It might seem logical to assume that showmanship would easily translate from one creative art to the next, but that hasn’t always been the case. When it comes to singers trying their luck at acting, we often see charismatic performers turn stiff and wooden when taking on a script. Take, for instance, Madonna; a terrific musical performer but a generally lousy actress whose filmography houses far more Shanghai Surprises than Evitas.
On the other hand, there have been plenty of singers who have managed to enjoy rich and praiseworthy careers in front of the movie cameras, some of them even winning Oscars for their emoting. Narrowing down the decades-long list of the best of the best is a daunting task – Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, LL Cool J and Harry Connick Jr. are just some of the names relegated to the sidelines – but here is our list of The 15 Best Actors Who Started Out As Musicians.
15. Will Smith
With his future laid out before him, Smith declared, “I want to become the biggest movie star in the world!” He eventually accomplished that lofty goal, appearing in eight consecutive films that grossed over $100 million, earning him $20 million per picture. Not bad for a guy who started out as one half of the hip-hop outfit DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince.
Smith initially parlayed his musical fame into the TV sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, yet even as that show continued running for six seasons, the actor was already mixing it up on the big screen, appearing in tony projects like 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation and box office hits like 1995’s Bad Boys. His quick-witted turn as the cocky, alien-punching pilot in the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day propelled him to another level, and he’s given engaging performances in such hits as 1997’s Men in Black and 2005’s Hitch.
Yet it’s his dramatic turns that have caught Oscar’s notice, as he’s snagged Best Actor nominations for portraying two real-life figures, boxer Muhammad Ali in 2001’s Ali and struggling salesman Chris Gardner in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness. Smith’s next effort at heavy drama, 2008’s Seven Pounds, didn’t go over nearly as well, but he’ll try again this December with Collateral Beauty.
14. Mark Wahlberg
It would be logical to assume that it took a while for Wahlberg to stop being called “the artist formerly known as Marky Mark” when he tried his hand at acting, but the hip-hop artist and leader of the Funky Bunch actually managed to impress in only his second cinematic at-bat, holding his own against top-billed Leonardo DiCaprio (then also on the ascendancy) in 1995’s The Basketball Diaries. Of course, it was his role as porn star Dirk Diggler in 1997’s Boogie Nights that offered the cleanest break from the past, and despite a few early missteps (like 1998’s The Big Hit), he’s carved out an enviable career packed with box office behemoths and even a pair of Oscar nods.
He co-starred with George Clooney in 1999’s Three Kings and then again in 2000’s The Perfect Storm, he was the only cast member from The Departed to earn an Academy Award nomination (for Best Supporting Actor) for his work in that Martin Scorsese hit, he headlined the popular 2010 biopic The Fighter, and he was uproariously loose and limber opposite the talking teddy bear in 2012’s Ted and its 2015 sequel. As a side gig, he’s also taken up producing and even earned an Oscar nomination in the Best Picture category for overseeing The Fighter.
13. Queen Latifah
She may have received an Academy Award nomination for 2002’s Chicago and Emmy Award nods for 2007’s Life Support and 2015’s Bessie, but Queen Latifah’s most rewarding performance might just be the one found at the center of 2006’s Last Holiday, a romantic comedy about a woman who believes she’s dying and opts to go out in style with a lavish European vacation. This film best captures the essence of what makes this hip-hop pioneer such an agreeable screen presence: her indefatigable energy, her cheerful demeanor, and her larger-than-life exuberance.
That’s not to say she can only play this type of role, but it’s certainly a natural fit, as she’s also proven in such comedies as 2003’s Bringing Down the House and 2008’s Mad Money. Yet her stellar work in the aforementioned Chicago, to say nothing of her breakthrough role as part of a bank-robbing quartet in 1996’s Set It Off, demonstrates that she’s up to any assignment tossed her way.
12. Jennifer Hudson
American Idol loser, Academy Award winner – that’s a career trajectory anyone would accept.
The elimination of Hudson from the 2004-2005 season of American Idol (she placed a lowly seventh) still stands as one of the most surprising – and controversial – drops in the show’s history, but the songbird rebounded quite nicely by managing to snag the role of Effie White in the 2006 film adaptation of the Broadway show Dreamgirls. She was chosen over hundreds of other candidates (including American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino) and confirmed the filmmakers’ faith in her by snagging the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her powerhouse performance.
Admittedly better when she has songs to belt out – check out her pipes in 2013’s Black Nativity – she nevertheless has kept busy on the screen, co-starring with Queen Latifah in 2008’s The Secret Life of Bees and earning fine notices for playing the title character in 2011’s indifferently received Winnie Mandela.
11. Justin Timberlake
Like Jennifer Hudson, Timberlake also began by losing on a TV show with a musical bent – in his case, Star Search. But after cavorting on The All New Mickey Mouse Club alongside Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, he and a few other lads formed NSYNC, and the rest is boy band history.
