Look Before You Leap!
TV actors want to be movie stars. That’s a given. But some of them are better suited to the small screen. It’s a tricky prospect making the transition from TV to film. A few actors have made it look so easy you forget their humble beginnings. Other have wiped out spectacularly. In the October 1996 issue of Movieline magazine, contributing writers Kevin Hennessey and Elaine Bailey examined some case studies in TV stars deciding when it was time to leave the show that made them famous.
CASE HISTORY #1:
For many years, Steve McQueen stood taller than all the rest of the TV stars who’d followed him, lemming-like, up onto the silver screen. No one had started lower than the laconic McQueen (on TV’s “Wanted: Dead or Alive”) or risen to greater heights. McQueen was the reigning action superstar of his day, and a legend in his own time. These days it’s Tom Hanks’s ascension from lowbrow TV comic to double Oscar-winner that seems so inspiring. No doubt many young actors laboring in TV dreck that frustrates their notions of their range and genius look to Hanks and think. “If he can do it, so can I.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. Hanks’s triumphant journey from television to the movies serves as a textbook example of Deceptive Simplicity. His film career did not begin with a bold launch off the small screen, and he nearly crashed and burned so many times that you have to believe he has either an asbestos-coated belief in himself or a guardian angel with astounding clout, or both. In other words, don’t try this at home.
In the early ’80s, there was nothing to suggest that Hanks was any likelier a future screen icon than either of his equally genial, low-watt costars on “‘Bosom Buddies,” Peter Scolari and Donna Dixon. Putting the two male stars in drag, à la Some Like It Hot, was a neat way to disguise the fact that “Bosom Buddies” was a shameless “Three’s Company” knockoff, but Hanks never did anything more exceptional than squeeze a few chuckles out of painfully obvious jokes. He quickly moved toward the big-screen escape, but his first couple of films– He Knows You’re Alone and Bachelor Party–deserved to be his last. A lucky break made the difference after “Bosom Buddies” ended. Fellow sitcom survivor Ron Howard, who’d saved himself from post-TV obscurity by becoming a movie director, gave Hanks the lead in an unpromising high-concept no-brainer called Splash. Hanks carried off the odd combination of wise-guy one-liners and naive romance with such assured aplomb and such pleasing runs-cool/runs-warm likability that overnight he became a household name. His rubbery features, the kind one might have thought would not come off on a huge movie screen, generated mass affection.
Then came six movies that could have ended anyone else’s career: The Man With One Red Shoe, Volunteers, Every Time We Say Goodbye, Nothing in Common, The Money Pit and Dragnet. You’d have to go back to Jack Lemmon–himself a TV-to-big-screen case who’d also had to don a dress–to find as unlikely a case of a comic charmer managing to survive his own starring vehicles. Hanks might well have run his luck dry at this point, but he got another lucky break from another sitcom-survivor-turned-director: Penny Marshall cast him in a high-concept no-brainer called Big. Hanks’s sustained act of boyish winsomeness in that hugely successful (and respected) film made him at last an authentic star.
Looking to widen–and, in some cases, darken–his range, Hanks once again headed straight off a cliff with a movie skeet shoot that, excepting Turner and Hooch, made a return to sit-coms look attractive; Punchline, The ‘burbs, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Joe Versus the Volcano: all different, all terrible. Marshall again came to Hanks’s rescue by casting him against type as the grouchy coach in A League of Their Own. And there, after an extraordinary history of big-screen bungling, began a string of back-to-back hits so impressive that the peculiar phenomenon of Hollywood amnesia made it possible for people to think of Hanks as that remarkably versatile actor who’d waltzed off TV into instant big-screen success. Did he learn to select scripts more carefully? Grow miraculously as an actor? A run that includes Sleepless in Seattle (big hit), Philadelphia (Best Actor Oscar), Forrest Gump (gigantic hit, Best Actor Oscar), Apollo 13 (huge hit, Oscar nomination) and Toy Story (massive hit) bears no explanation. This is such a long, strange way from dressing up in women’s clothes on TV that it’s best just to appreciate the glorious improbability of it all and remember: don’t try this at home.
CASE HISTORY #2:
MAKE HAY WHILE THE PAPARAZZI’S FLASH-BULBS SHINE
Here we have the strange case of a TV celeb too consumed with being famous to worry about becoming more famous. There’s a price to pay for such recklessness, but onetime child actress Shannen Doherty so obviously enjoyed graduating from costarring on forgettable series like “Little House: A New Beginning” and “Our House” into full- blown teen tartdom on a hit of her own, “Beverly Hills 90210,” that she failed to snag even a single feature film during her four-year run on the show. Big mistake, for, as Doherty can now tell you, it’s all well and good if you were featured in the beloved cult classic Heathers before you got famous on TV, but you’re still in big trouble if the best theatrical flick you can manage afterwards is Mallrats.
