Ten Actors of Color Who Belonged On Entertainment Weekly’s Signature TV Roles List

There are a lot of weird things about this Entertainment Weekly list of actors who have had two or more signature roles on television. It treats a number of minor roles like they’re iconic, like Lisa Kudrow’s turn on her one-season-and-cancelled post-Friends show The Comeback. It doesn’t give equal weight to co-stars on shows who have gone on to do equally impressive work: why should Married With Children’s Ed O’Neill make the list for Modern Family, but not his TV wife Katey Sagal for Sons of Anarchy? And strangest of all, it’s chock-full of white people. Apparently, there isn’t a single actor of color who’s had two defining roles on television. To give Entertainment Weekly a hand, here are ten actors of color who easily could have earned a spot on this list — who I came up with off the top of my head.

1. Bill Cosby: This is the most obvious, egregious omission. Both shows may bear his name and be knit together by Cosby’s iconic status. But he absolutely deserves separate credit for his work as Cliff Huxtable, Hilton Lucas, Chet Kinkaid, and his work on the Electric Company alone. Cosby didn’t just create great roles for himself — he put his shoulder to the borders of characters available to African-American actors on television and pushed, hard.

2. Andre Braugher: This omission is just as embarrassing. Even if you left out his role as nuclear sub Captain Marcus Chaplin on ABC’s Last Resort, which is still trying to find its place in the ratings, there’s Braugher’s turn as natty, lone-wolf detective Frank Pembleton on Homicide, belittled car dealer Owen Thoreau, Jr. on Men of a Certain Age, and Detective Marcellus Washington on Hack.

3. CCH Pounder: Pounder’s a tremendous actress who plays one of the best female characters of the Golden Age of television, the constantly and inexplicably overlooked Claudette Wyms on The Shield, where she got to be the rare person, much less woman of color, who brings justice to a white anti-hero. And while genre television never gets the credit she deserves, she’s wonderful and enigmatic as Mrs. Frederic, the caretaker of the magical Warehouse 13 in the SyFy show of the same name.


4. Lance Reddick: I could write a whole side rant on the under-appreciation and underemployment of actors from The Wire (when, oh when, will Michael B. Jordan be the absolutely gigantic star of screens of all sizes he deserves to be). But at least Reddick has consistently found work, whether he’s playing supremely menacing in Lost, or now as the head of the titular division on Fringe, a role that’s let him be alternately work-obsessed and movingly self-sacrificing.

5. Margaret Cho: Cho’s career has been erratic. But All-American Girl, which she created, was an important exercise in moving the default for young women on television away from white, and in illustrating the limitations of what American network television is willing to accept on its airwaves. And while women’s television, like genre fiction, tends to get dismissed as unserious, as legal assistant Teri on Drop Dead Diva, Cho gets to have a sexual appetite, to be hypercompetent, and all without being stripped of her Asianness.

6. Rockmond Dunbar: Before Parenthood came on the air, Soul Food, Showtime’s adaptation of the movie of the same name, was one of the best dramas on television that had confidence in its characters to be interesting simply for who they were. As Kenny Chadway, watching a man try to make a small business pay has never been so fascinating in its details. Now, as Sheriff Eli Washington in Sons of Anarchy, it’s fascinating watching him try to impose order on the show’s increasing violent, dissolute band of white bikers. And this isn’t even to mention his work on Prison Break.

7. Lucy Liu: It’s unfortunate that Liu, a warm, versatile actress got stuck playing a Dragon Lady stereotype on Ally McBeal. But it’s been awfully fun to see her play with that image, first as a cop on Southland, and now as the rare woman to get to embody the Watson archetype on CBS’s Sherlock Holmes drama Elementary. The folks who have to put their dignity in hock to open up space for other folks to follow should get to reap the benefits sometimes, too.

8. Dennis Haysbert: Is it really so easy to forget the war hero he played on The Unit? Or the president on 24?

9. Grace Park: As Sharon Valerii in Battlestar Galactica, Park had one of the hardest and most interesting roles in that series — how to play someone who felt, deeply, that she was human, but was forced to reckon with the reality of her identity as a sophisticated robot. She’s doing less interesting work in Hawaii 5–0, but as Kono Kalakaua, she’s one of a number of actors who are defining the relationships between cops we see on television as operating along something other than the black-white binary.


10. Harold Perrineau: There’s Oz, where he plays paralyzed inmate Augustus Hill, through whose eyes we see a notorious prison. Lost, where he plays Michael Dawson, a father trying to raise his son under hugely trying circumstances. The all-too-quickly-cancelled The Unusuals, where he played a hypochrodriac cop partnered with Adam Goldberg. And now he’s highly professional gangster Damon Pope on Sons of Anarchy.