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Old 02-13-2020, 10:39 AM
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Actors who started out as "serious" and then became better known for comedy


How many actors can you think of who began their careers playing serious dramatic roles, but then drifted into comedic ones, to the point where they are today remembered primarily as "funny" actors?

The big one that I can think of is Christopher Walken. When he first became famous, he was clearly on the career path of "serious actor playing serious roles", cast in a succession of films where he portrayed brooding, intense, psychologically troubled guys. Even his character in Annie Hall is a deeply disturbed individual, though it's used for comedic effect in that case. These roles continued basically up until the 90s. But at some point they clearly realized that Christopher Walken's mannerisms are hilarious, and that he would be better served in comic performances (and maybe that's what he wanted to do all along, but couldn't get the roles - I don't know.) His many turns on SNL cemented this. In the final analysis it seems that Walken is best known today for comedy, and is an iconic figure of weird/quirky humor.

Who else has followed the same trajectory?

Edit - Samuel L. Jackson would also qualify, right?

Last edited by Lamoral; 02-13-2020 at 10:43 AM.
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Old 02-13-2020, 10:41 AM
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Leslie Nielsen, full stop.
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Old 02-13-2020, 10:54 AM
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Peter Graves started out in Westerns and then starred in the TV series Mission: Impossible. Later on, he played Captain Over in the Airplane! comedy films. And don't call me Shirley!
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Old 02-13-2020, 10:58 AM
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Originally Posted by KneadToKnow View Post
Leslie Nielsen, full stop.
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Originally Posted by zimaane View Post
Peter Graves started out in Westerns and then starred in the TV series Mission: Impossible. Later on, he played Captain Over in the Airplane! comedy films. And don't call me Shirley!
Pretty much 80 percent of the cast of "Airplane!" fits this category.
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Old 02-13-2020, 11:07 AM
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I saw Paul Reiser as an evil corporate bureaucrat in Aliens before I ever saw him in anything funny.

My first and strongest impression of Angela Lansbury was as the evil communist mole in The Manchurian Candidate. I'm not sure that her later work should be defined as "comedy," but it certainly strikes me as much more lighthearted.

Last edited by divemaster; 02-13-2020 at 11:08 AM.
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Old 02-13-2020, 11:12 AM
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Alec Baldwin, arguably.
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Old 02-13-2020, 11:15 AM
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I get tickled seeing Jon Hamm in comedy roles, but I see his early career was a mix of drama and comedy, so he probably doesn't fit perfectly.
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Old 02-13-2020, 11:17 AM
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Lloyd Bridges - Jeff Bridges had to argue that he could do drama to get him in Blown Away as the Producers only knew him from his comedy roles. They didn't think he could do drama!
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Old 02-13-2020, 11:28 AM
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Originally Posted by Acsenray View Post
Pretty much 80 percent of the cast of "Airplane!" fits this category.
True, though Nielsen, in particular, is the one who clearly transistioned from being a serious actor to a comic actor after appearing in Airplane!
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Old 02-13-2020, 11:32 AM
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Robert De Niro looked like he as headed in that direction. He doesn't strictly do only comedies but he sure seems to be light and breezy compared to the De Niro of decades past.
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Old 02-13-2020, 11:38 AM
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Robert De Niro looked like he as headed in that direction. He doesn't strictly do only comedies but he sure seems to be light and breezy compared to the De Niro of decades past.
DeNiro is the first one I thought of for the OP.

And along those lines there's Joe Pesci. From "Raging Bull" to..."My Cousin Vinny", but then "Goodfellas", "Casino", etc.. thrown in just to mix things up.
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Old 02-13-2020, 11:44 AM
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William Shatner. Shakespearean actor, first captain of the Enterprise. Then he did a sketch on Saturday Night Live lambasting Trekers (You people need to get a life) and was casted as the Big Giant Head on 3rd Rock From the Sun, where they told him to play it "as loose as you can." Lead to Boston Legal.

Trivia time: Shatner was cast on 3rd Rock mostly so they could use this line of dialog:

Dick: How was your light?
BGH: Horrible. I kept seeing this monster on the plane's wing.
Dick: The same thing happened to MMMMMMMMEEEEEEEEEE!!!!

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Old 02-13-2020, 11:44 AM
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True, though Nielsen, in particular, is the one who clearly transistioned from being a serious actor to a comic actor after appearing in Airplane!
Fun fact: Sir Christopher Lee was offered the role of Dr. Rumack in Airplane, but turned it down. He was a little gun-shy about appearing in another wacky comedy after the spectacular failure of Spielberg's 1941. He later said he regretted doing so. It all worked out for the best because it showcased Leslie Nielsen's great comedic talent, but one can't help but wonder how Sir Christopher would have done it...and what it might have meant for HIS career afterward...
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Old 02-13-2020, 11:45 AM
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Nielsen, Baldwin, and De Niro were the first ones I thought of.

Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn't totally fit, but he's not completely wrong either.
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Old 02-13-2020, 11:45 AM
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William Shatner. Shakespearean actor, first captain of the Enterprise. Then he did a sketch on Saturday Night Live lambasting Trekers (You people need to get a life) and was casted as the Big Giant Head on 3rd Rock From the Sun, where they told him to play it "as loose as you can." Lead to Boston Legal.

Trivia time: Shatner was cast on 3rd Rock mostly so they could use this line of dialog:

Dick: How was your light?
BGH: Horrible. I kept seeing this monster on the plane's wing.
Dick: The same thing happened to MMMMMMMMEEEEEEEEEE!!!!
My friend Alan says that Shatner's smartest career move was pretending he'd always been in on the joke.
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Old 02-13-2020, 12:21 PM
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Speaking of John Lithgow, he had mostly done musicals and dramatic roles until he was cast as Dick Solomon, where much of his work was as the smary straight man. Legend has it that when the casting the show, the question was asked "Who would be good as Dick?" and someone suggested Lithgow. He was interested, auditioned and cast without anyone else being considered.
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Old 02-13-2020, 12:43 PM
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Jack Elam. His early career was playing heavies -- the bad guy henchman of the main villain. He was a nasty looking guy with a beady-eyed stare and was one of the bad guys featured in the book The Heavies, an overview of the movie villains in the 50s.

Then in the 60s, he gained a bit of weight and started playing comic relief characters, starting with Support You Local Sheriff. He soon grew a beard and stuck to comic sidekicks and the like. He'd occasionally switch back to his bad guy persona, but usually in comedies where everyone would play off him.
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Old 02-13-2020, 12:49 PM
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Originally Posted by KneadToKnow View Post
Leslie Nielsen, full stop.
Yeah, while others have dabbled with comedy and drama, Nielsen made a hard turn to comedies after Airplane and never looked back. Take a look at his IMDB page before Airplane and after.
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Old 02-13-2020, 02:09 PM
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Pretty much 80 percent of the cast of "Airplane!" fits this category.
As I understand it, that was a deliberate choice; the filmmakers thought that casting serious dramatic actors in a screwball comedy would add to the absurdity. It would be like seeing Denzel Washington in an American Pie sequel.

Interesting to think that a filmmaker could achieve a similar subversion of expectations by casting Leslie Nielsen in a perfectly straight dramatic role, today.
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Old 02-13-2020, 02:26 PM
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Burt Reynolds
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Old 02-13-2020, 02:31 PM
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While his body of work isn't of a par with the other actors mentioned here, like Nielsen and DeNiro, I'll give a call-out to Chris Hemsworth.

Up until 2015, his roles were nearly always on the serious side, or in straight-up action roles, particuarly his appearances as Thor in the first two Thor films, and the first two Avengers films.

Then, someone in Hollywood must have figured out that the guy has comedy skills -- he started getting cast in more comedic roles (e.g., Vacation, Ghostbusters), and his later appearances as Thor (starting with the "Team Thor" video shorts, but particularly in Thor: Ragnarok) became substantially funnier.
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Old 02-13-2020, 02:51 PM
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Interesting to think that a filmmaker could achieve a similar subversion of expectations by casting Leslie Nielsen in a perfectly straight dramatic role, today.
At the casting meeting someone will likely bring up the fact that he is 94 years old and he's dead.
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Old 02-13-2020, 03:03 PM
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At the casting meeting someone will likely bring up the fact that he is 94 years old and he's dead.
And loving it.
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Old 02-13-2020, 03:12 PM
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Walter Matthau could be considered an early example. He was cast in serious roles for the first ten years of his career.
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Old 02-13-2020, 03:19 PM
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Christina Applegate was seriously terrible...in a comedy. She then went on to do comedy.
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Old 02-13-2020, 03:50 PM
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Michael Caine has lightened up quite a bit from his early work.
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Old 02-13-2020, 04:13 PM
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I will say, it was really odd for me the first time I saw Forbidden Planet. "Wow, that guy looks sort of like Leslie Nielsen. And he sounds exactly like him!".
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Old 02-13-2020, 05:25 PM
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On the female side, Jane Fonda started out doing frothy romcoms, then took a serious turn (and won two Academy Awards) and eventually worked her way back to older-woman romantic comedies.

Diane Keaton is more recognized for Annie Hall than she is for Reds.

