Sure, there were exceptions — actors like Columbo’s Peter Falk and Rockford Files’ James Garner, who made lucrative livings as cinematic character actors, or like St. Elsewhere’s Denzel Washington and Moonlighting’s Bruce Willis, who were just too big, too charismatic, too clearly Movie Stars for the tiny box to hold. But the ground was littered with actors like Tom Selleck, Don Johnson, Harry Hamlin, and Dana Delaney who tried and failed to cash in small-screen stardom for big-screen dreams — and they were the ones who were polite enough to make those stabs during hiatus, or after their shows went off the air. God forbid a Shelley Long (or, later, David Caruso or Rob Morrow) have the temerity to walk away from her hit show altogether; you could smell the schadenfreude when television actors failed on the big screen, the gleeful coverage of their failures serving as a sharp reminder that TV is JV, and those who think themselves above it must be slapped down to earth.
But then, somewhere down the line, this delineation shifted. It’d be easiest to trace it to George Clooney, but who’re we kidding — he’s of the Washington/Willis ilk, and the rest of that cast (even talents like LaSalle, Edwards, and Marguiles) stuck to TV. Yet right around the turn of the century, members of deep-benched ensemble shows like The West Wing, The Sopranos, and Arrested Development started showing up with increasing regularity on film. Now, using TV as a farm league for the majors of the movies is the norm — not just on indie flicks like About Alex (which also features Parenthood’s Jason Ritter, Suburgatory’s Jane Levy, and Mindy Project semi-regular Max Minghella), but also on such blockbusters as Godzilla (starring Bryan Cranston), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (co-starring Sebastian Stan and Cobie Smulders), and the year’s highest-grossing movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, fronted by Parks and Rec supporting player Chris Pratt (who also leads the TV-heavy voice cast of the year’s third biggest grosser, The LEGO Movie).
But most tellingly, it’s become a two-way migration. It used to be perceived as a giant failure for a film star to end up “slumming it” on TV (anybody else remember the gleeful cackles that accompanied not just David Caruso’s CSI: Miami gig, but also Michael Hayes, the failed one-season show before it?). Now, nobody bats an eye when Clive Owen does The Knick, or Anna Faris stars on Mom, or Maggie Gyllenhaal leads The Honourable Woman, or Billy Bob Thornton turns up on Fargo — and following Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson to True Detective has proven a more desirable gig than any movie we’ve heard about recently.
The logic, for these actors, is clear: whatever Oscars and accolades are accumulated by Dallas Buyers Club or Mud, McConaughey’s never gonna get a role as juicy as Rust Cohle on film, and he (and everyone else) knows it. Take a look at the movies Owen, Farris, Gyllenhaal, and Thornton had put out just before their TV turns. As the specifications for what mainstream movies are willing to do (and can do well) narrow, it’s become clear that for actors interested in crafting characters and exploring ambiguities (rather than running in front of green screens), the medium of choice has shifted — and for filmmakers seeking to fill out their casts, all the old rules are off.