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

by The Playlist Staff
July 12, 2013 12:29 PM
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5 TV Comedy Actors Turned Movie Stars

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"The Office" fame out since last week, your local multiplex will soon be playing a choice of films with star actors who originally made their names in TV comedy shows.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

Breakthrough Melissa McCarthy
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?

Here Comes The Boom
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.

The Way Way Back
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.

We're The Millers, Aniston
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.

As I Lay Dying, James Franco
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.

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  • River | August 1, 2014 3:15 PMReply

    I think Frozen has tipped the scales in Kristen Bell's favor. The tween generation knows who she is now -- and Hollywood won't underestimate that earning power.

  • vanessa berg | July 24, 2013 10:59 PMReply

    When it comes to movies, comedy is perhaps one genre that deals with a person’s particular taste. Here is a list of the best comedy movies of 2012 .

  • MJ | July 17, 2013 4:31 PMReply

    Apparently you also stayed away from Cemetery Junction, Gervais is not the "leading man" it's a coming of age story about young adults.

  • oogle monster | July 14, 2013 2:08 PMReply

    I am no fan of Jennifer Aniston but the only good/great film of hers that MUST be singled out (or at least mentioned- come on, Playlist!) is The Good Girl. She carries the film and it's pretty damn great. Maybe even Office Space, although she has a small role but it's like Citizen Kane compared to the rest of her filmography. Other than those two, she's pretty much a non entity.

  • THOR | July 16, 2013 8:20 AM

    What about Friends with Money?

  • GARV MARG | July 12, 2013 6:01 PMReply

    Based on the picture, before reading the article, I though Gervais and Bell were going to be in the successful category. But, hmm

  • Jim | July 12, 2013 3:38 PMReply

    Glad to see you mentioned Steve Carell on The Dana Carvey Show, where he was like a firework going off. But how could you overlook his brilliant time on The Daily Show?

  • 2342342 | July 12, 2013 5:57 PM

    Exactly what I was going to say. Did a fifteen year old write this article? Who from the ages of 20-30 didn't first see Carell on TDS? Like most Playlist articles: take a handful of dubious facts from some other article/IMDB, add 1000 words of filler, hit Publish

  • MAL | July 12, 2013 2:19 PMReply

    Jennifer Aniston was terrific in The Good Girl, and was a bit of a stretch from her romantic comedy roots, showing she has the goods for heartfelt drama as well.

    And let's not forget Joe Piscopo's appearance in Star Trek: TNG, from whom Data tries to comprehend humour. He really should have interacted with Buster Keaton instead!

  • oogle monster | July 14, 2013 2:09 PM

    I already posted my comment but now I see yours and a hat tip to you, Mal. TGG is so great mostly due to Aniston and it's quite shocking.

  • Jcrump | July 12, 2013 12:59 PMReply

    Ricky Gervais was supporting in Cemetry Junction, not the lead.

  • Alan B | July 14, 2013 2:20 AM

    No, the hero's father was the lead role, right?

  • Stephen B | July 12, 2013 12:58 PMReply

    Grace also didn't do much between In Good Company and Spider-Man 3; there was a good three year gap in there where he wound down his role on That '70s Show and virtually disappeared. I think I heard in an interview he had his "college years" in that time, meaning he went out and parties and got laid. Good for him, but I think his momentum sputtered out in his absence and the failure of Spider-Man didn't help.

  • jasdnlskjsdslk | July 12, 2013 12:45 PMReply

    "Of course, he will be getting another bite at the acting cherry too, having landed the lead in Matt Damon's mooted directorial debut"

    Isn't that just a link to what became Promised Land? Damon was supposed to direct but passed it to Van Sant.

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