While comics love to make people laugh, a great movie career isn't just based on how many chuckles you can get. Over the years, some of the most talented comedy stars have effectively made the leap into more dramatic waters. Adam Sandler wowed audiences with Punch Drunk Love, Will Farrell confounded expectations with Stranger Than Fiction, and Bill Murray blew everyone away with his performance in Lost in Translation.
However, some comedians have such a knack for drama, that their emotional performances eventually eclipse their slapstick shenanigans. Certain actors can pull off playing against type to enormously successful results, so successful, in fact, that we completely forget there was time when they made us laugh instead of cry.
For this list, we’re counting down the names of well-known dramatic actors who surprisingly got their start in comedy. To qualify, the actors must be well known for their dramatic roles, as opposed to their humorous offerings. That means that actors like Jim Carrey, whose comedic stylings outshine his more dramatic efforts, are not eligible. Also, actors whose comedy careers are still well known, like Jamie Foxx and Will Smith, will also not be included.
With that out of the way, here are the 15 Actors You Completely Forgot Started Out As Comedy Stars.
15 Robert Downey Jr.
Although there are moments of humor in his Iron Man series, nowadays, Robert Downey Jr. is recognized for his dramatic chops above anything else. The actor has made a name for himself for portraying addictedly riddled characters (Zodiac) or clever adventurers (Sherlock Holmes), but despite a string of critically acclaimed performances, the actor began his career with laughs, not gasps.
Though he was only part of the cast for the 1985-1986 season, most people forget that Downey Jr. got his start on Saturday Night Live. Although brief, the gig did land him roles in the teen comedy Weird Science, along with the Rodney Dangerfield led Back to School.
It wasn’t until the next few years that the actor finally started to dabble in high-stakes dramas, starting with the crime driven film Less Than Zero in 1987, which lead to his Oscar-nominated performance in Chaplin in 1992.
14 Alan Arkin
Actor, director, producer, singer, and composer, Alan Arkin is a man of many talents, including the ability to make people laugh. Arkin received his big break in 1968 when he played Inspector Jacques Clouseau in Inspector Clouseau, a role that comedy legend Peter Sellers had made so famous with The Pink Panther series.
Afterwards, Arkin took a string of comedy parts, including roles in Improper Channels and Fire Sale, until his career moved into more dramatic territory. In 1992, he starred alongside Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, and Kevin Spacey in Glengarry Glen Ross, a high-caliber drama which earned Arkin critical acclaim.
Since then, the actor has dabbled in both comedy and drama, which parlayed into an Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actor for his role of Grandpa Hoover in 2006’s dramedy Little Miss Sunshine.
13 Chris Evans
When you think of Chris Evans, it’s hard not to imagine the actor in his Captain America outfit with his red, white, and blue shield. Evans’ face has become synonymous with the MUC, but before he was fighting for truth, justice, and the American way, Evans was busy making people laugh.
While he had a handful of roles on TV, Evan’s big break came in 2001 when he starred in the raunchy spoof Not Another Teen Movie as Jake Wyler, the clueless jock who tries to transform the school’s biggest nerd into prom queen. While the film did okay at the box office, it was enough to establish Evans as a bankable leading man.
Since his comedic breakout, Evans’ career has taken a dramatic turn. The actor has been in everything from sci-fi epics like Sunshine to indie dramas like Gifted, and we can’t wait to see what he brings to the table as Captain America in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War.
12 Bob Odenkirk
Actor Bob Odenkirk got his start in show business by writing for a number of different late-night programs, including Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Conan O’ Brien, The Dennis Miller Show, and the short-lived The Ben Stiller Show. While he would still write, Odenkirk started to take a stab at acting, earning bit parts in all sorts of comedy shows, including Futurama and Entourage.
He finally landed his signature role in in the second season of the critically acclaimed drama Breaking Bad as seedy criminal lawyer Saul Goodman. As a fan favorite, Saul was given his own spinoff show after Breaking Bad ended, resulting in the highly successful Better Call Saul, which just wrapped its third season.
Since his breakout performance as Saul Goodman, Odenkirk has further branched out into dramatic territory, landing a role on FX’s series Fargo, as well as a supporting performance in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.
