Saturday, August 09, 2014

How TV stars become movie stars

It's not easy to make the jump.  Many flame out.  Jason Bateman is crossing over.  Jennifer Aniston did it a few years ago and is still making movies. 

But it got me thinking about other TV vets who crossed the great divide and made it big in features. The one that jumps to mind immediately is James Cromwell. Terrific actor. Can play anything. But for years he just knocked around as a goofy character actor on TV. He was “Jamey” Cromwell then. We used him a couple of times on MASH and he was terrific. But I remember once when casting a pilot his name came up and my partner and I said, “he’s good but Jesus, haven’t we seen him like a million times? Isn’t there anyone else more fresh?”. Today we’d be lucky if he’d read one of our scripts.

Anyway, there are many other examples from George Clooney to Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Goldie Hawn, Thomas Hayden Church, Woody Harrelson, and I'm sure you can list ten others. But for every one who makes it, there are also a hundred David Caruso's and Matt LeBlanc's who don't. Why?

I don’t know. The X-Factor. Movie stars have a presence, a danger, a glow. There is something riveting about them. They can surprise you. They can command the big screen.

And they’re incredibly lucky. They happened to be in a hit. Again, going back to Jamey Cromwell. He gets a call from his agent:

Agent: Listen, I think I got something for you.

Jamey: (excited) A guest spot on WEBSTER?

Agent: Better.

Jamey: Wow! What?

Agent: A movie.

Jamey: Really! Fantastic!

Agent: Yeah, it’s a great story. There’s this pig that wants to be a sheepdog and he goes to live with this…

Jamey: Wait, wait. Back up a minute. A pig?

Agent: Cutest one you’ve ever seen.

Jamey: Brother. And what do I play?

Agent: The farmer.

Jamey: Who does what?

Agent: Who enters the pig in a sheepdog contest.

Jamey: Do I have a lot of lines?

Agent: Yes, but not as many as the pig.

Jamey: See if you can get me a callback on that WEBSTER.

Agent: No, no, you’re not hearing me. This could be a huge mainstream movie. And of the humans, you have the most to do.

Jamey (wavering): Well… it would be good to be in a big summer blockbuster.

Agent: Great. They film in Australia.

Jamey: Huh? How mainstream can this be if we film it in Australia?

Agent: I dunno. They got a deal on the pigs.

Jamey: Don’t Levine & Isaacs have a pilot? I mean, if I’m going to stoop

Agent: Sorry. Nothing this season. I think the industry is starting to wise up about those two hacks. And I’m afraid WEBSTER isn’t going to happen. I’ve been holding this from you but Alex Karras doesn’t think you’re a good actor.

Jamey: Alex Karras? I’m not good enough for Alex Karras? Okay. Fine. I’ll do the fucking pig movie.

Agent: That’s great! Fantastic! Except…

Jamey: Except what? I lose the audience’s sympathy by eating my co-star?

Agent: No, it’s just that… you don’t have it yet. They’re going to want a screen test

Jamey: A screen test?! Why? They know what I’ve done. Just watch any episode of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. I must’ve played eighteen farmers.

Agent: Yeah, but they… they kinda want to see if there’s any chemistry between you and the uh… your little pink co-star… who by the way, would get billing under you. I negotiated that. It wasn’t easy but I got it. (Off Jamey’s silence) Look, you’re right. I’ll find something else. Let me check the cop shows. See which ones you weren’t killed in and I’ll call them again.

Jamey: (resigned) No, no. What the hell? Set up a meeting with the pig.

Cromwell was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in BABE and went on to terrific roles in many top movies including L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.  If Matthew Perry's new series (THE ODD COUPLE) doesn't catch on I think he'll be on the phone to agent saying, "Scare me up a pig." 


Gary said...

James Cromwell was terrific as goofball Stretch Cunningham in All in the Family, and years later he was equally good as a slimy bureaucrat in Space Cowboys (along with James Garner, who is as likeable as ever).

Anonymous said...

Ironic that you don't include James Garner as one of your examples. Had to argue there was anyone who transitioned between the two better.

emily said...

Really reaching: "Don’t Levine & Isaacs have a pilot?"

Very funny Ken -- as usual.

Dan Ball said...

He was in FIRST CONTACT as the inventor of warp technology, Zefram Cochrane. Originally, Tom Hanks was going to do the role, but opted out to direct THAT THING YOU DO. I think Cromwell did a great job playing a goofy, atypical-Cromwell character. Oh, he also played River Phoenix's dad in EXPLORERS.

Tudor Queen said...

