TV’s 15 Longest-Running Characters, Ranked

TV's 15 Longest-Running Characters, Ranked

It’s not rare for television characters to go through multiple actors in reboots or spin-off shows. But in some cases, actors simply live out their character until the end. There are more than a number of television characters that have been around for a long time – and some even hold a record!

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With a show’s grand success, the charm and appeal often times comes from the main character and the actor who portrays them. These characters are fan favorites and it’s hard to imagine the show without them. Take for example Mulder and Scully portrayed by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on X-Files. It’s been a whopping 11 seasons on television but there are characters who outrun them.

Updated on March 10th, 2022 by George Chrysostomou: While various TV shows continue to make their comeback, there are countless characters who have actually been on-screen far longer than audiences think. These actors have come to embody their iconic roles in a way that they have become irreplaceable; even if there have been previous attempts!

15 Dana Scully: The X-Files

The X-Files Gillian Anderson Dana Scully

Dana Scully is synonymous with The X-Files. While the character played by Gillian Anderson might have seemingly been around for a long time, her first appearance was actually during the pilot of the TV show in 1993. Her final appearance was in the 2018 revival finale.

Those 25 years in the public eye have completely cemented this action and sci-fi hero. As a leading member of the investigation team, she’s both resourceful and fast thinking. The character has saved her team on countless occasions and has really come to define the series. There is no X-Files without Scully and she is still one of the longest-running TV characters.

14 Columbo: Columbo

The crime drama series that captured the imagination of audiences worldwide, the no-nonsense Columbo was immediately a working-class hero that would also be able to uncover the most confusing of mysteries. The titular character really represents a vast era of television history.

Portrayed by Peter Falk, the first appearance of the character was in 1960, in an episode of The Chevy Mystery Show. From 1968 the detective would gain his own series, which would run until 2003! Technically the character was around for 43 years, but starring in Columbo in his true form for 35 years.

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13 Maggie Horton: Days Of Our Lives

Maggie Horton played by actress Suzanne Rogers

Days of Our Lives is one of the most successful and longest-running soap operas on television. It’s no surprise that there are notable characters on the show that are well known and have been since the beginning. One of them being the character Maggie Horton played by actress Suzanne Rogers.

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The actress has portrayed the character since 1973. In 2013, the character and actress celebrated 40 years on the soap opera making her the longest-running character. Maggie Horton’s arc, much like other characters, revolves around romance and family drama.

12 Nancy Hughes McClosky: As The World Turns

Helen Wagner as Nancy in As the World Turns

Fans of soap operas would know the famed actress Helen Wagner whose most notable role was as Nancy Hughes McClosky in the show As the World Turns. The actress, and her role, was a popular one and once held the Guinness World Record for the longest run in a single role up until 2010.

Nancy was a key character in the show’s storyline as it focused on the lives and families of doctors and lawyers. Nancy was the head matriarch of the show and it stayed that way for over 50 years. Helen Wagner embodied the role from the start in 1954 up until her death in 2010.

11 Laura Collins: General Hospital

Laura Collins played by Genie Francis in General Hospital

General Hospital fans will know that Laura Collins (Genie Francis) is one of the longest-running characters on the show. The show originally aired in 1963. Collins made her debut in 1974 and has since had various storylines and appearances in the show.

Fans have seen Collins go from a rebellious teenage stage to her drama as an adult. She and her relationship with another main character were cemented as a defining Supercouple in soap operas. The character’s journey was a bumpy one. The actress left the show in 1982 but later returned in stints throughout the years before signing on to be an indefinite character contributing to her position as one of the longest-running TV characters.

10 Leroy Jethro Gibbs: NCIS

Mark Hammon as Gibbs in NCIS

It seems as though Mark Hammon has portrayed Leroy Jethro Gibbs since forever. Well, sort of he has. Hammon has portrayed one of television’s most loved and longest-running TV characters since the start of NCIS in 2003. At the heart of the NCIS team is Gibbs.

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He’s the team leader and in many ways the patriarch. He cares and looks after his team and makes sure they’re safe and don’t get into too much trouble. Fans of the show have come to see Gibbs as a vital character that brings the show to life. Where would DiNozzo and McGee be without Gibbs? It’s been 17 seasons and counting and Gibbs is here to stay.

9 Eric, Kenny, Kyle, And Stan: South Park

South Park season 23 still

South Park was first aired as its own show in 1997 and has since been one of the most popular adult animated series on television. What made it so popular were its main characters that have been around for 23 seasons. The characters and storyline originated from two animated shorts that turned into an internet sensation.

What made fans love the show were Eric, Kenny, Kyle, and Stan, voiced by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Audiences follow the four boys as they delve into situations in town and in their lives. The show is infamous for its dark humor, profanity, and adult themes. The show wouldn’t be what it is without its main stars.

8 Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa: The Simpsons

The Simpsons eating TV dinner

The Simpsons has become the number one animated sitcom to air on television since its start in 1989. The show’s success birthed an immense media franchise. The show wouldn’t be a raving success without its main characters, The Simpsons. The show follows husband and wife, Homer (Dan Castellaneta) and Marge (Julie Kavner) and their three children in Springfield.