As far as film is concerned, a post-NSYNC Timberlake first got noticed for his solid turn as a thug in 2007’s Alpha Dog – and also got noticed, but for the wrong reasons, for his work as a hockey player nicknamed “Le Coq” in Mike Myers’ awful 2008 comedy The Love Guru. But it was his excellent work as officious Facebook president Sean Parker in 2010’s The Social Network that garnered him the best reviews of his burgeoning second career.
Among other highlights, he was delightfully nerdy in 2011’s Bad Teacher, ably handled the lead role in 2011’s underrated In Time, and appeared as part of the superb ensemble in the Coens’ 2013 Inside Llewyn Davis. Up next? A status symbol for many Hollywood players: a part in a Woody Allen film.
10. Dolly Parton
Country legend Dolly Parton only has approximately 12 screen credits to her name, and several of these find her just playing herself in bit parts (e.g. 1993’s The Beverly Hillbillies, 2005’s Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous). But she proved to be such a dynamic presence in her first two features that it would be almost churlish not to include her.
She made her film debut opposite Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in 1980’s 9 to 5, a veritable smash that derived much of its juice from her likable turn as put-upon secretary Doralee Rhodes. She was even better in her follow-up film, 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The role of big-hearted bordello madam Mona Stangley seemed tailor-made for her talents, and she and Burt Reynolds proved to be an irresistible pair.
Future projects failed to build on her popularity — 1984’s Rhinestone and 1992’s Straight Talk were flops, and she was overshadowed by most of her co-stars in the 1989 ensemble piece Steel Magnolias — but her turns as Doralee and Miss Mona nevertheless remain a potent one-two punch.
9. Elvis Presley
Already a superstar when it came to song, The King also conquered cinema when he made his film debut in the 1956 Civil War tale Love Me Tender. A major box office star for close to a decade (he landed on Quigley’s annual “Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll” seven times, six of them consecutive), Elvis would eventually be defeated by formulaic scripts and paper-thin roles that offered him no challenges. His final feature film did provide him with a slight change of pace, but it was the wrong type, miscasting him as a doctor (opposite Mary Tyler Moore’s nun) in 1969’s moribund Change of Habit.
Yet for a brief period, he proved his potency in a handful of roles, including his turns as a nightclub singer who gets involved with mobsters in 1958’s King Creole, as a mixed-race cowboy dealing with prejudice in 1960’s Flaming Star, as a good-natured rube in 1962’s Follow That Dream, and, of course, as a self-centered convict-turned-rock star in his signature film, 1957’s Jailhouse Rock.
8. Mos Def (Yasiin Bey)
It should be noted that Mos Def, who now goes by the name Yasiin Bey, was a child actor before he became a musician, performing under the name Dante Beze (not far removed from his birth name, Dante Smith). But he mainly appeared on TV series that were quickly cancelled (like The Cosby Mysteries back in the mid-1990s), and it was as a hip-hop artist that he found his fame, thus enabling him to give acting another crack.
He’s proven to be superb at playing pensive, soft-spoken characters, such as the neighbor of Billy Bob Thornton’s character in 2001’s Monster’s Ball, the cab driver with musical chops in 2002’s Brown Sugar, and the petty criminal being chased by corrupt cops in 2006’s 16 Blocks. He’s also demonstrated that he knows his way around a comedy, playing the friendly alien Ford Prefect in 2005’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a hapless amateur filmmaker in 2008’s Be Kind Rewind, and a perpetually stoned delivery man in 2009’s Next Day Air. Yet arguably his most impressive turn was for the small screen, earning Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for playing pioneering heart specialist Vivien Thomas in the 2004 TV movie Something the Lord Made.
7. Kris Kristofferson
A genuine country music legend, Kristofferson was able to parlay his sexy swagger into a bona fide acting career, racking up approximately 100 movie and TV credits.
Even as a septuagenarian, Kristofferson is respected enough to land leading roles, as evidenced by his turn as the title character in 2010’s Bloodworth. Yet his mark was primarily made during the 1970s, a decade which found him working thrice with Sam Peckinpah (including the role of Billy in 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), playing a romantic lead opposite Oscar-winning Ellen Burstyn in Martin Scorsese’s 1974 Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and opposite Barbra Streisand in 1976’s A Star Is Born, and co-starring with Burt Reynolds in the 1977 football flick Semi-Tough.
Leading roles continued to break his way in the ensuing decades — for starters, he was tapped to headline the controversial 1987 miniseries Amerika (a Cold War paranoia thriller about the U.S. under Soviet rule) — and he was effectively cast against type as a brutal and corrupt sheriff in John Sayles’ 1996 gem Lone Star.
Fantasy fans, of course, know him best for his later-day role as Abraham Whistler, the mentor of the titular vampire slayer (played by Wesley Snipes) in 1998’s Blade and its two sequels.
6. Tom Waits
With a voice that sounds like gravel being processed through a blender, Waits long ago made his mark on the music scene, and he managed to transfer his distinctive persona to his film roles.
