Fame is a very fickle mistress and there’s no one that knows that better than sitcom stars. The level of fame that comes with being on a hit show is a very strange thing.
As the star of a sitcom, it can be possible that fans will watch the adventures of your character week to week. Yet the second that show goes off the air (or more commonly that actor leaves the show of their own free will), that fame evaporates.
Sometimes certain sitcom stars have been able to fight the downward trend of many of their peers. They’ve been able to use their time on a sitcom to launch a successful movie career and/or continue making incredibly successful and beloved TV shows for years and years to come.
It’s possible to take the fame from a sitcom and turn into a real A-list status. It just isn’t that likely.
This list is about exploring both ends of that spectrum. The sitcom stars who managed to really take their television fame to new heights and those who, for whatever reason, couldn’t jump that hurdle.
There’s no hard and fast rule for why some sitcom stars can hit the A-list and while others can't. The only thing that is clear is that it’s coin toss. There’s a lot factors in determing someone’s success in Hollywood and talent is only a very small one.
Here are the 10 Iconic Sitcom Stars Who Became A-Listers (And 10 Who Flopped).
20 Flopped: Michael Richards
Seinfeld is one of the most quintessentially '90s sitcoms ever. It made Jerry Seinfeld a household name and created dozens of phrases, concepts and slang that worked their way into the popular consciousness.
Most of the core four actors did rather well for themselves after the show ended. Jerry Seinfeld is richer than sin. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is an Emmy winning machine. Jason Alexander is one of the most recognizable character actors working. Then there’s Michael Richards.
As Kramer, Michael Richards was one of the biggest reasons for Seinfeld’s success. There are few character entrances more iconic than Kramer bursting into Jerry’s apartment all riled up.
Kramer is a character who could only exist in the world of Seinfeld and Richards’ energetic performance brought Kramer to life.
However, once Seinfeld ended, so did Richards’ career. He got his own sitcom in 2000 The Michael Richards Show, which not many people watched.
He was a recurring character on Kristie Alley’s self-titled comedy, Kristie and has had bit roles when Jerry Seinfeld and/or Larry David has thrown him a bone. Mostly though Richards has been radio silent.
The biggest reason for Richards’ career tanking is the actor himself.
In 2006, while performing stand-up comedy, Richards lost his temper and went on a very racist rant. The incident was caught on video and the sight of the beloved kooky Kramer spewing racist slurs soured most people on Richards.
19 A-Lister: Leonardo DiCaprio
Since the '90s, Leonardo DiCaprio has been one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actors. Leo established himself quickly as a teen heartthrob but very soon after it became clear he had the acting chops to back up the teenage fawning over of him.
DiCaprio putting out incredibly charismatic role after charismatic role and not getting an Oscar became the stuff of Internet meme legend.
Leo is at the very top of the A-List. However, few people remember that he got his start on a sitcom.
There’s few things about Leo now that are cute and bubbly. Yet at the very onset on his career that was his whole selling point.
The family sitcom Growing Pains cast Leo in its seventh season to be the new adorable addition to the family as the rest of the cast was growing too old.
The addition of a new, younger cast member is never a good sign, particularly on a family sitcom. It’s a trope that started with Cousin Oliver on The Brady Brunch and has signaled the beginning of an end for a sitcom ever since.
While Growing Pains did end when Leo joined the cast as the (formerly) homeless Luke Brower, it wasn’t for lack of interest in his character.
Leo immediately set teen hearts pitter-patter as Luke. The buzz surrounding his appearance on Growing Pains led to him landing film roles in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Romeo + Juliet, and Titanic.
He was a late addition, but Leo is the most successful actor, by far, to come out of Growing Pains.
18 Flopped: Kirk Cameron
Leonardo DiCaprio’s career doesn’t need much praise leaped upon it. He has, after all, finally got his Oscar. Yet no matter what happens with DiCaprio’s career in the future, it can always be said that he’s done better for himself than Growing Pains' first real star, Kirk Cameron.
As the oldest son, Mike Seaver, Kirk Cameron was the focal point of the early seasons of Growing Pains. Mike really was the entire show and Cameron showed off some real comedic chops.
However, the older that Cameron became, the more disillusioned he became with the Hollywood scene, or at least that’s how he would describe it. When he was 17, Kirk Cameron became a born-again Christian and his religion took over nearly every aspect of his life.