Cromwell was and is a superb actor. So glad you got to work with him. I was thrilled with both his Oscar nomination for "Babe" and his Emmy win for "American Horror Story: Asylum"

It really is a crapshoot in some ways. When you were doing "Cheers" if someone had asked you which of the uniformly talented cast would attain film stardom, with multiple Oscar nods under his belt, would you have picked Woody Harrelson? Not speaking against him - he's very good in absolutely everything - but Woody Harrelson would not be the name that first sprang to my mind....

Toledo said...

Cromwell was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Babe—best supporting actor. That's right. He was supporting actor to a pig.

Wayne said...

James Cromwell, ham actor.

Kate said...

There were 6 years between Webster ending (I can't believe it lasted to 1989), and Babe being released. How long do you reckon the studio hung onto a kid movie based on a popular book?

VP81955 said...

James Cromwell is the son of director John Cromwell, whose "Double Harness" aired today as part of William Powell day on TCM's Summer Under The Stars, and tomorrow Cromwell's two films with Carole Lombard, "In Name Only" and "Made For Each Other," will air on her SUTS day.

Breadbaker said...

That guy who played Milton Armitage in Dobie Gillis, did he end up with the Webster co-star thing instead of Jamey? I haven't seen him on TV in awhile.

Stephen Robinson said...

Significant success on TV can sometimes be a barrier to success in film. If you appeared in a few LAW & ORDERS before the big break*, it can make the transition easier. But if you are a household name on TV, you might have a harder time. Jennifer Aniston is the most successful film star of the FRIENDS but she's hardly George Clooney. There was mild critical success early on (THE GOOD GIRL) and some mild commercial success (notice I'm emphasizing "mild"). I wouldn't be surprised to see her returning to TV soon. She's in her mid-40s and most likely has moved out of the "girlfriend of the wacky comic star" (Vince Vaughn/Ben Stiller) roles.

Clooney, I think, is the most successful major TV star (he was huge on ER) to become a successful screen presence in recent memory. Benjamin Bratt, who was big on L&O around the same time as Clooney on ER, looked like he might catch fire on screen but didn't.

It was not until OUT OF SIGHT that I was actually convinced about Clooney as a movie star. Previously, he felt like Doug Ross on the Big Screen. Whatever that "thing" is movie stars have... well, Soderbergh captured it. And then we got OCEAN'S 11

ScottyB said...

Ken said: "If Matthew Perry's new series (THE ODD COUPLE) doesn't catch on I think he'll be on the phone to agent saying, "Scare me up a pig."

Well, Jesus -- Matthew Perry's agent scared him up Bruce Willis ('The Whole 10 Yards') and Salma Hayek ('Fools Rush In') and where did that get him?

gottacook said...

I would say James Garner isn't on the list because he continued to go back and forth between feature films and TV for 40 years or more, whereas the others listed (Clooney, Freeman, Eastwood, McQueen, Hawn, Church, Harrelson) didn't or haven't gone back to TV roles. Even in his mid-70s Garner was both a TV series regular (Eight Simple Rules) and feature film star (The Notebook).

Aniston is still doing 'wacky' parts (the upcoming Horrible Bosses sequel) and why not? Goldie Hawn made a career of (mostly) wacky film roles, and in some of them she's older than Aniston is now.

Tom Hanks as Zefram Cochrane? First I've heard of this - he actually looks a little like Glen Corbett (who played Cochrane in a 1967 TV episode). Apparently Corbett was still alive at the time, but I'm just as glad they didn't seek him out. I do enjoy Cromwell in the role, as well as That Thing You Do!, so it all worked out fine as far as I'm concerned.

Sgt. Wilkinson said...

Read someplace that Cromwell's height made it difficult to get parts, especially in his early days. At 6-6 or 6-7 he must be the tallest actor working.

Recently saw him and the beautiful Genevieve Bujold in a 'little' flick called Still Mine. Very enjoyable.

He too still does lots of TV. The omission of James Garner was likely an oversight, just as Clint Eastwood was. I'm sure there's many others but I don't want to think about it!

Klee said...

One actress I think deserved movie stardom and somehow blew it was Shelley Long. After "Outrageous Fortune", it looked like she could do no wrong, she was great along Bette Midler. Then, she signed on for "Troop Beverly Hills" and "Hello Again" (which probably sounded funny on paper) and they both bombed miserably. At that point, her movie career literally ended.

Marty said...

The list of TV stars who have tried--and failed--to make the transition to movie star is an extremely long one and extends well back into the 1950s. The majority of TV stars just aren't able to make the transition to the big screen. Why that is, I don't know.

Jeff said...

The list of TV stars who have tried--and failed--to make the transition to movie star is an extremely long one and extends well back into the 1950s

It goes back to the earliest days of the television era. Milton Berle was the biggest thing on television in the late '40s, and tried to make the leap to movie star in 1949 with a film titled Always Leave Them Laughing. The movie flopped and Berle stuck with television.

James Van Hise said...

