Making the Jump: Sitcom Stars on the Big Screen

  • Publish Date: April 7, 2010
  • Comments: ↓ 16 user comments

Leaving the laugh track behind

Respect. If you wanted it -- as a TV actor -- you had to prove yourself on the big screen, and shed the "TV" label. (The bigger paydays didn't hurt, either.) At least, that was the conventional wisdom for much of the history of television, leading to an endless stream of TV actors leaving the small screen for the cinema. These days, of course, much of the stigma associated with television is gone, and the process is frequently reversed, with film stars opting for the challenge of television work.

Image"Get me my agent!"

But, even today, many actors are attempting to use TV roles as a stepping stone to the big screen, and this week brings yet another example. Opening Friday, Date Night features not one but two major NBC sitcom stars: Steve Carell from "The Office," and Tina Fey from "30 Rock." Unfortunately, early reviews indicate that there is little "must-see" about the new film.

Below, we take a closer look at the careers of Carell and Fey and other television sitcom actors who have attempted to make the jump to the big screen. We're only focusing on actors who first gained fame while appearing on TV comedies, so stars like Johnny Depp ("21 Jump Street") and Pierce Brosnan ("Remington Steele") are not included. And, aside from Fey, we won't be featuring other "Saturday Night Live" alumni here; there are so many of them that they'll get their own article in the near future.

The "Date Night" stars

Steve Carell

Major FIlm Roles 6
Average Metascore 62
Average Box Office Gross $88.8M

Best known for playing Michael Scott on the long-running American version of the sitcom "The Office," Carell has a long history in television, appearing on the short-lived sketch program "The Dana Carvey Show" in 1996 and also as a correspondent on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." After several supporting parts on the big screen, his first leading role came in 2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin 73, a critical and commercial hit. His film career has bounced up and down since then, with the nadir coming in the 2007 flop Evan Almighty 37. While all of his big screen appearances have come in comedies, the 2007 indie gem Dan in Real Life 65 allowed Carell to showcase a slightly more serious side.

Best film: Little Miss Sunshine (2006) 80
Worst film: Evan Almighty (2007) 37

Tina Fey

Major FIlm Roles 3
Average Metascore 60
Average Box Office Gross $55.1M

The former head writer for "Saturday Night Live" also appeared as a member of that show's cast from 2000-06. She left SNL to create and star in her own Emmy-winning NBC sitcom, "30 Rock," while also dabbling in film, to mixed results. Prior to the new Date Night, her biggest starring role was in Baby Mama 55, a modest commercial success. She also wrote and co-starred in the 2004 comedy Mean Girls 66.

Best film: Mean Girls (2004) 66
Worst film
: Baby Mama (2008) 55

The 10 biggest sitcom-to-screen success stories

A number of major movie stars first captured the attention of audiences in network sitcoms, in roles ranging from cross-dressing ad men to flying nuns. The latter role, of course, belonged to Sally Field, who starred -- at the age of 19 -- in the 1960s ABC surf-sitcom "Gidget" and then in the long-running comedy "The Flying Nun" before taking off for a movie career that would earn her two Academy Awards. Unlike many of the actors below, Field has returned to television repeatedly throughout her career, adding three Emmy trophies in the process.

Below, we look at nine additional major film stars to emerge from television comedies, in alphabetical order.

Tim Allen

Major FIlm Roles 15
Average Metascore 42
Average Box Office Gross $58.6M

It's true: the one-time stand-up comedian hasn't made very many good movies. But that doesn't mean that Allen hasn't been a successful film actor, just as he was also a successful television actor and successful author. Whatever the former "Home Improvement" star is selling, people are buying -- especially if it starts with the words "The Santa Clause." His best film-related decision? Agreeing to voice Buzz Lightyear in Pixar's "Toy Story" series.

Best film (live action): Galaxy Quest (1999) 70
Worst film
: Crazy on the Outside (2010) 21

Jim Carrey

Major FIlm Roles 21
Average Metascore 52
Average Box Office Gross $103.9M

Carrey's first starring role on television came not on the sketch comedy "In Living Color" -- for which he was best known -- but on NBC's short-lived 1984 sitcom "The Duck Factory," in which Carrey played a cartoonist. Since 1994, the elastic-faced actor has focused exclusively on movies, to the tune of over $2.3 billion dollars in box office receipts.

