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20 Comic Actors And Their Best Dramatic Roles

20 Comic Actors And Their Best Dramatic Roles

This week sees the release of Bennett Miller‘s absolutely excellent “Foxcatcher” (read our rave review), and with it one of the most chilling cinematic characters in a long while: John DuPont, the entitled, deluded millionaire heir whose desire to make a mark and be loved by those around him ends up with tragic consequences. It’s a remarkable creation, one that’s all the more remarkable for coming from a nearly unrecognizable Steve Carell, an actor best known for his comedic performances on “The Daily Show,” “The Office,” “Anchorman” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” among others.

Carell’s embarked into more serious territory before, most notably as the suicidal uncle in “Little Miss Sunshine” and in the apocalyptic romance “Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World,” but his “Foxcatcher” performance is something else entirely, one that looks likely to land him an Oscar nomination and change the way his career is perceived moving forward. But Carell’s hardly the first comedian to pull off this kind of reinvention.

Actors often say that comedy is harder than drama, so it makes sense that stars best known for making audiences laugh can be cast against type to wildly successful effect. So to mark the opening of “Foxcatcher,” we’ve picked out twenty performances when great comic stars dropped the gags and took on serious roles (beyond comedy-dramas, for the most part). Take a look below, and let us know your favorites in the comments.

Bill Murray
Best-Known Comedic Roles: Take your pick —“Caddyshack,” ”Ghostbusters,” “Groundhog Day,” “Rushmore,” etc, etc

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: Lost In Translation” (2003)

Similar to others on this list only maybe more so, Murray’s style of performance is all about finding drama and tragedy in comedy and vice versa. But the first and possibly still the best film to leverage that hangdog world-weariness and to mine it far more for pathos than laughs was Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” a beautifully bittersweet little film about the fragility of human connection, tinged with a tiny uplift of hope at how that connection can occur between the unlikeliest of people. Murray’s tired, washed-up movie star, shilling for Japanese whisky, finds common ground with Scarlett Johansson’s newly disillusioned young wife, the sense of abandonment both feel heightened by the neon foreignness of Tokyo and drawing them closer together. It was career-redefining work for both of them at that point, and Murray’s sardonic underplaying has arguably never been put to more effective use as a means not to make us laugh, but to quietly break our hearts. He won a swathe of awards for the role but was denied an Oscar, which went to Sean Penn for “Mystic River,” a fact we can only account for by saying that Murray is so good here it really doesn’t feel like acting at all.

Other Dramatic Roles of Note: It’s lightweight, but playing FDR in Roger Michell’s “Hyde Park On Hudson” probably counts, as does his work with Jim Jarmusch, notably “Broken Flowers,” and in the terrible “Passion Play,” but in recent years Murray has tended to occupy a firmly tragicomic register that kind of defies categorization as anything but “Bill Murray.”

Adam Sandler

Best-Known Comedic Roles:“Billy Madison,” “Happy Gilmore,” “The Wedding Singer,” “The Waterboy,” “Grown Ups

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: Punch Drunk Love” (2002)

So one man’s comedy is another man’s serious drama. If prior to “Inherent Vice,” “Punch Drunk Love” was the closest Paul Thomas Anderson ever got to a chucklefest, then judged within the filmography of its star, the film represented something of a “Schindler’s List.” But what’s maybe so clever about this casting (and to see where we think it fits in PTA’s canon, here’s our retrospective) is that while it was a marked left turn from Sandler, in many ways the role of Barry Egan, a lonely guy with anger management issues who falls hard for Emily Watson’s Lena can easily be read as simply a deeper, more truthful, more idiosyncratic version of the kind of manchild roles that Sandler has made his area of expertise elsewhere (like, erm, “Anger Management”). But the degree to which Sandler stepped up to the plate here is surprising, delivering what is still to us the best and certainly most nuanced performance he’s ever given.

