From the days when everyone loved Lucy to our current era of worshiping at the shrine of Oprah, we have always held a special place in our pop-culture-consuming hearts for those beloved talents and personalities revered as TV stars.
The medium may have changed greatly over the decades, fragmenting the audience with technological advances — the VCR, the DVR, Netflix — and a staggering array of choices, but our favorite stars still shine as brightly as ever.
These are the people we regularly welcome into our homes (or call up on our portable screens, depending), sometimes on a first-name basis. Even when they achieve success in other arenas — there are Oscar and Tony winners on this list — we think of them first and foremost as TV stars. It’s how we got to know them, and where they’ll always find a home.
It’s not as easy as it used to be to belong to this rarefied breed. Once upon a time, stars’ names were regularly found in their shows’ titles, reinforcing their fame: Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Andy Griffith, Danny Thomas, and Bob Newhart, whose name kept being recycled in ever-shorter form (from The Bob New-hart Show to Newhart to Bob).
This was especially true of those versatile entertainers practicing the now-lost art of the comedy-variety show: Jackie Gleason, Carol Burnett, Dean Martin, Flip Wilson, Sonny & Cher, Red Skelton, and so many more.
There are still brand names (mostly in syndication) in the 21st century: fun-loving Ellen DeGeneres, inspirational Oprah Winfrey with her OWN cable network, HGTV’s Chip and Joanna Gaines building their home-improvement empire.
But today’s bona fide TV stars are just as likely to be chameleons, forever surprising us with their next act. When Bryan Cranston delighted us as the goofy dad on Malcolm in the Middle, few would have pegged him to become the greatest dramatic actor of his generation in his transformative role as Breaking Bad‘s notorious antihero Walter White.
While range is important for a genuine TV star, longevity is also key. Even the younger members in our firmament have stood the test of time, often showing a facility for both comedy and drama. Or, in the case of The Office alum John Krasinski, successfully assuming the mantle of Jack Ryan, action hero.
With some of our favorites, it’s hard to remember a time when they weren’t on TV. The charismatic original Magnum P.I., Tom Selleck, is still going strong at the head of the Blue Bloods dinner table. Mark Harmon has aged gracefully from cocky St. Elsewhere doctor to the ultimate authority figure over 16 seasons as Agent Gibbs on the unstoppable NCIS.
How fun to toggle between Ted Danson’s current incarnation as the whimsical, reformed demon on The Good Place and vintage reruns of his breakthrough role as Sam Malone on Cheers — or even as a warped version of himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Witnessing the evolution of Julia Louis-Dreyfus from underused Saturday Night Live player to snarky Seinfeld sidekick and the Emmy-laden potty-mouthed pol of Veep is a master class in comic showmanship.
While reality TV may have cheapened the notion of what it means to be a “star” on TV, none of our choices could ever be accused of being famous just for being famous. (Put it this way: It’s highly unlikely any of them will ever be hoofing it on Dancing With the Stars.)
To be clear, we’re not talking about mere celebrities. These are the justly celebrated, the greats of our time who transcend genre. Household names to be sure, because each and every one has earned that distinction. We know them because, like Lucy, we love them.
— Matt Roush
Check back with TV Insider daily as we countdown the 10 Biggest Stars on TV, including picks from shows like NCIS and Blue Bloods, daytime television, streaming hits, HGTV, and more. Stay tuned, and sound off on our choices in the comments below!
1. Mark Harmon
“He’s the No. 1 star on the world’s No. 1 drama on TV’s No. 1 network.”
That’s how TV Guide Magazine described NCIS‘s Mark Harmon in 2017, and two years later, not a fact in that sentence has changed. Each week, more than 10 million viewers tune in to the smash procedural — as they’ve done faithfully for 16 seasons — to see Harmon’s calm-in-a-crisis Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs and his team at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service bring down the bad guys.
In these tumultuous times, he’s the hero we crave: strong, steady, and unassuming. As Harmon once told us, “I was never interested in playing him with a big red S on his chest.”
No, Harmon may not be the showy type, but his nuanced work has made him a must-see for decades. He earned his first Emmy nomination for a supporting part as a discouraged World War II vet in the 1977 ABC movie Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years.
And with his breakout role on the medical drama St. Elsewhere, Harmon helped humanize the AIDS crisis in a 1986 episode when his character, lothario plastic surgeon Bobby Caldwell, revealed he had the disease.
Since then, the actor has become the MVP of ensemble series, choosing complex roles — Chicago Hope‘s Jack McNeil, a surgeon addicted to gambling; a doomed Secret Service agent in a guest arc on The West Wing — over vanity vehicles. Indeed, you won’t find anything resembling The Mark Hour! on his résumé.
And that’s just fine with Harmon. Rather than chase fame, he’s played a long game … just like his mentor James Garner. “Jim would always say, ‘I don’t care who’s the No. 1 guy in the business right now…. I just want to be in that Top 10 for 30 years,'” Harmon has said.
But being No. 1 is pretty sweet too.
— Eric Andersson
This is an abbreviated version of TV Guide Magazine’s latest cover story. For more, pick up the issue, on newsstands now.