The latest “Lone Ranger” flopped at the box office this summer, and one likely reason for the film’s poor reception was the intentional over-the-top performance of Johnny Depp as Tonto, an ostensible sidekick to the title character who ended up stealing the show. The movie seemed curiously off balance, as if Don Quixote’s squire, Sancho Panza, had headlined “The Man of La Mancha.”
Mr. Depp’s travails serve as a useful reminder that being a good sidekick is harder than it looks, and that second bananas often perform a useful role in entertainment, literature, and politics. There’s an art to being No. 2, but in a culture committed to the primacy of the individual, few people seem willing to pursue such a self-effacing vocation.
Nobody dreams of being the understudy when he grows up. That certainly wasn’t the goal of James Boswell, the Scottish man of letters who arrived in London in 1762 with dreams of joining the Royal Foot Guards. Boswell’s lively journal secured him a place on the B-list of literary celebrity, but his real claim to fame is as Samuel Johnson’s biographer, an accidental employment that required him to work in his subject’s shadow. Boswell’s gift for sublimation helped create the art of modern biography, a miracle that wouldn’t have happened if he had insisted on the spotlight instead.
One gathers from Boswell’s example that British culture, with its embrace of hierarchy and class structure, is more resigned to the idea that destiny casts some of us as heroes, and others in supporting roles. British literature offers many useful examples of indispensable assistants, from Robinson Crusoe’s Friday to Sherlock Holmes’s Dr. Watson.
The first American film adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories often distorted Watson into an amiable dolt, an apparent gesture of contempt toward someone who would content himself with being a loyal lieutenant in an adventure rather than the captain. But recent takes on Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, including the new “Holmes” TV series in the United States and England, give Watson more respect – a healthy acknowledgment that humbly helping a hero can be a form of quiet heroism in itself.
The great American sidekicks can be thoroughly democratic, standing not for the extremes of intellect or daring or emotion that so often attach to leading figures, but for the broad middle, where most of us live.
Think of Barney Fife, the bumbling small-town deputy who, despite his comic blunders, still expressed an odd everyman’s nobility in “The Andy Griffith Show.” The late Don Knotts, who portrayed Barney, had a stature as subtle as moonlight, which found its brilliance by orbiting around greatness while claiming little greatness for itself.
There was a similar appeal in Valerie Harper’s Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary’s best friend in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” As many fans of the show have pointed out, the effortlessly flawless Mary represented who we wanted to be, but down-to-earth Rhoda seemed like who we were.
Of course, real-life No. 2's also exist – most notably in the American vice-presidency, which has institutionalized this kind of junior partnership as a constitutional principle. But beyond the political realm, most sidekicks, by the very nature of their work, go unnoticed. And given the leveling nature of cyber society, in which everyone gets his own website, Twitter account, and blog, one has to wonder if the essential virtues of the junior partner – deference, modesty, the muting of self – are lapsing into extinction.
All the more reason, perhaps, to celebrate the sidekicks who might still live among us, and honor the strange genius that allows one to be great at being second.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”