What was Doherty doing instead of making features during the “90210” years when she had a prime shot at the big time? Making merry, making headlines and making enemies. For years, not a week went by when Doherty wasn’t on the front page of one tabloid or another. She was Young Hollywood’s hard-living, club-hopping party doll. Her on-screen character inspired the “I Hate Brenda” newsletter and her offscreen character inspired costars to complain, “I hate Shannen.” Big on attitude and short on talent, some people thought, but talent doesn’t figure into TV sizzlers getting a shot at the big screen–as Doherty’s “90210” love interest, Luke Perry, proved by making several features before anyone cared if he could act or not. Are we to believe that Doherty, at white-hot heat, couldn’t have scored roles to at least equal Perry’s in, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Pshaw! It’s not that Doherty didn’t have time to make movies. She just seems to have had terrible taste combined with confidence that her celebrity would never end–a dangerous cocktail. What else but poor judgement could explain the made-for-TV quickies she did choose: Obsessed and Blindfold: Acts of Obsession? Or the one she made when it was clear the “90210” party was over, at least for her: A Burning Passion: The Margaret Mitchell Story? Shannen as Scarlett, maybe–c’mon, she wouldn’t have been worse than Joanne Whalley-Kilmer–but as Mags Mitchell, never. Then it was on to another cheesy TV flick, Jailbreakers, and thence to Kevin Smith’s disappointing follow-up to Clerks, Mallrats.
Current TV stars, take heed: learn from Doherty’s failure to grab the brass ring while still on the carousel — or you, too, may one day face a future of being lucky to land an episode of “Red Shoe Diaries.”
CASE HISTORY #3:
SHOOTING STARS SPUTTER OUT
It’s not like I’m coming back.” Eddie Murphy was heard to say on TV last summer in the midst of his career come-back with The Nutty Professor. “Y’all are comin’ back to the theaters. I’ve been there every season–just alone.” Can you hear the deluded strains of Norma Desmond in this remark? If it’s hard to recall now how popular Murphy really was in his ’80s heyday, perhaps that’s because a lot has changed for African-Americans in Hollywood in the past 15 years, and because the tone of African-American comedy is so different now from Murphy’s unrancorous, I’m-laughing-so-hard-I-can’t-breathe shtick. Still, before there was Whoopi, before the brothers Wayans, Hudlin and Hughes, before such other brothers as Lee, Singleton, Snipes and Smith, there was Murphy. He rose out of TV to reign over Tinseltown, and he’s a prime example of how achieving such an improbable feat can lead to head-swelling and reality-deprivation so severe you can kill your own luck. Doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.
Murphy’s launching pad had been, of course, “Saturday Night Live.” Back in 1981, he’d resurrected the show back up to essential viewing–he was just that funny–and, like other “SNL” cast members, he decided to try Hollywood. He promptly stole 48 HRS from Nick Nolte with his patented rude-quipster routine. The following year, he took the gem Trading Places away from Dan Aykroyd. Murphy’s home studio, Paramount, saw he could make any movies on his own, so a Stallone vehicle was rewritten for him: Beverly Hills Cop. The combined take on these three hits made Murphy look, from any angle, like the biggest cash cow in the history of TV-to-movie stars. Thus, he left “SNL” for good and established himself–in those long-ago days before studio toppers voluntarily paid actors S20 million per picture–as one of the highest-salaried, and most demanding, players the industry had ever seen. His arrogance about who he’d work with and about how many family members and friends he needed on the payroll rapidly gave him a poisonous rep. Audiences didn’t care; but studios do care. Only huge hits allow this kind of aggravation to be forgiven.
The Golden Child wasn’t funny, but made money on the audience’s desire to think it was funny. Beverly Hills Cop II wasn’t funny, but made money on the audience’s desire to repeat the experience of Beverly Hills Cop. The Eddie Murphy Raw concert film revealed a dark, sexist side to Murphy’s humor that had been, till then, neatly downplayed, and for the first time, people were put off. But they came back yet again for Coming to America, which wasn’t funny. The costly vanity production Harlem Nights didn’t even try to be funny, and it bombed. The slide started. Murphy’s reverting to his known persona for Another 48 HRS didn’t fool anybody. Boomerang, a modest success, showed that Murphy’s appeal had retreated from crossover paradise and resided now mostly with black audiences. The Distinguished Gentleman came straight from hunger. Things got desperate when few takers were found for the too-little-too-late Beverly Hills Cop III. Last year, when Murphy tried his hand at a horror comedy, Vampire in Brooklyn, he was simply regarded as a has-been.
