Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Guest by request: 11-plus famous fans who put themselves in the show

The path to acting stardom (and sometimes Oscar gold) is paved in bit parts: Julia Roberts’ earliest screen credit came from a season-one episode of Crime Story, while a young Matthew McConaughey played a murder victim in an Unsolved Mysteries reenactment. But the process works in reverse, too: Famous guests pop by popular and non-popular programs all the time, giving boosts to company softball teams and teaching important lessons about concert bootlegging. Rarer is the guest shot earned because the celebrity asked nicely enough, either by putting the idea out there in the press, or by getting on the phone with producers. Plenty of TV fans fantasize about visiting the fictional worlds of their favorite shows; these are the viewers with enough pull to actually make that happen.

1. Lena Dunham, Scandal

Lena Dunham doesn’t hold back about much of anything, but the Girls writer/director/star is especially vocal about her love of Scandal. Dunham is such a Shondaholic, the writers of Saturday Night Live even wrote a sketch where Dunham got to basically fangirl out about how beautiful and amazing Olivia Pope and her “Gladiators” are. So the news that Dunham will guest star on the show next month in an unknown role must represent a dream come true for Dunham, who once told Grantland that appearing on Scandal was her “life’s great passion.” Handing her PR operations to the crisis-management expert who inspired the show, on the other hand, is just good business. [Katie Rife]


2. Michael Jackson, The Simpsons

Sometimes the biggest obstacle to a show’s celebrity guest isn’t the willingness of a show’s producers: Various contractual obligations initially prevented Michael Jackson from being identified for his two contributions to the early Simpsons oeuvre. But when The King Of Pop phoned executive producer James L. Brooks about following up his uncredited songwriting work on the novelty hit “Do The Bartman,” his request came with further stipulations. According to “Stark Raving Dad” co-writer Al Jean, Jackson didn’t commit to the episode until the table read. Though pseudonymously voicing a character who thinks he’s Michael Jackson and writing a song (“Happy Birthday Lisa”) for the episode, Jackson also asked for a soundalike to record his character’s singing parts. Reportedly, it was all a ploy by the musician to mess with the heads of his brothers, though the secret of Jackson’s “Stark Raving Dad” guest shot was kept about as well as Bart’s in-episode promise to tell no one that “Michael Jackson” is coming to his house. [Erik Adams]

3. Prince, New Girl

As the writer and performer of songs like “I Would Die 4 U,” “Kiss,” and “Pussy Control,” it makes sense that an unabashed romantic like Prince would want to play relationship counselor to two of his favorite TV characters. As co-showrunner Dave Finkel later told E!, Prince came to his season-three guest shot on New Girl (in an episode fittingly titled “Prince”) with a storyline in mind. “He said, ‘I want to be involved in the show in a real way and I want to help Nick and Jess with their relationship.’” And so he does, playing love guru to Zooey Deschanel’s doe-eyed schoolteacher (as “When You Were Mine” plays in the background) and later inviting her onstage for a musical performance in which New Girl meets 3rdEyeGirl. It’s a significant departure from the role the show’s writers envisioned for their purplest fan a year prior: When Cece (Hannah Simone) tells of losing her virginity to Mick Jagger in season two, the Rolling Stones frontman (portrayed only from the ankle down) was a replacement for Prince. [Erik Adams]


4. Britney Spears, How I Met Your Mother

During How I Met Your Mother’s third season, the show was far from the popular perpetual motion machine it became in the back half of its run. For three solid years, it was a bubble show, always on the verge of being canceled due to lackluster ratings. To hear co-creator Carter Bays tell it, it might have stayed that way, had it not been for the assistance of one pop star. Britney Spears was a fan of the show, and reached out to producers about a guest-star spot. (It probably wasn’t lost on the show that the singer needed some good press as much it did: Just prior to her March 2008 appearance, Spears had been put on a five-day psychiatric hold and was widely viewed as unstable.) She took the role of Barney-bedding receptionist Abby, earning the show its highest ratings of the season, as well as positive reviews for her own performance. It was a comeback for Spears, and a transition to ratings safety for the show. [Alex McCown]


5. Whoopi Goldberg, Star Trek: The Next Generation

When Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was initially discussing ideas for Ten Forward—the bar and lounge on Next Generation’s Enterprise—he observed that the flying saloon would need “one hell of a bartender/hostess.” As he put it in a 1991 interview, Roddenberry was “thinking of getting the most beautiful girl in all of creation to play the part.” But this bold vision of a hot young babe serving drinks was pushed aside when Whoopi Goldberg, fresh off a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Ghost, told Roddenberry that she was interested in a part on Next Generation. Goldberg was a Trek fan who had admired Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of Lt. Uhura on the original show, and since Star Trek was not about to pass up the prestige of an Academy Award winner, Roddenberry gave her a recurring guest role as Guinan, the Ten Forward barkeep. Although the show makes occasional reference to Guinan’s mysterious alien powers—she can apparently detect disruptions in the timeline, which is handy—Goldberg’s effortless warmth kept the character grounded. She ended up serving as a sort of alternate ship’s counselor, more down-to-earth and direct than the eternally cautious Counselor Troi. [John Teti]