The female Leslie Nielsen may be Candice Bergen. As a dramatic actress she was considered "stiff" with unfortunate comparisons to Charlie McCarthy. After dropping out of movies for several years, she scored big as a comic actress. Eventually she acknowledged she had picked up comic tips from Charlie McCarthy.
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Old 02-13-2020, 05:30 PM
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At the casting meeting someone will likely bring up the fact that he is 94 years old and he's dead.
He could do a remake of Weekend at Bernie's
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Old 02-13-2020, 06:40 PM
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Joanna Lumley. She started off in 1970's spy thriller roles like New Avengers and Sapphire and Steel. Then she did a spot on some comedy show - I forget what, now - as an oblivious twit wrapped round a bottle of wine, and was so hilarious at it that she got to reprise the role for about a decade as Patsy in Ab Fab
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Old 02-13-2020, 06:58 PM
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As I understand it, that was a deliberate choice; the filmmakers thought that casting serious dramatic actors in a screwball comedy would add to the absurdity.
That's what I heard too. Or to elaborate more, the brilliance of Airplane! is that they cast serious actors, put them in this ridiculous situation, and had them act like it was completely serious (and don't call me Shirley).

ETA: And since Airplane! came out the year I was born, I pretty much only knew Leslie Nielsen for his comedies. I didn't even realize he had been known as a serious actor until he died. And that makes me wonder if there's some humor in Airplane that I've missed all these years that older people get.

Last edited by WildaBeast; 02-13-2020 at 07:02 PM.
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Old 02-13-2020, 07:33 PM
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I saw Paul Reiser as an evil corporate bureaucrat in Aliens before I ever saw him in anything funny.
Doesn't really fit the OP - Reiser started as a standup before moving into acting, and his first major-ish role was in Beverly Hills Cop...Aliens was his second. So he's always been in a combination of serious and comedic roles.

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The female Leslie Nielsen may be Candice Bergen. As a dramatic actress she was considered "stiff" with unfortunate comparisons to Charlie McCarthy. After dropping out of movies for several years, she scored big as a comic actress. Eventually she acknowledged she had picked up comic tips from Charlie McCarthy.
Man, that picture...it looks like a scene from a horror movie, just before Charlie pushes Candace down the stairs. (Also, she apparently really resented Charlie, since her dad gave 'him' more attention than her.)
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Old 02-13-2020, 09:09 PM
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And since Airplane! came out the year I was born, I pretty much only knew Leslie Nielsen for his comedies. I didn't even realize he had been known as a serious actor until he died. And that makes me wonder if there's some humor in Airplane that I've missed all these years that older people get.
If you don't appreciate the brilliance of casting Barbara Billingsley, then there's a lot of humor in Airplane! you missed.
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Old 02-13-2020, 09:32 PM
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There are a number of actors like Chuck Norris, who played serious roles so unconvincingly, people started to laugh at them. Maybe also Anthony Quinn, Charles Bronson. I think Lee Marvin started doing some light roles.
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Old 02-13-2020, 11:28 PM
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Speaking of John Lithgow, he had mostly done musicals and dramatic roles until he was cast as Dick Solomon, where much of his work was as the smary straight man. Legend has it that when the casting the show, the question was asked "Who would be good as Dick?" and someone suggested Lithgow. He was interested, auditioned and cast without anyone else being considered.
I fondly remember his role as Dr. Emilio Lizardo in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, which is definitely comedic. That being said, he was better known at the time for his serious supporting role in Footloose earlier that year (1984), so that wouldn't disqualify him for this thread.
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Old 02-14-2020, 02:28 AM
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I wanna say Martin Landau, but I haven't seen enough of his films to be sure. I've seen him onscreen many times, of course, but I really started paying attention to him in Ed Wood. He was also in Crimes and Misdemeanors, and those two are his only (dark) comediic roles that I recognize, although his IMDB credits (again, the ones I recognize) suggest that he did a lot more comedy later in his career. Brilliant actor.
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Old 02-24-2020, 09:41 AM
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While James Earl Jones is thought of as a serious actor, he is always great at comedy. Big Bang summed it up perfectly (to paraphrase)

You're not funny, James
Then why are people laughing?
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Old 02-24-2020, 10:12 AM
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Harry Morgan had a long series of serious roles, including lots of cowboys and cops (I mean, Dragnet is as straitlaced as it gets), before joining M*A*S*H. After that he started picking up lighter roles in Disney films.
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Old 02-24-2020, 10:57 AM
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I think Charlie Sheen qualifies. Early on he was known mostly for heavy dramas like Platoon and Wall Street. Then starting with Major League he began doing comedies. The middle part of his career was a mix. His later career has been dominated with TV sitcoms.

*I’m not counting Ferris Bueller since that was little more than a cameo.

Last edited by Loach; 02-24-2020 at 10:58 AM.
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