But desperation can be a good thing. The long-talked-about remake of The Nutty Professor was recast in post-The Mask special effects. Cast as a low-key bumbler, actively trashing the edgy persona which made him famous, Murphy hit big. Now what? Ego dies hard in Hollywood–it’s likely Murphy will immediately start to push his pushy self around again, and he now lacks the can’t-miss aura that surrounded him on his magical, blinding ascent from TV. If he can’t ring the bell next time out, can “The Eddie Murphy Show” be far off in the future?
CASE HISTORY #4:
THE MOTHER OF REINVENTION
Not since that trio of long-distance runners–Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford–has any female star so repeatedly and successfully reinvented her own image to suit changing times and tastes as Sally Field. Consider her Emmy, two Oscars, and this astounding tidbit; she’s embarking on her fourth decade as a household name. Field’s ambition to break out of typecasting of any sort was fueled by her lengthy indentured servitude in four ultra lightweight TV series –“Gidget,” “The Flying Nun,” “Alias Smith and Jones” and “The Girl with Something Extra.” The sum total of these shows gave her sky-high TVQ, but resulted in her acting being taken about as seriously as, say, Tori Spelling’s. Field, who is, like Spelling, the product of a showbiz upbringing, imagined a feature film career for herself and–despite utter disinterest from the movie crowd–began a career-long, tireless commitment to reshaping popular and industry perception of her. The number of actors who have backed up their talent with this kind of determination and guts is exactly equal to the number of actors who have done what Field has done.
Field started her journey from TV idiocy to big-screen kudos with fightin’ words, by doing nudity in Bob Rafelson’s arty little Stay Hungry (the title could double nicely as Field’s mantra). Naturally, this move from “The Flying Nun” raised eyebrows, as intended; it also won her some good notices, though no further film offers. So Field went back to TV, not with a safe part, but as the multi-personalities Sybil, which won her a deserved Emmy and shattered her sweet-young-thing image a second time. Still, it was only TV. Movie studios offered no more than the opportunity to star with fellow TV survivors Henry Winkler, in the bomb Heroes, and Burt Reynolds, in what turned into a bizarre hit, Smokey and the Bandit. As cheesy a redneck comedy as Smokey was, it became 1977’s monster smash and propelled Field into her hottest role yet, as then-studmuffin Reynolds’s real-life girlfriend.
Finally famous as a movie star of sorts, Field took a long hard look at her future (three more dreadful Reynolds flicks comin’ at ya) and grabbed a role no one else wanted. Her performance as blue-collar union organizer Norma Rae won her an Oscar and immeasurable cachet, which in turn gave her the strength to walk away from the then still red-hot Reynolds. It didn’t, however, keep her from such obvious career missteps as Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, Back Roads and Kiss Me Goodbye. But then Field came up with her smartest, gutsiest image-retooling ever, transforming herself into the plain, hard-scrabble farmer in Places in the Heart. It was another Oscar win. Seeing the light, she then voluntarily took to playing an unglamorous older woman (Punchline), a vain, neurotic over-the-hill actress (Soapdish), and the mother of a grown daughter (Steel Magnolias)–three gambles which must have hurt her vanity, but opened up a wealth of possibilities as a character actress. Field gambled again when she took two roles where she knew she’d be overshadowed by a male star’s show-boating, and was rewarded with massive hits for her troubles: Mrs. Doubtfire and Forrest Gump.
Having consistently done the impossible, and done it so long and so well, Field proceeded to do what few who’ve escaped TV would so blithely do–return to TV acting, on her own terms, in the classy mini-series A Woman of Independent Means.
CASE HISTORY #5:
GOOD BET, BAD CHOICES
The smart line on Tom Selleck used to go, “He was George Lucas’s and Steven Spielberg’s first choice to play Indiana Jones. If only the producers of ‘Magnum, P.I.’ had let him out of the series to make Raiders of the Lost Ark, he’d be Harrison Ford today.” Actually, in retrospect, it looks as if he’d have become the new Mark Hamill, not the next Ford. Still, for more than a decade, Hollywood studios threw money and more money at Selleck, trying their damnedest to launch the TV icon as a movie star. Whose fault was it that he stayed stuck in neutral? With all due respect to the mysteries of why one handsome face and not another can compel couch potatoes to follow it to the big screen, surely Selleck shoulders considerable blame for picking, three times out of three, a trio of scripts which together make up nine of the worst films ever made. Only once did he score at the box office, and then it was a fluke.
