Back to IndieWire

5 TV Comedy Actors Turned Movie Stars (5 More Who Floundered)

5 TV Comedy Actors Turned Movie Stars (5 More Who Floundered)

With “Grown Ups 2” starring “SNL” alumnus Adam Sandler and “King of Queens” star Kevin James opening this weekend, and “The Way Way Back” with Steve Carell of “The Office” fame out since last week, your local multiplex will soon be playing a choice of films with star actors who originally made their names in TV comedy shows. All three of these guys have carved out the kind of big-screen success that means we arguably now associate them more with movies than with television, but that’s a trick that many have tried and only few have really pulled off.

We’re all familiar with the arc: a sitcom or comedy sketch show takes off, and as sure as night follows day, within a couple of years the leading actors from that show start popping up in movies. Often, like Carell, they get their feet wet in smaller indie fare or supporting roles before being given the keys to a major studio picture, though occasionally the heavy hand of Hollywood manipulation can be felt in the way in which they’re determinedly thrust into the spotlight straight out of the gate.

What’s interesting is that no matter how big a push is made behind them, there is no guarantee that audiences will embrace them as movie stars: sometimes being a regular, familiar presence in the nation’s living rooms is a boon to an actor’s burgeoning movie career, but just as often it has proven, if not a liability, then certainly an unreliable indicator of their potential crossover appeal. We’ve arbitrarily selected ten such examples, that we think throw some little light into the murkier corners of TV vs Movie stardom, below.

5 TV Comedy Actors Who Are Now Movie Stars

Melissa McCarthy
While the common narrative surrounding Melissa McCarthy is that she appeared from out of nowhere in “Bridesmaids,” blew everyone away, picked up an Oscar nomination and proceeded to conquer Hollywood, the truth is a bit more dry. In fact, McCarthy’s story should be inspiration for anyone still paying their dues and waiting for their big break because as this comedienne’s story goes, if you’re talented and keep plugging away, success is right there waiting for you. After doing her thing for a few years in a variety of supporting roles in movies and TV shows you probably didn’t even realize she was in (“Charlie’s Angels,” “The Nines,” “The Life Of David Gale”) McCarthy first captured America — or at least American female audiences — with her supporting role as Sookie St. James in “Gilmore Girls.” And while there were a few fallow years after the show ended, it was TV again that gave more room for McCarthy to show her skills, as she landed the lead in “Mike & Molly” a pretty horrible sitcom all around, but one that became a ratings bonanza and undeniably connected her to the mainstream at large. Given the full freedom of an R-rating to really let it fly, McCarthy rocked the house in “Bridesmaids” and hasn’t looked back. She pretty much stole “This Is 40” (she’s the funniest thing in it) and notched two smash hit comedies under her belt in less than six months in 2013 with “Identity Thief” and “The Heat.” Moreover, she’s proving to be critic-proof, because even as both movies hardly matched the praise she got for “Bridesmaids,” audiences clearly love her presence on the big screen. But it looks like she’ll be trying to diversify a bit with her next project, the currently filming dramedy “St. Vincent De Van Nuys,” where she’ll feature opposite Bill Murray with a script that has been hotly buzzed. But she isn’t leaving the raunch too far behind as the road trip comedy “Tammy” — which she co-wrote with her husband Ben Falcone, who is also directing — is also on the way. Can she do any wrong?