Other Dramatic Roles of Note: To lesser effect, Sandler’s “gone serious” a few other times, with “Spanglish,” “Reign Over Me” and “Funny People,” as well as taking a role in Jason Reitman’s widely derided “Men Women and Children” this year.

Eddie Murphy

Best Known Comedic Roles:48 Hrs,” “Trading Places,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Coming To America,” “The Golden Child,” “The Nutty Professor,” “Bowfinger” and the “Shrek” franchise.

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: Murphy proved to be canny casting in Bill Condon‘s big-screen adaptation of Broadway musical “Dreamgirls,” as R&B star Jimmy “Thunder” Early, and picked up an Oscar nomination for his trouble. The film as a whole is kind of a misfire, but Murphy’s tremendous in it, the part smartly channeling his ego, his enormous charisma and his darker side into a role that’s part Marvin Gaye, part James Brown and part, well, Eddie Murphy. He’s a joy to watch when Early’s on top, and surprisingly wrenching when he’s on the way down.

Other Dramatic Roles Of Note: Murphy’s mostly stuck to comedy otherwise, albeit to varying degrees. Directorial debut “Harlem Nights,” co-starring Richard Pryor, is actually a fairly straight-ahead crime picture: slaughtered by critics at the time, it’s worth reevaluation. “Metro” is probably the closest thing he ever made to a pure action movie, and he’s rather moving in Ted Demme‘s underrated 1999 film “Life.” He’s about to return to drama, though, leadingCook” for “Driving Miss Daisy” director Bruce Beresford.

Emma Thompson

Best Known Comedic Roles: The British actress started off her career in the famous Cambridge Footlights alongside Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, and went on to star in TV sketch show “Alfresco” and her own short-lived sketch show “Thompson.” She broke out on the big screen in Richard Curtis-penned rom-com “The Tall Guy,” and has since featured in big-screen comedies including “Nanny McPhee” and “Men In Black 3.”

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: Thompson, who’s arguably better known as a dramatic actress now at least in the U.S, won the Oscar for “Howard’s End,” but we’d probably pick out her performance the following year in “The Remains Of The Day” as her finest dramatic hour. The Merchant/Ivory adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro‘s novel is a masterpiece of British repression, and Thompson is wrenching as Miss Kenton, the housekeeper who loves Anthony Hopkins‘ Stevens (and vice versa), though neither can bring themselves to say it. It’s a warm, sly, surprisingly sexy and principled turn, poking and prodding at Stevens in the hope of a reaction and desolate when one fails to come. In its anti-”Downton” indictment of the culture of the British class system, Thompson’s performance is one of the key pieces of evidence.

Other Dramatic Roles Of Note: Thompson was also Oscar-nominated for “In The Name Of The Father” and “Sense and Sensibility,” and probably should have been for her excellent Hillary Clinton surrogate in “Primary Colors.” More recently, she was good in “Brideshead Revisited” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” and gave an ace vocal turn in Pixar’s “Brave.”

Steve Coogan

Best Known Comedic Roles: “The Day Today,” “I’m Alan Partridge,” “Around The World In 80 Days,” “Night At The Museum,” “Tropic Thunder,” “The Other Guys,” “The Trip,” “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa”

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: If we’re being honest, Coogan’s very best performance is as Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom’s Madchester masterpiece “24 Hour Party People,” but the film is as much comedy as drama, and it owes a little something to Coogan’s trademark Alan Partridge performance. If we’re talking pure drama, then the British comic’s finest hour to date is in 2012’s “What Maisie Knew,” the somewhat underseen adaptation of the Henry James novel by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Coogan and Julianne Moore play the feuding parents of the titular Maisie, and both are tremendous, with Coogan particularly revelatory: the performer’s always played in the sandbox of ego and self-absorption, but there’s still a remarkable lack of vanity in which he plays the selfish, feckless art dealer father. It’s not a turn without nuance: Coogan give the character real charm and he does clearly love his daughter. But he’s also a man as concerned with scoring points against his ex as anything else, and it’s admirable the way that Coogan avoids falling back on his comedic skills to water down the character.

