In a move pretty much no one could have predicted, Bryan Cranston — who played the goofy but lovable dad, Hal, on long-running sitcom Malcolm in the Middle — underwent one of the most drastic transformations in TV history by tackling the role of Walter White on Breaking Bad. Once known for haplessly trying to wrangle his brood of mischief-making sons into some state of normalcy, Cranston re-emerged almost unrecognizable as the increasingly desperate White, a chemistry teacher turned crystal-meth dealer who goes steadily over the edge after a terminal-cancer diagnosis. And while Malcolm earned Cranston numerous Emmy nods, it’s Breaking Bad that finally snagged him the trophy — three years in a row.
Click through below for a roll call of more two-time television superstars »
David Duchovny The X-Files and Californication
As Agent Fox Mulder on The X-Files, David Duchovny was the face of one of the most iconic characters to grace the small screen. It’s the kind of thing that could have been a career killer, and indeed, Duchovny’s profile was pretty low for a few years following the sci-fi series’ finale. However, in a complete about-face, he returned to the tube in 2007 as Hank Moody, the sex-obsessed, self-destructive, drug and alcohol-abusing main character of Californication. Moody is a far cry from Mulder, whose sexual repression was often a running joke on The X-Files, but somehow Duchovny has been perfect for both parts. Californication has already aired four seasons, with a fifth on the way.
Courtney Cox Friends and Cougar Town
For the cast of Friends, mega-success proved to be a double-edged sword. While none of them have found themselves out of work following the end of the show, it’s also been a struggle for them to find the same level of success they enjoyed as NYC’s most internationally loved group of single pals. With Cougar Town, however, Courtney Cox struck TV gold for a second time, shrugging off her role of Monica on Friends to become Jules Cobb, a divorced mom struggling to get back into the dating game in her 40s. While initially considered a risky proposition, the show clicked with audiences, and returns for its third season this fall.
Joshua Jackson Dawson’s Creek and Fringe
To anyone endeared by the romantic, loveable Pacey Witter on Dawson’s Creek, it might have seemed a stretch that he would grow up to become a genuine badass. In fact, when Joshua Jackson first showed up as Peter Bishop on Fringe, it still required a little suspension of disbelief. However, by the time the first season was over, it was clear that Bishop wasn’t one to be messed with, despite being, like Pacey, genuinely good at heart. In the show’s third season, he fully became the focal point, not just for the other characters, but for the existence of the universe itself. The finale left his future in question, but whatever it is, we look forward to seeing him again when Fringe returns for its fourth season next month. Plus, as badass as he’s shown us he can be, Jackson hasn’t lost his sense of humor — or his love of Dawson’s Creek, as last year’s Pacey-Con stunt can attest to.
Scott Bakula Quantum Leap and Star Trek: Enterprise
Scott Bakula isn’t strictly limited to sci-fi — see his run on Men of a Certain Age, for example — but it’s been the area where he’s found his greatest success. As Dr. Sam Beckett, Bakula starred in one of sci-fi TV’s most original series, Quantum Leap, which found him “leaping” around through time following a physics experiment gone wrong. The genius of it was that it was only his consciousness that jumped, giving Bakula the chance to play everything from a woman to a dog (with mirror reflections used to reveal how everyone else saw him). As Captain Jonathan Archer, meanwhile, Bakula’s role was more straightforward, but he had far larger boots to fill, taking the lead in the latest series in the Star Trek franchise. The timeline of Star Trek: Enterprise predates even the original Star Trek series, setting Archer up as the first captain of a Warp 5 spaceship.
Bea Arthur Maude and The Golden Girls
While she is most familiar to younger viewers as Dorothy Zbornak, one quarter of The Golden Girls, Bea Arthur’s first major TV run came in the 1970s with Maude, a political comedy in which she played the titular lead, Maude Findlay. The show was a spinoff of All in the Family (whose star, Carroll O’Connor is also a contender for this list, as he led both that show as Archie Bunker, and police drama In the Heat of the Night as police chief Bill Gillespie), with Maude positioned as a counterpoint to Archie’s close-minded conservatism. Much like Arthur herself, the character was a proponent of liberalism, women’s rights, and progressive thinking. While Betty White has stolen the spotlight as the most recognizable Golden Girl these days, Arthur (who sadly passed away in 2009) still deserves just as much of our attention.
Richard Dean Anderson MacGyver and Stargate: SG-1
If you’ve seen the classic Simpsons episode dedicated to him, you already know Richard Dean Anderson has two very distinct fan bases. His initial fame came in the title role of MacGyver, in which he played the mulleted secret agent who could find his way out of any tricky situation using only the random materials he found on hand. The show ran for seven seasons, and has maintained its popularity thanks to continuing pop-culture references — especially the recurring SNL spoof MacGruber, in which Anderson himself made a hilarious cameo. However, he spent even longer running the show over on Stargate: SG-1, the first series in the Stargate franchise, on which he played Colonel (and, eventually, Major General) Jack O’Neill. Anderson starred in the series for eight seasons, after which he continued to make recurring appearances on that and subsequent Stargate shows, right up to the most recent, Stargate Universe.
