5 TV Comedy Stars Who Failed To Launch Big-Time Movie Careers
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 writing "Life 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.
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.
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.
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's "Some 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.
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