Best film: The Truman Show (1998) 90
Worst film
: The Number 23 (2007) 24

George Clooney

Major FIlm Roles 23
Average Metascore 65
Average Box Office Gross $61.6M

Clooney's first major acting role was indeed on "E/R," but probably not the one you're thinking of. A decade before he was Dr. Ross on the NBC drama "ER," the actor had a supporting role on the similarly-titled CBS sitcom starring Elliott Gould. Clooney's sitcom career also included the forgettable seventh season of "The Facts of Life," when he and Mackenzie Astin joined the female-heavy cast. The jump to television drama was a good choice, and his decision to leave a hit TV show and try his hand at film -- normally, a foolish thing to do -- proved to be anything but, despite an inauspicious start.

Best film: Out of Sight (1998) 85
Worst film
: Batman & Robin (1997) 28

Leonardo DiCaprio

Major FIlm Roles 19
Average Metascore 63
Average Box Office Gross $79.9M

Like Clooney, DiCaprio could hardly be described as a sitcom star, yet he used TV comedy as his first stop on his way to success. While DiCaprio's television career was brief, it included co-starring roles in two network sitcoms. Many people remember the actor from the seventh and final season of the ABC sitcom "Growing Pains," where DiCaprio played a homeless boy who is taken in by the Seaver family. But his very first professional role came in the 1990 NBC series "Parenthood," the network's first, failed attempt to adapt the 1989 movie of the same name. On that show, DiCaprio's sister was played by another future star: Thora Birch.

Best film: The Departed (2006) 86
Worst film
: The Beach (2000) 43

Jamie Foxx

Major FIlm Roles 20
Average Metascore 54
Average Box Office Gross $47.6M

After getting his start in stand-up, the actor-singer-comedian appeared on seasons 3-5 of "In Living Color" as well as the sitcom "Roc" before landing his own eponymous show. His film career kicked off with a small role in the 1996 romantic comedy The Truth About Cats and Dogs 64 and, though he hasn't been in too many well-reviewed films, his resume includes an Oscar-winning performance in Ray 73.

Best film: Dreamgirls (2006) 76
Worst film
: Valentine's Day (2010) 34

Tom Hanks

Major FIlm Roles 33
Average Metascore * 67
Average Box Office Gross $88.4M

* Does not include Hanks' pre-1993 movies, with the exception of "Big"

Hollywood's most bankable movie star -- his movies have grossed over $3.5 billion -- got his start in the early 1980s sitcom "Bosom Buddies," where he starred opposite Peter Scolari as an ad agency employee who dresses in drag in order to score cheap rent in a women-only hotel. Hanks not only made a successful jump from TV to film (beginning with his first starring role in 1984's "Splash"), but also became the rare actor to make a mark in dramatic roles after becoming so closely associated with comedy.

Best film (in Metacritic): Saving Private Ryan (1998) 90
Worst film (in Metacritic)
: The Da Vinci Code (2006) 46

Will Smith

Major FIlm Roles 16
Average Metascore 54
Average Box Office Gross $144.7M

Unlike the other names on this list, Smith was already fairly well known to the public prior to his first sitcom appearance, but as a rapper (under the name The Fresh Prince), not an actor. His on-camera career began when NBC gave him his own sitcom, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," which ran from 1990-96 and made Smith a household name, in addition to saving Smith from bankruptcy. The 1993 film version of the play "Six Degrees of Separation" demonstrated his dramatic range, while Bad Boys 41 and Independence Day 59 proved that he could attract moviegoers. By the end of the 1990s, he was routinely pulling in 8-figure salaries for his film work.

Best film: Men in Black (1997) 71
Worst film
: Seven Pounds (2008) 36

John Travolta

Major FIlm Roles 41
Average Metascore * 48
Average Box Office Gross $54.6M

* Only includes some pre-1996 films

While Travolta had done some stage work prior to appearing on television, it was the 1975-79 ABC sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter" that first made him a star. Travolta parlayed that success playing Sweathog Vinnie Barbarino to land roles in the hugely successful films "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease." Although his career nosedived in the 1980s, Travolta returned to stardom in the 1990s, appearing in a number of hits -- and several memorably bad flops -- in the years since. Few actors have covered such a broad range of Metascores in their careers.

Best film (in Metacritic): Pulp Fiction (1994) 94
Worst film (in Metacritic)
: Battlefield Earth (2000) 8

Robin Williams

Major FIlm Roles 38
Average Metascore * 48
Average Box Office Gross $53.4M

* Only includes some pre-1993 films

Already a successful stand-up comedian prior to becoming a star in the late 1970s while playing the alien Mork in the ABC sitcom "Mork & Mindy" (after the character first appeared in an episode of "Happy Days"), Williams actually made his television debut as a cast member of the short-lived "Richard Prior Show" on NBC. The hyperactive actor landed his first major movie role -- in Robert Altman's live-action Popeye 48 -- while still on "Mork," and his eclectic and successful movie career has found him in both dramatic and comedic roles, as well as a popular choice for voice work in animated features.