Kevin James
It’s pretty easy to be reductive about the career of Kevin James, hell, it was just last week that a supercut of the comic actor doing his trademarked “fatty fall down” routine in all of his films made the rounds. But what James gets less credit for is actually being a halfway decent actor when he needs to be (which can hardly be said of everyone else in the Happy Madison crowd he’s fallen in with) and it’s likely all due to his start in stand-up. James worked the stages of comedy clubs for years, honing his craft, and landing appearances on every talk show you can imagine, and eventually leading to his own one-off TV special for Comedy Central. A friendship with fellow former stand-up Ray Romano led to some guest spots on “Everyone Loves Raymond,” which in turn eventually found James given his own show, “The King Of Queens.” Airing for nine seasons, and currently airing endlessly in syndication, the show is a guilty pleasure for some of The Playlist staff (okay, maybe just the Managing Editor) but it shows that everyman, likeable quality that James carried over into his eventual film career. In an era dominated by raunch — even Adam Sandler tried to go R-rated — James still remains somewhat comparatively clean with his formula usually employing characters with Regular Joe jobs (delivery man, mall cop, firefighter, zookeeper, music teacher) tossed into a variety of zany situations… which yes, leads to a lot of “fatty fall down” wackiness. Sure, the movies have ranged from kinda-decent-on-a-rainy-Sunday-afternoon (“Hitch,” “I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry”) to terrible (everything else), but his presence as someone who could be your next door neighbour is likely what continues to endear him to audiences. Though it looks like James is trying to follow Sandler and attempt straight-up drama. His next role? A part in the WWII tale “Little Boy” opposite heavyweights Tom Wilkinson and Sandler’s “Punch-Drunk Love” co-star Emily Watson.

Steve Carell
The Way, Way Back,” being the third of potentially six films featuring the actor to be released in 2013, seems to suggest that Steve Carell’s movie career, which has already weathered costly folly “Evan Almighty” and survived the disappointment of this year’s stinky “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is durable enough to make him a solid proposition, if not exactly megastar material. Carell has parlayed a successful small-screen career, starting out with regular stints on “The Dana Carvey Show” and hotel sitcom “Over the Top” (a one-season wonder) before “The Office” came along, into a late-blooming movie career. What set him apart from those ‘Office’ co-stars who were launching fledgling movie careers solely off the back of the show’s success was a long string of minor roles already to his name. Most importantly for him, an established association with director and superproducer-in-waiting Judd Apatow, having already landed the role of lovable pea-brain Brick Tamland in “Anchorman.” There were various other supporting roles, notably in Jim Carrey hit “Bruce Almighty,” so whilst Carell may have been Michael Scott every week on TV, as that show grew in popularity he found himself perfectly positioned to seize an outside opportunity when one presented itself. And of course, one did with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” working brilliantly to establish Carell as a potential leading man, and also to define the precise nature of his appeal– the self-conscious social maladroit with a heart of gold. Oscar winner “Little Miss Sunshine” followed, showing that Carell could work just as well at the more dramatic end of the spectrum and if “Get Smart” and “Date Night” hardly set the world on fire, they did more firmly ensconce Carell in his own particular niche. Most crucial, perhaps, is how carefully Carell managed his film career while still appearing in “The Office” all the way until 2011 when he finally left. Rather than changing horses midstream, Carell made sure both tracks of his career were up to speed and riding parallel before attempting the tricky maneuver of jumping from one to the other entirely. And it’s a tactic that, given his upcoming slate that includes Bennet Miller’s “Foxcatcher,Charlie Kaufman’s “Frank or Francis” and of course the pantingly-awaited “Anchorman 2,” seems to have worked out just fine.

Jennifer Aniston
And so we come to the originator of The Rachel herself, Jennifer Aniston, who time has proven to have the most durable movie star career of all the “Friends” without ever really having a great, or even particularly good, film to her name. Much more famous than her filmography warrants, Aniston’s personal celebrity was the real drivers behind her profile becoming so far elevated above those of her co-stars, with her high-profile romance with, and then breakup from, bona fide movie star Brad Pitt (involving another bona-fide film star in Angelina Jolie of course) almost making her a movie star by association, even while the others struggled to get a foothold post-“Friends.” This is not to denigrate the work she did on that show, Aniston’s Rachel Greene, as much as and probably more than any of the other six, was the character that defined that show’s appeal in miniature. Like the fictional lifestyles it portrayed, Rachel was simultaneously aspirational and relatable, an idealized version of twentysomething life in which the dilemmas and life choices were familiar to viewers even if the players sported nicer duds and, of course, better hair. Less kooky than Phoebe and less neurotic than Monica, with her long-term on-off love story with Ross being the closest thing to an overarching arc that the series boasted, Rachel naturally evolved as the de facto female romantic lead and became for a long time, poor thing, a genuine America’s Sweetheart. But as an actress it seems that Aniston suffered an attack of arrested development (not “Arrested Development,” sadly) when the show ended, and now that even the “my Brad heartache” narrative has played itself out in the tabloids, the eternal mini-riffs on Rachel that she has delivered in one faceless romcom/dramedy after another have a whiff of one-trick pony about them, and that one trick is wearing pretty thin. Girl needs to change it up, play an all-out villain (she had a little fun in “Horrible Bosses” after all) or a Judean peasant in the year 67 BC, or hell, we’d even take an inspirational teacher or a give-me-an-Oscar alcoholic… anything that doesn’t pair her with a Wilson, a Vaughn, a Sandler or a doomed doggie. Otherwise, she may well soon find trapped in the unenviable limbo she’s been circling for a while: now too big for her sitcom roots, she could end up a movie star without a viable movie career.

