The Art of the Transition: TV to Movies

Norma Rae (1979) Directed by Martin Ritt Shown: Sally Field

To view Norma Rae click here.

Not too long ago, television actors were of an entirely different class among professional actors. There were stage actors at the top, movie actors next tier down, then at the bottom were the TV folks. It’s not that they weren’t talented, they were and everyone recognized it. Early television stars like Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason weren’t just beloved, they were extolled and awarded for their boundless talents. But that didn’t mean they could become movie stars. Lucille Ball had been a second-tier actress with the studios before her television success and after it, couldn’t get much farther. Gleason had some critical success on film, garnering an Oscar nomination for The Hustler in 1961, but was never able to build a successful comedy career on the silver screen that matched his success on television, except perhaps for The Smokey and the Bandit franchise (1977, 1980, 1983). Dramatic actors had it easier. George C. Scott found success on the stage, then movies where he earned two Oscar nominations (one for Anatomy of a Murder [1959], and one for The Hustler with Gleason), before moving to television drama with East Side/West Side (1963-1964) and getting an Emmy nomination. Then he effortlessly moved back to film with Dr. Strangelove (1964) and inexplicably didn’t get nominated. But in the 1970s, when I was first beginning my serious study of the cinema, three actors broke down the wall that held back the comedians, starting with Art Carney and finishing up with Sally Field.

Transitioning between television and movies now is so common that many actors star in successful television shows while maintaining a successful film career at the same time. But before cable and streaming services produced a wealth of opportunities for actors, there were only the three broadcast television networks and the studio system and one followed the other. That is to say, if you started out in films (Buddy Ebsen, Robert Young, Donna Reed, Andy Griffith, Judy Garland), it was okay to finish up on television. But if you started out on TV, you were probably going to stay there for your entire career. Oh, you might get film work, but nothing big.

In the 1970s, that began to change. My first personal experience with it was watching the Oscars as a youngster when Art Carney won Best Actor for Harry and Tonto (1974). Prior to that moment, I’d known Carney primarily as the goofy sewer worker in The Honeymooners (1955-1956). When I saw Harry and Tonto years later, I wasn’t all that taken by the movie but thought Carney was terrific. When I saw The Late Show (1977) a few years after that, it became and remains one of my favorite movies, in no small part due to Carney’s considerable performance, as well as Lily Tomlin and Bill Macy, two other TV to movie actors. It was a big deal for a former sitcom actor to win an Academy Award but maybe it was just an anomaly. Then an actor playing one of the goofiest, most utterly unrealistic, over the top dumb sitcom characters in all of television at the time, snagged a dramatic role and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor to boot.

In 1977, John Travolta, hot on television’s Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-1979) as the insufferably vain and stupid Vinnie Barbarino, got the role of Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and won critical acclaim for his performance and earned a nomination for Best Actor. It made him an instant star, and with the nomination, a respected actor, but what was different than Carney, and different than Gleason when he was nominated for The Hustler, was that Travolta was still starring in Kotter during all of it. In fact, he stayed on the show until 1979. And Barbarino is a broadly drawn farcical character. Imagine Max Baer, Jr, playing Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies from 1962 to 1971, and in the midst of that, say, 1968, he’s nominated for Best Actor for a serious and gritty dramatic role, then goes back to playing Jethro Bodine. But Travolta was simply the middle act. The final act came two years later.

NormaRae_1979_5356_16_8

In 1979, Sally Field won Best Actress for her starring role in Norma Rae (currently streaming on Filmstruck). Prior to this, she was known as the star of the television shows Gidget (1965-1966) and The Flying Nun (1967-1970). The biggest movies she was known for were her works with her partner Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit, The End (1978), and Hooper (1978). But, importantly, she had also done a dramatic turn as the lead role in the television miniseries Sybil in 1976, that helped ease the transition to drama. Without that, she may not have been considered for the role in Norma Rae (although so many Hollywood stars at the time – Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh, Faye Dunaway – turned it down, maybe she would have). A few years later she won again and, amazingly, in an era before the internet, still managed to go viral with her acceptance speech in which she proclaimed that a second Oscar confirmed that the first wasn’t just a fluke but that she was really liked. That’s the kind of innocent thing that shouldn’t affect whether you get nominated again but it’s Hollywood so of course it did and she wouldn’t receive another nomination until Lincoln in 2012.

