By Robert W. Butler
There was once a time, children, when an actor could be a movie star or a TV star, but not at the same time. I know, it sounds silly. But that’s the way Hollywood worked.
Maybe it was a lingering resentment from the 1950s, when the rise of television threatened the movie business. Perhaps the hurry-up shooting schedules and limited budgets of TV created a schism between pampered movie stars and the working stiffs knocking out episodes for the boob tube.
And then there was a feeling that people wouldn’t pay to see actors in a theater when they could see them for free in their living rooms.
Whatever the reason, for more than 40 years this odd strain of Hollywood apartheid was in effect. A few actors – James Garner comes to mind – could have a hit TV series and pop in and out of a string of successful movies. But they were the exceptions.
You didn’t see John Wayne on a TV show … unless it was in a guest spot playing himself on “I Love Lucy.” Elizabeth Taylor didn’t mess with the small screen.
On the other hand, many an actor has started out on television and left it behind for the movies.
Last weekend’s box office champ was “Just Go With It,” starring Adam Sandler, once a fixture on “Saturday Night Live,” and Jennifer Aniston, the former “Friend.”
Clint Eastwood? Yeah, some of us old-timers can remember when he played trail scout Rowdy Yates on TV’s “Rawhide.”
George Clooney became a household name on “ER” after a slew of failed sitcoms. Another TV doctor: Denzel Washington on “St. Elsewhere.” Johnny Depp once chased crooks every Sunday night on “21 Jump Street.” And Will Smith used to be “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
Before winning an Oscar, Helen Hunt starred in TV’s “Mad About You.” Before she was Private Benjamin, Goldie Hawn was a “Laugh-In” girl.
But far from being a thespian ghetto, TV series are now regarded as a launching pad for talent that moves effortlessly between the big and small screens.
On Friday we’ll see the opening of “Cedar Rapids,” a comedy starring Ed Helms. Helms has been on TV in “The Daily Show” and “The Office.” Two years ago he stood out in the raunchy ensemble movie comedy “The Hangover,” and, wham, he now has his name above the title of a theatrical film.
Whether he will become a true movie star, of course, is up to you ticket buyers.
Jason Sudeikis co-stars in the big-screen comedy “Hall Pass,” opening Friday, but is still a regular on “Saturday Night Live.” One of his co-stars: Jenna Fischer of “The Office.”
The trajectory of Steve Carell’s career is in many ways typical. Get on a hit TV comedy (Carell was a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” then grabbed the lead in “The Office”), build a rabid fan base, try a few movie comedies (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Evan Almighty,” “Get Smart”),and after a while you can give up the daily slog of a hit TV show and concentrate just on movies.
Nowadays the system even works in reverse. Actors whose movie careers have cooled can reinvent themselves on TV.
Exhibit No. 1: Charlie Sheen. Yes, kids, he was once regarded as a movie star and had the lead in an Academy Award-winning film (“Wall Street”). But by taking a gig on TV’s “Two and a Half Men,” Sheen achieved a level of recognition (for good or ill) he never enjoyed when strictly a movie actor. In fact, he’s now one of the highest paid performers in the industry. (Let’s not get into how he spends all that disposable income.)
Of course, Charlie is only following in the footsteps of his father, Martin Sheen, who starred in landmark films like “Badlands” and “Apocalypse Now” and later signed on to play the POTUS (that’s president of the United States ) in TV’s “The West Wing.”
Alec Baldwin was once thought of as exclusively a screen actor. But not since landing an Emmy-winning role on TV’s “30 Rock,” with co-star Tina Fey, who also dabbles in movies.
Actresses of a certain age have long lamented the lack of good movie roles, but television isn’t nearly so myopic. So we have two-time Oscar winner Sally Field in “Brothers and Sisters,” Glenn Close in “The Shield” and “Damages,” Kyra Sedgwick in “The Closer.”
Modern Hollywood really doesn’t care how an actor gets famous. TV, movies … at some point we’ll probably see some actor become a huge star on the basis of his/her website.
The point is that stars are, to some extent, bankable. Whether they bring fans from TV to the movie theater or the other way around, it’s our willingness to follow them that matters.