11 Woody Harrelson
Nominated for two Oscars, Woody Harrelson is known for taking big, bold roles and knocking them out of the park. However, before he was taking on huge blockbuster projects like the upcoming Han Solo movie, Harrelson became popular for his perfect comedic timing.
The actor rose to fame in the 1980s for his reoccurring role in the wildly successful Cheers. After leaving the series, Harrelson starred in a number of comedies, including White Men Can’t Jump and Kingpin, before landing his signature dramatic roles in The People vs. Larry Flint, The Thin Red Line, and The Hunger Games.
Today, Harrelson continues to push the bounds of his acting capabilities, starring alongside a completely CGI Andy Serkis in War for the Planet of the Apes, and still managing to wow audiences with his dynamic performance.
10 Emma Thompson
Though she’s certainly known for her dramatic chops, and as the face of Professor Trelawney in the Harry Potter series, British actress Emma Thompson kicked off her career in improvisational comedy. Along with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Thompson made her claim to fame in the sketch program Alfresco before receiving her own short-lived show Thompson, which was canceled after just one season.
Thompson’s breakout role came in 1989 where she starred alongside Jeff Goldblum in The Tall Guy. Since then, even though she’s taken a few comedic parts here and there, the actress has set her sights on full-blown dramas.
She won an Oscar for her performance in Howard’s End, starred along Daniel Day-Lewis in the thriller In the Name of the Father, and scored another Oscar nod in Sense and Sensibility for acting. On top of it all, Thompson has also proved that she is a great a writer, earning the Oscar for Best Screenplay Based on Previous Material for Sense and Sensibility.
9 Jeff Daniels
Jeff Daniels might be one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, easily transitioning between comedy and drama. You probably remember that Daniels was in the wildly successful comedy Dumb and Dumber alongside Jim Carrey, but the actor has starred in more than his fair share of dramatic movies and series.
Even before he was yucking it up with Carrey, he popped up in notable drams including Terms of Engagement and Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo.
In the last decade or so, Daniels has been involved with a number of projects, including the short-lived but critically acclaimed television drama The Newsroom, created by Aaron Sorkin. Other roles include a lead in Noah Baumbach’s Oscar nominated film The Squid and the Whale, a supporting part in Rian Johnson’s sci-fi bender Looper, and a role in George Clooney’s political drama Good Night, and Good Luck.
8 Eric Bana
Born in Melbourne, Australia, actor Eric Bana received his big break in show business after joining the sketch comedy series Full Frontal, becoming both a writer and performer for the program. Bana quickly became one of the more popular cast members for his spot-on impressions of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and was able to use that fame to nab his own variety program, which was cancelled after just eight episodes due to low ratings.
Despite his show being cancelled, Bana managed to knab the leading role in 1997’s Chopper, in which the actor played the Australian criminal Chopper Red. It was Bana’s first dramatic performance, and the quirky comedian soon found he had a knack for acting.
Since then, Bana has taken roles in several high profile movies, including Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, Steven Spielberg’s Munich, and Guy Ritchie’s latest film King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword.
7 Lily Tomlin
As no stranger to comedy or drama, Lily Tomlin began her career performing Off-Broadway during the late 1960s. This gave her the opportunity to join NBC's sketch comedy show Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, and became an instant success thanks to her colorful group of characters.
After releasing a series of music recordings in the early '70s, Tomlin made her dramatic debut in movies with Nashville. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her emotional performance, and went on to collaborate with director Robert Altman again in 1993's crirically Short Cuts.
Throughout her career, Tomlin has been in a string of both comedies and dramas, including The Incredible Shrinking Woman, I Heart Huckabees, and the voice of everyone's favorite teacher Ms. Frizzle on The Magic School Bus.
6 Bryan Cranston
Perhaps no actor has had such a drastic image change from comedy to drama than Brayan Cranston, who went from the dorky dad in Malcom in the Middle, to ruthless kingpin Walter White in Breaking Bad. It doesn’t get more polarizing than that.
It’s a testament to Cranston’s dynamic skills as an actor that he’s able to seamlessly blend from one end of the dramatic spectrum to the other. Despite starting off as a voice actor in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Cranston has taken radically different roles throughout his career. From TV shows like Seinfeld to blockbusters like Godzilla, the actor is continually pushing his limitations, earning his first Oscar nomination in 2016 for the biopic Trumbo.