Best film (in Metacritic): Dead Poets Society (1989) 79
Worst film (in Metacritic)
: Old Dogs (2009) 19

Five who should have stayed on television

Certainly, not every sitcom star can duplicate their TV success in film. A classic example of an actor leaving a prominent role on a hit show only to fail to achieve similar success in the film business is Shelley Long, star of NBC's hit "Cheers" from 1982-87. Long, however, had already appeared in movies -- including "Caveman" and "Night Shift" -- prior to, and during, her period of TV success. But her post-"Cheers" filmography is littered with mediocre (or worse) movies, with her biggest commercial success coming in 1995's "The Brady Bunch Movie."

Here are several additional actors who should have resisted the temptation of the silver screen:

Christina Applegate

Major FIlm Roles 15
Average Metascore 37
Average Box Office Gross $24.5M

Although she had numerous film and television roles as a youngster, Applegate rose to fame on TV in "Married with Children," playing the role of Kelly Bundy for a full decade. Although the actress has starred in over a dozen films, none outside of Anchorman 63 has made much of an impression with critics, and even her biggest role -- in the 1991 comedy "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead" -- failed to achieve hit status. In recent years, she has returned to television (on "Samantha Who?") and has mostly confined her film appearances to voice work in animation.

Best film: Anchorman (2004) 63
Worst film
: Surviving Christmas (2004) 19

Alyssa Milano

Major FIlm Roles 15
Average Metascore n/a
Average Box Office Gross $8.3M

No list of former sitcom stars who failed in the world of film would be complete without the former child star of "Who's the Boss?". When that show ended its eight-season run in 1992, Milano attempted to shed her innocent image, appearing in decidedly more "adult" features such as "Embrace of the Vampire" and "Poison Ivy II: Lily." While she has appeared in over a dozen features, few have made a dent at the box office -- if they have even made it into theaters in the first place. Smartly, Milano returned to television, starring in the WB's "Charmed" for eight seasons.

Best film?: Possibly Commando (1985)
Worst film?
: Too close to call

Matthew Perry

Major FIlm Roles 7
Average Metascore 35
Average Box Office Gross $28.7M

Like several of the other actors who were launched into stardom by NBC's massive hit sitcom "Friends," Perry -- whose pre-"Friends" career also included roles in forgettable sitcoms such as "Sydney", "Home Free", and "Second Chance" -- has tried his hand at movies with little success. The most memorable film with Perry in a lead role remains 2000's The Whole Nine Yards 47.

Best film: 17 Again (2009) 48
Worst film
: Serving Sara (2002) 18

Garry Shandling

Major FIlm Roles 5
Average Metascore 30
Average Box Office Gross $8.0M

We certainly love Garry Shandling, and the comedian and one-time "Tonight Show" guest host will forever be associated with two of the most groundbreaking comedies in television history: "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and "The Larry Sanders Show." But he has yet to appear in a well-reviewed or financially successful film, though, to his credit, he hasn't ventured onto the silver screen often. His best chance for box office riches comes this summer, when he will appear in a small role in the second "Iron Man" film.

Best film: What Planet Are You From? (2000) 41
Worst film
: Mixed Nuts (1994) 14

Honorable mention in this category goes to Perry's "Friends" co-star Matt LeBlanc (also of the short-lived sitcom "Top of the Heap"), whose two lead film roles -- in the horrible 1996 chimpanzee-baseball comedy "Ed" and the major 2002 flop All the Queen's Men 19 -- were memorably bad. Ray Romano ("Everybody Loves Raymond") mostly stayed away from film, with one major disastrous exception. While we are certainly tempted to put Elizabeth Berkley ("Saved by the Bell") in this category, she has atoned for Showgirls 16 with a successful stage career as well as appearances in (slightly) better films like Roger Dodger 75 and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion 52.

And, in addition to Milano, other notable young sitcom stars who couldn't achieve similar fame on the big screen as adults -- though they tried -- include "Growing Pains'" Kirk Cameron (Left Behind: The Movie 22) and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (New York Minute 22).

Other sitcom actors on the big screen

While they haven't become megastars like the actors listed above, our next bunch have achieved a success on the big screen after first establishing their careers in television.

Made the Right Call
Actor TV Show(s) Major Film Roles Best Film as Lead
or Major Character
Jennifer Aniston "Friends", "Ferris Bueller" 19 The Good Girl 71
Image Although her film career has had its share of failures, Aniston -- whose first major role was in NBC's "Ferris Bueller" series -- is easily the most successful film actor of the "Friends" sextet, and she has appeared in three major box office hits so far. Her most popular film, however, is probably 1999's Office Space 68, in which she had a supporting role.
Billy Crystal "Soap" 15 When Harry Met Sally 76
Image Crystal's first acting role came as Jodie Dallas -- one of TV's first openly gay characters -- in ABC's very funny soap opera spoof "Soap." His debut as a film star wouldn't come for another five years, in the form of the 1986 action-comedy "Running Scared." Absent from the big screen since 2002's Analyze That 37, Crystal's best leading role came in When Harry Met Sally.
Michael J. Fox "Family Ties" 15 Back to the Future xx
Image Fox first gained fame in the 1980s as right-wing teen Alex P. Keaton on NBC's long-running sitcom "Family Ties," and returned to television in the late 1990s on "Spin City." In between, his film career would have been a disappointment, were it not for 1985's "Back to the Future" and its two sequels.
Woody Harrelson "Cheers" 35 The People vs. Larry Flynt 79
Image From 1985-1993, Harrelson played bartender Woody Boyd on the acclaimed NBC sitcom "Cheers," a role that came about as a result of the death of cast member Nicholas Colasanto. Harrelson put that opportunity to good use, building upon his TV fame to launch what has turned out to be a lengthy career in film, typically in a supporting role.
Lisa Kudrow "Friends", "Mad About You" 15 The Opposite of Sex 70
Image The former Groundlings member played virtually the same character on two sitcoms: "Mad About You" and "Friends." There's been a lot more variety in her post-sitcom career, which has had more downs than ups (anyone remember "Marci X" or "Lucky Numbers"?), but, even in lesser films, the actress has generally been praised for her performances.
Sarah Jessica Parker "Square Pegs" 24 L.A. Story 65
Image Parker used her one season on the 1982 CBS sitcom "Square Pegs" as a springboard to big-screen roles in "Footloose" and "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Bigger film roles (in mainly middling movies) would follow, but her highest-grossing film to date is one that's based on her other TV comedy: Sex and the City 53.
Molly Ringwald "The Facts of Life" 14 The Breakfast Club 62
Image The star of some of the 1980s' most memorable film comedies, including "Sixteen Candles," "Pretty in Pink" and "The Breakfast Club," made her acting debut on the small screen, appearing in 14 episodes of the sitcom "The Facts of Life" before that show jettisoned half of its cast. These days, of course, she's back on TV in "The Secret Life of the American Teenager."
Jada Pinkett Smith "A Different World" 18 Menace II Society 76
Image The actress -- then known as Jada Pinkett -- landed her first big role on the "Cosby Show" spinoff "A Different World." After two years on the sitcom, she moved into film with Menace II Society, and has appeared in many major films since, including the final two "Matrix" movies and Collateral 71.

Other actors who have starred in a number of successful films after first appearing in a sitcom include American Pie star Jason Biggs (who, at the age of 5, appeared in "Drexell's Class"), Ghost World's Thora Birch (NBC sitcoms "Day by Day" and "Parenthood"), and Sideways star Thomas Hayden Church (who got his start on the sitcom "Wings"). One of Biggs' castmates on "Drexell's Class" was Brittany Murphy, and the late actress also appeared in the short-lived sitcom "Almost Home" before launching a successful film career with Clueless 69 in 1995.

In addition, former "Taxi" stars Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd have enjoyed long and successful film careers since the demise of that sitcom in 1983, although the former has returned to television on the FX hit "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." And Janeane Garofalo has had moderate success on the big screen after starting in TV comedy on "The Ben Stiller Show" and "The Larry Sanders Show".

Finally, let's look at a few sitcom stars for whom it's still too soon to tell whether a move into film was a good idea or a huge mistake.