Other Dramatic Roles Of Note: Aside from his collaborations with Winterbottom, with “A Cock And Bull Story,” “The Trip” movies and “The Look Of Love” all joining “24 Hour Party People” (and mostly riffing on a similar type to diminishing returns), Coogan’s also strong in “Marie Antoinette” and “Ruby Sparks,” and last year admirably played a quietly angry straight man in the Oscar-nominated “Philomena,” which he co-wrote.

Jerry Lewis

Best Known Comedic Roles: “My Friend Irma,” “At War With The Army,” “The Stooge,” “The Caddy,” “The Delicate Delinquent,“Artists And Models,” “Cinderfella,” “The Bellboy,” “The Nutty Professor,” “Boeing Boeing

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: Former Dean Martin partner, France’s favorite funnyman, telethon hero and noted sexist Jerry Lewis had been away from the screen for nearly a decade after the disaster of his still-unreleased holocaust drama “The Day The Clown Cried,” but Lewis went quite some way to redeem himself by teaming up with Martin Scorsese for “The King Of Comedy.” Lewis was totally inspired casting as a Johnny Carson-ish talk show host (Carson was actually first choice for the role) kidnapped by demented fan Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) looking for his big break. Lewis is such a pro that he absolutely sells that Jerry Langford could be a beloved TV funnyman, but the character is hardly an always-on kind of guy: he’s a steely professional who no longer seems to take any joy from laughter or his fans, particularly ones who tie him up in their basement. It’s a sour but not unsympathetic performance that was truly revelatory for Lewis.

Other Dramatic Roles Of Note: Lewis has mostly stayed away from drama (and indeed from movies altogether) in the last few decades, but has generally been impressive when he does go there: he’s good alongside Johnny Depp in Emir Kusturica’s “Arizona Dream” and in oddball curio “Funny Bones” with Oliver Platt and Lee Evans. More recently, he returned to the screen in the drama “Max Rose.”

Jim Carrey

Best-Known Comedic Roles: “Ace Ventura,” “Dumb And Dumber” “The Mask

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)

There are a few candidates for Carrey’s best dramatic performance, but the one that truly always has our hearts (especially that of Oli Lyttelton — read here to understand why) is also director Michel Gondry’s finest feature, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Based on a fabulously dream-logical script by meta genius Charlie Kaufman, the film needs an actor who can ground its flights of sci-fi fancy and visual whimsy in relatable human emotion, and Carrey is unimpeachable on that level, making Joel a kind of everyman and yet also a real character, one we can both identify with and be surprised by. It’s a terrific role as well for anyone wishing to prove themselves as an actor of range, skirting first the highs of love, then the lows and finally the regret and grief and acceptance of love’s end.

Other Dramatic Roles of Note: Carrey had already shown his serious side with an affecting turn in the terrific “The Truman Show” and a soulful portrayal of Andy Kaufman in “Man on the Moon,” both of which earned him Golden Globe nominations. And he was also pretty great in the buried “I Love You Philip Morris” against Ewan MacGregor. Less successfully, he fronted the box-office bomb “The Majestic” for Frank Darabont, the schmaltzy “Simon Birch” and most disastrously, the absolutely dire numerology thriller “The Number 23.”

Robin Williams

Best-Known Comedic Roles: “Mork & Mindy” “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Hook,” “Aladdin,” “Mrs Doubtfire,” “The Birdcage” etc etc

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: “Good Will Hunting” (1997)

For obvious reasons, we’ve written a lot about Robin Williams recently. And a fair bit of that has slanted toward his comic persona, from his stand-up to his comedic roles, and the cruel way it contrasted with the sad manner of his death. But like some other names on this list, Williams always had an ability to infuse comedy with pathos and even the most dramatic of roles with notes of humor (“Good Morning Vietnam” for example, is a film most known for Williams’ zaniness, but it is also about war and soldiering, while “The Fisher King” is perhaps our own favorite of these crossover roles is similarly double-edged). But among the more “serious” roles Williams took, the balance of sweet and bitter (where sometimes it could tip over into schmaltz) was perhaps best achieved in “Good Will Hunting.” Partly the kind of inspirational teacher role that Williams had already owned with “Dead Poet’s Society,” he’s just a little more rounded here, providing the film with its considerable heart, but also with a kind of melancholic anger that makes his Dr. Maguire feel real.

