With the hit show Mad Men in its seventh and final season, one question on many viewers’ minds is whether Don Draper will manage to get off the sauce or succumb to his alcoholism. The character, played by Jon Hamm, has managed to make drinking to excess look good for some time. The sixth season of the show, though, saw Don thrown in jail, spike morning orange juice from a hidden pint of vodka, and hide trembling hands during a cold-turkey attempt at quitting. The shift in Don’s fortune took some of the luster off the fashionable drinking that had been the centerpiece of the show’s previous seasons.
Mad Men has been a positively booze-filled and booze-fueled ride. It’s hard to name another show that kept liquor so much in the spotlight. It is as if the cocktail is a character unto itself.
But Mad Men certainly was not the first show to feature alcoholic characters. Don Draper may make it look better than most, but he certainly was not the first to get sauced on the small screen.
The big screen has had its fair share of boozers too. From lovable, want-to-hate-them types to the down-and-out and downright depressing drunk, feature films have run the gamut in portraying alcoholic characters.
It’s difficult to say what makes booze such a popular prop for directors. Perhaps it is because alcohol is able to make funny things funnier and sad things even sadder. Liquor manages to magnify nearly every quirk of the human psyche. Sometimes in hilarious fashion and sometimes in ways that makes viewers cringe and hide their eyes.
Here then is a list of five of the best alcoholic characters from television and movies. Some made us laugh and some made us cry.
Karen Walker — Will & Grace
Some characters, like Don Draper, leave viewers guessing for years if they are just fun loving imbibers or if they have a real problem with alcohol. Karen Walker from the sitcom Will & Grace was not one of those characters. Played by actress Megan Mulally, Karen’s affinity for wine, cocktails and even pills was well-known. She was also a drunk that was always good for a laugh.
Sure, she had some low points during the show’s eight seasons, but Karen could always be counted on for a few good one-liners per show. She didn’t necessarily make boozing look glamorous like the boys from Mad Men, but she certainly wasn’t a closeted, shameful drunk either. Although she could be nasty, that nastiness was when she was at her funniest. Her darkness was made humorous through her boozing. A technique, used by the writers of the show, to break down barriers and make things funny that we knew we shouldn’t be laughing at.
One of her best lines was probably, “Honey, I’d suck the alcohol out of a deodorant stick.”
Otis Campbell — The Andy Griffith Show
While Karen Walker was certainly a likable drunk, Otis Campbell was almost lovable. He was the archetypal town drunk of Mayberry, the fictional setting for The Andy Griffith Show that aired from 1960 to 1968. Otis, played by now-forgotten actor Hal Smith, was really the only blemish on the seemingly spotless town where everyone was always happy.
People tolerated Otis and really everyone in Mayberry liked him. Andy, the sheriff, even kept a cot for him in the jail. And a common scene for the show was Otis stumbling in drunk and locking himself in his own cell.
Apart from one episode where Andy and Barney tried to scare him straight by convincing him he had died and was witnessing events as a ghost, Otis, as an irretrievable drunk, was simply accepted.
Viewers themselves seemed to accept that every small town had at least one “Otis.” And such characters could be regarded as a harmless nuisance as long as they didn’t hurt anyone. Toward the end of the show’s eight-year run Otis made fewer and fewer appearances as sponsors raised concerns over portrayals of excessive drinking.
A little known fact about actor Hal Smith is that he was the voice of Owl in the first four Winnie the Pooh shorts.
Alan Swann — My Favorite Year
Mention the name Peter O’Toole and people are likely to think of Lawrence of Arabia, The Lion in Winter, or The Last Emperor. But one of his funniest roles was as Alan Swann in the 1982 film My Favorite Year.
The film is about a young comedy writer named Benjy Stone who is tasked with keeping a washed-up, alcoholic actor named Alan Swann sober so he can appear on a live variety show at the end of the week. Despite Stone’s efforts, Swann stays drunk.
O’Toole’s portrayal of Swann is perfect. A well-known boozer in his own right, O’Toole managed to make drunkenness hilarious. The film is full of great lines, including the one that comes after Swann learns that the show on which he has agreed to appear will be filmed live.
He shouts, “Damn you! I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!”
The film also has ties to real life. Mel Brooks, who was executive producer of the movie, once wrote for the Sid Caesar variety show,Your Show of Shows. While working on the show Brooks witnessed movie star Errol Flynn similarly show up tanked, but otherwise ready to appear as a guest. Alan Swann was obviously based on Flynn and many believe Benjy Stone was based on both Brooks and Woody Allen who also wrote for Caesar at the time.
Swann’s best drunken line of the movie is spoken to a stranger, “Alfredo, you needn’t wait. We shan’t need the car any more. We’re going to throw up in the park and then walk home.”
Henry Chinaski — Barfly
In one of his most well-known performances, Mickey Rourke played Henry Chinaski in the 1987 film Barfly. The movie is a semi-autobiography of notoriously booze-soaked author and poet Charles Bukowski.
“Hilarious” is not a word many would use to describe the character of Chinaski, he is decidedly darker than any of the others mentioned so far in this list. Bukowski based Chinaski on himself during a period of time that he was living in Los Angeles, out of work and drinking heavily.
Throughout the film Chinaski gets in fights with patrons of his local watering hole and the regular bartender, Eddie. He falls in love — or at least drunkenness —with Wanda, a character played by Faye Dunaway. During his time with her realizes some success as a writer.
That’s the high note though. Given a chance to escape the life of a low-class drunk for that of a high-class one, Chinaski chooses the former. With a little money in his pocket the film ends with the familiar sounds of a fist fight.
For those with a darker sense of humor the film could be described as “funny.” But the seediness of the setting and Rourke’s gritty acting make boozing seem less enticing than when portrayed by Jon Hamm on the Madison Avenue of days gone by.
One of Chinaski’s most memorable lines is, “Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance. Endurance is more important than truth.”
Ben Sanderson — Leaving Las Vegas
Those who were able to still find a little humor in the character Henry Chinaski will come up short trying to find any in Ben Sanderson. Played by Nicolas Cage in the film Leaving Las Vegas, Sanderson is a drunk screenwriter who has boozed himself out of job, family and friends. At the end of his line he travels to Las Vegas to drink himself to death.
The movie is impossibly depressing. It was based on a semi-autobiographical novel with the same title, written by John O’Brien. Proving that real-life alcoholism is nothing to laugh at, O’Brien committed suicide two weeks after production of the film began.
A similar fate awaits Sanderson at the end of the story. He does, indeed, drink himself to death. But not before befriending another tragic character, a prostitute named Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue. The friendship is the only thing that approaches a high point in the plot and even it has so many low points and cringe-worthy moments it seems silly to mention it as such.
The movie, the acting and the story are all great. But given that it is a glimpse into a man’s life who was obviously dealing with true torment it is no joy ride.
Ben’s true feelings are exposed in a memorable line after someone suggests he shouldn’t drink so much.
He responds, “Maybe I shouldn’t breathe so much Terri.”
Even at his darkest, Don Draper hasn’t been that dark. Yet.
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