid supporting players. After all, to achieve lasting pop-cultural shelf life, it usually takes teamwork.
With that in mind, we salute some of the top holiday scene-stealers — great characters who make us laugh, cry and sometimes wince, year after year:
Max the dog in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas: We adore Cindy Lou Who, the sweet little tot who melts our hearts. But no one tops the pitiful pooch who is essentially a slave to the abusive Grinch yet loves him unconditionally. The wild trek that has Max, with makeshift reindeer headgear, pulling an overloaded sleigh over treacherous mountain passes is pure slapstick brilliance. Seuss said it best when he described the cartoon canine as an "Everydog — all love and limpness and loyalty." Interestingly, Max was just a minor character in the Seuss book, but animator Chuck Jones wisely expanded his role for the TV adaptation. (Airing at 8 p.m. Nov. 28, ABC.)
Yukon Cornelius in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: Yes, the blustery prospector (voiced by Larry D. Mann) is full of himself, but he provides a jolt of comic relief. Not only does Yukon utter some of the show's funniest lines, he is pivotal to its final resolution — outwitting the "Bumble" and paving the way for Rudolph's heroics. (8 p.m. Nov. 29, CBS.)
Linus van Pelt in A Charlie Brown Christmas: The levelheaded Linus (voiced by Christopher Shea) is the show's voice of reason, helping to keep anxiety-ridden Charlie Brown from going berserk. His quietly eloquent reading from the Gospel of Luke packs an emotional wallop and remains one of the most memorable moments in any holiday program. Network executives argued against having Linus read from the Bible, but Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was adamant that the scene remain. Shea was only 7 years old when he performed the part. (8 p.m. Dec. 5, ABC.)
Cousin Eddie in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation: The blissfully ignorant, beer-swilling, mooching relative of Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) makes Homer Simpson look refined. In one day alone, the character (played by Randy Quaid) sets the stage for a sewer explosion and commits a kidnapping that brings out the SWAT team. Few characters are as repulsive as they are amusing. (9 p.m. Dec. 7, ABC Family.)
Clarence, Angel Second Class, in It's a Wonderful Life: He might seem cheerfully incompetent, but Clarence (Henry Travers) gets the job done — saving George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) from suicide and finally earning his wings (listen for the bell). With the perfect blend of facial expressions, childlike wonder, voice and delivery, Clarence never fails to make us smile. (8 p.m. Dec. 13 and 24, NBC)
A few other holiday scene-stealers who have left an indelible impression on us:
Miles Finch in Elf: The incensed Finch (Peter Dinklage) kicks Will Ferrell's butt. (8 p.m. Nov. 26, USA.)
The Winter Warlock in Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town: Quite simply, the coolest name ever. (8 p.m. Dec. 1, ABC.)
Heat Miser and Snow Miser in The Year Without a Santa Claus: Mother Nature's warring sons strike gold with their vaudevillian theme songs. (9 p.m. Dec. 8, ABC Family.)
Professor Hinkle in Frosty the Snowman: The hatless villain just needs to chill out. (8 p.m. Dec. 9, CBS.)
The leg lamp in A Christmas Story: Ah, the power of fishnet. Rarely has a lone prop gained so much attention. (24-hour marathon begins at 8 p.m. Dec. 24, TBS.)