As television expanded over the next four decades, it has become easier than ever to transition back and forth, from one to the other. Of course, it’s never been a problem for non-stars in television to find success in film. Tom Hanks, Morgan Freeman and Michael Keaton all worked in television in the 1970s and found success in film but none of them had the TV stardom of Carney, Travolta or Field. And there are still plenty of big TV stars that find it hard to move back and forth. Jon Hamm may not ever find success on the silver screen despite his smashing success on television. But it’s easier now and actors like Art Carney, John Travolta and Sally Field paved the way. They didn’t let their reputations as broad comedians on sitcoms intimidate them into staying away from dramatic roles in the movies. As for the next forty years of TV and the movies, we can only hope the Oscar winning song from Norma Rae is right: “Maybe what’s good gets a little bit better and maybe what’s bad, gets gone.”

Greg Ferrara

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19 Responses The Art of the Transition: TV to Movies
Posted By Doug : September 22, 2017 8:30 am

Thank you, Greg, for this fun post-I’ve also wondered about the transitions you mention, Vinnie vs Jethro, so to speak. Perhaps it does come down to talent-Fields and Carney and Travolta drew from a deeper well than was possible for the Max Baer jr types.
One of my favorite Jimmy Stewart films is the low, LOW budget musical “Pot O’ Gold” which has Art Carney as one of the Horace Heidt band members. He’s just one of the crowd, but if you look for him, he’s there.
These days it seems that there are more Oscar winners working on Netflix/Amazon/limited pay channel series than are found opening movies.
I wonder how many actors have missed their chance at movie stardom because they were locked in to a TV show?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 22, 2017 10:25 am

I always think about Gene Hackman and how he was ready to accept the role of Mike Brady until his agent talked him out of it. There never would have been a I Never Sang for My Father, or a French Connection, or Conversation with him and, who knows, maybe no film career beyond what he’d already done in Bonnie and Clyde.

Posted By mdr : September 22, 2017 2:08 pm

James Garner was another actor that moved seamlessly between movie and television successes. A favorite!

I love the fact that a lot of Hollywood’s better character actors found a home on television. I’m not talking about stars like Barbara Stanwyck, but – to add to your list – Barbara Bel Geddes and Howard Keel, Eddie Albert and Zsa Zsa Gabor, Fred MacMurray, William Demarest and William Frawley, William Conrad, Jackie Coogan and Yvonne De Carlo, and Agnes Moorehead to name a few.

Posted By doug : September 22, 2017 2:23 pm

mdr-Barbara Bel Geddes is interviewed on the Vertigo Blu Ray behind the scenes documentary-part of the “Alfred Hitchcock: The Essentials Collection” set.

Posted By Emgee : September 22, 2017 3:40 pm

Not a favourite, but still: what about that Johnny Depp, eh?

Posted By swac44 : September 22, 2017 3:55 pm

I’m just reminded of how David Caruso was all ready to make the leap to features after a couple of seasons of NYPD Blue, but then Friedkin’s Jade was a flop and it was back to the small screen on CSI: Miami. It’s too bad, he seemed well-suited to hardboiled crime stories, but they don’t really make those for the big screen anymore.

Posted By Emgee : September 22, 2017 4:02 pm

But aren’t tv movies becoming more prestigious every year, since most of the big screens are taken up by blockbusters?

Posted By George : September 22, 2017 4:03 pm

“I wonder how many actors have missed their chance at movie stardom because they were locked in to a TV show?”

Tom Selleck comes to mind. He was chosen to play Indiana Jones, but his “Magnum” commitment forced him to bow out. Selleck did eventually star in movies, but his chance at major stardom was missed.

Posted By George : September 22, 2017 4:19 pm

BTW, some of the biggest movie stars couldn’t make the transition to TV.

