Movies and television have been strange bedfellows from the very beginning, when the latter arrived on the scene in the middle of the 20th century and appeared to threaten the very existence of the former. Nothing of the sort ever came to pass, and in fact the two entertainment mediums have come to complement each other ever since in a variety of intriguing, often incestuous, ways. They’ve stolen ideas from each other, and actors and actresses cross from one medium to the other.
Although it’s become common these days to see movie stars with fading careers migrate back to TV, for the majority of its history TV has served as a proving ground for actors with aspirations for the larger screen. That said, here are the top 10 TV actors and actresses who found fame in movies.
10. Bruce Willis
Willis struggled to break through in show business, but once that was accomplished he made it look easy. The snarky private investigator he played on TV’s Moonlighting, during the second half of the 1980s, was just a variation on the snarky bartender he had been in real life. And John McClane, the detective he’s portrayed in the “Die Hard” movies, is yet another take on that character. The hugely successful franchise of Die Hard action flicks had everything to do with making Willis a big-screen star, although after the genre went into a lull his quieter films were still seen. But Willis has always looked comfortable as a movie star, and not hurting that celebrity was his high-profile marriage to Demi Moore.
9. Demi Moore
Moore’s 13-year marriage to Bruce Willis looked like a rare keeper for Hollywood, until it wasn’t. Much the same could be said about her film career. But consider the odds against her making it in the first place. Moore had a rocky childhood, and it wasn’t long after she landed on TV’s daytime drama General Hospital in 1982 that she started down the road of drug addiction. But only two years later she was making movies. Her drug abuse got her fired from St. Elmo’s Fire, but she straightened herself out and became one of the brightest stars of the 1990s, with films such as Ghost and A Few Good Men. Then it went away in the blink of an eye. A reputation for being hard to work with probably didn’t help.
8. Jennifer Aniston
The longer a TV series runs, the harder it can be for its cast to move on to something new. Just ask any of the top actors from M*A*S*H (with the possible exception of Alan Alda) or Seinfeld (although Julia Louis-Dreyfus eventually succeeded at landing another hit series, for a time). Only Jennifer Aniston was able to emerge from Friends for a second career in movies (but give Lisa Kudrow credit for giving it a shot), and did she ever. She quickly became a romantic comedy queen, and a very busy one at that. Try, however, naming three movies Aniston has starred in. Don’t be surprised if her career arc follows that of Meg Ryan, as audiences have been reluctant to embrace her efforts in other film genres.
7. John Travolta
You couldn’t call Travolta’s career typical. Travolta bolted to fame quickly, making a strong impression on the TV series Welcome Back Kotter in the mid-1970s. He wasted no time using his celebrity to make it even bigger in hugely popular movies like Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Urban Cowboy. Then came the 1980s, and Travolta, inexplicably, could hardly find work. The story is that Quentin Tarantino brought him back to life in his 1994 film Pulp Fiction, for which Travolta received an Oscar nomination (his second, after Saturday Night Fever), although the actor had started getting paychecks again with the Look Who’s Talking movies. At any rate, Travolta’s been working steadily in film ever since.
6. George Clooney
His time on TV is remembered fondly because of a successful run on the hit show ER, but Clooney’s small-screen career was also a long slog of appearances on failed programs like Street Hawk and Sunset Beat (as Chic Chesbro). When he finally broke through in movies it was in pictures such as 1997’s Batman & Robin, probably the worst in that franchise. But it eventually happened for the actor, and today Clooney is Hollywood royalty, with a long list of impressive films to his credit — some as an actor, others as director — that continues to grow. Some credit his good looks and charm, which often get him compared to Cary Grant, but persistence may have more to do with his success than anything.
5. Meg Ryan
Many actors got their start in daytime drama. Many stayed there. But after three years on As the World Turns in the early 1980s, Ryan made the most of a small part in the 1986 film Top Gun, and was on her way. The cute persona she later showed off to great effect in much-loved romantic comedies such as When Harry Met Sally… and Sleepless in Seattle made her a big star, but also served to typecast her, which she has not been able to completely overcome. Although she relied on the genre that made her famous for too long, her filmography is full of attempts to branch out to which audiences didn’t respond. Unlike many other female actors of her generation, she has shown no interest in returning to television.
4. Will Smith
Smith has been nominated for an Oscar twice, for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. But more than anyone else on this list Smith has seen exceptional box-office success as a movie star, which could have been foretold from his TV career. Smith essentially played his likable self, a rapper from Philadelphia transplanted to the West Coast, for seven years in the 1990s in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That persona carried over to film as well, in blockbusters like Independence Day and the Bad Boys and Men in Black franchises. His later efforts at straight drama met with more mixed results (including those two Oscar nominations), and recently Smith’s film career has cooled.
3. Robin Williams
A natural comedian, Williams has never let his first starring role — as an alien in rainbow-colored suspenders, first on TV’s Happy Days and then his own series Mork & Mindy — go untapped as material for the standup circuit. To this day, Williams’ talents are best seen in one-man comedy shows. But Williams wasted no time dumping Mork for serious film parts early in his career, starting right out of the gate with 1982’s The World According to Garp. Extraordinarily prolific in movies from then on, he had to wait until 1998 for his Oscar, as best actor in Good Will Hunting, after three other nominations. Williams hasn’t gotten close to another Academy Award since, but he remains as active as ever doing standup.
2. Sally Field
Finding her way into movies didn’t come easy for this two-time Oscar winner. The 1960s TV series Gidget and The Flying Nun may have made her a household name, but it wasn’t until 1977 that Field scored her big-screen breakthrough alongside real-life beau Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit, a major box-office hit but hardly the kind of acting work that would suggest an Academy Award forthcoming three years later (for Norma Rae). It was when Field won her second Oscar for Best Actress (1984’s Places in the Heart) that she famously exuded, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me.” Field later returned to TV for the successful series Brothers & Sisters.
1. Tom Hanks
For this actor, destined for a superlative film career, those three years of his on the silly TV series Bosom Buddies in the early 1980s were probably just marking time. The likable Hanks impressed on the big screen from the start, with a solid starring performance in Ron Howard’s 1984 comedy flick Splash. By the end of the decade he had progressed to dramas, later winning back-to-back Oscars for Best Actor in 1993 and 1994 (for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, respectively), a feat matched only by Spencer Tracy. In recent years this modern-day James Stewart has chosen to largely shift his career from acting to producing, often for the small screen.
(Editor’s note: This list excludes alumni from Saturday Night Live, which has launched many successful movie careers, as well as other comedy shows such as In Living Color, which was the proving ground for Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx. Going further back, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In boosted the career of a young actress named Goldie Hawn. Such shows have long been viewed as a launching pad to a movie career.)