Double the Fun, Part I: Dangerous Doppelgängers in McMillan & Wife, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, and More

by Karen A. Romanko

Where would crime shows be without the doppelgänger, that exact double who impersonates a character, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, but always with the most intricate and implausible of plans. Mission: Impossible (1966-1973) made an entire TV series out of the trope, featuring secret agents who were masters of disguise, wearing lifelike masks that we still can’t make today. (Or can we?) Other series rely upon the ever-handy identical stranger, who must simply don a wig to complete the effect, as in “Don’t Look Now, But Isn’t That Me” (1966), with blonde and brunette versions of Anne Francis on Honey West. Another variation requires the imposter to undergo a nip here and a tuck there, as on McMillan & Wife, when Claudio Manton impersonates Commissioner McMillan (Rock Hudson in a dual role) in “Terror Times Two” (1972).

Double the pleasure, double the Rock in “Terror Times Two”

The earliest example I remember in the “nip and tuck” category is “The Face and the Voice,” a 1953 episode of Adventures of Superman. A rough-around-the-edges gangster with the appropriate name of “Boulder” (George Reeves in a dual role) goes under the knife and emerges from his bandages as the exact double of Superman! But the face isn’t enough—coarse Boulder also needs to perfect Superman’s cultured voice, which leads to vocal exercises to the beat of a metronome: “I look like Superman. Why don’t I sound like Superman?” The Boulder makeup is preposterous, and Reeves took his portrayal of the goofy goon well over the top, but the episode is great fun in a kitschy way.

Blue-eyed Claudio Manton had a return engagement on McMillan & Wife, standing in again for brown-eyed Commissioner McMillan in “Cross & Double Cross” (1974). Manton was cut from the same cloth as Superman’s Boulder, but had risen higher in the henchman ranks. While impersonating the Commissioner at a fundraiser, he does a scandalous tango with the McMillans’ housekeeper, Mildred (Nancy Walker), and it’s a comic and choreographic gem, emphasizing the height disparity between 6' 4" Rock Hudson and 4' 11" Nancy Walker. Check out the tango on YouTube, if you're looking for a delicious TV treat.

A sub-trope of the doppelgänger theme is the moment of crisis when one of the good guys must distinguish the real person from the imposter. In McMillan & Wife, several such moments occurred, and were resolved with the words “apple crumb cake,” when the Commissioner correctly identifies the favorite dessert of his trusted assistant, Sgt. Charles Enright (John Schuck). In the Scarecrow and Mrs. King episode “Odds on a Dead Pigeon” (1985), it’s literally a matter of life and death when Amanda King and her assassin/double (Kate Jackson in a dual role) are hanging by their fingers off the side of the building. Amanda’s trusted partner Lee “Scarecrow” Stetson has just seconds to decide which woman to save. When he hears the words “oh my gosh,” he strides confidently forward and chooses the woman on the right, while the one on the left falls to her death. Amanda, the wholesome neophyte spy, asks Lee how he knew which one to choose, and he says: “Who else do I know whose last words would be, ‘oh my gosh’?”

Two Amandas (Kate Jackson), but only one "oh my gosh" in "Odds on a Dead Pigeon"

Those are my favorite doppelgänger episodes. Which are yours? So many to choose from in series such as Get Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Prisoner, Highlander, Alias, Monk, and more. Please share your faves in the comments! And stay tuned for Double the Fun, Part II: Troublesome Twins in The Patty Duke Show, Bewitched, and More, appearing soon on this blog. Click “Subscribe” at the top of this page to receive it and all new posts from Small Screen Pop via e-mail. Thanks for reading!

Comments

  1. One of my favorite doppelgänger TV episodes is from Star Trek, called "The Enemy Within." A transporter glitch splits Captain Kirk into two identically looking people (except for the eye make-up), but one had only his good qualities and the other his bad traits. The good Kirk was nice, but weak and indecisive. The evil Kirk was bold and, well, evil, but also fearful and cowardly. It turned out that to effectively lead a crew "boldly where no man has gone before," you needed to have a little of both. As the original series often did, it was a good parable about what makes us human.

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    1. Love that episode! It might serve as inspiration for a third entry in the “double the fun“ series--SF doppelgängers: clones, mirror universes, and techno mishaps. Thanks! 😍

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  2. This happened on many shows, including "Mannix," and I always found it quite annoying. On sci-fi/fantasy shows, it's acceptable. Those genres lend to such developments. But on regular dramas, etc.? Not so much.

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    1. It's amazing how prevalent it is. I don't mind it on older shows that are more escapist, such as McMillan and Wife or SMK, but that probably would have been jarring on Mannix. Thanks for your reply!

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