Rudolph. Charlie Brown. The Grinch. They’re longtime favorites who always grab top billing when the networks roll out their holiday programs.
You have to wonder, though, if they would have become big TV stars, or if their shows would have earned “classic” status, if not for the extraordinary contributions of solid supporting players. After all, to achieve lasting pop-cultural shelf life, it usually takes teamwork.
With that in mind, we salute some of the top holiday scene-stealers — great characters who have the power to make us laugh, cry and sometimes wince, year after year after year:
• “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (8 p.m. Monday, ABC)
Character: Max the dog
Scene-stealing credentials: We adore Cindy Lou Who, the sweet little tot who melts our heart. But no one tops the pitiful pooch who basically serves as slave to the abusive Grinch yet loves him unconditionally. The wild trek that has Max — with makeshift reindeer headgear — pulling an overloaded sleigh over treacherous mountain passes is pure slapstick brilliance.
Random trivia: Max was just a minor character in the Seuss book, but animator Chuck Jones wisely expanded his role for the TV adaptation.
• “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (8 p.m. Tuesday, CBS)
Character: Yukon Cornelius (voiced by Larry D. Mann)
Scene-stealing credentials: Yes, the blustery prospector is full of himself, but he provides a jolt of comic relief. Not only does Yukon utter some of the show’s funniest lines, he is pivotal to its final resolution — outwitting the “Bumble” and paving the way for Rudolph’s heroics. All that, plus he has a prodigious beard that Giants pitcher Brian Wilson would envy.
Random trivia: A scene in which Yukon discovers a tasty peppermint mine was part of the original special, but was deleted from subsequent airings before finally being restored in 1998.
• “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (8 p.m. Dec. 5, ABC)
Character: Linus van Pelt (Voiced by Christopher Shea)
Scene-stealing credentials: The levelheaded Linus is the show’s voice of reason, helping to keep anxiety-ridden Charlie Brown from going berserk. His quietly eloquent reading from the Gospel of Luke packs an emotional wallop, and remains one of the most memorable moments in any holiday program.
Random trivia: Network executives argued against having Linus read from the Bible, but “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz was adamant that the scene remain. Shea was only 7 years old when he performed the part. Even younger was Kathy Steinberg, who did the voice of Sally Brown, Charlie Brown’s younger sister. Steinberg had not yet learned to read at the time of production, so she had to be fed her lines, often a word or syllable at a time — which may explain Sally’s somewhat choppy dialogue.
• “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (9 p.m. Dec. 7, ABC Family)
Character: Cousin Eddie (played by Randy Quaid)
Scene-stealing credentials: The blissfully ignorant, beer-swilling, mooching relative of Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) makes Homer Simpson look refined. In one day alone, he sets the stage for a massive sewer explosion and commits a kidnapping that brings out the SWAT team. Few characters are as repulsive as they are amusing.
Random trivia: Quaid reprised the role in the highly forgettable TV film, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure.”
• “It’s a Wonderful Life” (8 p.m. Dec. 13 and 24, NBC)
Character: Clarence, Angel 2nd Class (Played by Henry Travers)
Scene-stealing credentials: He may seem cheerfully incompetent, but Clarence gets the job done — saving George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) from suicide and finally earning his wings. (Listen for the bell). With the perfect blend of facial expressions, childlike wonder, voice and delivery, Clarence never fails to make us smile.
Random trivia: The Clarence Hotel opened in 2009 in Seneca Falls, the upstate New York town that claims to have been the inspiration for the film’s Bedford Falls. Stewart often named “It’s a Wonderful Life” as his favorite film.
HIGHLIGHTS OF TELEVISION’S holiday-themed programs airing between now and Christmas are listed below.
Some of these shows will have repeat airings. For those times, as well as other programs, consult your listings.
GIFTS THAT KEEP GIVING
“Shrek the Halls”: The cranky swamp ogre struggles to get into the Christmas spirit. (8:30 p.m. Monday, ABC).
“A Miser Brothers’ Christmas”: A sequel to 1974′s “A Year Without a Santa Claus,” in which the Heat Miser and the Cold Miser must stop their bickering to save Christmas. (10 p.m. Dec. 8, ABC Family).
“Frosty Returns”: A newly invented snow-removal spray threatens our favorite snowman. (8:30 p.m. Dec. 9, CBS).