James Franco
Here’s the thing about James Franco — by any reasonable measure, his career should have died on the vine a few times, but like some kind of artistic, Cormac McCarthy-reading phoenix rising from the ashes, he’s endured. Of course, his first major role was on the now cult classic “Freaks & Geeks” (which launched the careers of pretty much all his co-stars Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, Martin Starr etc) as the rakishly handsome Daniel Desario, but the show was canceled after one season. And for the next couple of years, he was mostly known for taking the title role of “James Dean” in a TV biopic about the actor. But then came “Spider-Man,” and the franchise as a whole kept him employed as between the superhero movies he was starring in one bomb after another — “Tristan & Isolde,” “Flyboys,” “Annapolis” — enough for most actors to start applying for waiting jobs once again. But “Freaks & Geeks” producer Judd Apatow, and Franco’s pursuit of wanting to work with established filmmakers resuscitated his viability. Just check out this list following “Spiderman 3”: “Pineapple Express” (David Gordon Green), “Milk” (Gus Van Sant), “127 Hours” (Danny Boyle), “Spring Breakers” (Harmony Korine). And even Franco’s decisions to go mainstream were smarter, providing memorable turns in “Date Night,” “The Green Hornet” and leading the surprisingly good blockbuster redo, “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.” In recent years, Franco has only gotten hungrier, seemingly shooting a new indie film each week, while his ambitions as a filmmaker in his own right find him also directing, writing and producing a handful of projects simultaneously. Simply put, while Franco’s choices haven’t always been sound, and the projects may not have always panned out the way they should have, his own curiosity and passion have been the driving forces keeping him as one of the most omnipresent players in the business.

5 TV Comedy Stars Who Failed To Launch Big-Time Movie Careers

John Krasinski
Over the other side of “The Office,” we have Jim Halpert, aka John Krasinski. It’s not that Krasinski has had no film success, but more that he hasn’t really taken off  in the popular imagination as a movie star, the way he was seemingly being groomed to initially. It probably didn’t help that his first major leading role (after serving rom-com time with Mandy Moore in the gruesome “License to Wed”) was in the George Clooney-directed daffy misfire “Leatherheads.” Since then, though, Krasinski, in addition to marrying Emily Blunt in 2010, has impressed in dramatic roles like Sam Mendes’ underrated gem “Away We Go” and Gus Van Sant’s fracking fable “Promised Land.” So perhaps he’ll be content with a more under-the-radar path, especially considering the interest he has shown in behind-the-camera work, writing and directing his debut “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” while still on the show, co-writing the Van Sant movie and also, no news to the contrary, still writingLife at the Marmont” for HBO with Aaron Sorkin. Of course, he will be getting another bite at the acting cherry too, having landed the lead in Matt Damon‘s mooted directorial debut, though knowing Damon’s style, we somehow doubt that’s going to be a star-making blockbuster-type deal. With “The Office”, and therefore his signature acerbic-but-lovable-everyman-role showcase, finished its long run, there’s a bit of a sense of “where to now?”– not just for Krasinski but also many of the rest of the cast bar Carell. It should be noted that co-stars Ed Helms and Rainn Wilson are also cropping up in films more and more, though both will probably find longevity mainly through character/supporting roles, especially now that Helms ‘Hangover’ cash-cow has hopefully, hopefully mooed her last.