TV audiences tended to prefer stars who had a calm, casual, laid-back manner, such as James Garner, Dean Martin and Johnny Carson. These were people you’d like to invite into your house.

Stars with brash, larger-than-life personalities — such as Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland — were never very successful on TV. They were too big for the medium. So was John Wayne, so it’s probably best that he turned down “Gunsmoke.”

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 22, 2017 4:39 pm

I see Johnny Depp came up and he’s definitely a successful transition. How about Hilary Swank? Never a star but from Beverly Hills 90210 to two Best Actress Oscars ain’t bad.

Then there’s Michelle Williams of Dawson’s Creek fame. Again, not a big star but a successful film actress and quite respected.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 22, 2017 4:41 pm

I thought about David Caruso when I was writing this piece. I think he should have stayed on tv for two or three more seasons, like Travolta did with Welcome Back, Kotter, just to keep his presence in the forefront in case his movies took awhile to catch on. Instead, he quit and put everything into the first movie being a hit, which it wasn’t.

Posted By George : September 22, 2017 8:37 pm

“I love the fact that a lot of Hollywood’s better character actors found a home on television.”

TV, especially in its early decades, was a place where character actors could be stars. Nobody would hire Raymond Burr or William Conrad or Buddy Ebsen to star in movies. They were supporting players in movies. But they were perfectly acceptable as TV leads.

Until the craze for prime time soaps in the ’80s, TV stars tended to be unglamorous, ordinary-looking people. Craggy, middle-aged character actors who might have been your neighbors.

TV took over some of the functions of B movies — such as providing a training ground for young actors on the way up, and a resting place for veterans on the way down.

Posted By swac44 : September 22, 2017 10:13 pm

I’m currently making my way through The Twilight Zone, and there’s an amazing array of familiar faces, from then-newcomers William Shatner, Telly Savalas and Jack Klugman to vets like Jack Carson and one of my fave character actors George Chandler, whose career dated back to the early W.C. Fields short The Fatal Glass of Beer. It’s a bit mind-boggling the array of talent that show was able to feature.

Soon I need to tackle Wanted: Dead or Alive to see the early days of Steve McQueen’s career.

Posted By Doug : September 22, 2017 10:31 pm

This is first and foremost a movie blog, but where I live we now have two channels competing with ‘yesteryear’ shows. I love the variety!
Have Gun Will Travel, The Rebel, Wanted:Dead or Alive, Rawhide-an embarrassment of riches. We see McQueen and Eastwood and many other famous faces much younger, still finding their way.
Some shows I had never heard of, like Yancy Derringer.
It’s not just the actors-Richard Donner, Sam Peckinpah, James “Shogun” Clavell, Arthur Hiller and Ida Lupino all directed episodes of “The Rifleman”.
It’s all good.

Posted By Doug : September 22, 2017 10:35 pm

swac44-I hadn’t seen your comment when i posted mine. “Wanted: Dead or Alive ” plays daily here, usually teamed up with “Rawhide”. I saw Peter Falk in an episode of “Have Gun, will Travel” and he looked like a kid playing dress up.

Posted By George : September 22, 2017 11:42 pm

I watched the second season (1961-62) of “Route 66.” The now-familiar faces included Robert Redford, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Burt Reynolds, Martin Sheen and Tuesday Weld. And the directors included Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah.

The Peckinpah episode was the only time he directed Lee Marvin.

Posted By George : September 22, 2017 11:46 pm

The 1967 “Avengers” episodes include appearances by Charlotte Rampling and Donald Sutherland — in addition to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who were already well known by ’67.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 23, 2017 8:42 am

Route 66, oh man, I loved that show. I watched it in reruns and it was my first exposure to anthology television. I’ve loved anthology stories with connecting devices ever since. I later discovered the Whistler movies series with Richard Dix and loved it too. The Twilight Zone works the same way with Rod Serling standing in for the Whistler or Tod Stiles.

Posted By kingrat : September 24, 2017 12:06 am

I first saw Robert Redford as a guest star in a short-lived anthology series called BUS STOP. He and Barbara Baxley played husband and wife who kidnapped the child of someone who had won the Irish Sweepstakes.

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