Other Dramatic Roles of Note: Dead Poet’s Society” “Awakenings” and “What Dreams May Come” were on the softer, more uplifting side of serious, while Williams also showed us how thoroughly he could subvert that magical/inspirational vibe with very dark turns in thrillers “Insomnia,” “One Hour Photo” and “The Night Listener,” while “World Greatest Dad” is comedy so pitch black it almost qualifies as drama (and cattily, we could suggest that “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” works the other way round).

Steve Martin

Best-Known Comedic Roles: “Saturday Night Live,” “The Jerk,” “Three Amigos,” “The Man with Two Brains,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” “Parenthood,” “Bowfinger” etc

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: “The Spanish Prisoner” (1997)
Okay, okay, keep your hair on, we know “Pennies From Heaven,” widely billed as Martin’s first dramatic role, could well have slotted in here. But with just “The Jerk” as a film role of any note behind him at the time, ‘Pennies’ was less a departure than later serious roles that came after he’d established his comic movie persona in people’s minds. And so we come to David Mamet’s underseen but fun heist thriller “The Spanish Prisoner,” in which Martin, playing a slippery con man of whose real agenda the tricksy plot keeps revealing more and more, feels perfectly at home amid the reversals and clipped stagey dialogue. Probably also memorable because it’s in such a different genre to the kind of tragicomic role that the more serious Martin specializes in elsewhere, not since “Pennies,” for our money, had Martin shown how far he could stray from his comfort zone and still convince.

Other Dramatic Roles of Note: With “Shopgirl,” Martin wrote the story, then adapted it for the screen and starred to pretty good effect, even if the May-December relationship drama still feels a bit like a “Lost In Translation” me-too. He was also good in the uneven “Leap of Faith” and the underrated “Grand Canyon,” while “A Simple Twist of Fate” and “Novocaine” missed the mark.

Peter Sellers

Best-Known Comedic Roles: “The Goon Show” (radio), “The Pink Panther,” “The Ladykillers,” “Casino Royale” (1967), “I’m Alright Jack

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: Dr. Strangelove”(1964)/“Being There” (1979)
Argh. More than elsewhere on this list, this is a tough call, not just because Sellers was surely one of the greatest all-rounders of all time, but also because there are comedic elements to even his more dramatic turns and some of his best dramatic work is strictly speaking, black comedy. So “Dr. Strangelove,” one of the greatest black comedies of all time, does feature Sellers on much less zany form than his Inspector Clouseau in any one of his three roles (the famous title role was also prefigured by Sellers’ turn in Kubrick’s “Lolita” two years prior) and it’s just such an amazing feat we had to include it. But we’re splitting the entry with Hal Ashby’s “Being There,” a dramedy in which Sellers’ performance is probably the most soulful and straightest of his career, even if its put in satirical/comedic context. A passion project of Sellers’, based on the Jerzy Kosinski novella, it’s the wry story of a simple minded gardener mistaken for a political genius, but Sellers, in one of his last ever roles, pours a lot more melancholy sweetness into the role than that story suggests, and it remains maybe his most affecting turn.

Other Dramatic Roles of Note: Sellers’ films, as we’ve noted and agonized over, largely fall across the comedy/drama spectrum rather than fitting neatly into one or other box, but those at the more dramatic end included Kubrick’s “Lolita” as well as the two above, while “Never Let Go” was a rare thriller role, that is also unfortunately quite bad.