6. Shaquille O’Neal, Southland

The producers of Southland were in disbelief when Shaquille O’Neal called their office to ask if he could make a guest appearance. Their incredulity is understandable. Beyond the fact that such a request is rare, the retired NBA star introduced himself over the phone as “Detective O’Neal,” a puffed-up reference to his service as a police reserve officer that happens to sound like an element of an absurd prank call. But O’Neal followed up by emailing a photo of himself in his police uniform, and told the producers he wanted to be part of Southland because of his deep respect for the show’s authentic portrayal of life on the beat. O’Neal appears in the season-five episode “The Felix Paradox” as Officer Earl Dayton, crudely japing with Officer John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) at a funeral. O’Neal is natural and unobtrusive in his brief appearance, which comes as no surprise since he’d already racked up numerous film and television appearances before popping up on Southland. Add in O’Neal’s police experience, and booking him for the gig becomes a no-brainer. Also, it’s easy to say “yes” to people who are 7 feet tall and weigh in excess of 300 pounds. [Joshua Alston]


7. Keith Hernandez, Seinfeld

It wasn’t Keith Hernandez but his ambitious agent who suggested that the New York Mets legend would make a good guest star for the quintessential New York sitcom, Seinfeld. The all-star first baseman was nervous about performing before the show’s live studio audience, but he remembers, “Jerry turns to me and went, ‘What the hell are you nervous for? You play in front of 50,000 people.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t have to memorize lines when I’m playing in front of them.’” Forgive the baseball metaphor, but Hernandez hits it out of the park with “The Boyfriend,” an episode so epic it couldn’t even be contained in a single half-hour, resulting in the first Seinfeld two-parter. The season-three effort is packed with greatness: George’s efforts to pass himself off as a latex salesman for Vandelay Industries, the JFK-inspired theory of the second spitter, and Hernandez holding his own at the center of an unlikely romantic triangle with Jerry and Elaine. Seinfeld and writer Larry David had an escape plan in case Hernandez choked, which would have knocked the episode back down to a single, but it turned out they didn’t even need it. “The Boyfriend” stands as not only an exemplary guest-star appearance by a sports star, but one of Jerry Seinfeld’s own favorite episodes of his eponymous sitcom. [Gwen Ihnat]


8. Questlove, Law & Order: SVU


Every New York actor or personality worth their salt has made an appearance on one of the Law & Orders, be it SVU, Criminal Intent, or original flavor. So when Roots drummer and Tonight Show darling Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson told Us Weekly that it was his fantasy to play a corpse for the franchise in late 2013, it took mere weeks to make that deadly dream come true. Quest popped up on a February 2014 episode of SVU as an ashen-looking morgue denizen who gets poked and prodded by the show’s coroner as she chats up Detectives Tutuola (Ice-T) and Rollins (Kelli Giddish) about hairy socks. With his seemingly uncanny nack for staying perfectly still, no matter what, Questlove really might have a future in this whole playing dead thing. [Marah Eakin]

9. Patrick J. Adams, Orphan Black

Orphan Black came out of nowhere. The Canadian sci-fi drama burst onto the scene after BBC America paired it with Doctor Who, and while promotion was quiet at first, the series began to pick up steam as critics and fans noticed Tatiana Maslany’s brilliant performance(s) in the role of several, distinct clones. Among the superfans was Suits’ Patrick J. Adams, who tweeted out praise for Maslany with the hashtag #seriouslyletmegueststar and despaired like any passionate member of the #CloneClub when Maslany didn’t get an Emmy nomination. It was announced just a few months later that Adams would get his guest role, and he credited Twitter with making his dreams come true. Fans speculated endlessly on who Adams would be in the Orphan Black universe, but the show still managed to surprise when he showed up as a blue-collar flirtation for Helena, the most capricious clone in Maslany’s ever-expanding repertoire. [Caroline Framke]


10. Roy Hibbert, Parks And Recreation

Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert was a fan of Parks And Recreation before coming to Pawnee for the first of his three cameos in “Ron And Tammys.” Hibbert heard Derrick Rose was supposed to cameo on The Good Wife, another show he is a fan of, and thought his team affiliation with the Pacers would help him land a Parks And Rec part. (He’s since tried to get on The Good Wife as well, because he went to Georgetown, just like Alicia Florrick.) Hibbert told the National Post that his agent David Falk made the call to Lorne Michaels, who facilitated the cameo. Even more adorable: Hibbert became close with one of his Parks And Rec co-stars, Ben Schwartz, and they hang out whenever Hibbert is in L.A. Alas, Hibbert told Rolling Stone that he was asked to return for Parks And Rec’s final season, but he couldn’t make his schedule sync with the show. [Molly Eichel]


11-plus. Various celebrity voices, Frasier

When Frasier premiered in 1993, producers had to beg celebrities to guest as Dr. Frasier Crane’s call-in patients. Eddie Van Halen, playing a man who can’t hear Frasier’s advice because his radio is too loud, did the show as a favor to his friend Kelsey Grammer. But as the show became a critical and commercial hit, famous names clamored to ask Frasier about their wide-ranging oddball problems, so much so that the Los Angeles Daily News called the vocal cameos “the hottest bit part in Hollywood.” Callers ranged from Pia Zadora to Halle Berry to Carrie Fisher, who played an insomniac who opined, “Help me Dr. Crane, you’re my only hope.” [Molly Eichel]


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