Some movie stars start off as movie stars, and remain movie stars. That’s what Barbra Streisand did when she starred in “Funny Girl,” and what Tom Cruise did when he starred in “Risky Business.” Neither Streisand nor Cruise had ever been in a movie before, and neither of them looked back after that. Then, too, Mozart wrote an opera when he was 11, but nobody believes that you can learn much about music from his career. These are the naturals, the prodigiously gifted people, who were born under a lucky star and who realize at an early age what they are put on earth to do. And then they start doing it at a very high level. However, most stars, even most A-list stars, rise to stardom more gradually.
Let’s say that a performer goes to Hollywood, takes acting classes, has good meetings with agents, and lands a role in a TV show. So far, so good. Then what? Consider what these A-list actors did:
Michael Douglas played Inspector Steve Keller in 98 episodes of “The Streets of San Francisco” (1972-76)
George Clooney played Ace in 18 episodes of “E/R” (1984-5)
Bruce Willis made 66 episodes of “Moonlighting” from 1985 to 1989. (When he was shooting “Die Hard,” he was moonlighting from “Moonlighting,” so to speak.)
Johnny Depp played Officer Tom Hanson on 82 episodes of “21 Jump Street” (1997-90)
And then the movies called, and these big stars never looked back to television.
Some actors, though, go from supporting roles in TV shows to starring roles in feature films. This is what John Travolta did on “Welcome Back, Kotter,” when he played Vinnie Barbarino for 79 episodes. Although it was not a starring role, he was so unforgettable that he went to feature films with “Grease,” and he never looked back, either.
Clearly, then, Michael Douglas, George Clooney, Bruce Willis, Johnny Depp, and John Travolta benefitted from their years in television. It’s not just that they improved their acting skills; they also mastered production techniques as well. Doing an apprenticeship in television surely helped them in later years when they became producers and directors.
Consider the case of Bradley Whitford, though. He began acting with a part in the TV thriller “The Equalizer” in 1985, and worked steadily after that. By 1999, when he played a fast-talking Hollywood agent in “The Muse,” he had every reason to believe that he would go on and become a movie star. Then lightning struck. Aaron Sorkin called, and Whitford got the plum role of Josh Lyman in “The West Wing,” and his fate as a star in one of the best TV shows ever made was set.
Something very similar happened to another of the stars on “The West Wing,” Allison Janney. Her first movie role was in “Who Shot Patakango?” in 1989, and like Whitford, she worked steadily for the next few years. In 1999, in fact, she appeared in no fewer than three movies: “Drop Dead Gorgeous”; “10 Things I Hate About You”; and “American Beauty.” “American Beauty” was a huge film, of course-it won the Oscar for Best Picture. So Janney too had every reason to believe that she was in line for a starring role in a movie. But then Aaron Sorkin called her, too; she got the role of C.J. Cregg in “The West Wing,” and the rest is history.
Although they had similar results, the turning points in the careers of Whitford and Janney illustrate the ways stardom evolves differently for men and for women in Hollywood. Whitford is one of the few men in show business today who has ever gone from a supporting role in a movie to a starring role in a TV show. On the other hand, Janney’s career shows what often happens to women in Hollywood-they get a few roles in movies, and then get a major role in a hit television show.
No one illustrates this pattern better than Lucille Ball. She had a walk-on part in a B movie called “The Bowery” as early as 1933. Although she worked steadily, mostly in minor movies, it took almost 20 years before she accumulated the experience and the maturity to create the “I Love Lucy,” which debuted in 1951, and made television history.
More recently, Sarah Jessica Parker did something similar on the way to creating her signature role as Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City.” Although she had a supporting role in “The First Wives Club,” with Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, and Diane Keaton in 1996, it was her lead role in “Miami Rhapsody” (1995) with Antonio Banderas that made more difference than anyone realized at the time. In “Miami Rhapsody” she plays Gwyn Marcus, a sexually active, wise-cracking woman who worries about marriage and relationships. Does that sound familiar? It was of course her experience in developing Gwyn Marcus that gave her the opportunity to create the character that would become Carrie.
Of course, if you examine the careers of enough actresses, you find variations in the relationships between television and movies. Women comedians, for example, tend to work primarily in television. The examples here are our two greatest women comedians, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. “The Carol Burnett Show” stayed on the air for an entire decade, from 1967 to 1977, and racked up no fewer than 176 episodes.
At the other extreme is Anna Hathaway. As a teenager she had a supporting role in the Fox family drama “Get Real” (1999-2000), but it probably did little to prepare her for “The Princess Diaries,” where she had the invaluable opportunity to work with show business pro Julie Andrews. She obviously learned a lot because she did brilliant work in “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Les Miserables.”
In conclusion, it’s worth noting that only a very few men ever make the jump from hit television shows to feature films. These are the A-listers mentioned above, like Michael Douglas and George Clooney. More typical is the career of one of America’s most popular television stars, Mark Harmon. He’s appeared in one hit show after another, from “Reasonable Doubts” (1991-3) to “Chicago Hope (1996-2000), and now, of course in “NCIS.” “NCIS” is on track to set a record as the most popular hour-long drama in American television history. It premiered in 2003, and is still going strong.
Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “There are no second acts in America.” The careers of our most popular, and most durable, stars prove him wrong. There are lots of second, and third, and even fourth acts in show business; however, staying in the game for several decades requires performers to navigate the relationships between television and movies.