Saturday, September 08, 2018

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, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Steve Carell, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Goldie Hawn, Thomas Hayden Church, Woody Harrelson, and I'm sure you can list ten others. Also, of course, the just departed Burt Reynolds.  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." 

38 comments :

E. Yarber said...

Everybody has heard too much about Johnny Depp, but how many can name Tracey Jacobs? She was the amazing agent who had a long-term agenda to put her client on top of the business. He didn't want to do television, but she talked him into doing a few years of 21 JUMP STREET for the sole purpose of getting the public at large to feel like they knew him. After that was a period of building credibility with quirky "small" filmmakers (Tim Burton, John Waters, Lasse Hallstrom, Terry Gilliam) before aiming for the top of the mainstream market.

Everybody has to pay their dues, but Depp had the advantage of a well-oiled machine run by an entire team dedicated to carefully calculating each step of his career. Jacobs knew she had something with Depp and plotted his rise as carefully as the allies worked out the logistics of D-Day. Very few actors get that level of representation.

Janet Ybarra said...

Great article, Ken. It's kind of fun to catch early performances of big stars, such as the aforementioned appearance of "Jamey" Cromwell on MASH playing BJ Honeycutt's joke-happy buddy.

But you mentioned Jennifer Aniston. Yeah, but if you check her filmography, sure she still makes a picture here and there but nothing huge. Her biggest film of the past few years has been STORKS, and that was voice over work. Honestly, these days she seems to appear in more Aveeno commercials than anything else.

But have you thought about actors who started out in film and ultimately settled on TV?

Consider Chris O'Donnell, who had kind of an uneven film career. You mentioned George Clooney, and O'Donnell co-starring as Robin to his Batman and what a stinker that was.

But for basically the last decade or so, O'Donnell has carved out a nice niche doing a more-than-adequate job starring as the lead alongside LL Cool J on the spin-off NCIS Los Angeles.

Uncle Bill said...

Jennifer Aniston is not a movie star. She has been foisted on us FORCEFULLY.

She has none of those "superhuman" qualities which you said movie stars possess.

Even 'Friends' we know how she got her role 😜
And the show was carried on the back of good writing and a good cast. But she was singled out by the moron media and the gullible public as some sort of an American angel just like they have now with Kim Kardashian.

I'm Outraged! said...

Burt Reynolds went from TV star to mega movie star of the 70's.

VincentS said...

Of course luck plays a big factor but I've always believed it takes different talents to make it on the big screen just as it takes different talents and abilities to make it on the stage. There were many Broadway stars whose star power just didn't translate to the camera. Also, I think looks can also be a factor. Television tends to cast conventional-looking actors cast to type so the viewer can immediately determine who is the good guy/lead and who are the supporting players, bad guys, etc. lest the viewer gets confused and changes the channel. By contrast in a movie the audience is outside their homes and have paid for their tickets and are not going anywhere therefore they are generally patient and more receptive to the unconventional which I think is why so many actors like Humphrey Bogart, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Adrien Brody, etc. have managed to carve careers out in movies.

Paul Duca said...

Yes, the X Factor...what enables someone to make an entrance and think "Everybody in this room wants to lay me!"

Joseph Scarbrough said...

A couple of times on M*A*S*H? I know he was B.J.'s buddy Leo Bardonaro in one episode, but I can't remember any other time he was on.

Alex said...

Many of these actors are, like you said, "incredibly lucky".
Many TV actors with incredible talent never got lucky.

And Jamey Cromwell is just a mediocre actor.

Gary said...

James Cromwell is excellent in Clint Eastwood's underrated comedy "Space Cowboys." Cromwell plays a slimy, lying government official (if you can imagine).

MikeKPa. said...

I've never figured out how Jennifer Aniston made the crossover. Still don't. She's never had to carry a film. Always as a co-star. Enjoyed the self-deprecating humor.

Frank Beans said...


Joseph Scarbrough:

According to imdb Cromwell was only in the one MASH episode you mentioned, as B.J.'s irritating practical-joker friend.

Interesting sidenote: He was in both the movies THE BABE (1992) and BABE (1995).

Mike Bloodworth said...

There's the theory that the reason so many T.V. stars don't crossover to movies is because the public doesn't want to pay to see actors they can see for free at home. There are exceptions, of course. Michael J. Fox had a pretty good run after BACK TO THE FUTURE. On the other hand, at one time, T.V. had taken the place of "B-movies" as a training ground for actors. Things also run in cycles. Some years movie stars do T.V. series. And other years T.V. stars do movies. Currently, we're in the former phase. There are many movie stars that are now moving to pay-cable and/or streaming to do series. And I'm sorry to sound so sexist, but except for the afore mentioned Goldie Hawn, I can't think of too many other women that have made the jump from T.V. to movies. However, Melissa McCarthy seems to have successfully made the transition. Finally, speaking of sexist, Jennifer Aniston's nipples are the real stars.
M.B.

Rich Johnson said...