While some might always remember him as the goofy Hal, Cranston has become more and more known for his dramatic abilities, taking roles in Drive, Argo, and in Richard Linklater’s upcoming film Last Flag Flying.
5 Michael Keaton
No doubt, Michael Keaton’s most famous role will always be Batman. The actor became a household name in 1989 when he stepped in the shoes of Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s live adaption of the Caped Crusader. However, when his name was first announced, there was major fan backlash, mostly due to the fact that Keaton was primarily a comedic actor up until that point.
Michael Keaton had spent the better part of a decade building up his resume as a comedic star, landing roles in Mr. Mom, Night Shift, Johnny Dangerously, and his signature role in 1988’s Beetlejuice as the titular zany poltergeist. It wasn’t until years later that Keaton became the powerhouse dramatic performer we know today.
Thanks to movies like Birdman, Spotlight, and The Founder, Keaton has made a dramatic comeback in Hollywood as of late, most recently giving audiences one of the best MCU villains with this year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.
4 Kevin Spacey
Though he’s mostly known for playing megalomaniac or underhanded bad guys, Kevin Spacey got his start in Hollywood as a bit player in comedies. He landed one of his first feature parts in 1989’s Working Girl, and that same year got the chance to play the villain in See No Evil, Hear No Evil, starring comedy duo Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.
Aside from his occasional stint on Saturday Night Live, Space has primarily moved into dramatic territory. Movies like Glengarry Glen Ross, L.A. Confidential, and Seven solidified Spacey as a powerful performer, but it was his nuanced performance as Lester Burnham in American Beauty and his seedy role as Verbal in The Usual Suspects that won the actor his two Oscars.
Today, Spacey is the face of Netflix’s critically acclaimed drama House of Cards, and although the actor still dabbles in the comedy genre, it is his gravitas and emotional weight that audiences will remember him for.
3 Amy Adams
One of the biggest names in the industry today, Amy Adams has been nominated for an Academy Award five times. Thank to her onscreen charisma and ability to play diverse characters, she’s wowed audiences with her incredible range, appearing in everything from mind-bending science fiction to high-stakes dramas.
However, earlier in her career, Adams was known for taking bubblier roles rather than ones with dramatic flair. Some of her earliest gigs included a bit part on the U.S. version of The Office as a ditzy saleswoman, as well as a love interest to Will Farrell in Talladega Nights, and a peppy princess in Enchanted.
After paying her comedic dues, Adams was finally given a chance to showcase her dramatic chops, which landed her roles in critically acclaimed movies like American Hustle, Arrival, and Nocturnal Animals. You can catch Adams further into her blockbuster resume when Justice League drops in theaters this November.
2 Bruce Willis
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, before he was everyone’s favorite gun-toting, wise-cracking everyman from the Die Hard series, Bruce Willis was playing the funny man, cracking jokes, and getting chuckles out of audiences everywhere.
Willis shot to fame when he landed the co-leading role alongside Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting, a mid-'80s comedy show. Besides having excellent chemistry with Shepherd, Willis was able to use his natural comedic timing and even his rather questionable singing voice was used to his advantage. He was able to build on the traction from the show to branch out into film, starring in smaller comedies before becoming a household name in 1988’s Die Hard.
While Willis still brushes up on his comedic chops now and then, he’s primarily known for being an action star, making him the perfect choice for the upcoming Death Wish reboot.
1 Tom Hanks
It’s hard to imagine a time when Tom Hanks wasn’t considered the brilliant dramatic actor he is today. With roles in movies like Forrest Gump, Captain Phillips, Philadelphia, and Apollo 13 so ingrained in our noggins, it’s easy to forget that Hanks was once the go-to comedic actor of the '80s.
During the onset of his career, Hanks starred in a number of light romantic comedies that audiences couldn’t get enough of. His first feature was a starring role in 1984’s Splash, leading to a string of comedies including The Man with One Red Shoe, The Money Pit, Big, Turner & Hooch, and The ‘Burbs. Eventually, the actor was given his chance to star in movies with more dramatic weight, earning two back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump.
Tom Hanks might be the most successful comedic actor turned dramatic, boasting an impressive collection of films on either side of the fence, whether they are side-splitting slapsticks, or tear-jerking epics.
Can you think of any other comedic actors who turned to drama? Or vice versa? Let us know in the comment section!
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