This weekend saw “Date Night” rocket to the top of the box-office, solidifying the future viability of Tina Fey and Steve Carell as theatrical attractions rather than stuck with bouncing from one TV show to another for the next fifty years. (Promoting the film, Fey returned to “Saturday Night Live” as some kind of new cultural hero).
Some TV legends — Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith — are perfectly content to stick to the tube, only occasionally attempting the odd supporting role on-screen. For others, though, the chance to capitalize upon years of mass exposure and go big-time is too hard to resist, whether or not it’s a good idea — it’s tricky to find time to film when you’re still working on a show, and it’s all too easy to fail in public no matter how many times you try to cross over. Here are seven who tried (and often succeeded) in breaking through to the other side.
Before Eastwood started incarnating the changing face of the American cowboy — from uncomplicated masculinity to anti-hero, interrogating his own persona as he went along — he had a trial run on “Rawhide,” the fifth-longest-running Western TV show of all time. As “Rowdy Yates,” Eastwood helped keep the cattle drive running in a fairly straightforward manner. He could speak quite articulately in the moment about how he was shifting the image of the cowboy in his movies. Total transition time from TV to cinema: under a decade. And while he was on “Rawhide,” Eastwood shared screen time with another, much less self-conscious future Tough Guy Star: Mr. Charles Bronson, who enters his guest appearance with the lines “You’re on my bridge, cowboy. Get off.”
Even while Travolta was warping teenage girls’ lives forever with his starring roles in “Grease” and giving the ’70s its ultimate image of disco-loving youth in “Saturday Night Fever,” he was slaving away as Vinnie Barbarino on “Welcome Back, Kotter,” Gabe Kaplan’s dysfunctional-classroom sitcom (though he did leave at the end of the third season). Travolta’s main function was to be a lovable Italian-American goofball, running around singing his personal theme song (“Barbara Ann,” reworked with his last name repeated multiple times) — an image that somehow didn’t constrain Travolta’s choice of parts when he moved into film (even though the line between the show and “Fever” was pretty direct). Despite the show being the creation of star Gabe Kaplan — who based it on his own experiences as a public school teacher — Travolta was the break-out hit, though it was Kaplan who released a novelty single based off Barbarino’s big catchphrase. Presenting “Up Your Nose With A Rubber Hose,” the song.
No fool he, Tim Allen didn’t really want to transition from TV to film as he wanted to rule the entire world and hang on to all parts of the market for as long as possible; one weekend in 1994, he had the number one show (“Home Improvement”), number one book (his memoir “Don’t Stand Too Close To A Naked Man”) and movie (“The Santa Clause”) in the country — not bad for a guy whose range was limited to grunting, scratching himself and projecting immense self-satisfaction and cluelessness. If the “Santa Clause” franchise proved to be a surprisingly reliable cash cow for multiple installments, it’s worth noting that Allen’s only significant post-“Improvement” role was as a self-loathing, hard-drinking actor past his prime in “Redbelt” — a mentality former coke trafficker Allen can surely understand.
Clooney toiled in TV for nearly 20 years before he finally became a star — although now, to be fair, his mostly idiosyncratic choices of roles mean he tends to make more headlines than his actual movies — like his “Ocean’s” co-star Brad Pitt, he’s often more famous than for his work (much of which is quite good). That means his back catalogue is full of turns that, in retrospect, make selected episodes of mildly beloved TV shows more interesting — it’s hard to remember that the suavest star we have did time on many shows as more-or-less a working schmo. He played Roseanne’s diner boss, a carpenter on “The Facts of Life,” and a cop not too smooth with the ladies on “The Golden Girls” — which in retrospect is just as unlikely as his would-be prole fisherman in “The Perfect Storm.”
Until finding a home on “CSI: Miami” as an obnoxious detective whose one-liners make ’80s Schwarzenegger look like the height of Noel Coward-esque wit, “David Caruso” was synonymous with “cautionary tale about leaving television for film.” If four seasons seems like a reasonable amount of time to raise one’s profile while making movies on the side — that’s how long Johnny Depp, say, toiled on “21 Jump Street” — Caruso left four episodes into the second season of “NYPD Blue,” only to brick twice (with “Kiss of Death” and “Jade”), lapse into the direct-to-DVD realm, and finally return back to TV, tail between his legs. This time, at least, he has much better sunglasses, and has been used as one of the better odd references/punchline in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” when Steve Carrell instantly understands this useful advice for picking up women: “Be David Caruso in ‘Jade.'”
Sarah Jessica Parker
Television worked for SJP twice: first for her one season on the ’80s show “Square Pegs” that got her career moving, then when “Sex and the City” revitalized her career, which had come down to spinning her wheels in supporting player parts. Not that Parker ever particularly asked to be ubiquitous — but yes, appearing in one of the most heinously influential shows of the last 20 years achieved that. (At a recent screening of “Ed Wood,” the audience laughter at her line “Do I really have a face like a horse?” seemed more than a little resentful and fed-up.) Parker went from embodying Modern Woman (or one very weird incarnation of it anyway) to, now, a series of bland rom-com roles that seem designed to undo everything that made her on-screen incarnation distinctive and different. But hey, everyone needs work. Then again, even as early as “Ed Wood,” there was something about Parker that made filmmakers want to cast her as a self-consciously normative woman just to tweak her; what she puts up with before walking away from Wood is pretty unbelievable.
Out of all the people on the ubiquitous mediocrity that was “That ’70s Show,” Topher Grace was clearly the sharpest one, with the best timing. If anyone should’ve attained crossover success, it was him. Instead, the world was primarily graced with Mr. Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher. Grace’s career gamble was to hope his role in “Spider-Man 3” would help blow him up, but his creditable turn as Venom got lost inside the multiple completing plots and storylines, and his career’s never quite recovered. He’s a leading man trapped inside the roles of a sarcastic bit player. It’s too bad 2004’s “P.S.” wasn’t a better movie; that Grace could hold his own against Dennis Quaid in “In Good Company” was one thing, but that he could have an affair with Laura Linney without getting eaten alive was kind of amazing.
[Photos: “Date Night,” 20th Century Fox, 2010; “Rawhide,” 1959-65, Paramount; “Welcome Back, Kotter,” Warner Home Video, 1975-79; “Home Improvement,” ABC, 1991-99; “Roseanne,” Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1988-97; “CSI: Miami,” CBS, 2002-present; “Square Pegs,” Sony Pictures Television, 1982; “That ’70s Show,” 20th Century Fox, 1998-2006]