Selleck had made movies (Myra Breckinridge, Daughters of Satan), TV movies (The Concrete Cowboys, Superdome) and series (“The Young and the Restless,” “The Rockford Files”) before finally finding his niche as TV’s Hawaiian eye “Magnum, P.I.” in 1980. Both that show and its star bore more than a passing resemblance to “The Rockford Files” and its star, James Garner: Selleck seemed to have learned from the master how to combine the folksy charm of an affable screwup with the tall, dark and handsome looks of a heartthrob. And Selleck looked like a good bet to jump to the big screen just as Garner had done after “Maverick.” When he couldn’t get free of “Magnum” to play Indy, Selleck bided his time with the occasional TV movie, looking for a feature that could do for him what Raiders of the Lost Ark might have. 1983’s High Road to China, as bad an Indy knockoff as Richard Chamberlain’s King Solomon’s Mines, made insiders wonder what Lucas and Spielberg could possibly have been thinking. A change up to the suave jewel thief in Lassiter only demonstrated that no one would be replacing Cary Grant anytime soon. Runaway, a low-rent Blade Runner, confirmed that Selleck was no Ford. Luckily, he’d kept his day job.
Three years later, out of left field, came the fluke hit–a big one, 3 Men and a Baby, Selleck’s at-best sitcomish charms suited the at-best sitcomish vehicle. Hollywood again was interested, so, after his series ended in 1988, Selleck chose three more loud thuds: An Innocent Man, Her Alibi and Quigley Down Under, The evidence that Selleck simply didn’t have the thing which marks a movie star was mounting. 3 Men and a Little Lady helped offset the losses, but the next three films nailed the lid shut on the coffin of Selleck’s big-screen career. Christopher Columbus–The Discovery, Mr. Baseball and Folks, were simply unforgivable.
Unsurprisingly, Selleck has since been seen in TV films like Broken Trust, and has guested on “Friends.” It’s said he wonders whether it’s too late to bring “Magnum, P.I.” to the big screen. Probably not, Tom–as long as someone with marquee lure plays the leading role.
CASE HISTORY #6:
BELIEVING YOUR OWN PUBLICITY
While the history of showbiz is one long parade of stars deluded enough to believe their own publicity and make career moves based on this self-deception, TV celebs who’ve done so make for particularly showy flame-outs. Consider Farrah Fawcett. When “Charlie’s Angels” hit the airwaves 20 years ago, the big-hair, big-teeth beauty with teensy features and teensy talent was the first female star in a decade to capture the imagination of every man in America. Like the earlier Raquel Welch, she became an icon with a best-selling pinup poster. Although no one had even noticed her on earlier TV series that toplined her then-mate Lee Majors, “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law,” Fawcett failed to see her luck for what it was, and instead let the avalanche of “Angels” publicity proclaiming her a love goddess go straight to her head.
The movie offers that poured in for Fawcett fueled her dormant desire for big-screen immortality (she’d already been found wanting in features like Logan’s Run and Myra Breckinridge). In a decision that made headlines around the world, she showed the tensile ambition under her fluffy ‘do by breaking her “Angels” contract at the end of the show’s first season and setting out to be the new Marilyn Monroe. What Fawcett didn’t anticipate were the consequences of being so of-the-moment. Today’s blonde can be replaced so easily. By the time she’d done herself serious damage with leads in dogs like Somebody Killed Her Husband, Sunburn and Saturn 3, and lost a legal wrangle that forced her to return intermittently to “Angels.” Fawcett found that pinch hitter Cheryl Ladd had usurped her position as media darling. Her one box-office hit, The Cannonball Run, came too late to undo the industry perception of her as a joke; when a sequel to the dubious The Cannonball Run was filmed, she was nowhere in sight. By 1981, she was back where she’d begun, appearing opposite Majors on one of his TV hits, “The Fall Guy.”
There her story might have ended. But Fawcett, no doubt royally pissed, turned her career around by letting her rage show. Taking the off-Broadway route, she won favor in Extremities as a woman who turns the tables on her rapist. The following year, she scored a hit on TV as a wife who turns the tables on her abusive husband in The Burning Bed. Dropping her twinkle and letting her toughness show, Fawcett established herself as the queen of TV movies. Network honchos lined up to offer her fascinating characters to play on TV (among them, Margaret Bourke-White and Barbara Hutton). But movie moguls had long since stopped caring–a shoestring film version of Extremities and supporting roles in See You in the Morning and Man of the House testify to that. Latter-day Fawcetts (are you listening, David Canuso?), take note.
