This post started out as one thing, and turned into something completely different. This isn’t isn’t unusual for works of genius. Ulysses began as a pamphlet about the dangers of alcohol and Das Kapital’s original title was How To Make A Million By Thirty. One just has to roll with these things.
My original thesis was that the conventional wisdom that it’s difficult for actors to transition from television to film is completely unfounded in fact. The thought is that television acting is not only inferior, but that it traps an actor within the confines of a character. Michael Richards will always be Kramer, James Gandolfini will always be Tony Soprano, etc. People won’t pay to see performers that they got to know for free in their living rooms.
After doing some research, I found that my hunch was correct… for men.
For male actors, getting a start on television is a good route to becoming a movie star. I’m not talking about recurring roles or cameos… most famous actors have minor parts on their resume from when they were anonymous. I’m talking about actors who first got well-known by a significant swath of the American population through a featured role on a television show. Performers who when they first moved into movies had to carry the “Isn’t-that-the-guy-from” burden.
Here’s a look at Box Office Mojo’s list of the 20 top-grossing performers of all-time:
#1: Eddie Murphy – Saturday Night Live
#2: Tom Hanks – Bosom Buddies
#4: Robin Williams – Mork and Mindy
#6: Morgan Freeman – The Electric Company
#8: Bruce Willis – Moonlighting
#9: Will Smith – The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
#11: Johnny Depp – 21 Jump Street
#13: John Travolta – Welcome Back, Kotter
#14: Jim Carrey – In Living Color
#17: Mike Myers – Saturday Night Live
#18: Ben Stiller – The Ben Stiller Show
That’s over half of the Top 20. Perhaps sketch comedy shows shouldn’t count in the same way… in those shows an actor plays many different characters, although sometimes they can become synonymous with them. Of those who were in narrative shows, many of the roles they played were indelible. When they headed into movies, Travolta was Barbarino… Williams was Mork… Willis was David Addison.
And it isn’t just box-office studs that have been able to shrug off the yoke of a television persona. The following actors who got their start in television were nominated for Oscars in the past 20 years:
George Clooney – ER
Tommy Lee Jones – One Life To Live
Ryan Gosling – The Mickey Mouse Club
Leonardo DiCaprio – Growing Pains
Clint Eastwood – Rawhide
Jaime Foxx (ugh) – In Living Color
Bill Murray – Saturday Night Live
Denzel Washington – St. Elsewhere
Woody Harrelson – Cheers
Robert Downey Jr. – Saturday Night Live
Warren Beatty – The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
Thomas Haden Church – Wings
Alan Alda – M*A*S*H
Alec Baldwin – Knots Landing
Burt Reynolds – Gunsmoke
Greg Kinnear – Talk Soup
Martin Landau – Mission: Impossible
All of these actors moved from popular television shows, where they first made their names, into serious and successful film careers. It should also be noted that all of them had their television success when they were young, and took that name recognition into film with them. If someone hasn’t made the move by 30, it ain’t gonna happen.
Then I started to look at the women. The first surprise was how few female box office draws exist. Of the Top 100 grossing performers, only twenty are women, from #10 Cameron Diaz to #100 Judi Dench. The American people choose to follow male stars with much more dedication than female stars. There are several factors that probably contribute to this: 1.) Men are in control of which movies couples and groups go to see, and therefore Hollywood makes more movies for them; 2.) Female careers start and end younger, and are much shorter; 3.) There’s no female equivalent of the Jack-Sparrow-type role, when a good actor can also be a box-office whore.
In the Top 100, the list of women that got their start on television looks like this:
#56: Queen Latifah – Living Single
This doesn’t really count… she was well-known as a rapper before she was an actress, and it’s not like Living Single was even Growing Pains.
Of the women that were nominated for Oscars since 1990, these are the ones that first became widely known through a television character:
Felicity Huffman – Sports Night
Hilary Swank – Beverly Hills, 90210
Julianne Moore – As The World Turns
Helen Hunt – Mad About You
Mo’Nique – The Parkers
Marisa Tomei – A Different World
Amy Ryan – The Wire
Michelle Williams – Dawson’s Creek
Joan Cusack – Saturday Night Live
Rosie Perez (ugh) – In Living Color
There’s not one Doug Ross or Woody Boyd on the list. These were mostly minor roles on mostly minor shows.
So what does this tell us?
1.) Men can pull off the transition from television to film… in fact, it might help the odds of being a movie star (in the context of everybody trying… most television actors obviously fail in making the transition).
2.) Making her name through a television show cripples a woman’s chance of having a film career.
Plan your Oscar keeper fantasy leagues accordingly.