One of the most famous actors to make the transition is Tom Hanks. He started his career on the sitcom Bosom Buddies. It’s odd to picture the star of Philadelphia and Saving Private Ryan in a show about men who dresses up in drag in order to stay at a cheap motel. Initially he was cast in similar themed movies like Splash and Bachelor Party but once he received an Oscar nomination for Big he was able to get better roles. He’s one of the few actors right now who can seamlessly go from serious dramas to lighter comedies.
Alan Alda is not as prolific as Hanks, but has had a respectable career. He has been able to be in romantic comedies like Same Time, Next Year and then dramas like The Aviator. His best on-screen role is a bit of a combination as he plays the pretentious producer in Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Without that potential to break away from a certain genre, an actor could be pigeonholed. That’s not always a bad thing though. Dick van Dyke was hysterical in his show and then was able to use that charisma in larger ventures like Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
A lot of actors who get constant film work are the ones who rise up from sketch comedy shows. Ever since they left Saturday Night Live Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell have been able to star in their own movie just about every year. All of them (sometimes undeservingly) end up becoming box office successes. This allows them to be able to take part in their independent film ventures (Punch Drunk Love and Melinda and Melinda respectably). Jim Carrey had this career for most of the 90s and had a longer run than Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd but he can’t seem to make the box office numbers that he once used to.
One of the more surprising transitions has been from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He was good on Third Rock From the Sun, but never note-worthy. Yet in the past few years, he’s grown to be one of the best actors of his age. His performances in Mysterious Skin, Brick, and 500 Days of Summer are shockingly powerful. It’s as if he if he’s a completely different actor.
Another actor who started off young on TV was Kristen Bell. Unlike Gordon-Levitt though her performance as Veronica Mars was heavily acclaimed. Sadly she hasn’t had that same sort of response with her roles in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Couples Retreat, and When In Rome. Still those movies have established her squarely as safe participant for major roles.
He isn’t a box office star or anywhere close, but I’ve been consistently impressed by Lee Pace. He was a featured character in the short-lived show Wonderfalls and the lead in the wonderful Pushing Daisies. Between shows he’s been in movies like The Fall, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and A Single Man. He has the potential to have a career like Edward Norton or Johnny Depp as a mainstream character actor. Unfortunately I don’t think the upcoming Marmaduke will start that type of career.
There are a few actors now who are taking advantage of their current television successes. Matthew Fox, of LOST fame, has been able to be in movies like We Are Marshall, Vantage Point, and Speed Racer. They are not award winning films but they are prominent roles and only one of them involves a plane crash.
Ever since Mad Men has wowed everyone who has seen a single episode, Jon Hamm has been one of the most requested actors. He will soon be in Shrek Forever After, Ben Affleck’s The Town and Zack Synder’s Sucker Punch. Hopefully will also catch on that Hamm is surprisingly hysterical and get him to headline a comedy.
So it’s not an impossible task as these actors have broken through. It has helped that television is a more respected medium, as the quality of shows have been especially strong recently. Also it helps that these actors are especially strong.