Whoopi Goldberg

Best Known Comedic Roles: Goldberg was a stand-up for some time, and went onto star in, among others, “Soapdish,” “Sister Act,” “Corinna Corrina,” “Eddie” and “Rat Race.”

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: Unusually for a comedian, Whoopi Goldberg broke into the movies not through funny films, but through serious ones: her Mike Nichols-directed Broadway show attracted the attentions of Steven Spielberg, who cast her in a major role in his adaptation of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” Despite her Oscar for (a mostly comic relief role in) “Ghost,” that film probably remains the highlight of Goldberg’s dramatic career. The actress won her first Academy Award nod for the lead role of Celie, trapped in an abusive marriage to the vile Albert (Danny Glover), who eventually finds the strength to escape him. Spielberg’s adaptation is overly sentimental and occasionally shrinks from elements of the source material (most notably a lesbian romance sub-plot), but the performances are very fine across the board, and Goldberg’s is the very heart of it. Initially downtrodden and helpless, she grows in stature even as the indignities pile up, and her eventual ability to throw off Albert is genuinely moving. Those who know the actress best from “The View” would do well to check her out in this to be reminded of her talents.

Other Dramatic Roles Of Note: “Ghost” aside, Goldberg’s also good in “The Long Walk Home,” “The Player,” “Boys On The Side,” “Moonlight And Valentino,” “Ghosts Of Mississippi” “Girl Interrupted,” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” In fact, it’s a shame that her screen performances these days are limited to cameos in the likes of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

Will Ferrell

Best Known Comedic Roles:Zoolander,” “Old School,” “Elf,” “Anchorman.” “Talladega Nights,” “Blades Of Glory,” “Step Brothers,” “The Other Guys,” “The Lego Movie

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: “Everything Must Go” (2010)
The film itself is never really more than fine: a slightly by-the-numbers Sundance pic about an alcoholic salesman fired from his job and dumped by his wife and who sells all his possessions in a yard sale, aided by a young kid (C.J. Wallace) and a friendly neighbor (Rebecca Hall). Ferrell admirably steers away from the quirk that could unbalance the picture, riffing on his “Old School”-ish Everyman persona, but with a darker, duller tinge to him, and he perfectly captures that spiraling despair of an alcoholic in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily think he was capable of. There’s a scene between him and Laura Dern in particular which is remarkable and suggests that Ferrell should do this kind of thing much more often.

Other Dramatic Roles Of Note: Ferrell’s not gone really dark on screen yet, but has flexed some other muscles in a few dramedies: he was a pretty good Woody Allen surrogate in “Melinda & Melinda,” he’s pretty solid opposite Zooey Deschanel and Ed Harris in Adam Rapp’s “Winter Passing,” and was strong in Marc Forster’s Diet Charlie Kaufman fantasy “Stranger Than Fiction.”

Richard Pryor

Best Known Comedic Roles: Aside from being the most-lauded and influential stand-up of his generation, Pryor starred in “Uptown Saturday Night,” “Car Wash,” “Silver Streak,” “The Wiz,” “Stir Crazy,” “The Toy,” “Superman III,” “Brewster’s Millions” and “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.”

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: “Blue Collar” (1978)
He might have clashed with director Paul Schrader (Pryor was at the height of his drug intake, and apparently pulled a loaded gun on the filmmaker, causing him to have a nervous breakdown), but the results on the “Taxi Driver” writer’s directorial debut speak for themselves. It’s a terrific and still somehow undervalued picture, with a great performance from the star along with Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto. The trio play a group of Detroit auto employees who conspire to rob their union bosses, and while all are excellent in a taut, substantial thriller, it’s Pryor who’s truly revelatory. As with many of the best performances on this list, he strips away his comic tics and mannerisms, restrained and underplaying as a family man worlds away from his comic persona (while being plenty funny in the scenes that establish the easy chemistry between the trio).

