Great Film Actors Who Became Great TV Actors


Whenever we find out that one of our favorite film actors has taken a role on TV, we’re intrigued. Why trade Hollywood’s red carpets and big paydays for the weekly grind of a regular television schedule? While some thespians can’t resist a juicy role on premium cable, others embrace the small screen as a way to regain the cred they’ve lost after years of disappointing parts in terrible movies. In honor of Don Cheadle’s surprising — and delightful — decision to helm Showtime’s House of Lies, which premiered last night, we look at ten great film actors who became great TV actors.

Don Cheadle, House of Lies

When we think of Don Cheadle, we think of serious movies like Hotel Rwanda and Crash. On House of Lies, Cheadle is not only crossing over from film to TV, but trying out a relatively new genre: comedy. And guess what? He’s absolutely excellent as Marty Kaan, a powerful management consultant who uses the actor’s signature style and charisma to bend CEOs to his will.

Chloë Sevigny, Big Love

A downtown New York scenester since her teens, Sevigny was famously discovered by Harmony Korine in Washington Square Park during her senior year of high school. She went on to make her name in his controversial indie films, Kids and Gummo, before going mainstream — and earning an Academy Award nomination — in Boys Don’t Cry. After a career that’s seen her sticking mostly to serious and/or countercultural big-screen fare, it was surprising to see her commit to the role of a polygamous Mormon wife on HBO’s Big Love. But we’re sure glad she did; Sevigny’s selfish, manipulative, fundamentalist (and yet still somehow lovable) Nicki Grant was the show’s best character, and it took an actress of her subtlety to make her so riveting.

William H. Macy, Shameless

A theater actor by training, with a long New York theater resume to back it up, Macy transitioned to film in the ’80s, eventually becoming part of David Mamet’s core ensemble. Over the year’s he worked with directors including Woody Allen, the Coen brothers, and PT Anderson, racking up tons of major award nominations. But last year, Macy (who had been a popular guest star on Sports Night) gave TV a try on Showtime’s British import Shameless, and he was just the actor to bring nuance to the role of a self-obsessed alcoholic charged with the care of six kids.

Chevy Chase, Community

Yes, sure, we know — Chevy Chase got his start on Saturday Night Live, and had his own 1993 talk show that lasted a whopping five weeks. But the bulk of his work has been on film, where he ruled the ’80s in crowd-pleasing comedies like Caddyshack, Fletch, and the National Lampoon movies. His star had fallen substantially by the time he joined the cast of NBC’s Community, playing moist towelette magnate and certified creeper Pierce Hawthorne. He’s absolutely hilarious in the role, entirely redeeming himself after all the cheesy movies he’s starred in over the past 20 years.

Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock

Like Chase, Alec Baldwin cut his teeth on TV, with soap-opera roles that included a two-season stint on Knots Landing. But by the late ’80s, he’d busted out of that ghetto; a few year’s later he’d gone from Beetlejuice to Glengarry Glen Ross and becoming one of the most iconic A-listers of his generation. Although his career had hardly tanked by the time he joined the 30 Rock cast in 2006, the meme-worthy role of “executive superhero” and consummate 1%er Jack Donaghy certainly made him more culturally relevant (and funnier) than ever.

Glenn Close, The Shield and Damages

Known for playing a whole lot of tough-ass and/or crazy-ass ladies in movies like Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons, and Hamlet, Glenn Close was taking on some pretty uninspiring work by the time the mid-’00s rolled around. (Remember that 2004 Stepford Wives remake?) But she got her groove back on TV, playing an older (and far less unstable version) of the hard-as-nails characters she’s known for. She spent a season on The Shield, as drug-busting police captain Monica Rawling, before helming another FX drama, Damages, as take-no-prisoners litigator Patty Hewes. Unsurprisingly, the Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and wins haven’t stopped coming since.

Steve Buscemi, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire

From the late ’80s on, Steve Buscemi has been a welcome presence in independent film and auteur-level mainstream fare. He was the Coen brothers’ favorite weirdo, and Quentin Tarantino’s, too. We can’t think of anyone else who could have played Seymour in Ghost World. He’s even written and directed a few movies of his own, including the fantastic Trees Lounge. Buscemi dipped his toe into TV with a role as Tony Soprano’s ex-con cousin, Tony Blundetto, on The Sopranos. After that resounding success, he re-teamed with HBO and Sopranos executive producer Terence Winter for Boardwalk Empire — a part that finds him, like Cheadle in House of Lies, playing against type as a slick, womanizing politician/gangster.

Toni Collette, United States of Tara

We loved Toni Collette the first time we saw her, as an offbeat ugly duckling in the 1994 Australian film Muriel’s Wedding. The role rocketed her to international stardom, in movies ranging from The Sixth Sense to The Hours to the criminally underrated Japanese Story. (Our favorite Collette flick is Todd Haynes’ thinly veiled Bowie biopic Velvet Goldmine, which found her channeling Charles Foster Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander.) So who would have thought that the actress’s most showstopping role would be on a sitcom? In Showtime’s United States of Tara, Collette played a mother with dissociative identity disorder — meaning that she actually had to portray more than five characters, all filtered through the imbalanced brain of Tara Gregson.

Martin Sheen, The West Wing

No, you’re not going to see Charlie Sheen on this list. We’d rather honor his dad — and not just because Martin is the more likable of the two. Known for big performances in important movies (Badlands! Apocalypse Now! Wall Street!), Sheen committed to TV with a role we assume it would be difficult for any actor to pass up. As President Josiah Bartlett on The West Wing, he delivered one of the most complex and realistic presidential performances we’ve seen on the small or big screen. Conceived as a recurring player, Sheen was quickly upgraded to a series regular, and it’s easy to see why. Inspired partly by Bill Clinton, Josiah Bartlett is intelligent and paternal, but also somewhat inscrutable, with his fair share of flaws and fixations.

Jessica Lange, American Horror Story

We know, we know. Over the past few months, we’ve been totally obsessed with Jessica Lange’s Blanche DuBois-from-hell impression on American Horror Story. We realize that the show is divisive and that it annoys the crap out of some people. But we are pretty sure that, were those same people forced to watch only Lange’s scenes, they would have to admit that she is super-fun to watch in camp mode.