Think back, if you will (or can), to the years ago before Will Smith, Bruce Willis, Johnny Depp and George Clooney were household names. Do you remember their roles on Moonlighting, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, 21 Jump Street and The Facts of Life? Some of you just might be able to I’m sure. Will and Bruce are among the very few actors who have successfully, and for a continued amount of time, enjoyed the transition from TV to film. They pump out movie after movie and are the poster children for successful cross-overs. But what about the reverse effect? Do any actors successfully going from film to TV get similar recognition? Or are they viewed as washouts who have, metaphorically speaking, been “put out to pasture”?
Does anyone celebrate, or have hope for, those film actors who have made the jump to small screen acting? Probably not, as most people might consider it a demotion. Well, although it usually is shrouded in negative stigma, I believe it can be considered an equally impressive transition…although it doesn’t get the praise it probably should.
Where as it was once considered throwing in the towel (or career suicide), to take a television role, now a days it’s almost an extended medium. In an old FOX interview with Bryan Singer, he discussed his excitement for House M.D. which was created by his Bad Hat Harry production company. In it he talked about how he prefers to work on a TV series like this mainly because of the ability to explore and develop rich and interesting characters far beyond the running time of the film. With a movie, there are certain story-telling confines. Most notably, characters have to play out a situation over 90 plus minutes. Yet, when done right, a TV show is like getting to see the characters you love in movies stretched out indefinitely.
But this really is not a new concept. Movie-themed TV shows have been around for decades and popular shows like Dragnet, Bonanza, Miami Vice, even Dallas come to mine. But what makes this slightly different is that you now have a large mount of major Hollywood talent appearing in all sorts of roles consistently on TV. Something like Keifer’s roles on 24 is far different from a 1 to 2 show stint that some actors have had on shows like All in the Family, WKRP, Who’s the Boss, Friends, etc. In my eyes, and based on the TV I watched growing up, I never imagined there could be legitimate success acting for A-list movie stars on a “TV show” as most fall into the category of uninspired “sit-com” drivel.
Years ago, when John Lithgow joined 3rd Rock from the Sun in 1996, I heard my mom say, “well that’s the end of his career” not really knowing what it meant. As the years went on I thought more about her statement and discovered that it wasn’t entirely accurate. Now (many years later) he’s on Dexter and doing a smash-up job (from what I hear). Now I don’t know him personally and I don’t know why hadn’t been in many high-profile projects since then but the work on the popular Showtime program has put him back in the spotlight, even if he is a side character. But just look at his IMDb page and you’ll find that just because he wasn’t in “blockbuster films”, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t working.
Also, take a look a the success of 24 and even let’s go back to House for a second. Even though they are on extremely popular TV shows, it still doesn’t mean they’ll stay there forever. Sure it’ll be tough to distance themselves from “Jack” “and “Greg” but being on TV isn’t the end of their career. While I’m not saying that Keifer and Hugh are going to seamlessly and with much fanfare make the jump back to cinemas, what I am saying is that just because they are on TV, there is still a viable life for them (provided the show is a success), it’s just through a new channel or vehicle. Same goes for Charlie Sheen and John (I thought he was dead before now) Cryer. While those characters aren’t as complex and multi-layered as Jack Bauer or Greg House, they may appear down but they’re not out. TV shows now can be perpetual holding patterns or just another avenue for actors to travel. Give that TV and film, these days, can be so interchangeable (when you have the right production and creative team) that no one on TV can truly be considered a “lost soul” or, again, metaphorically speaking being “put out to pasture”.
So where as actors were desperately trying to make the jump to the big screen, they’re finding a much more appealing audience and success on the smaller big screen. And in that case, it’s not as taboo or shameful as it was years back. You can still be a respectable actor with a TV show gig. Terry O’Quinn playing John Locke did not stall or snuff out his career but reinvigorated it. William Shatner, James Spader, Bruce Campbell, Dennis Haysbert, William Petersen, Laurence Fishburne, hell even another “I thought he was dead” actor, Chris O’Donnell is finding success in TV.
But to really make it work, taking a TV roles has to be better than playing some funny neighbor, or the type of character that really only works in sit-coms (i.e. Steve Erkel). Actors like Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant, Holly Hunter and even Oscar Winner Timothy Hutton have taken TV show roles that play out more like a movie, so it’s an easy transition. The down side is that yes, they can still become typecast (as can happen to ANY actor in ANY role) but at least they aren’t 1 to 2 seasons from cancellation. Sure the world may never want to see Charlie Sheen back on the big screen (and his career has always been all over the place as it is) but he isn’t some washed up “movie star” who used to have a show. All these actors can still ride a very long career. Plus if the show does well, they can continue to flex their film muscles even if they appear to be in a TV show gym.
While I’d hate to imagine my heroes like Harrison Ford or Bill Murray (from iconic roles as Indiana Jones or Peter Venkman) taking the turn to TV acting, but TV is not what it was 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. Some actors have found a second wind (and for a few, a more successful career path) by taking TV roles.
Now, I don’t know a single actor so I can’t claim to know why some actors disappear, but just because they’re out of the public eye, it doesn’t mean they’re done acting or their career is over. They may be enjoying not doing anything, taking in royalty checks from 20 years ago, but don’t be surprised by their inactivity and especially don’t think they’re washed up if they turn up on TV. Hell even recent Oscar winner Jeff Brides announced the day after his win that his next job is actually a play so an actor’s really can take them anywhere. So an actor’s absence from a “Big Screen” production and subsequent appearance on the “Small screen” is not their acting light being snuffed out, it could be (as evidenced in many cases) a fanning of the embers and a reigniting of the flames…or just something else to do.