Acting singers vs. Singing actors

I just had this thought yesterday:

Why does it seem perfectly reasonable for a popular singer to decide to take up acting in film or television, but if a popular actor decides to record an album, it’s treated like some kind of joke? It’s like there’s a popular misconception that, while singers can act, actors can’t sing.

Today, you can look at YouTube and find numerous Top 10 videos of “hidden talents of celebrities”, and half of the entries are “hey, you won’t believe that this actor can sing!” In my own life, I can recall several times when an actor put out an album and people I knew just chuckled and said, “yeah, right” without bothering to actually listen to the music.

I have some theories:

The decline in popularity of musicals. Vaudeville led into radio, film, and TV, and since those old Vaudeville performers could “do everything”, that’s what we got in our “modern” entertainment. At some point, musical films fell out of favor and singing actors were relegated to Disney children’s fare or else retreated to the stage. Over time, the general public equated “musical” with “kid’s stuff”.

Crap like William Shatner’s and Leonard Nimoy’s “music” albums made a joke of the idea of an actor having a serious chance at a music career. Or that an actor making an album was nothing more than a money grab, trading on name recognition.

Early Hollywood was rife with stories (true or not) of random young women or men being spotted just sitting in a cafe, minding their own business, and getting whisked into movies. This created the spurious idea that a pretty/handsome face was all that was needed to get into acting. Meanwhile, musicians have always, to one degree or another, been expected to spend years “honing their craft” and “paying their dues”.

Musical performance already incorporates a good bit of acting/theatrics. A musical performer in many, if not most genres is expected to put on a visual performance along with the music. A singer, especially, has to create a stage “persona” that is often quite different from their off-stage persona. I think this helps to explain why so many rappers have gone on to pursue acting careers: almost every rapper has already created one or more “characters” for themselves, and so they’re already accustomed to playing a fictional character. Meanwhile, an actor doesn’t have to sing or play.


It depends. Ricky Nelson was a TV actor for years and started recording songs so they could be featured and promoted on the show. He’s in the rock and roll hall of fame.

There’s also the Monkees. They were hired as actors (and were not allowed to play on their records), but they’re respected now (and, really, were pretty well respected by musicians by the end of the TV show’s run).

Other actors also had serious singing chops, including Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach. No one laughed at their singing (though I don’t know if they recorded outside of cast albums).

To be fair, pop music has certainly had its share of random young men and women who were signed to recording contracts without much evidence that they’d “honed their craft” (see Fabian or, for that matter, Paula Abdul.)

This is probably it. Dreck like Don Johnson made it much harder to take decent singers like Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy seriously. It also didn’t help that by the 70’s, musical filmmakers were more concerned with star recognition than whether or not the actor could sing: witness Tommy, featuring the “talents” of Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson.

However, I disagree that it’s any easier for a popular singer to break into acting. People still make fun of Justin Timberlake’s appearance in The Social Network, even though I think he did a perfectly fine job.

Timberlake had been acting and getting praised for his performances for years before that.

I don’t recall any unfair criticism either way. There’s often criticism before the fact because so many performers aren’t very good at crossing over, and the bar may be set too high at times, but good and bad performances are generally rated appropriately.

I recently found out that Glenn Close was in Up With People. You Tube has several videos with her prominently featured. :cool:

Apparently she’s not very proud of this fact.

An interesting question.

Richard Burton was an okay singer in Camelot. Note his singing voice was almost identical to his speaking voice. The same is true of Laurence Olivier in The Beggar’s Opera.

In the past, opera singers have usually made mediocre actors (e.g. Nelson Eddy, Luciano Pavarotti, and a few others you can find on YouTube). That was generally okay in opera because the people who attend operas are most interested in the music.

The opera singers I know of who were better actors than the average opera singer are all women.

Maria Callas - never crossed over, but the few existing videos of her performances show her acting talents.