Other Dramatic Roles Of Note: Pryor had already stepped towards more dramatic roles a year or two earlier with NASCAR biopic “Greased Lightning.” He’d go on to add serious strings to his comedic bow with “Some Kind Of Hero,” the aforementioned “Harlem Nights” and, even when his health was failing, “Pulp Fiction” knock-off “Mad Dog Time” and in his final screen role, a haunting cameo in David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.”

Mo’Nique

Best Known Comedic Roles: Aside from her career as a stand-up and on UPN sitcom “The Parkers,” Mo’Nique also appeared in “Beerfest,” “Two Can Play That Game,” “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins” and “Phat Girlz.”

Best ‘Serious’ Dramatic Turn: “Precious” (2009)
From “Phat Girlz” to an Oscar in only a few years: Mo’Nique had one of the more surprising career paths in show biz history, but with a meaty role like the one she took the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for, in Lee Daniels’ “Precious,” it’s not hugely surprising. The stand-up/actress played Mary, the monstrous, abusive mother of Gabourey Sidibe’s title character, who facilitates and/or enacts her rapes and physical beatings, one of the most indelibly unpleasant characters in recent screen history. But love or loathe Daniels’ film, there’s no denying the towering force of the actress’ performance and the way that she somehow imbues some humanity into the character —her last scene in particular is a complex masterclass in performance.

Other Dramatic Roles Of Note: Prior to “Precious,” Mo’Nique had also appeared in John SIngleton’s “Baby Boy,” Tony Scott’s “Domino” and, as a character coincidentally called Precious, in Lee Daniels’ debut “Shadowboxer.” She returned to the screen this year in the drama “Blackbird” opposite Isaiah Washington.

Kristen Wiig

Best-Known Comedic Roles: “Saturday Night Live,” “Bridesmaids,” “Paul,” “Macgruber” “Anchorman 2,” this

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: “The Skeleton Twins” (2014)

Again a comic actor who’s adept at investing a kind of heartfelt misfit quality into even serious roles, Wiig has shown a laudable desire since becoming everyone’s favorite person ever with “Bridesmaids” to change it up in her choice of movies. But that desire to branch out hasn’t really borne fruit till this year’s Sundance Film Festival, when “The Skeleton Twins,” which stars fellow ‘SNL’ alum and “Paul” co-star Bill Hader, played to strong notices and picked up the U.S. dramatic Screenwriting award. Wiig and Hader play an estranged brother/sister duo both going through some fairly serious crises, who reconnect, albeit often painfully, and find a kind of healing in each other — which is about as Sundance-by-numbers as it gets. But it is marked out by Wiig and Hader’s gently powerful turns, along with those from Luke Wilson and Ty Burrell, all of whom prove the adage that comic actors can successfully turn their hand to drama maybe more easily than dramatic actors can attempt comedy.

Other Dramatic Roles of Note: Wiig also acquitted herself well in her first attempt at serious drama, “Hateship Loveship,” though the film is a little bland to be memorable, while she also took a small voice role as “sexykitten” in Spike Jonze’s “Her.”

Ben Stiller

Best Known Comedic Roles:There’s Something About Mary,” “Meet The Parents,” “Zoolander,” “Dodgeball,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “Night At The Museum

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: Permanent Midnight” (1998)
Stiller’s moved back and forth between comedy and drama more effectively than most, even when you exclude dramedies like “The Royal Tenenbaums” or “Greenberg.” Probably his purest dramatic experience came early on his career, wtih David Veloz’s “Permanent Midnight,” which if more people had seen might have altered the path of his career. Stiller stars as real-life screenwriter Jerry Stahl (who penned episodes of “ALF,” “Bad Boys II” and “Hemingway and Gellhorn,” among others), who came to LA and fell in with an addict buddy (Owen Wilson), leading to escalating series of addictions culminating in heroin and crack. The film itself sometimes crudely written, and occasionally miscast (hi, Elizabeth Hurley as Stahl’s wife!). But it’s worth watching just for Stiller’s performance, which channels his trademark nervy neuroticism, but adds a level of drug-addled confidence and even sex appeal that’s not necessarily present in the rest of the director’s work. It’s an impressively strung-out, sweaty turn that’s still something of an anomaly in the Stiller canon.

