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Memorable moms and dads: TV’s best parent guest stars

By Christine Persaud

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Every good TV show welcomes a guest star now and then. Sometimes, it’s a major Hollywood actor in a prominent role. (Remember Brad Pitt’s brief appearance as Ross’ old school friend on Friends?) Other times, memorable performances come from big-time actors who appear as the rarely-seen parental units of main characters.

In the latest season of Modern Family, after guest-starring as Mitch and Claire’s mom, actress Shelley Long’s character Dede made a very memorable appearance. That got us thinking about the many other guest-starring parent characters that have come and gone. Here are some of our favorite TV parent guest stars over the years.

Laurie Metcalf The Big Bang Theory

Laurie Metcalf  The Big Bang Theory

We know her best as Aunt Jackie from Roseanne and the recent spinoff series The Conners, but Metcalf has also racked up an impressive rsum in film and theater, having most recently appeared in the Oscar-winning 2017 film Lady Bird, which earned her an Academy Award nomination. Since 2007, though, Metcalfe has made several appearances on The Big Bang Theory as Mary, the fiercely religious mother of Sheldon (Jim Parsons). She brings humor to every performance as the Catholic, right-wing Texan mom who might be the only one to whom Sheldon will listen. (Fun fact: Metcalf’s real-life daughter, Zoe Perry, plays a younger version of her in the spinoff series Young Sheldon.)

Jamie Lee Curtis and Rob Reiner New Girl

Jamie Lee Curtis and Rob Reiner  New Girl

This series wrapped up with its seventh and final season earlier this year, but both Curtis and Reiner appeared half a dozen times throughout its run as the divorced parents of main character Jess (Zooey Deschanel). Curtis portrayed Joan, the free-spirited, wild woman who was always there to dole out advice to her daughter, but held a grudge against Jess’ childhood best friend, Cece (Hannah Simone). Reiner, meanwhile, played Jess’ hungry-for-love dad, Bob, who never thought anyone was good enough for his little girl. His most memorable appearances involved those with his much younger new wife, a former sex addict who went to school with Jess.

Alan Arkin and Debbie Reynolds Will & Grace

Alan Arkin and Debbie Reynolds  Will & Grace

Sadly, Reynolds’ character, Bobbi, was killed off in the revival of Will & Grace following the actress’ death in real life. The character’s death served as the subject for a touching episode, but in the original series, she appeared in 10 episodes as the bubbly, show-tune singing, Jewish mother of Grace (Debra Messing). Arkin, meanwhile, played Grace’s stereotypical Jewish dad in the original series, who thrived on pointing out Grace’s flaws. He was replaced by Robert Klein in the series revival due to scheduling conflicts. (Fun fact: Klein also played Messing’s dad on Mysteries of Laura.)

Jerry Stiller Seinfeld

Jerry Stiller  Seinfeld

Stiller was technically more than just a “guest” star, but when you consider that he only appeared in 26 of the 180 episodes of the iconic series’ nine-season run, we think he qualifies just fine. His performance as the quirky dad of George Costanza (Jason Alexander) gave him some of the series’ most memorable lines and moments, making him worthy of parental accolades. The character is best known for creating the “Bro,” a bra for men, and coining the term “Festivus” as an alternate, non-commercial holiday that avoids the capitalist pressures of Christmas.

Judd Hirsch and Christine Baranski The Big Bang Theory

Judd Hirsch and Christine Baranski  The Big Bang Theory

Another duo from The Big Bang Theory, Hirsch’s performance as the anthropologist father of Leonard (Johnny Galecki) had him never missing a chance to insult his cold and emasculating ex-wife. He’s upstaged by Baranski’s interpretation of Leonard’s famous neuroscientist and psychiatrist mom, though. Ironically, given her study of human behavior, she’s a terrible mother who frowns upon any kind of physical contact or demonstration of love and affection, and uses every interaction with her son as if it were part of her research.

Lisa Kudrow Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Lisa Kudrow  Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

She only appeared in one episode of the series, aptly called “Kimmy Finds Her Mom!,” as Kimmy’s estranged mother Lori-Anne, whose neglect is what likely led to Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) being abducted in the first place. Having given birth to Kimmy when she was just a teenager, Lori-Anne is still young and vibrant herself, aimlessly dedicating her life to riding roller coasters all over the world. Naturally, they meet at Universal Studios, and while the relationship remains open-ended, she hasn’t been seen again in the series … yet.

Estelle Parsons Roseanne/The Conners

Estelle Parsons  Roseanne

Appearing in the original series, the revival, and the spinoff series The Conners, Parsons has played the recurring role of Beverly Harris, the judgmental and passive-aggressive mom to Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) and Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), since the ‘90s. She’s overbearing and critical, so it’s no surprise her kids dread her visits. Indicative of her vengeful nature is when, after being forced out, she sells her share of her daughters’ restaurant, the Lanford Lunch Box, to Roseanne’s former boss and enemy, Leon. In The Conners, Jackie is now reluctantly living with her mom, in hopes of repairing the long-fractured relationship.

Kathleen Turner Friends

Kathleen Turner  Friends

She only appeared in three episodes of the series through its decade-long run, but they were memorable. She played the estranged, transgendered father of Chandler (Matthew Perry), Charles Bing, who performs in Vegas under the name Helena Handbasket. Despite Chandler having never approved of his father’s lifestyle while growing up, he and Monica (Courtney Cox) travel to Vegas to find him before their wedding. In the end, Charles and Chandler’s mother, Nora (Morgan Fairchild), walk their son down the aisle. Of the experience, Turner says she did not feel welcomed by the clique-y cast.

Shelley Long Modern Family

Shelley Long  Modern Family

As noted, Long will no longer play DeDe, the overbearing and overly critical mother to Claire (Julie Bowen) and Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and ex-wife to Jay (Ed O’Neill), as her character was killed off in the Halloween episode of the latest season. Her eight appearances through the series run were memorable, usually involving her criticisms of the kids, recollections of terrible moments like “The Incident” (when she got drunk at the wedding of Jay and his much younger, new wife Gloria), and her rebirth thanks to meditation. She was manipulative and aggressive, but she fiercely loved her kids and grandkids. In true style, even after surviving a face-to-face with wolves and a shark, DeDe passed peacefully in her bed from a heart problem, while clutching a list of suggestions for the hotel she was in.

Kathy Bates and Teller – The Big Bang Theory

Kathy Bates and Teller - The Big Bang Theory

Yes, this is the third entry from The Big Bang Theory, but the odd pairing of Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates and Teller, one-half of the Penn & Teller magic and entertainment duo, was too delicious to pass up. True to his Teller persona (and arguably why he was cast in the role), Mr. Fowler doesn’t say much as the timid dad of Amy (Mayim Bialik), whose wife often answers for him. In the latest season, he hides away in Amy’s apartment to avoid his overbearing wife. Mrs. Fowler, meanwhile, is the perfect example of a helicopter parent, having sheltered Amy from anything that could potentially have brought her harm or corrupted her mind as a child.

Wendie Malick This Is Us

Wendie Malick  This Is Us

With numerous acting credits to her name and several awards, Malick is best known for her roles on Dream On, Just Shoot Me!, and Hot in Cleveland. In this series, she plays the mother of character Toby (Chris Sullivan) both in present day, and decades earlier, thanks to clever make-up work. In the most recent episode, we learn more about her and Toby’s troubled backstory and her failing marriage, and how she and her son have a special connection due to their battles with depression.

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