For every actor who achieves fame for a single, signature role in television or the movies, countless others ply their trade in relative anonymity for decades — those skilled, protean thespians who show up continually on the screen (big and/or small), prompting us to scratch our heads and try to remember where we’ve seen them before.
And then there’s another, even rarer, category: actors such William Windom, who somehow managed to be both a major star and a character actor.
Windom, who died Aug. 16 at age 88 at his home near San Francisco, starred in two TV series during the 1960s. The first was an ABC sitcom, The Farmer’s Daughter, which ran from from 1963 to 1966. In that series, he portrayed Congressman Glenn Morley, a widower who employed — and eventually fell in love with — a young governess played by Inger Stevens. He won more acclaim for his Emmy-winning role as John Monroe, a writer-cartoonist based on James Thurber in the NBC sitcom My World and Welcome to It, which aired for just a single season in 1969-70.
But Windom, who was a paratrooper in World War II and signed up for drama school in France after the war mostly in hopes of meeting sexy actresses, turned into almost as much of a dramatic workhorse as Ernest Borgnine. From his first role — as Tybalt in a production of Romeo and Juliet on the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1949, to his final appearance in the 2005 low-budget indie film Yesterday’s Dreams, when he was in his early eighties — Windom played an astonishing array of roles, appearing in everything from the original NBC Star Trek series in 1967 to the Fox sitcom Ally McBeal in 2000. He was the prosecutor who battled Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the mid-1980s, Windom appeared in 53 episodes of the CBS mystery drama Murder She Wrote, portraying two different characters, Dr. Seth Hazlitt and attorney Sam Breen. (That actually was just one of several TV series in which Windom played multiple roles.)
But perhaps the truest measure of Windom’s extreme versatility and work ethic: He even did a stint as Uncle Chuck, a character in the early 1990s animated children’s series Sonic the Hedgehog. You’ll recognize his voice instantly.