Other Dramatic Roles Of Note: Stiller made his debut in Spielberg’s “Empire Of The Sun,” and the same year as “Permanent Midnight” also starred in Neil LaBute’s dark and acerbic “Your Friends & Neighbors.” He’s also very good in the chronically underseen mystery “Zero Effect,” and in the aforementioned films by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach.

Albert Brooks

Best Known Comedic Roles:Real Life,” “Modern Romance,” “Lost In America,” “Broadcast News,” “Defending Your Life,” “Finding Nemo,” “This Is 40

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: “Drive” (2011)
As far back as directorial debut “Real Life” (or even his early SNL shorts), Brooks has always included an element of drama with his comedy, and it’s perhaps telling that smart directors have long been deploying him in straight roles to great effect. But his most atypical and unexpectedly terrifying role is undoubtedly in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.” The cuddly-ish Brooks, who’d been mostly absent from screens for a long while before the film opened, is hardly obvious casting for a subtly malevolent gangster with a rage issue, but Brooks is spectacular. It’s a slow-burn, with Brooks setting up his Bernie Rose as a sort of potential rival father figure to Ryan Gosling’s Driver, before letting the mask slip and the psychopath underneath show his true face. Perhaps most impressive of all is that you find Brooks a real physical threat here, the pure viciousness on his face as he stabs an underling in the throat proving to be genuinely haunting.

Other Dramatic Roles Of Note: Brooks is always great and always plays his comedy with a degree of reality (see “Modern Romance” and “Broadcast News” for the best examples), but he’s also terrific when playing it straight: in Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” in Soderbergh’s “Out Of Sight,” or in the imminent “A Most Violent Year.”

Lily Tomlin

Best-Known Comedic Roles: ”Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” “All of Me,” “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” ”9 to 5” “Big Business,” “Eastbound and Down,” “I Heart Huckabees” “Eastbound & Down” that video from the set of “I Heart Huckabees”

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: Nashville” (1975)
Tomlin’s collaboration with Robert Altman only spanned four films, but as far as her dramatic feature roles go, it’s hard to think about her without also thinking of Robert Altman. And “Nashville,” his wonderful ensemble musical about 5 days in the lives and loves of a group of country music performers leading up to a political rally, was in fact Tomlin’s first big-screen role. However, she was already well known from her TV work which had established her as the comedic force behind several beloved characters and skits on the massively popular ‘Laugh-In’ that often then went on to get their own specials. But what’s remarkable about “Nashville” is that her role is among the less humorous in the ensemble, and Tomlin herself has said: “I wanted Barbara Harris’s part because it had more comedic undertones. But then… I realized how great [Altman’s] casting was. He just had a gift for it. [I thought,] ‘I must be more right for this part than I think I am.’” Indeed Tomlin was so right for the part she got, and deserved, an Oscar nomination her very first time at bat.

Other Dramatic Roles of Note: Short Cuts,” “The Player” (cameo), “A Prairie Home Companion,” but maybe her most impressive dramatic work recently has been on TV with recurring roles on “The West Wing,”and “Damages” that make the most of her uniquely spiky presence.

Jackie Gleason

Best Known Comedic Roles: Gleason was best known for his playing Ralph Kramden in seminal sitcom “The Honeymooners,” but also appeared in comedy movies like “Skidoo,” “How To Commit Marriage,” “Don’t Drink The Water,” “The Toy” and, probably most familiarly to movie audiences in the past several decades, the “Smokey And The Bandit” franchise.