Cameron began to insist that certain elements of his character and his storylines on Growing Pains be removed, as they no longer matched with his personal beliefs.
He only became more entrenched after the series ended. Although Cameron easily could’ve had a Leo like career, he instead devoted his entire life to Christianity. Although Kirk Cameron’s brand of the religion is a rather antagonistic and confrontational.
When he isn’t spouting such nonsense, such as stating that being gay is unnatural, Cameron is making very low budget and critically panned movies that focus on the perceived attack against his religion.
In the very small Evangelic community, Cameron is very popular, but not really anywhere else.
17 A-Lister: Jennifer Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence’s star isn’t quite as bright as it once was when she was racking up Oscars and was the face of The Hunger Games franchise.
For awhile Lawrence and her endearing down-to-earth persona was everywhere. Wisely Lawrence has begun to back away from the spotlight, a bit, but she’s still very, very famous.
It might seem that Lawrence’s seemingly unstoppable career began with X-Men: First Class where she played Mystique. However, her career goes back just a little bit more.
Lawrence’s first major role wasn’t as Mystique. The first time Lawrence really made her mark was on the sitcom, The Bill Engvall Show where she played the (fictional) daughter of comedian Bill Engvall, Lauren.
Lauren was the usual teenage sitcom girl. She was constantly sarcastic, embracing her orientation to her father’s horror and overall just being a brat. It really wasn’t the best role or use of Lawrence’s talents, but few teenage roles on family sitcoms are that fantastic.
The one thing that can be said of Lawrence’s time on The Bill Engvall Show is that it did exhibit her comedic chops. This isn’t something that has come up much in her big screen roles.
Outside of her work with director/writer David O. Russell, Lawrence’s cinematic work has been very self-serious.
16 Flopped: David Schwimmer
There are a few sitcom characters who have grown more controversial than Ross Geller. Friends was one of the most popular sitcoms of its era and that popularity just continues to grow.
As new generations find Friends, they discover that David Schwimmer’s Ross is the literal worst and a borderline sociopath. Even though Ross became the romantic hero of Friends, who swept Rachel off her feet and convinced her to get off the plane to Paris, Ross is kind of a monster.
Maybe the hatred towards Ross explains why his actor, David Schwimmer, has all but disappeared from Hollywood.
It’s true that none of the core members of Friends ever need to work again. The six main cast members made so much money on the show, and probably continue to make cash as Friends runs forever in syndication forever. They're set. They don’t need to work.
Yet nearly every other member of the core group pops up now again somewhere. Schwimmer is rarely, if ever, seen.
The last big role that Schwimmer had was as Robert Kardashian in the first season of American Crime Story. It was a role that basically consisted a grown man with a streak of white in his hair to saying the name, “Juice” in increasingly incredulous fashion.
The only other big ticket item on Schwimmer’s resume is as a voice acting role as a neurotic giraffe from Madagascar. Otherwise, Ross is just missing.
15 A-Lister: Jennifer Anniston
On the other side of the Friends spectrum there’s Jennifer Aniston. Jennifer Aniston was the ying to David’s Schwimmer’s yang on Friends. Their career outside of the sitcom couldn’t be more different, though.
Aniston took all the popularity surrounding her Friends character (and hairstyle) and capitalized on it. In the middle of Friends, Aniston was starring in big time comedies and marrying Brad Pitt.
It wouldn’t be until after the show ended that her career took off.
While most of the Friends cast has stuck to television, Aniston is the only one whose been able to really transition into movies.
Aniston has never quite earned a huge amount of critical accolades or has had much success come award season. (Although she did try in 2014’s Cake where she played a disturbed woman with chronic pain.)
However, since Friends wrapped up in 2004, Aniston’s been churning out light comedic fare that usually features herself in the lead role.
It’s arguable (and accurate) that Aniston is just playing variations of her Friends character in all cinematic roles. Aniston plays Rachel all the time but she does it so very well.
It’s hard to blame her too, as audiences are continually turning out to see her take on very Rachel Green-esque characters. If it’s not broke, definitely don’t fix it.
14 Flopped: Topher Grace
Topher Grace is this list’s first example of an incredibly successful sitcom star who left the show thinking that their career was going to take off, only to be proven very wrong. Spoiler alert: he won’t be the last.
