It’s the 10 o’clock hour on 10-10-2010, and across the Los Angeles Times, we’re creating top 10 lists. Here at the Hero Complex, we are using the occasion to celebrate sidekicks — those trusty pop-culture pals who forever trail in the shadow of alpha figures but often win the hearts of fans. It was a tough list to assemble, and there were plenty of near-misses. Strong cases could be made for Tinker Bell, Boo-Boo, George Costanza, Dyna Girl, Danno, Renfield, Art Garfunkel and Al Gore — we’re sorry, but really at this point they must be accustomed to the also-ran role. So let’s get on with our companion countdown, in which we nod to a loyal pal, smile and say, “He’s with me.”
10. Mini-Me: The minions of Dr. Evil wanted to keep the criminal mastermind on track with his plans for global domination, and what better way than with a clone? Well, the plan was downsized a bit when the finished product was just 2-foot-8. The villain didn’t mind too much — he just dubbed the small-scale copy “Mini-Me,” and big laughs ensued for the “Austin Powers” franchise. It’s all completely tasteless but, well, pretty funny. The character is a spoof of Nick-Nack, the diminutive henchman from “The Man With The Golden Gun,” but thanks to actor Verne Troyer, the parody is more famous than the original.
9. Rose Tyler: Nobody goes through sidekicks like the Doctor – they come and go and with good reason since their human limitations emphasize the immortal and cosmic nature of the Time Lord who skitters through the universe in his TARDIS on “Doctor Who.” There have been some sparkling “companions,” as they are called, in 789 episodes of the British sci-fi show that dates back to November 1963 — among them Sarah Jane Smith (played by Elisabeth Sladen), Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) and Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), but we go with former pop singer Billie Piper and her Rose Tyler, the saucy and smart character who was key to the success of the Russell T Davies relaunch of ”Doctor Who” in 2005. She fell in love with the Doctor in a way that made the audience fall in love with her and believe that, just maybe, time was on her side.
8. Patrick Starfish: There are scores of cartoon duos, but sometimes it’s hard to sort out who’s the real sidekick – it gets a bit murky, for instance, to puzzle out the power distribution in the partnership of Shaggy and Scooby-Doo or Rocky and Bullwinkle – but not when it comes to “SpongeBob SquarePants” where No. 2 doesn’t try harder. The pink, lazy and no-so-bright seastar named Patrick lives under a rock, watches way too much TV and shows no evidence of recognizable skill or ambition. In other words, he is exactly like 71% of the adult audience who reach for a bong before watching the Nickelodeon show. The character is voiced by Bill Fagerbakke, by the way, who was also the towering mental midget Dauber on “Coach.“ “SpongeBob” celebrated its 10th anniversary and some of the best episodes (“Big Pink Loser” and “Patrick SmartPants” spring to mind) were all about this layabout echinoderm who was both a stoner-nation version of Barney Rubble and a latter-day doofus carrying on the grand tradition of Ed Norton from “The Honeymooners,” so we like to think he represents both of them on this list.
6. Bucky Barnes: He’s only the second-most-famous sidekick in comics (holy hint-dropper, you’ll see the other one later in the countdown!), but we can’t leave Bucky Barnes off this list. With Jack Kirby’s kinetic magic, the sidekick of Captain America seemed to jump off the page in the 1940s, but his persona took on a whole new element in the 1960s when Marvel Comics revived Captain America but listed Bucky as one of the casualties of World War II. Captain America was haunted by the death – and the fact that maybe a 15-year-old didn’t belong in combat? – and it added new layers to the character. The mythology would be tweaked and changed through the years — Bucky came back as the Winter Solider and even took on the Captain America costume himself. But for us, Bucky remains the famous fallen sidekick, and we salute him.
5. Igor: When Marty Feldman played Igor (with a long “i”) in “Young Frankenstein,” he was standing up (um, sorta) for a lot of Hollywood horror history. The vertically challenged lab assistant has a long heritage on screen — there was Rotwang in the 1927 film “Metropolis” and the hunchbacked Fritz in the 1931 landmark “Frankenstein,” for instance, or the grave-robbing Ygor played by Bela Lugosi in a pair of “Frankenstein” sequels who was a bit too independent to be a henchman, but he did have that great name. There’s also “House of Wax” where young Charles Bronson played a great Igor, a deaf and devoted disciple of an evil boss. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” gave us an Igor named Riff Raff, and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” went traditional by actually calling the sidekick ”Igor.” In 2008, the creepy little guy of pop culture finally realized the sidekick fantasy — he got his own film with the animated “Igor.”