Joe Piscopo
None of this is a recent phenomenon, as early ’80s “SNL” comedian and four-time “The Simpsons” punchline, Joe Piscopo can attest. Given the ephemeral, topical nature of “SNL” episodes, it is perhaps difficult for the modern eye to discern where his appeal lay, outside of his Frank Sinatra impression.But at the time, in small-screen format, he certainly keyed in to something zeitgeisty and became hugely popular as a result. In fact, along with Eddie Murphy he was pretty much regarded as the savior of the show. But if one of the aforementioned ‘Simpsons’ jokes is Marge in voiceover referring to 1983 as when “a young Joe Piscopo taught us how to laugh,” the following season Homer would say “…and a maturing Joe Piscopo was leaving ‘Saturday Night Live’ to conquer Hollywood,” the gag being, of course, that Hollywood remained resolutely unconquered. Unlike colleague (and mirror image, movie success-wise) Eddie Murphy, Piscopo had no movie roles while he was still a regular ‘SNL’ cast member, but once he left things didn’t start too badly with him getting second lead to Michael Keaton in the Amy Heckerling-directed “Johnny Dangerously.” But after that Brian De Palma’s “Wise Guys,” and “Dead Heat” (which we recently rewatched with appalled fascination for our Buddy Cop Comedy feature, along with a couple Eddie Murphy vehicles), both failed to make back their budgets. And so whatever momentum Piscopo might have had from ‘SNL’ had well and truly exhausted itself by the end of the ‘80s. By ’92 he was relegated to a supporting character in Chuck Norris film “Sidekicks,” and was also widely believed to have been doping himself with steroids to achieve a buffer physique. Piscopo always denied those allegations and in fact later appeared in anti-steroid abuse PSAs, but from a career standpoint the real tragedy was that those rumors got a lot more play than Piscopo’s movies ever had. He’s turned up occasionally on TV and in film since, notably with a 3-episode arc on “Law and Order,” as a panellist for “Hannity,” on reality TV shows (can “Celebrity Paranormal Project” actually be as terrible as it sounds?) and with his own comedy special, but his most lasting contribution to the film world may well be as a cautionary tale.

Topher Grace
Of all the young stars of the popular throwback comedy “That 70s Show” we doubt that back when the show was still on air we’d have called Mila Kunis as the one to have the healthiest big-screen career seven years on from its finale. In fact, we’d probably have laid money on Topher Grace to take that particular ribbon, especially considering how large a factor likeability tends to play in using your TV role as a springboard to success. Because you really can’t get much more likable than Grace’s geeky but loyal and romantic Eric — eternally stuck on Donna, good to his mother, looking out for his friends but still able to deliver a joke, especially on himself, socially awkward enough-but-not-too-much, Grace was the non-hipster earlier version of Michael Cera and surely was going to have a smooth transition. But repeated attempts have seen him constantly fall a bit short of the mark, so that whilst he hasn’t fallen as flat on his face as have some of the others here, neither has he made good on his promise, despite a number of leading roles in shoulda-been high-profile films. Even Venom in “Spider-Man 3” which was on paper the perfect villain role for him (seeing as Peter Parker was already taken by near-doppelganger Tobey Maguire), did little for his profile, mired in that film’s too-many-villains and too-much-slapstick schtick. It strikes us as unfair, because while the films may not always be great (though a certain Playlist writer who shall not be named confesses a soft spot for “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton“) he’s usually pretty good in them, from the Dennis Quaid/ScarJo underperformer “In Good Company” to his fun turn in the way-better-than-it-should-be “Predators.” But recent years have seen him relegated to subpar indie (“The Giant Mechanical Man“) or overstuffed ensemble comedy (“The Big Wedding“) hell, and we’re starting to think the closest he might come to the big-time is the version of himself he played in those ‘Oceans‘ movies. Still rooting for him, though.