The show became popular for its comical parody of American culture, society, and the human condition. All mixed with some vulgarity and mature themes. The family dynamics had it all. The self-centered and dim-witted Homer, the loving and nurturing Marge, the rebellious Bart (Nancy Cartwright), and the smart Lisa (Yeardley Smith). Can’t forget the baby, Maggie! The show and its title characters have been on the air for 32 seasons.

7 Sam & Dean Winchester: Supernatural

Same and Dean played by actors Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles

Supernatural is coming to an end, much to the disappointment of die-hard fans. The supernatural show had fans falling in love with its main characters, brother duo Sam and Dean Winchester. The roles have been portrayed by actors Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles for 15 seasons.

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From the start of the show in 2005, audiences have ventured alongside Sam and Dean as they traveled across the country eradicate monsters and things that go bump in the night. Their storylines have evolved and changed throughout the seasons and fans couldn’t get enough. They went from killing demons to saving the world from possible doom.

6 Jack McCoy: Law & Order

Sam Waterson as Jack McCoy in Law & Order

The perfect way to describe the popularity of the character Jack McCoy and the actor who portrayed him, Sam Waterson, is a scene from Friends. Joey’s grandmother is anxiously waiting for his debut on Law & Order. But she doesn’t speak any English. No worries out of all things she knows exactly who Sam Waterson is and his role on the show.

Jack McCoy is the esteemed Executive and District Attorney in the show. The character was on air for a total of 16 seasons. Making him a notable contender for one of the longest-running characters on television and in the show. He is surpassed by Lieutenant Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) and Donald Cragen (Dann Florek).

5 Frasier Crane: Frasier

Kelsey Grammer as Frasier Crane in spin-off sitcom

Coming to a close win is the character Frasier Crane. Frasier not only raked up television appearances on his own spin-off show, Frasier, but from the original show where he first appeared. The character, played by Kelsey Grammer, first made his debut in the 1982 sitcom, Cheers. 

After the show’s end, the character was popular enough to develop a spin-off show following his return home after his failed life in Boston The show ran for a total of 11 seasons but the character was on air for about 20 years.

4 Olivia Benson: Law & Order – SVU

Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson in Law & Order SVU

Mariska Hargitay proudly wears the title as being the longest-running prime-time live-action character of all time. The character of Oliva Benson has been on television since the start of Law & Order: SVU in 1999. She surpassed her other competitors such as her old captain and characters from the main show, Law & Order. 

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Benson has protected and served New York City for 21 seasons and became a beacon of hope for victims of sexual assault. Since season one, fans have seen her rise the ranks from a dedicated detective to the passionate Captain of SVU. The character has since inspired countless people with her strength, grit, and determination for justice.

3 Big Bird: Sesame Street

Big Bird in Sesame Street

Big Bird is one of the many iconic creations of Jim Henson. The character wasn’t a puppet like so many other members of the Sesame Street family but was actually a full-body suit worn by one of the many talented performers. There was still some puppeteering involved though, especially in regards to the use of the beak.

Big Bird has lasted generations and has proven to be a character that can resonate with any child. He is most associated with Sesame Street considering he has been the lead since its inception in 1969! That means that the character has been on screen for 53 years and is up there with the longest-running TV characters.

2 The Doctor: Doctor Who

Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker Epic Regeneration

Doctor Who has become a staple of British television. The Time Lord that travels around in a blue box has really become iconic thanks to the many talented performers who have taken on the role. The Doctor is therefore unique in its longevity, considering the character gets renewed through regeneration.

Regardless there are consistencies throughout and this long-running TV show manages to continue its continuity despite how many episodes of the show there have actually been. The first-ever appearance of the Doctor was in 1963, which means the character survived in media battling against their notorious villains for 59 years.

1 Kermit The Frog: The Muppets

Kermit the Frog sits at a candle lit table in The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Is there a more memorable or recognizable frog than Kermit? The Muppet is by far Jim Henson’s biggest creation, using the puppeteering techniques that the innovator was so well-known for. There really isn’t a story format that Kermit couldn’t fit into somehow.

Through TV and films, Kermit has maintained a huge presence on-screen, even boasting streaming specials recently on Disney+. Debuting on a show named Sam And Friends in 1955, Kermit has existed on television for 67 years. No one could have predicted how far the little frog would come. He is by far one of the longest-running TV characters.

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Split image of Tony in The Sopranos, Penguin in The Batman, and Black Mask in Batman Arkham Origina

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About The Author

Gabriela Silva
(478 Articles Published)

Gabriela Silva is a List writer for Screen Rant with experience in all things television, film and pop culture. A graduate of Fordham University with previous years experience interning for Cliché Magazine.

With her passion for movies, television and entertainment, she’s interviewed some great actors from Cress Williams of ‘Black Lightning’ to Tati Gabrielle from ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.’

Her love for entertainment reaches a broad range of interests from 90s thriller movies, guilty pleasure teen dramas, action-packed MCU movies to popular K-dramas. You’ll most likely find her binge-watching a new television show or movies on Netflix into the early morning.

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