4. Tonto: One thing about radio shows, it’s best if your hero has someone he can talk to, especially if he roams the Old West where it can get lonely sitting around the campfire. That was the reason behind Tonto, the faithful Native American companion to Lone Ranger who began as a narrative aid but became far more than that as the Western masked-man mythology took hold of young imaginations across America. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were created by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker (the same tandem behind “Green Hornet,” in fact), and through the years, some have found the character to be offensive (most often due to his fractured, article-free version of English), but others see the brave hero as noble and an equal to the fellow who rides Silver. How big is Tonto in our collective memory? Well, “kemo sabe” was added to Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary in 2002. Actor Jay Silverheels is the definitive Tonto in the public memory, but Disney announced in 2008 that Johnny Depp (who has some Cherokee heritage) would take on the role in a new film version of the Lone Ranger, although the project seems to have lost momentum.
3. Dr. John Watson: This pick was … elementary. There’s a strong argument to be made, however, that Watson, faithful companion of Sherlock Homes, belongs at the top spot of this or any sidekick ranking. A subtitle of the first Holmes adventure, “A Study in Scarlet,” from 1887, labels the mystery: “Being a reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., Late of the Army Medical Department,” and from that point on, the marvelous mind of Holmes is presented to the world through the filter of Watson’s perceptions. And, indeed, author Arthur Conan Doyle made a sublime decision with the choice of the brave, big-hearted sidekick who, over the course of their many adventures, became like brother to the brilliant but detached detective. Watson has been portrayed on screen by many fine actors, among them Nigel Bruce, André Morell and Robert Duvall, and these days the role belongs to Jude Law, who is now on the set in London filming with sleuth-star Robert Downey Jr. and director Guy Ritchie. There are so many other bookshelf sidekicks — the earthy and ironic Sancho Panza from “Don Quixote,” Friday from “Robinson Crusoe” and assorted Hobbits spring to mind — but if we put them on this list, we wouldn’t have room for a goofy cartoon starfish.
2. Robin the Boy Wonder: It’s fashionable to think of Batman as the ultimate humorless loner (hey Chris Nolan, why so serious?), but let’s not forget that long before the “The Dark Knight,” there was the Dynamic Duo. Batman was introduced in May 1939 in the Detective Comics No. 27, but his crusade against the criminals of Gotham City didn’t stay solitary for long — just 11 monthly issues after his debut, Bruce Wayne took on the most famous junior partner in comic books as Robin the Boy Wonder burst on the screen. Just like Batman, young Dick Grayson was orphaned by crime, but instead of responding with rage, he put on a green Speedo, moved in with a rich guy and back-flipped into pop-culture history. The character — shaped by Jerry Robinson, who was a teenager at the time and also a sidekick of sorts to the Batman creative team of Bob Kane and Bill Finger – was a sensation with 1940s readers who saw themselves in the young acrobat who was like a playful, pint-sized Robin Hood, tagging along with the two-fisted Dracula figure of DC Comics. The 1960s television series “Batman” gave Robin his defining moment in the spotlight with actor Burt Ward and his ludicrous trademark, those oddball exclamations. “Holy 4th Amendment!” “Holy interplanetary yardstick!” “Holy priceless collection of Etruscan snoods!” (And, yes, those were all used on the show, here’s a list).
1. Chewbacca: When it comes to sidekick contests, there’s a simple rule: Let the wookiee win. We never understood a word he was saying, but there was no one we would have wanted in the copilot seat next to us more than the big walking carpet himself, Chewbacca, the rangy, loyal Bigfoot of the Jedi universe. In the movies, he was born on the spelling-bee planet of Kashyyyk, but he was conceived in the front seat of a car owned by George Lucas — the wizard of Skywalker Ranch got the idea of a devoted, hirsute copilot by driving around with his Alaskan malamute, Indiana, who also would lend his name to a certain action-minded archaeologist. In the films, the towering Peter Mayhew brought Chewie to life, but he got plenty of help from costume designer Stuart Freeborn (he knitted the costume with mohair and yak hair) and sound designer Ben Burtt, who blended the recordings of bear, walrus, camel and badger to create the guttural lexicon of the wookiee. Chewie is deeply beloved by fans (I myself risked heat stroke back in 1978 when I wore a homemade costume made of shag carpet to my South Florida elementary-school costume contest), but it’s not easy being a sidekick in space — we hear Chewbacca did that sad moan-growl of his when he was the only non-robot that didn’t get a medal for blowing up the Death Star at the end of the original “Star Wars” film. Don’t worry, big guy, you’re No. 1 with us.
– Geoff Boucher