He’s a longtime favorite of Francis Coppola, who cast him in six of his pictures – most memorably, he played the fly-munching Renfield in the helmer’s 1992 take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Jim Jarmusch is also a fan, having cast him on three separate occasions. Indeed, it was Jarmusch who provided him with a rare leading role, as one of the three bickering cellmates (the others played by fellow musician John Lurie and Roberto Benigni) in 1986’s Down by Law.
Waits has excelled in films for other major directors as well, playing Lily Tomlin’s boozy husband in Robert Altman’s 1993 Short Cuts and the satanic emissary Mr. Nick in Terry Gilliam’s 2009 The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Displaying more natural acting chops than other one-name music stars with thespian aspirations (Madonna, Prince, Sting), Cher spent the ‘80s putting together an impressive resume and then all but disappeared from the cinematic scene.
Along with Sonny Bono, her partner both professionally and privately, she initially appeared to be a ‘60s fad and would go through a rough patch the following decade (for starters, she and Bono divorced in 1975). But her Broadway stint in Robert Altman’s production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, led to the director also casting her in the 1982 screen version, and this was followed by another heavyweight helmer, Mike Nichols, placing her opposite Meryl Streep in 1983’s Silkwood. Her emoting caught everyone off guard, leading to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
She appeared to be in the running for another nod for 1985’s Mask, but didn’t receive one. The Academy made it up to her by naming her Best Actress for the comedy hit Moonstruck, one of three films she tackled in 1987 (along with The Witches of Eastwick and Suspect). Her mission accomplished on the Hollywood front, she’s appeared only sparingly on screen since then.
4. Ice Cube
Like several other actors on this list, Ice Cube (born O’Shea Jackson) is known more for playing a certain type of role than for displaying any sort of Olivier-like range – in his case, the surly, street-smart guy who’s quick with either a quip or a curse. It’s a logical extension of his image as part of the influential rap group N.W.A., yet even within these defined parameters, he’s often displayed a disarming sensitivity.
He made his attention-grabbing debut as Doughboy in John Singleton’s 1991 Boyz n the Hood and played more tough guys in (among others) 1992’s Trespass and 1997’s Anaconda. But he’s also shown his comedic side in the Friday and Ride Along franchises (albeit more in straight-man mode opposite the former’s Chris Tucker and the latter’s Kevin Hart), and his tender side in the Barbershop and Are We There Yet? series. He’s been particular noteworthy in his scene-stealing supporting stint as the excitable police captain in 2012’s 21 Jump Street and its 2014 follow-up, 22 Jump Street.
3. Barbra Streisand
It’s certainly one of the most noteworthy film debuts in history. Having already racked up phenomenal record sales, four Grammy Awards, and two Tony Award nominations, Streisand parlayed her stage success into a motion picture. 1968’s Funny Girl was a smash hit and earned her the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of entertainer Fanny Brice. Upon receiving the award, she eyed it and repeated her famous line from the film, “Hello, gorgeous.”
She continued her domination of the music charts, but she somehow also found time to engage in a prosperous film career, displaying her aptitude for broad comedy in 1972’s What’s Up, Doc?, earning a second Oscar nomination for her formidable work in 1973’s The Way We Were, enjoying a box office bonanza with 1976’s A Star Is Born, and not only headlining but also directing and producing 1983’s Yentl, 1991’s The Prince of Tides, and 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces.
2. Frank Sinatra
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a period of several years when Sinatra’s career as a singer was on the downswing and he appeared to be finished. A sensation during the 1940s, the early ‘50s found him contending with financial difficulties, personal problems, declining sales, and empty concert halls. So when it was announced that James Jones’ mammoth bestseller From Here to Eternity was being made into a movie, he begged to play the role of the good-natured Private Maggio — he even offered to play the part for free, convinced that it would propel him back into the spotlight.
He was right: His performance in that 1953 classic earned him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and marked the beginning of a remarkable comeback across all mediums. It also gave him access to more dramatic roles (before Eternity, he had mainly appeared in musicals and comedies), and he subsequently earned another Oscar nomination– this one for Best Actor– for portraying a heroin addict in 1955’s The Man with the Golden Arm.
1. David Bowie
The late, great Bowie was a natural for the movies, considering the visual innovations he displayed via his concerts and albums (Exhibit A: Ziggy Stardust). The often ethereal entertainer made his big-screen debut playing, appropriately enough, an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s seminal 1976 odyssey The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie’s minimalist portrayal suited Roeg’s minimalist style, and the actor found himself sparingly being used in movies over the course of the next few decades.
He rarely took lead roles, but his impact was always felt, whether playing a tortured vampire in 1983’s The Hunger, a pensive Pontius Pilate in 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, pop artist Andy Warhol in 1996’s Basquiat, or inventor Nikola Tesla in 2006’s The Prestige.
His defining role, though, can be found in Jim Henson’s 1986 fantasy flick Labyrinth, where his turn as Jareth the Goblin King oozes sex, suavity, and sinfulness in equal measure. Jareth remains his most enduring character, and not just because of his outfit’s codpiece, which has taken on an Internet life of its own.
Who is your favorite musician-turned-actor? Let us know in the comments!
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