CASE HISTORY #7:
CHARACTER ACTORS ARE MISCAST AS MOVIE STARS
After knocking around TV in series like “Benson” and “Somerset,” Ted Danson found his way in 1981 into Body Heat and The Onion Field, giving two fine performances in character parts. He might have gone on to become a screen character actor par excellence, but once he was cast as the lead player on the TV series “Cheers,” his path was forever altered. Thereafter, when he made movies, he played star parts. It’s a shame, for when cast against his Aramis-cologne-poster-guy looks (as, say, the incestuous father in the TV film Something About Amelia), he was electrifying, while in conventional dramatic leading roles, he was at best conventional.
Danson’s big-screen venture with Margot Kidder, Little Treasure, was aptly named; A Fine Mess confirmed that Danson and Howie Mandel were not the new Laurel and Hardy; in Just Between Friends he was so low-voltage it was hard to believe he could carry on one love affair, let alone two. In his single hit, 3 Men and a Baby, he was one of three boring dream-boats–all of whom seemed cut out for TV, in this early example of Hollywood’s brain-dead campaign to turn movies into big-screen TV.
The success of 3 Men earned Danson the lead in Cousins, where he gave his best account of himself–in large part because this motorcycle-riding, adulterous nonconformist was his least conventional movie part. But it didn’t find an audience, so it was more of the same old stuff (3 Men and a Little Lady, Dad), and more of the series. As “Cheers” wound down to its finish, Danson tried his hand at three offbeat romantic roles, all as unconventional fathers– Made in America, Getting Even With Dad and Pontiac Moon–but no one much cared. Certainly, the three pictures combined didn’t get him a tenth of the media attention his decision to appear in blackface at a roast for then-girlfriend (and Made costar) Whoopi Goldberg did. After splitting from Goldberg, Danson married Pontiac Moon costar Mary Steenburgen, with whom he’d teamed for a popular, Emmy-nominated miniseries, “Gulliver’s Travels”, and then again for a can-lightning-strike-twice? series, “Ink.” Guess Danson won’t be tackling character parts anytime soon–but who can blame him? If that was the condition of a TV-to-movies transition, it was too high a price. Once tasted, star billing, salary and perks are so difficult to do without.
CASE HISTORY #8:
OUT OF THE SOAP PITS
Although in the beginning, TV soap operas were the burial grounds for former screen queens from Joan Bennett to Joan Crawford, in recent years many stars have started on soaps and then blasted their way into movies. Something about the daily drudgery of soapdom gives the newer breed real get up and go. Despite the occasional lapse back by performers who shouldn’t have been out of soaps in the first place, lots of these cases never go back to TV except for an awards show or a Tennessee Williams play. Think Demi Moore. Think Meg Ryan. Oh, you’d forgotten she spent two years on “As the World Turns”? You can bet she hasn’t.
After escaping Soapland, Ryan at first was cast in one prime-time TV series after another (“One of the Boys,” “Charles in Charge,” “Wildside”), and looked headed for an eventual sitcom of her own. But she got a small role in a hit, had the smarts and talent to make the most of it, and overnight was considered the movies’ Next Big Thing. The success of Top Gun was enough to erase the memory of her previous career (including Rich and Famous, Arnityville 3-D and Armed and Dangerous), and she grabbed everything that looked like it would help her upward climb: Innerspace, Promised Land, D.O.A. and Presidio. When Harry Met Sally… made the difference between promising sparkle and full-blown star, earning her enough goodwill to carry her through Joe Versus the Volcano (forgettable in three roles), The Doors (forgettable in one role), Prelude to a Kiss (forgettable in a cameo), and Flesh and Bone (forget we even brought it up). But then came Sleepless in Seattle, which somehow made it seem like she’d just breezed her way to the top–the illusion of onscreen grace is such an essential part of movie stardom. Not all of Ryan’s romantic comedies (roles the public expects to see her in) hit big– IQ and French Kiss were disappointments–but Ryan has learned from experience that a Harry or Sleepless will eventually come along to put things back on course. She also insists on occasionally stepping out of expectation prison to do drama, as in When a Man Loves a Woman and Courage Under Fire, both worthy efforts. Powered by an ambition that is absolutely disguised by her amiably charming prettiness, Ryan is unlikely ever to return to the small screen. Anyone who watched her long ago in her soap world has to be forgiven for not seeing her promise, but she knew what the TV cameras were not yet “seeing.” Having been spectacularly vindicated, she won’t soon give TV cameras another crack at dissing her again.
Kevin Hennessey and Elaine Bailey are freelance writers who occasionally contribute to Movieline.
Posted on October 7, 2016, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged eddie murphy, Farrah Fawcett, meg ryan, Sally Field, Shannen Doherty, Ted Danson, tom hanks, Tom Selleck. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.