Cromwell first hit my radar in the short-lived series based on the play "Hot l Baltimore" with the awesome Conchata Ferrell.

He was the last guy I'd cast as Dudley Smith, but I love it when such things work out.

It was the first time I saw the scene (repeated now many times) in which someone suspects the truth, reveals his thoughts to a trusted superior, when then shoots him dead. It was quite the surprise in LA Confidential -- not so much when it happened five years later in Minority Report.

Phil said...

Frank Beans,

That's a great observation!

Wonder who James will pick as a better actor; the Pig or John Goodman.....


Steve said...

As things are going, a few actresses' career will nose dive and will jump over to web series. Web series rather then TV is their preferred choice.

One will surely be Emma Stone.

There is only so much bug-eyed acting and celebrity fake friendship, that the world can take.

Kevin from VA said...

I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned James Cromwell's work on "All in the Family". I still to this day see "Stretch Cunningham" regardless of whatever role Mr. Cromwell is playing.

Lisa said...

In 'The Longest Yard', he tried to do a mean Jail boss like Bob Gunton in 'The Shawshank Redemption' but fell way short.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Yes, I can name others (Denzel Washington, Sally Field, Will Smith, James Garner). But I also find it fascinating that so many actors became big TV stars only after spending decades as character actors in movies, including Broderick Crawford, Jackie Gleason, William Bendix, Eve Arden, Walter Brennan, Raymond Burr, Telly Savalas, Carroll O'Connor, Buddy Ebsen and Leonard Nimoy. I think it's because they had the chops to play the same character week after week, often for years, without getting stale. Also, you don't have to be gorgeous for the small screen. Sort of James Cromwell in reverse.

Then there are the people who found a second career on TV when Broadway dried up -- Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, Mandy Patinkin -- all right, I'll stop now.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

MikeKPa: It's clear you've never seen Aniston in either CAKE or THE GOOD GIRL.

Pursuant to a conversation we had here a week or two back, when Ken wrote a posting about large casts and I mentioned amateur and school theater as potential venues for them: I was at an all-day amateur theater festival today at Questors', the community theater in Ealing, which had Roger Rees as a long-standing patron. Sponsored by Nicholas Hern books, a leading publisher of British plays, three of the sessions featured playwrights talking about their work. All three have a substantial commitment to making their works available for amateur productions as readily and quickly as possible; one - Amanda Whittington - was described as incredibly popular because many amateur theater groups have more female members than male ones, and her plays feature lots of strong female parts and strong friendships among those characters. All three of them - the other two were Jez Butterworth and Mike Bartlett - clearly get substantial revenues from the myriad amateur productions their plays get. Butterworth in particular said that he sees amateur theater groups as the people who will keep his plays alive long after he's gone, and that he sees that as his legacy. All three *also* have myriad other credits - plays produced at major London theaters such as the National and the Royal Court; at least one has the TV series DR FOSTER to his name. So there's a lot of crossover - just as actors in this country have typically moved from film to TV to stage and back again, doing whatever they can to earn a living in a small market. Butterworth's latest play is about to open in NYC, and what this crowd wanted to know was: "How soon will it be available for amateur production?" In other words, "When can we do it ourselves?"

I think the fact that so much of commercial theater now is revivals and star vehicles is fueling some of this passion. This is one small community theater in a suburb of London, and more than 400 people showed up for a day of learning stage fighting, picking up tips on directing, producing, and stage design. Even the session on performing rights was full.

Writers provide the picks and shovels in this market. I would advise would-be playwrights not to overlook it. Plus, if you find a group you can work with, you have a group who will act out your scenes and give you feedback.

wg

Greg Ehrbar said...

It's luck and the right property at the right time. Steve Carell once said that he never thought he would play anything but the funny best friend before he hit the A-list. Some actors get repeat tries, like Taylor Kitsch, but simply lack that quality that allows them to "carry a movie." Jon Hamm had a lead in a small Disney film but mostly sticks to supporting roles.

The agents and casting directors, as stated above, are like so many people, not credited when the awards are handed out, the huge checks are doled and the speeches are given about "journeys" and "noble professions." Chris Pratt was reluctant to test for Guardians of the Galaxy and was not considered a contender, but it was the casting director who literally slipped him into one of the castings because she knew he was right.

Lisa said...

I don't these stories where they say the casting director slipped him in or casting director forcefully recommended her (Margot Robbie).

Casting directors get paid whether actor A is selected or actor B, right? Or even after 1000 auditions if no one is selected they get paid isn't it? They are not agents working on commissions. So why these stories?

Kosmo13 said...

When I think of James Cromwell, I first think of this very funny story in which he plays a supporting role:

https://brucegrayactor.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/an-actors-nightmare/

And secondly I think of him as Susan Strasberg's tennis coach on The Rockford Files.

VP81955 said...

And made him a bigger star in films than then-wife Anna Faris has ever been (her most notable starring big-screen vehicle was "The House Bunny" back in 2009 -- yes, folks, the double standard still exists), though the jury's still out on whether Pratt can carry a movie that isn't a franchise. (Jennifer Lawrence was as much as a draw in "Passengers" as he was.)