Kristen Bell
It’s not surprising that Kristen Bell was such a persuasive and committed advocate of the kickstarter campaign for the “Veronica Mars” movie: in the years since the show ended she’s tried to gain big-screen traction a number of times, but has usually reverted back to TV, on regular slots on “Gossip Girl,” “Heroes,” “Unsupervised,” “House of Lies” and she just booked an arc on the next season of “Parks & Recreation.” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” still ranks as her biggest bid for feature fame, and that came just the year after the beloved “Veronica Mars”ended. And Bell is terrific in it, showing herself an adept comedienne who is not afraid of being the bad guy in a love triangle (and her “CSI“- spoof show-within-the-film is hilariously accurate). So color us Topher Grace on this one: we can’t tell why it is that Bell hasn’t caught on in the popular imagination, but while her choices may have been limited, she probably didn’t do herself many favors with the likes of “Couples Retreat,” “Movie 43” and the third-or-fourth fiddle role in Christina Aguilera‘s own bid for movie stardom “Burlesque.” In theaters outside of those anodyne studio films, she’s been seen going the ensemble indie route, (“Stuck in Love,” this year’sSome Girls“) in which her sparky presence almost always proves good value for money, but a lead in a breakout, or even a supporting role in a studio hit after ‘Sarah Marshall’ has firmly failed to materialize. But who’s to say what the future holds, as next year “Veronica Mars” arrives which could turn things around. There’s no telling how it will do (Joss Whedon‘s “Serenity” being the only accurate comparison, which didn’t do so great cheese-wise) but perhaps the narrative around its landmark kickstarter campaign, which received $5.7million when its target was $2m will pay dividends? At least we know there’s 91,585 people who have already been willing to fork over their hard-earneds to see a “Veronica Mars” movie and can probably be trusted to do so a second time.

Ricky Gervais
Interestingly, considering the Steve Carell case, Ricky Gervais, who played Michael Scott progenitor David Brent on the original U.K. “The Office” is a prime example of a TV comedian who’s failed to make a big-screen Hollywood career for himself . That likely has a lot to do with the differences between the the two shows at root: in the British ‘Office’ David Brent, is played as a much more pathetic, toe-curlingly embarrassing character than Michael Scott, who obviously has moments of extreme social ineptitude, but we cringe for him, rather than at him (with Brent, it’s all at). This fearless unlikeability gives the U.K. ‘Office’ its bite and its edge, but it does mean audiences find it hard to root for Gervais as a leading man, something they demonstrated by largely staying away from “Ghost Town” “The Invention of Lying” and “Cemetery Junction” and anything else where Gervais’s oleaginous presence isn’t toned down and smoothed over by being relegated to a supporting role, like in the ‘Night At The Museum’ movies. Of course, we don’t have to cry too hard for Gervais who, even outside his lead in the upcoming ‘Muppets‘ sequel, has a thriving producing, writing and stand-up career to keep him busy and in the public eye, and on the small screen he continues to dominate, with “Derek” the initially-controversial-but-apparently-ultimately-softhearted series, which has already aired in the UK, showing on Netflix in September. And his to-date failed Hollywood attempts at the very least give him some good in-jokey material for his awards hosting gigs. And with fellow Brits Russell Brand and, to a lesser extent Steve Coogan and Eddie Izzard also not really being embraced despite a few big-screen attempts, at least he’s got company.

This small sampler could have run to many more examples, especially as regards the also-rans: for every crossover tv-to-movie success story there are probably fourteen others sulking, just one rung down on that ladder, over their own failed attempt at same. But of course these days, the issue is further muddied by the rise and rise of cable TV as a medium for creative storytelling, meaning that the traffic of ambition is no longer so one-way: many legitimate big-screen stars (and directors) are choosing to find new homes on TV shows, TV features and miniseries. Which, while good for the profile of the medium in general, is presumably placing the more coveted roles out of the reach of the jobbing TV actor: who’s going to cast David Caruso in their glossy show if they can get, I don’t know, Kevin Spacey? In general, perhaps, TV sitcoms and comedy shows don’t yet boast quite the same star-pulling attraction that dramas do in this context, but with Hollywood’s stranglehold on prestige projects that stars want to be associated with ever loosening in the face of competition from the HBOs, Showtimes and even Netflixes of the world, we can almost envisage a future when we’ll be revisiting a feature like this only in the reverse — talking about the poor, failed stars who are stranded in the ghetto of studio movies (which will boil down to big-thing-goes-boom titles and Tyler Perry films) and just can’t cut it on TV. What times we live in! — Jessica Kiang and Kevin Jagernauth

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox