A transition to television grows in appeal for film stars

“Do TV and no one will ever take you seriously again.”

If viewers were asked to explain why they laughed at this line, spoken by ultra conservative network executive Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock, the most common response would likely be along the lines of: “Because it’s true.”

Entertainment crossover · The legendary comedian Danny DeVito (right), of Twins and Matilda, is one of many actors making the leap from film to television. His series on FX, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, is currently in its seventh season and is lined up for an eighth. - Photo courtesy of FOX Flash

Context certainly plays a role in understanding the joke. Though Donaghy might have spoken the words, it was an Academy Award-nominated actor — Alec Baldwin — who delivered the line.

Like an ever-growing list of his peers currently working in television, Baldwin was once principally known for his work in film before falling into the role he might very well be remembered for. After racking up impressive credits, such as The Hunt for Red October and The Departed, Baldwin’s dramatic acting chops seemed to have been fairly well established and his eligibility to work in film assured. So why move to television?

For starters, it’s not at all clear that everyone feels that the transition from big to small screen is necessarily a downgrade. If the number of movie stars currently moonlighting on TV is any indication, the “de-stigmatization of television” appears to be in full effect, if not complete.

I didn’t take notice of the trend until ABC’s Brothers & Sisters, which ended last year, showcased Oscar-winner Sally Field in a leading role in every episode of its five-season run, but the signs are everywhere.

Kathy Bates, who received a best actress statue for her turn as crazed fan Annie Wilkes in Misery, is now ex-patent lawyer Harriet Korn in Harry’s Law on NBC. Danny DeVito, best known to our generation as the indifferent father in Matilda and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s brother in Twins, stars in FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Jessica Lange, co-star of Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie, recently completed a scene-stealing first season as Constance Langdon in American Horror Story, also on FX.

The list goes on. But it wasn’t until one of the greatest living actors, Dustin Hoffman, settled into a regular role as career gambler Chester “Ace” Bernstein on HBO’s horseracing drama Luck that many began to feel that the transition was officially complete. With Rain Man himself doing TV, any lingering feelings of supremacy film actors might have felt toward their television counterparts flew out the window.

Getting to the root cause of the rampant crossovers we’ve seen in recent years requires more than one explanation, but in Hoffman’s case, taking a chance on Luck wasn’t much of a risk at all: With NYPD Blue and Deadwood creator David Milch spearheading the series as writer and executive producer, the quality of the show was all but assured.

It’s no coincidence that, like Hoffman, many small screen converts made a premium cable network the first stop on their migratory pattern. Character actor Steve Buscemi’s first consistent TV role was on The Sopranos on HBO, the same network on which he now headlines Boardwalk Empire. Similarly, Showtime boasts big-name actors such as Claire Danes, Don Cheadle and Laura Linney on Homeland, House of Lies and The Big C, respectively.

Premium channels’ brand identities are completely dependent on the quality of their programming and originality of their content — and they better be, if they expect customers to pay a premium in excess of their usual cable bills. But the quality writing and storytelling meant to attract subscribers serves the double purpose of attracting great actors to the projects as well.

Another explanation (and one that’s not exclusive to premium networks) has to do with the unique challenge presented by the television format to actors primarily accustomed to the one-off nature of film. In movies, actors give a performance once — maybe a few times to get coverage, or if a picky director wants multiple takes — and are done with it.

Just like acting on stage, which offers the opportunity to explore a character’s nuances and to refine performances from one show to the next, acting for television offers an enticing opportunity to commit to a character that — unlike one in the theater — grows and evolves organically, from one episode to the next, one season after another. And, given the increasingly serialized nature of TV, the character arcs that actors can explore are increasingly meatier.

Thanks in large part to actors such as Baldwin, Macy, Field and Hoffman, the perceived stigma of television seems to finally be a thing of the past.

One appeal of acting on the small screen that you rarely hear discussed is the allure of a regular paycheck, week in and week out. Who knows? Someday soon you might even see Helen Mirren or Judi Dench hamming it up on the small screen — even the greatest of Dames has to eat too, you know.


Louis Lucero II is a senior majoring in environmental studies. His column “Small Screen, Big Picture” runs Tuesdays.