The name Sancho Panza was mentioned on N.P.R. this morning. Sancho was the first literary sidekick, if you don’t count the Peter the Apostle, and can probably lay claim to being the greatest of all sidekicks. He is certainly responsible for the greatest statement ever made by a sidekick, one which perfectly sums up their role on so many occasions, “Whether the rock hits the crockery or the crockery hits the rock, it’s going to be bad news for the crockery.” Of course Sancho said it in Spanish, and not just Spanish, but Spanish crafted by Cervantes, which is about as high tone Spanish as has ever existed, so it probably sounded better when he said it.
I got to thinking about sidekicks, and it hit me that the time of my childhood in the late 1950s was the “Golden Age of Sidekicks”. As an aside here, I seem to have discovered, since I began writing this occasional blog, that my childhood was the “Golden Age” of any number of things. I actually informed my daughter last weekend that my childhood had been the “Golden Age” of antibiotics because penicillin was cheap, widely available and still cured everything. Now of course, there’s not an infection worth its salt that has not managed to develop a resistance to penicillin. But in my day, damn, anything from a dose of the clap to a three alarm ear infection could be cured by one shot of the stuff. So when I say that my childhood was the Golden Age of sidekicks it is probably good to consider the source of the statement.
But the reason I truly think it was the golden age is because of the plethora of westerns which were on television in those days. It seemed that every strong, silent cowboy needed a fat, funny sidekick. Roy Rogers had Gabby Hays and later Pat Brady (Brady himself had a sidekick, his jeep “Nellie Bell” which had its own humorous role on the show). Then there was Gene Autry and his sidekick Pat Butram, better known to younger folks as Mr. Haney of Green Acres. The Cisco Kid had Pancho. Pancho was a real sidekick. He could help when there was trouble, especially shooting, but most of the time he was an English language garbling clown who played every scene for laughs. The actor who portrayed Pancho, Leo Carrillo had made a career of the “jolly Mexican” in film and put away enough money to buy an enormous ranch in southern California, which many people know today by its more common name, San Diego. Pancho could not exist as a character anymore, neither could Rochester, Jack Benny’s valet sidekick who happened to be an African American who had a funny way of pronouncing things. At least Rochester always found away to get the best of Benny in any given episode.
That brings us to Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s “faithful Indian companion”’ who along with the daring masked rider of the plains lead the fight for law and order in the early days of the old west. Tonto, like Pancho and Rochester, was a discriminated against American minority, who also talked funny, when he talked at all, which was seldom. He had an especially hard time using pronouns for some reason and always referred to himself in the third person. But the character Tonto was not written to get laughs, he was one of the more dignified sidekicks ever created, and one of the most successful in regard to his working relationship with the top banana. The Ranger had tremendous respect for Tonto, who had rescued him from a bad situation and helped him turn into the Lone Ranger. In fact, had actually named him in a dramatic moment, “All others gone, you, Lone Ranger now.”
We will skip lightly over Andy Devine and Smiley Burnett, although Devine deserves a blog of his own, his cry of “Wait for me Wild Bill” perfectly captured the humor of the 1950s cowboy sidekick. Undoubtedly, purists who stumble over these musing will object to the lack of discussion about Chester, of Marshall Dillon fame or even Bullwinkle, who was such a successful sidekick they renamed the television show, once known as Rocky and Bullwinkle, to Bullwinkle and Friends. Now that is something to think about. That’s like the Ed McMahon getting top billing over Johnny Carson.
The age of the sidekick ebbed in the 1960s. The reason was the birth of the ensemble company. Andy Griffith is an interesting show with which to see the transition . When it started, it was a star/sidekick standard show which happened to feature a man who is now in the sidekick hall of fame, Don Knotts. But as the show developed, and as television developed, writers began to see that they were not restricted to the sidekick pattern, which they had been pretty well limited to in radio shows. On television, where you could see everyone, it was easier and a lot less confusing than on radio to have multiple characters whose personalities could develop over time. The Griffith show had Knotts, Gomer Pyle, Aunt Bea, Floyd the Barber, Howard, Goober, etc, etc, etc. Most shows after that were ensembles, so much so that in a show like Cheers, there is no clearly identified star, everyone on the show is a sidekick to the bar where the show takes place.
I suppose that it is not quite accurate to say that the sidekick is dead. I’m sort of a sidekick to my senior partner in my law practice. He is very well renowned for the type of law we practice the most of.”Oh yeah, you are with Allensworth” is a statement I have heard more than once. But our practice is actually the classic ensemble, so the sidekick is not so important anymore. It does not pay as well as it used to either. No one is ever going to confuse me with Leo Carrillo. “Oh Pancho !”, “Oh Ceeesco”.