Patricia Neway - became the original Mother Superior in The Sound of Music and in 1967 played Nettie in a special television production of Carousel.

Anna Maria Alberghetti - a number of movie roles, and in the 60s had a very successful run in a production of Carnival (musical based on the movie Lili).

Due to the advent of operas on video where you have closeups (e.g. Met Live), singers who are better actors will be selected for those performances.

Even so, he’s often regarded as little more than stunt casting. Which unfortunately is common for famous singers, even if they began their career as stage actors, such as Meat Loaf Aday.

I thought Peter Boyle did dome pretty good singing in Young Frankenstein.

Seeing Jello Biafra in Terminal City Ricochet put the triple X in exxxecrable.

Dennis Wilson and James Taylor did a fine job, though, in Two Lane Blacktop.

Funny, then, that many people (mistakenly) think that singing is somehow more difficult than acting. Seven trillion variables enter into such a “more difficult than” equation, so blanket comparisons would be misguided.

I was ok with Tom Waits in Down By Law.

Shatner’s album with Ben Folds is fucking brilliant

I think it’s because music is perceived as being “authentic”, while acting is “make-believe.” Singers, at least in the rock-pop-folk tradition, are supposed to be singing what’s in their heart. It’s not a role, not a persona - which means that when an actor sings, they’re obviously faking authenticity, because actors are by definition liars. Conversely, when singers pretend to be actors, that’s perfectly OK, because acting *is *pretending.

Interestingly, that also means that the singers who make the best actors are usually the least “authentic” singers, the ones with carefully-manufactured singing personas. They’re mostly actors to begin with.

Personally, I don’t really distinguish between singers and actors; they are both performers. And they all got their start in the same place: high school musicals. And then they progressed from there. Some happened to get more work (and renown) from acting jobs, others from singing jobs. But they all learned a bit about both along the way.

Same goes for dancing.

Keep in mind that I’m asking about the public perception, not objective facts.

Terry Pratchett had an interesting take on that in Maskerade, the Discworld novel that spoofed The Phantom of the Opera. Paraphrasing, since I don’t have it at hand: “The difference between a musical and an opera is that, in a musical, the songs are there to move the story along, while in an opera the story is just there to get to the next song.”

It could be that music is seen as a more “tangible science” (it’s largely mathematics), while acting is perceived as “ephemeral theory”.

This makes me wonder if the perception is a Judeo-Christian cultural thing. As a history buff, I’m aware that in Medieval/Renaissance Europe, actors were looked down upon, and in some places and times the performance of plays was banned, or at least discouraged/protested by certain Church factions. The reasons boiled down to, “acting is lying”. It didn’t help that many early plays acted out stories from Greek or Roman mythology and were thus “pagan”. Meanwhile, a composer could compose just about anything and dedicate it “to the Glory of God”.

Two words:

Will Smith

However, Close is proud to have played the lead in the Broadway version of Sunset Boulevard. She happily sings songs from it when asked.

Steve Martin was first successful as a comedian/actor; these days, he releasing Grammy-winning albums.

One could argue that hip-hop is as much acting as it is music. There has to be a reaon why so many rappers have gotten into acting.

I recently saw an interesting example of this, sort of: I was watching the Tim Burton version of Sweeny Todd, and I was stuck by how good the singing was by actors like stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter; I was later quite amazed to learn they did their own singing in that movie - it wasn’t dubbed in by “professional” singers.

What about Hugh Laurie? He is quite a decent singer in addition to his acting talent.

I would also suggest Hugh Jackman, who is an excellent singer.

I like the OP’s theories, but I’ll throw another one onto the pile:

When you’re a singer, it’s all about you. The focus is on your performance and your persona.

When you’re an actor, it’s all about the story. The focus is on the movie or TV show in which you’re appearing.

There are exceptions and nuances to both of these statements, but I think they may have something to do with why actors who try to become singers are subject to greater scrutiny and criticism than singers who try to become actors.