When televisions first appeared in living rooms around the world, there were movie stars and there were TV stars. The real Hollywood celebrities of the 1950s and '60s would never have even considered downsizing to a smaller screen. But today many actors have found a solid place on television, a chance to do quality work and to avoid becoming another whatever-happened-to actor that we've been writing about in this issue.
Legendary film actor James Caan has appeared in more than 70 movies. Some of these have changed the history of film forever, while others are best left forgotten. But Caan, now in his mid-60s, has recently come back to star in NBC's hour-long drama Las Vegas. Caan told The New York Times in a recent article, "I tell you, there's nothing like the power of the boob tube. Nothing. It's mind boggling. But sometimes it's 16 hours a day. I've never worked so hard. I'm not complaining. Look, if the show goes five years, we go into syndication. You can wheel me to my plane."
While Las Vegas hasn't quite hit the ratings jackpot yet, it's slowly acquiring a steady fan base, and Caan has received many accolades for his performance as "Big Ed" Melvin Deline, former CIA operative and head of the surveillance team for the Montecito Resort and Casino. In a 2003 interview, Caan told Back Stage West, "When I go to the movies or watch any TV show, the thing that keeps me there is unpredictability. That's what made certain stars really good, because every story's been told. The good guy wins. The bad guy loses. The guy gets the girl. You know what I mean?" He continued, "With this show we can be unpredictable every week. It can be about anything—kings, queens, senators, scam artists, killers. I mean, there's just no end to the variety, and my character is hopefully elastic enough. And, again, hopefully I'll resist the temptation of becoming lazy."
The West Wing has been a veritable hotbed for film actors who haven't been getting their fair share of screen time lately. Martin Sheen, John Spencer, Rob Lowe, and Allison Janney have rejuvenated their careers with West Wing, showing the depth and subtlety that comes with years of stage and screen experience. Sheen in particular—who prior to his stint as U.S. President Josiah Bartlet had not had a lead role since the 1995 film The American President (in which he ironically starred as the White House chief of staff)—seems to be a born leader. He's played generals, captains, and coaches for much of his career, but it has really been Sheen's performance on West Wing that has brought out his most commanding presence. As Bartlet, Sheen is everything you want a president to be: sympathetic but firm, cunning but not manipulative, forceful but not power-hungry.
Smaller, guest-starring parts on West Wing have also given many film actors a chance to appear in front of a broader audience. Moira Kelly, Stockard Channing, Tim Matheson, Marlee Matlin, Mary-Louise Parker, Oliver Platt (who went on to star in his own short-lived series, Deadline), Ron Silver, and Lily Tomlin have given superb performances. Far from gimmick casting, these actors have proven that there is room for thoughtful character study on television.
Anthony Michael Hall may always be remembered for Sixteen Candles, but he found new life, and a new fan base, when he agreed to star in USA's The Dead Zone. Hall said in a 2003 BSW interview, "One of the things that I am proud of about the show is that we've done many episodes where you're getting these little movies. I made a note to myself early last season to treat each episode like the biggest movie I've ever made. I sort of blurred that line, and I don't draw any distinctions between television and film acting. Fifteen years ago, there was a very different perception about acting on TV. It was, like, 'Ah ha, you've fallen, and you're on TV.' Now all the TV stars have film deals. But with this show, I've definitely grown as an actor. It's taught me a lot about what it's like to be a leading man."
Robert Downey Jr., riddled with a drug habit and a spotty work ethic, had a career boost when he appeared on the fourth season of Ally McBeal. Downey quickly became a key figure as the love interest for star Calista Flockhart, energizing the flagging series. The Downey-Flockhart chemistry made such an impact that Fox agreed to extend Downey's original eight episode deal. However, Downey's personal problems and numerous arrests eventually wore out series creator David E. Kelley's patience, and the actor was dropped. Still, Downey went on to star in several interesting independent films after the show, including The Singing Detective and Gothika.
Fellow bad boy James Spader also received critical acclaim when he agreed to join the cast of The Practice in its eighth season. Although Spader has appeared in countless independents such as Secretary and Crash, The Practice brought him recognition and critical praise not seen since Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Recently, Spader signed on to star in Fleet Street, a David E. Kelly spinoff series that will focus on civil law. The show is scheduled to debut in the fall.
Jennifer Beals, whose off-the-shoulder sweatshirt made her a star in 1983's Flashdance, was never able to re-create that success in the film world. She followed Flashdance with a string of bad choices, including The Bride, Split Decisions, and the mixed bag Vampire's Kiss. Then last fall Showtime unveiled its sexy lesbian drama, The L Word, and Beals had another chance to show her gutsy, spunky talent. As Bette Porter, Beals is both smart and entertaining, portraying a woman involved in a seven-year relationship who is desperate to find a suitable sperm donor for her partner. While The L Word has sparked some protests from the gay community for catering to audiences' standard lipstick-lesbian fantasy, the show has had solid ratings and is scheduled to air the second season in the fall.
Much like his father, Charlie Sheen has had a long and successful film career, so it came as a surprise when he agreed to replace Michael J. Fox on Spin City. While many assumed that Fox's departure would end the show, Sheen brought a new energy to the series, and he even won a Golden Globe for his performance as the charismatic deputy mayor of New York City.
Last year, Sheen signed on to star in Two and a Half Men, a comedy about a prosperous bachelor whose carefree lifestyle is interrupted when his uptight, recently divorced brother, Alan (Jon Cryer), and Alan's son, Jake (Angus T. Jones), come to stay with him. Sheen told Back Stage West of the show, "I don't look at television as a place I wound up. I'm thrilled to be here. There are things about it for me that are much more challenging than film. It's a lot more vulnerable, a lot more exposed. There's no place to hide out there onstage in the middle of a sitcom. It's a real opportunity to be courageous every week, to walk through certain fears and to not be afraid to be foolish. I go to films, especially comedies, and I'm thinking, "All right, I'm sitting here for an hour, and they haven't had a joke as good as what we had in the cold opening." He continued, "People talk about 'your brilliant decision to do television,' and it may appear like that, but I'm pretty much just going with opportunity, with what's available at the time. I get offered a lot of indies and a lot of sort of odd stuff, but it isn't odd enough or good enough to want to commit that much energy and time to."
This fall, Jeff Goldblum, who fell off the radar after the second Jurassic Park, will be starring in My 11:30, an NBC comedy about a shallow businessman and his tough-talking therapist. The two view each other as the ultimate challenge as Goldblum's character recounts the events from the past week, including run-ins with his ex-wife, son, business partner, and countless bad dates. Along with Goldblum, My 11:30 sports a supremely talented cast, including Connie Britton, Kathryn Hahn, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Donna Murphy; let's hope TV is a better friend to My 11:30 than it ever was to The Geena Davis Show. BSW