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: “The Hustler” (1961)
The public might have identified Gleason most with his pioneering and popular sitcom (and he began his career with musical comedy in nightclubs), but he was also an accomplished dramatic actor, most notably with his Oscar-nominated turn as Minnesota Fats in “The Hustler.” The method stylings of Paul Newman and George C. Scott in the film might be more immediately noticeable, but Gleason is immediately iconic as the pool legend that Newman’s Fast Eddie is determined to take on. Virtually wordless, it’s a performance of gesture and physicality, Gleason’s larger-than-life presence and hangdog face saying so much about the life of a professional pool player without the need for monologuing. There’s something almost ninja-like about his economy of movement: an absolute pro for whom playing pool is as easy as breathing.

Other Dramatic Roles Of Note: Beyond that, Gleason’s also very good in “Requiem For A Heavyweight” and “Soldier In The Rain,” and it’s worth seeking out his performance opposite Laurence Olivier in HBO movie “Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson.”

Jamie Foxx

Best-Known Comedic Roles: Various stand-up specials, “The Jamie Foxx Show,” “Booty Call,” “Breakin’ All The Rules,” “Valentine’s Day,” “Django Unchained,” “Due Date”

Best “Serious” Dramatic Turn: “Collateral” (2004)

Foxx is a performer whose hyphenates have hyphens (actor, singer-songwriter, stand-up comedian), so it might seem churlish not to give this little award, like the Best Actor Oscar, to his admittedly powerhouse turn as Ray Charles in “Ray” which uses at least a few of those different facets. But honestly, we’re just not fans of the Taylor Hackford biopic and were much more impressed by Foxx’s other Oscar-nominated turn that year in Michael Mann’s “Collateral.” Opposite Tom Cruise’s slick blond psychopath, Foxx’s is in many ways the trickier role, and making him the audience’s proxy, the everyman good-guy if you will, while Tom freaking Cruise is the cold blooded killer, is itself pretty unusual casting for Hollywood. It’s a film that needs Foxx’s underplaying to work at all, especially as it goes increasingly off the rails in the end. There are a lot of set-pieces within “Collateral,” but when we think of it, we tend to think of Foxx and Cruise in the car, all rearview-mirror glances and downtown lights reflecting off glass —it’s a terrific two-hander from two stars both cast against type, rising to the occasion and upping each other’s game in the process.

Other Dramatic Roles of Note: Foxx is probably better known as a serious actor these days than a comic one, as befits his “Oscar Winner” status, but long before “Ray” with Mann’s “Ali” and Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” he’d taken on a variety of roles. More recently, he’s shown up in “Stealth,” ”Jarhead,” “Miami Vice,” “Dreamgirls” and the awards-baity “The Soloist,” and you can add “White House Down” too, though whether that belongs more in the comedy category above is a good question.

Honorable Mentions: There’s only so much space and time, so there are several other performers that didn’t quite make the cut for one reason or another. Mike Myers for instance, who ventured into drama for disco biopic “54,” and more successfully, “Inglourious Basterds” (though his turn in the latter is only slightly less cartoonish than “Austin Powers“). Then there’s Patton Oswalt, who was used to great effect in “Big Fan” and “Young Adult,Jack Black, who graduated from “School Of Rock” to “King Kong” and “Margot At The Wedding,” Scottish stand-up Billy Connolly, who won acclaim in “Mrs. Brown,” and Marlon Wayans, who was so good in “Requiem For A Dream.”

Beyond that, Michael Keaton started off as a great stand-up and continued into comedy as much as drama, but having just written about him extensively, we thought we’d give the limelight to others. Some actors best known as dramatic ones, like Joe Pesci, Alan Arkin, Melinda Dillon and Peter Boyle, actually started out on the comedy circuit or at Second City.

And then there’s Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Eddie Izzard, Chris Tucker, Janaene Garofolo, Hugh Laurie, Rodney Dangerfield, Simon Pegg, Stephen Fry, Billy Crystal, Tracey Ullman, Will Forte, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Dane Cook and Greg Kinnear, all of whom began as more comedy-minded actors, but have delved into dramatic territory at least once. Anyone we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments.

— Oliver Lyttelton & Jessica Kiang

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