The Jury's Still Out
Actor TV Show(s) Major Film Roles Best Film as Lead
or Major Character
Jason Bateman "Silver Spoons", "It's Your Move", "The Hogan Family", "Arrested Development" 3 Juno 81
Image It looked for a while like Bateman was going to be a career TV actor; despite the occasional film ("Teen Wolf 2", anyone?), he bounced from one sitcom to another for two decades. His star rose with the cult hit "Arrested Development," which has led to bigger and bigger film roles. But recent efforts like Extract (a shockingly high 61) and Couples Retreat 23 have us wondering if he will be able to find material to match his talents.
Zach Braff "Scrubs" 3 Garden State 67
Image J.D. on "Scrubs" since 2001, Braff has had a quiet film career, highlighted so far by 2004's Garden State 67 (which Braff also wrote and directed), and followed by the disappointing Last Kiss 57 and The Ex 32.
Ed Helms "The Office", "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" 1 The Hangover 73
Image Like "Office" co-star Carell, Helms is a former "Daily Show" correspondent. After a number of minor roles, his breakthrough big screen opportunity came in the 2009 hit comedy The Hangover 73.
Kevin James "The King of Queens", "Everybody Loves Raymond" 3 Hitch 58
Image After almost a decade of playing delivery man Doug Heffernan on two different CBS sitcoms, James landed a pair of big-screen starring roles, in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry 37 and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 39. Neither was good; both made a lot of money.
John Krasinski "The Office" 4 Away We Go 58
Image Although he has been getting larger and larger film roles over the past five years, Krasinski's films have been middling at best, rarely earning good reviews. And, of his releases, only 2009's It's Complicated 57 has scored big at the box office (with $113 million).
Ashton Kutcher "That '70s Show" 13 The Guardian 53
Image Well, he's certainly a star. But -- at least as evidenced by a trail of yellow and red Metascores -- since making his acting debut on Fox's "That '70s Show," Kutcher has failed to star in a good movie, and it's not for a lack of trying. Yet several of his films have made decent money, and his starpower means that it's not inconceivable he could land a good project in the future.
Jason Segel "How I Met Your Mother", "Freaks and Geeks" 2 Forgetting Sarah Marshall 67
Image The likeable actor first appeared on the cult classic NBC series "Freaks and Geeks" before re-teaming with Judd Apatow in the equally short-lived "Undeclared." But it's on "How I Met Your Mother" where Segel has become known to a wider audience. 2008's Forgetting Sarah Marshall 67 -- a film that Segel also wrote -- was his first starring role on the big screen.

The Metascore is a weighted average of scores from top professional critics, on a scale from 0 (bad) to 100 (good). Box office averages reflect U.S. receipts only. All averages are for major roles only and exclude animated films for which the actor provided voice work. Metascore averages are calculated based only on those movies in Metacritic's database; some older movies may not be included. Source of box office grosses: Box Office Mojo.

It's your move

What TV sitcom actors would you like to see on the big screen? Which of the actors above made the right decisions? Let us know in the comments section below.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (16)

  • Joanie  

    I think many soap opera stars should at least be considered for the big screen. I have watched many actors fail, especially younger, less experienced actors not do well. For instance: many Nicholas Sparks movies from his novels would be at a higher level if they used experienced soap opera stars ( they are well known and good actors ). How about Joshua Morrow from the Young and Sharon Case? Ron Moss and Kelly and the gal who plays Bridget ( all beautiful people with talent). I also like Sasha Alexander ( beautiful gal with screen presence and big dimples.) Where has she been lately? Dear John and The Last Song and maybe the next to be a movie Safe Haven. They would have been better received ( both critically and financially ). So many good actors on TV. Miriska Hargity is another.

  • Jordan  

    what about will ferrell?

  • lunn  

    i'm pretty sure brad pitt also was in sitcoms before films : i tihnk he was in dallas

  • Rob  

    No Seth Rogen or James Franco? They were in Freaks & Geeks long before their movie careers began - both have had huge successes since then.

  • Marc Doyle  

    At some point, I'd also love to see a discussion on established movie stars transitioning to TV. Glen Close going to "Damages" was a genius move, for example. I don't think anyone considers that a step down.

  • Stephen  

    Pretty sure Galaxy Quest w/ Tim Allen came out in 99, not 90.

  • Chad S.  

    Showtime's "The Comeback" ranks among the best shows that cable television ever produced. It's about as scathing about the entertainment industry as Robert Altman's "The Player". What should have been a career high for Lisa Kudrow, probably made her unemployable to some extent, because the show was merciless in its criticism of the gatekeepers that run the whole show. Kudrow is a character actress the equal of Joan Cusack and Judy Greer, but doesn't work nearly enough.

  • mindsale  

    George Clooney's highest rated role was Fantastic Mr. Fox (83). Woody Harrelson's is No Country for Old Men (90).

  • axe  

    how about michael cera?

  • Evin Coronado  

    I can only vouch for Bateman, Braff, Segel, and Helms. They all have some kind of greatness leering around them. Especially Segel.

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