Matthew Fox Party of Five and Lost
Before he was being accused of beating up bus drivers, Matthew Fox was beating up just about every other character on the already near-mythical island that served as the locale for Lost. Of course, as Dr. Jack Shepard, the show’s central character, he was also doing plenty of healing. But before that, he was Charlie Salinger, the unprepared family leader on Party of Five, forced to help raise his four younger siblings when their parents are killed in a car accident. Fox excels as portraying torn, damaged characters, who find themselves pulled in different directions by their desire to help others and their own personal demons. Perhaps there’s a real-life reason for that?
Michael J. Fox Family Ties and Spin City
To an entire generation, Michael J. Fox will always be Alex P. Keaton, the oldest son of the Keaton clan on Family Ties. (Or maybe he’ll always be Marty McFly, but we’re talking TV here.) Fox earned his star as everyone’s favorite ambitious Young Republican of the 1980s — pictured above with his on-screen siblings and the Muppets, from an imaginary episode we wish had really happened — but he returned to prime-time prominence with Spin City a decade later. He played New York Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty on the popular sitcom, which he only left after four seasons due to his untimely diagnosis with Parkinson’s Disease. As for who took over as Depty Mayor, it was none other than Charlie Sheen. The show was canceled two seasons later.
Alyssa Milano Who’s the Boss? and Charmed
We have to admit, we have a soft spot for Alyssa Milano, who won our hearts as the irrepressible Samantha Micelli on Who’s the Boss? The program was one of the most popular sitcoms in television history, remaining a favorite in syndication, and documented Milano’s growth from a child actor to adult roles (her character was in college by the time the series ended). Six years later, she re-emerged as a lead on Charmed, playing Phoebe Halliwell, one of four sisters in the modern world who also happen to be the latest descendents of a long line of good witches. As Phoebe, Milano possessed various powers throughout the series, from premonition to levitation, with her visions often being the impetus for the latest plotline. Charmed lasted for eight seasons, with Milano appearing in a staggering 178 episodes.
Garry Shandling It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show
Not only did Garry Shandling star in two of TV’s most progressive comedies, but he also reinvented the sitcom format — twice. With It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, the star played a version of himself, but unlike what Jerry Seinfeld would do shortly after, he (and all his co-stars) acknowledged the fact that they were on a TV set, often going so far as to involve the studio audience in the plot of the show. It was one of the most meta things to air at the time, only supplanted by Shandling’s follow-up, The Larry Sanders Show. The latter caused viewers to question reality with its documentary-style format, which took an inside look at a late-night talk show while splicing in footage from the extremely realistic talk show itself (also called The Larry Sanders Show). Also featuring Rip Torn, Jeffrey Tambor, Janeane Garofalo, and Jeremy Piven, it featured numerous big-name celebrity guests, and helped lay the foundation for the type of groundbreaking original cable programming HBO would continue to pioneer.
David Hasselhoff Knight Rider and Baywatch
It would be almost impossible to create a list like this without including the Hoff. These days, he’s reached celebrity-meme status numerous times over, and his phenomenal fame overseas remains one of the biggest mysteries of the modern age. However, we can’t deny how he got to where he is — it’s because the television-viewing population put him there, first with Knight Rider, and then with Baywatch. In the former, he played Michael Knight, a privately funded agent with the coolest car of all time. A talking car, that can do just about anything he wants it to. Which pretty much meant that every young boy on the planet was going to love this show. Ditto for Baywatch, but for very different reasons. Not that the ladies were left out: there was plenty of beefcake on display along with the beach’s scantily clad women, led by Hasselhoff himself. The standard slow-motion shots of lifeguards running through the sand are the biggest hint as to why this series lasted a logic-defying 11 seasons.
Larry Hagman I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas
Our last pick is both a television legend and a pop-culture icon twice over. In the 1960s, he was Major Tony Nelson, an astronaut who finds himself in possession of a very real genie-in-a-bottle on I Dream of Jeannie. Of course, the reality of having his every wish granted — crossed with his sense of duty and honor — is far from ideal, leading to five seasons worth of hilarious hijinks that remain engaging almost half a century later. But as recognizable as he was for that role, it was on Dallas that Hagman really tapped into the zeitgeist. The late-night soap opera was a major cultural touchstone of its era, and Hagman’s portrayal of oil man J.R. Ewing led to one of the biggest pop-culture phenomenons of the 1980s: the question on nearly everyone’s lips, “Who shot J.R.?” The mystery of the character’s shooting became a major source of speculation (with his life hanging in the balance) during an extended season break that resulted from both an actors’ strike and contract negotiations — and while it was finally resolved, the catchphrase remains a common reference to this day.
So, who else did we miss from our roundup? Who would you like to have seen here? Shatner? Bob Denver? Valerie Harper? Go ahead and hit us with your own picks (and reasoning) in the comments below. Just remember, we’re talking hit shows and lead roles here, so Scott Baio doesn’t count.