E. Yarber said...

Maybe a top Casting Director likes doing a good job instead of just going through the motions for a check. I've made extra effort for writers who impressed me even though my pay was the same. Some agents have been very open and helpful to me this year even though I wasn't a client.

You don't really want to get into a pressure cooker like the entertainment business unless you have some conviction about what you're doing.

Y. Knott said...

I can't imagine that Matthew Perry's new series "The Odd Couple" could *possibly* fail!

Christopher Lowery said...

This is something I have thought of often & was thinking about it again a few days ago.

To me the the king of erasing the line was James Garner who crossed the line back & forth with hits & critical successes in both realms. Can't think of anyone else who had comparable success.

As for those who could not cross over, it almost feels like an intangible factor of luck in finding the right vehicle that allows the twinkle in your eye to cross over from 60Hz to 24fps. Do it once early in your film career, and the beach head is established.

Always wondered why people who seemed to have charm/intensity like Tom Selleck/Chris Noth among many others were not able to cross the line.

Tom Selleck established 3 franchises as a star himself on television in at least 2 different genres & strongly participated in a fourth in Friends.

For his movie career there were 3 that stand out, 3 Men & a Baby, Quigly Down Under and In & Out; A hit, cult hit & supporting role. A major movie career it is not.

Would love to listen to a panel or podcast talking about theories & thoughts on the matter

Brian said...

I'm glad someone remembered and mentioned James Cromwell's "All In The Family" character, Stretch Cunningham, or as Archie used to call him, "The Jerry Lewis of the Loading Dock."

Kaleberg said...

There's also the jump from soap opera to mainstream television. It almost seems as big a jump as the one to the big screen.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Kaleberg: The list of actors - some even movie actors - who came from soaps is awfully long. I can think of a dozen offhand - and I've never watched soaps.

wg

Mark said...

in one of her essays, Pauline Kael observed that certain actors Open print sees her example was Brian Keith) had all the qualities necessary for being in a list star, but never got that role that push them over the top.

Ted Kilvington said...

Cromwell lost the Oscar nomination (for "Babe") to Kevin Spacey. I've always imagined that he took that role in "L.A. Confidential" just for the opportunity to shoot Spacey.

Janet Ybarra said...

A couple of notables: Sarah Michelle Gellar, went on to star in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.

And Richard Dean Anderson, started as Jeff Webber on GENERAL HOSPITAL in the '70s and went on to star on MACGYVER and then my favorite, as Jack O'Neill on STARGATE SG-1.

Andrew said...

Of all the movies I've ever seen, the moment Cromwell shot Spacey was possibly the most unexpectected shock. He was serving him tea, for God's sake. What an amazing scene, especially Spacey's fade out into death. I remember thinking how brilliant it was to make the farmer from Babe the villain. No one would see it coming.

LA Confidential has another (and more surprising) example of someone who jumped from TV to movies successfully: Danny DeVito.

E. Yarber said...

Marsha Mason was a vampire on DARK SHADOWS.

Honest Ed said...

The one name not mentioned is Bruce Willis. On the back of Moonlighting, he was in a few movies which flopped before Die Hard made him a movie star. I guess having that edge and danger and big screen presence doesn't matter if you don't get the right part in the right film.

Another is James McAvoy who got his start in TV in the UK before going on to movies.

Tom Galloway said...

I've been wondering for a while now why George Clooney is considered a movie star.

I mean, he's got the charisma, and is probably the closest thing to Cary Grant these days (although I don't think it's that close). Nothing against the man personally or anything, and he's certainly chosen some interesting movies to act in that he had to know wouldn't be blockbuster hits.

But look at his box office. Out of 30 films he could be considered to have starred in, a whopping six have broken $100M lifetime domestic gross. And three of those were Ocean's 11-12-13, and one was Batman and Robin. Only the Perfect Storm and Gravity were relatively independent successes (I guess you could could Ocean's 11 as well, but that still makes it a whopping three).

He's certainly a movie actor, a good actor, and a celebrity, but the only limited argument I can make for him as a movie star is in those films that probably did do better because he was in them, but were never going to be significant commercial successes.

MikeN said...

Tom Galloway, George Clooney was roughly the same level of star as Ronald Reagan, who is now routinely referred to as "B-movie actor Ronald Reagan".

James Cromwell was also in Star Trek First Contact, and from the way he played it, I am convinced that the original ending of the movie(which involved time travel) was that he hadn't invented anything, and the people from the future end up giving him his invention.

He later showed up just to play the cold open of an episode of Enterprise, reprising his role but with a flipped script('In a Mirror Darkly').
I liked him in TNTs Murder in the First too.

Loosehead said...

Dwayne Johnson, perhaps the biggest action movie star at the moment, at least in terms of number of films, just had his TV series Ballers renewed. Good as an action hero and light comedy.