They say ‘dying is easy’, it’s getting a hit TV series that’s hard. Well if they didn’t say that they should have. That’s especially true if you already have a big career in the movies. It is tough out there for those silver screen legends to get arrested on the little screen. Or so it seems.
Television audiences like to discover their own TV stars, not have a big movie name forced on them. Oscar winner Kathy Bates just saw her first series, Harry’s Law cancelled by NBC after just two seasons even though it was produced and created by TV golden boy David E. Kelley. Two-time Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman and multiple Oscar nominee Nick Nolte had their highly touted HBO series Luck whacked even before they could finish shooting the second season and get any of those episodes on the air. Of course there were extenuating circumstances on that one due to the continuing death of racehorses on the set but the series was not racking up big numbers for the pay network anyway. Rob Schneider may not be a big huge film star but since his days on Saturday Night Live he has been known mostly for his movie roles. In an attempt to trade that success in for weekly TV stardom all he got in return was a quick ax from CBS for his freshman sitcom, Rob. Producers thought film star Christina Ricci would be a big draw for the highly touted and expensive ABC series, Pan Am but it crashed and burned after a single season, even with Ricci on board.
The list goes on and on.
Ashley Judd’s first starring series, Missing will be permanently missing on ABC which deep-sixed the drama. Christian Slater’s latest attempt at breaking in to the lucrative world of sitcoms, ironically called Breaking In, tanked after getting a brief reprieve on Fox. His previously short-lived ABC series, The Forgotten lived up to its title and another, NBC’s My Own Worst Enemy failed too. Their failures won’t stop others from trying. Kevin Bacon and Dennis Quaid will be among those TV series virgins trying to make the grade next season.
Of course there are those stars who have managed to make the transition from movie stardom to ratings hits. Glenn Close won a couple of Emmys for Damages but even that series was kicked to the curb by FX after low ratings and had to finish its life on DirecTV. Film names like Sarah Jessica Parker and Alec Baldwin of course have enjoyed big rewards on the little screen but they actually started on television so there wasn’t a big transition. Candice Bergen, Charlie Sheen and Burt Reynolds all had hit shows, but the latter was a TV name before becoming a No. 1 box office star and then returning to television when it all faded. Sometimes it is better for an Oscar winner or movie name to tread gingerly into the world of series TV, maybe toe the line between the two mediums such as Anjelica Huston is doing now in the supporting role of the Broadway producer on NBC’s Smash. And Jane Fonda is going to be recurring on Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming new HBO series, The Newsroom which stars another movie name, Jeff Daniels. Of course in this case it is Aaron Sorkin and it is HBO (though that didn’t help Hoffman or Nolte and Diane Keaton’s Tilda didn’t even make it past the pilot stage).
One seemingly successful and smart way to merge into TV series without breaking the back of a movie career is the new trend of guest star arcs on existing series. It worked famously well for Gwyneth Paltrow who even picked up a guest star in a comedy Emmy for her talked-about recurring role on Glee. And next year both Sarah Jessica Parker and Kate Hudson are going to try the same route. Zooey Deschanel has actually become a bigger star than she ever was in the movies thanks to the first season of her hit Fox sitcom, The New Girl. And no one has had a more eclectic ride than Sally Field who went from TV sitcoms to Oscar winning movie stardom, back to a hit TV series in Brothers And Sisters and now back to movies with Lincoln. Some people obviously move easily between the two. And of course it is much easier to go from TV to movie superstardom. Just look at those stars of past series like Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, Steve Carell, the Saturday Night Live casts and so many others.
It wasn’t always so difficult for film actors to become household TV names. In TV’s early days it was quite common to see people like Lucille Ball, Loretta Young, Ann Sothern, Barbara Stanwyck and many others strike gold in the emerging medium. Even well into the ’70s actors like Oscar winner Jane Wyman (Falcon Crest) and Carroll O’Connor who carved out a nice living in feature films abruptly hit pay dirt as Archie Bunker and then did it again with a hit Oscar winning movie turned hit TV series, In the Heat of the Night. But more often than not the biggest names in movies just couldn’t make the same kind of magic on a 20 inch screen. Henry Fonda, Lana Turner, Shirley MacLaine, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Anthony Quinn, James Stewart, Richard Widmark , Jerry Lewis just a few of the names who flopped when they tried to make the switch.
The one area where big movie stars shine on TV is, of course, in movies. This year will be no different as celebrated big screen names like Julianne Moore (Game Change) and Nicole Kidman (Hemingway & Gellhorn) will likely compete for the lead actress in a movie or miniseries Emmy, the place movie stars usually prevail. It’s called sticking to what you do best.
Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.