“Yes, Virginia”: A curious, letter-writing girl questions the existence of Santa Claus. Based on a true story that became the basis for the most famous editorial of all time, originally published in 1897 and reprinted by newspapers annually ever since. (9 p.m. Dec. 9, CBS).
“The Flight Before Christmas”: A young reindeer yearns to become an expert flier just like his dad. (9 p.m. Dec. 10, CBS).
“The Story of Santa Claus”: Animated saga traces the early days of the jolly big man. Not to be confused with “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” (9 p.m. Dec. 17, CBS).
NEW FOR THE KIDDIES
“Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice”: The adventures continue for elves Lanny and Wayne, who try to thwart a “naughty” computer hacker out to spoil Christmas. (8:30 p.m. Dec. 5, ABC).
“Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas”: There’s trouble in the arctic when Sid accidentally destroys Manny’s holiday decorations. (9 p.m. Dec. 16, Fox).
FRESHLY WRAPPED TV FILMS
“Desperately Seeking Santa”: An ambitious marketing executive (Laura Vandervoort) dreams up a “sexy Santa contest” to boost traffic at a shopping mall. (8 p.m. today, ABC Family).
“Good Luck, Charlie, It’s Christmas”: Chaos breaks out as the Duncan family gets separated during a holiday road trip. (8 p.m. Friday, Disney Channel).
“A Princess for Christmas”: A reclusive English Duke (Roger Moore) attempts to reconnect with his estranged American relatives. (8 p.m. Saturday, Hallmark Channel).
“Annie Claus Is Coming to Town”: Santa’s daughter (Maria Thayer) leaves the North Pole for a trip to sunny Southern California. (8 p.m. Dec. 10, Hallmark Channel).
“12 Dates of Christmas”: Amy Smart and Mark-Paul Gosselaar star in a romantic comedy about a woman who continually relives the same first date on Christmas Eve. (8 p.m. Dec. 11, ABC Family).
“Christmas Comes to Canaan”: Country crooner Billy Ray Cyrus stars in this sequel to a popular 2009 film. (8 p.m. Dec. 17, Hallmark Channel).
BIG SCREEN EVERGREENS
“The Santa Claus”: Tim Allen dons the red suit and fluffy beard. Chaos ensues. (7 p.m. Thursday, ABC Family).
“The Polar Express”: Tom Hanks is the conductor on a magical train bound for the North Pole. (8:30 p.m. Dec. 5, ABC Family).
“A Christmas Carol”: Reginald Owen plays Scrooge in this 1938 version of the Dickens classic. (9:45 p.m. Dec. 5, TCM).
“Miracle on 34th Street”: A department store Santa restores our faith in humanity. (Noon Dec. 6, TCM).
MAKING SPIRITS BRIGHT
“Christmas in Rockefeller Center”: Tony Bennett, Justin Bieber, Cee Lo Green, Faith Hill and others light up the big tree in the Big Apple. (8 p.m. Wednesday, NBC).
“CMA Country Christmas”: Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts and others belt out holiday tunes. (9 p.m. Thursday, ABC).
“The Sing-Off Holiday Special”: Reality series looks to provide plenty of comfort and joy. (8 p.m. Dec. 5, NBC).
“A Michael Buble Christmas”: Grammy winner sings songs from his new Christmas album. (8 p.m. Dec. 6, NBC).
“A Home for the Holidays”: Celebrities extol the virtues of the adoption process in 13th annual special. (8 p.m. Dec. 21, CBS).
A few other holiday scene-stealers who have left an indelible impression on us:
“Elf” (Peter Dinklage as Miles Finch) — The incensed Finch kicks Will Ferrell’s butt. Cracks us up every time. (8 p.m. Nov. 26, USA).
“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” (The Winter Warlock) — Quite simply, the coolest name ever. (8 p.m. Dec. 1, ABC).
“The Year Without a Santa Claus” (Heat Miser & Snow Miser) — Mother Nature’s warring sons strike gold with their vaudevillian theme songs. (9 p.m. Dec. 8, ABC Family).
“Frosty the Snowman” (Professor Hinkle) — The hatless villain just needs to chill out. (8 p.m. Dec. 9, CBS).
“A Christmas Story” (The leg lamp) — Ah, the power of fishnet. Rarely has a lone prop gained so much attention. (Annual marathon begins 8 p.m. Dec. 24, TBS).