I would have thought that Ted Danson from Cheers would become a movie star, but he made a few films in the 1980s and 1990s which were minor successes at best and has stuck with TV in several more series, including his high profile role now on CSI. He starred in a very earnest adaptation of Gulliver's Travels in 1996 and played a truly vile character on Damages a few years ago.

But Woody Harrelson? Who would have guessed it (although he was lucky that his starring role as Larry Flynt a few years back didn't kill that career). In the recent magicians movie Now You See Me he more than held his own with co-stars 20 years his junior and he was easily their equal.

Mark said...

"Just as there are good actors—possibly potentially great actors—who have never become big stars because they’ve just never been lucky enough to get the roles they needed (Brian Keith is a striking example) there are good directors who never got the scripts and the casts that could make their reputations."

Pauline Kael
Trash, Art, and the Movies

Anonymous said...

Would love to see a Cromwell-Cruise flick.

Clyde King said...

He also reappeared as Zefram Cochran n an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (TV Series) Broken Bow: Part 1

Lorimartian said...

This made me think of Tom Selleck who had success with "In & Out" (1997) and "3 Men And A Baby (1987)." IMDB says the following:

"The decision of choosing the leading role of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Magnum, P.I. (1980) actually haunted Selleck so much that he consulted his best friend. Together they came to the conclusion that honoring his contract with Magnum, P.I. (1980) was the honorable thing to do. It turned out that the shooting of the pilot for Magnum, P.I. (1980) was delayed for over 6 months, which would have enabled Selleck to complete the role of Indiana Jones. Ironically, while waiting in Hawaii for Magnum, P.I. (1980) to commence filming, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were also in Hawaii to shoot scenes for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Was asked to star opposite Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria (1982) but hesitated, and by the time he decided he wanted the part, he was already locked into his Magnum, P.I. (1980) contract - the very same contract that cost him the role of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)."

It also says "...starred in six failed TV pilots before landing Magnum."

If all of this is true, it's obvious he was in demand and illustrates how timing and choices have so much to do with it. He appeared in a number of feature films post-Magnum but never attained the stature of Eastwood or Clooney. Had he chosen to do "Raiders," his movie career might have been very different.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Of course, it's possible that Selleck's career would have taken off - or that INDIANA JONES would have tanked with him in it instead of Harrison Ford. For example, would the scene that set so much of the movie's tone, where Indy shoots the sword-wielding opponents, have happened with Selleck in the lead? (Varying rumors say the script was rewritten because Ford had a back injury, or just didn't feel well and improved.) Would Selleck and Karen Allen have had the same chemistry? Many imponderables.

I loved Garner in Victor/Victoria, so again...


joanneinjax said...

Cromwell is currently in a limited series on TNT called "Murder in the First", created by Steven Bochco. He plays the defense attorney of the alleged murderer, a baby-faced tech-king whose arrogance is only quashed by the more arrogant Cromwell.
It's an fascinating summer indulgence, and the acting is terrific. The lead detectives, played by Kathleen Robinson and Taye Diggs, have great chemistry. And, one of my all time favorite actors, Richard Schiff, is quietly lurking, as the corporate attorney for baby tech king. I have been a fan since "West Wing" and no one excels at playing the curmudgeon with such aplomb as Mr. Schiff.
You should check it out.

Lorimartian said...


So true and the blessing of multiple options can be problematic. In Selleck's case, he ultimately enjoyed the stability and security of a long-running television series which is so hard to come by as you know.

I agree that Garner was great in V/V, and, in the end, I think he was probably the better choice.

cadavra said...

Of course, Selleck is currently starring in the hit series "Blue Bloods," so even in his 60s, he's still drawing more eyeballs than Ford has in most of his recent films. A lot of actors have remained mostly in TV (e.g., Ted Danson, Betty White, Tim Allen, Candice Bergen, and of course Shatner) and have stayed popular and well-paid.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Say what you will about THE FLYING NUN -- even Sally Field, who was not too happy in the role nor with the unfair cheap shots she endured while it was in prime time (many knocked the premise without watching the show), it can be credited at least in part, with leading her to success as a serious actress.

Here's why: she became tired of the show so she used the time to develop discipline and patience with the "non-fun" aspects of the job. And more important, on the Flying Nun DVD doc, she says that co-star Madeleine Sherwood mentored her and led her to seek training in acting techniques.

chuckcd said...

Love James Cromwell in "Murder In The First"

Lorimartian said...

Greg, thanks for remembering Sally Field...and today I am reminded that Robin Williams also belongs in this category...RIP.

Andrea said...

Denzel Washington is another one.

TheCroatoan said...

How can you say David Caruso didn't cross over into movies? Are you forgetting "Mad Dog and Glory"? That character is completely different from the one he plays in CSI, or any of the cop roles he has played in the last 25 years.