What happens when a bold, outrageous, successful comic wants to become a dramatic actor? The wild and crazy man becomes a serious and restrained personality. He becomes a much different personality. And when does he return to comedy?
Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Will Farrell, Richard Pryor, Adam Sandler and Steve Carrell all went serious, with mixed results. When they embrace their comedic gift, the high energy comes through like a fire hose. Eventually, they dial it down as they search for what they believe are meatier and meaningful roles.
That filter the crazy energy is filtered into measured tones. In unfamiliar drama, that person’s appeal largely changes. You enjoyed them when they were funny but do you like them now?
In earlier times, Jackie Gleason, Red Buttons, Joey Bishop, Sid Cesar, Milton Berle, Jerry
Lewis, all took turns as dramatic actors. There has always been a fine line between laughter and pathos.
Remember when Steve Martin went from The Jerk to The Spanish Prisoner; or Jim Carrey from The Mask to The Number 23; or Robin Williams from Mork to One Hour Photo; or Steve Carell from The Office to Foxcatcher? Outside of Foxcatcher, which is fairly recent, you might not have heard of those other dramatic films. Moving from comedy to drama is a gamble; sometimes it works, sometimes not.
Do these guys have a career plan or is it a more tactical approach based on film opportunities? I remember Steve Martin’s early films took advantage of his high energy and tendency to play to the camera, like he did as a stand-up comedian with the audience. His second starring role, a dramatic role in musical no less, Pennies From Heaven, was a major bomb. He quickly rebounded with films like Dead Men Wear Plaid, where he reined in his performance, mostly. His films were generally still comedies but rarely the broad, absurdly unbelievable characters of The Jerk. He became an actor; his characters gained more depth, vulnerability, and the stories more interesting. He still played silly characters in silly films the The Pink Panther, but more of his films had him playing real characters in funny situations, instead of silly characters in absurd situations.
The film career of Robin Williams is perhaps the most interesting of all. His first film, Popeye, greatly anticipated, was universally panned, and a huge bomb. His next six films were mostly comedies, that tried to capture some of his manic energy and ability to look sideways at the world, but nothing like the Popeye character. He was in search of his niche, capturing his brilliance within a believable character in a compelling story. In 1987, almost a decade after his introduction as Mork, he starred in Good Morning, Vietnam. The film blended his quick comedic delivery with a believable and engaging character. Bullseye. Two years later, he struck paydirt with Dead Poets Society, a role that resulted in an Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting. The following decade would provide meaningful dramatic roles mixed with much lighter fare. In 1997, he was awarded an Academy Award for his role in Good Will Hunting. Toward the end of his life he grabbed at a succession of films that alternated between serious, psychological characters to very lightweight films. His film output in his last decade was incredible, but with only a few films worthy of his talent. It was easy to see him veer toward serious, psychologically wounded characters, the flipside of his funny, manic character. In my view, he stayed with these dark characters too long, instead of checking the box as a role performed, he frequently returning to these characters, again and again. Audiences stayed away.
Steve Carell seems to have a strategic career arc in choosing his roles. He can dial it up, turn it down, or drive carefully between the lines. If you have seen Dan in Real Life or Last Flag Flying, you get a subdued, almost aching performances. In the Anchorman or Get Smart films you get the craziness, off the wall characters. And then in Foxcatcher you get a very effective creepiness; a role for which he wears heavy prosthetic makeup and is almost unrecognizable.
Many of the successful comedians come up through the ranks of standup comedy or come from the ranks of shows like Second City and Saturday Night Live. Chevy Chase did it first, then Bill Murray, John Candy and many others followed. Some do it well, others make a few films and struggle to right their career. Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Tim Allen and many others have come from standup to star in their own sitcoms and then move into film or like Seinfeld, back to standup and other career paths like his Netflix cars and coffee show.
Bill Murray climbed the ladder from oddball (Caddyshack) to low budget starring roles (Meatballs) to meaty supporting roles (Stripes) and then Ghostbusters. Jackpot. To star in Ghostbusters he got the studio to bankroll his first dramatic roll, The Razor’s Edge – a huge bomb. But Bill Murray survived, rebuilt his momentum and has erected a crazy quilt career of starring and supporting roles, and doing so successfully with his “I don’t care” attitude. It works because everyone wants to work with him.
The road from comedy to “serious acting” easy for some, difficult for others. Why does a successful comedic personality suddenly want to be seen through a completely different lens? Is comedy not a serious art form or is there a deeper respect that comes with harnessing a different emotions? Is it worth risking your audience and exposing insufficient acting skills? Adam Sandler spent several decades portraying one-note characters, and built a successful production company doing it. On occasion he stepped into more “normal” roles, but he returned to mugging his way through “Grown Ups” and other films that squandered whatever acting capital he had built. Sitting on a huge financial portfolio, I doubt he is concerned.
A line from My Favorite Year: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”
Some say the reverse is true.