Sheridan Whiteside, a middle-aged, Falstaffian-girthed celebrity. He is a critic, lecturer, and radio personality, the intimate friend of anyone worth knowing. He is an egomaniac who “would see his mother burned at the stake if that was the only way he could light his cigarette.” His cruel wit and penchant for aggressive repartee make him a great comic character, insofar as humor often depends on other people’s misery or discomfort. That he is obviously impossible to live with is amply demonstrated when he disrupts, through his presence, a conservative upper-middle-class household in a small town in Ohio. Most of the time, he acts the consummate tyrant, but a few isolated acts of genuine kindness make him human, although not redeemable. For all of his sins, he remains disdainfully unrepentant.
Maggie Cutler, Whiteside’s private secretary and chief interference runner for the past ten years. In her thirties, she is sarcastic and cynical, and she knows where the bodies are buried. After she meets Bert Jefferson and goes ice skating with him, she decides that the fast lane with Whiteside is infinitely less preferable than conventional delights of domesticity. The fear of losing a good secretary prompts Whiteside to try to destroy the relationship, but her seriousness about her love induces him to help her achieve her goal.
Lorraine Sheldon, a bitchy actress, young and beautiful, the vicious epitome of the glamorous, brainless, superficial superstar. Whiteside lures her to Ohio by telling her that Jefferson’s play has a marvelous part for her. She thus unwittingly lets herself be used to break up the romance between Jefferson and Maggie. Seducing a man for benefit is, for her, all in a day’s work.
Professor Metz, “a strange-looking little man in his fifties,” an entomologist who once lived for two years in a cave with nothing but plant lice. He is the first of three eccentrics to visit Whiteside during his convalescence. He brings the great man a present of a colony of ten thousand roaches.
Beverly Carlton, a Noël Cowardish character who dashes around the world composing and writing plays and being devastatingly charming. His latest comedy, he says, is the best since Molière. He breezes in to visit Whiteside and wish him a “Merry Christmas.” He stays about a quarter of an hour, using part of the time to regale him with a number from his new revue. Maggie enlists him in an attempt to lure Jefferson away from Lorraine Sheldon, trying to counter Whiteside’s attempt to break up her romance.
Banjo, a famous Hollywood comedian, a grown-up adolescent. He is as loony offscreen as on—the Marx brothers all wrapped into one—but he good-heartedly allows himself to be the means by which Maggie can retrieve her happiness.
Bert Jefferson, the owner and editor of the Mesalia Journal. He is “an interesting-looking young man in his early thirties” who has written a producible play. He naïvely and ambitiously allows himself to be lured by the chance of making it to the big time, even if it means the sacrifice of personal happiness.
Dr. Bradley, Whiteside’s doctor while Whiteside is in Mesalia. He diagnoses Whiteside’s injuries by looking at the wrong X rays. He is also a late-blooming author who tries to get Whiteside to read his book, Forty Years an Ohio Doctor.
Miss Preen, a spinsterish nurse who attends Whiteside. A humorless prude, she becomes the constant butt of his insults and name-calling, to which she reacts with routine indignation.
The Stanleys, the family in whose house Whiteside stays during his recovery from a hip injury. The offspring get along well with Whiteside and take his advice to leave home and establish their independence: the son to travel around the world taking photographs; the daughter to elope with a union organizer.