As Eric Forman, Topher Grace was the bonafide star of That 70’s Show. He was the undeniable lead and the axis on which the show spun.
However, in the show’s season 7 finale Topher Grace exited the series. That 70’s Show was cancelled the following season because the show really couldn’t afford to go on without Eric. However, the more embarrassing thing is why Grace exited in the first place.
The actor wanted to pursue a career in movies, using his role on That 70’s Show to launch a new career. Topher Grace landed the role of Eddie Brock, aka Venom, in Spider-Man 3… and that’s about it.
It’s true that Topher Grace has worked rather steadily since That 70’s Show ended. He’s not out of the street begging for money, by any means. Yet nothing has even come close to That 70’s Show.
Even Spider-Man 3, which is probably Grace’s biggest role, didn’t do much for his career. Spider-Man 3 tanked the Spider-Man franchise with poor box office returns and even poorer critical reception.
Grace's completely miscast turn as Eddie Brock is also widely considered one of the biggest mistakes of the movie.
13 A-Lister: Mila Kunis
Strangely, or maybe karmically, nearly every other That 70’s Show cast member has done very well for themselves. Yet few have had as successful a career as Mila Kunis.
That 70’s Show’s high-strung Jackie Burkhart was one of Mila Kunis’ first major roles as she was just 14 at the time. (She lied to casting directors and implied she was about 4 years older.)
Jackie was one of the smaller roles when the show began but Kunis’ talent quickly convinced the show that the actress and character needed much more to do.
Kunis stayed with the role of Jackie for That 70’s Show’s entire run and eventually used it transition into Family Guy where she started to voice Meg Griffin. Mila Kunis still voices Meg, but now it’s just one of many projects.
After starring in movies for almost a decade, Mila Kunis had her first big acclaimed role in Black Swan. From the release of that movie onward, the actress has been turning out movie after movie. Most of them are comedies, drawing on her extensive comedic chops and background in That 70’s Show.
Yet there really seems to be no limit to what project Mila Kunis can and will land. Even the science fiction disaster that was Jupiter Ascending didn’t negatively impact her career.
12 Flopped: Shia LaBeouf
Shia LaBeouf is in a bit of a unique situation for this list. LaBeouf did start on a sitcom and transitioned that into real A-list level success with several high profile and well-paying jobs.
Yet for a number of factors, most involving his own personality, LaBeouf’s career flopped before it really got off the ground.
Shia LaBeouf was first introduced to audiences on The Disney Channel as one of the two title characters on Even Stevens.
LaBeouf played the younger and much more hyperactive brother of the Stevens Family, Louis. LaBeouf used his role on Even Stevens to transition to several other Disney related roles, some on the big screens and others in TV.
Eventually though LaBeouf broke out of the Disney mold and in a big way. LaBeouf landed two big franchises in Transformers and Indiana Jones, only to quickly squander both. The more LaBeouf's star rose, the more his eccentric and sometimes very violent behavior made headlines.
Like many child stars before him, LaBeouf became more known for his self-destructive and downright bizarre behavior than any acting talent. The actor even threatened to quit acting several times, although nothing really came of it.
LaBeouf is still working, kind of, but only in very small and esoteric roles. He’s very far removed, not only for his goofy sitcom days, but from his A-lister status.
11 A-Lister: Joseph Gordon Levitt
Though he’s been in the public eye for a very long time, Joseph Gordon Levitt has never had an obvious breakdown like most of his child star brethren.
In fact, he’s taking his long time in the industry and built one of the more eclectic and interesting careers.
It can be easy to forgot that JGL got his start in a sitcom but 3rd Rock from the Sun was when he really hit it big. The reason why the role is so easily forgettable is because the actor looked almost nothing like he does now.
As Tommy Solomon, Joseph Gordon Levitt played the oldest alien of a group that came to Earth and pretended to be humans, but his character was trapped in the body of a young teenage boy with terrible, ridiculously long hair.
The show wasn’t JGL’s only sitcom role, though, as he had previously had a recurring role on Roseanne, but Tommy was, by far, his most famous character… until everything that followed it.
From 3rd Rock, JGL moved to movies starting with 10 Things I Hate About You all the way until The Dark Knight Rises.
Joseph Gordon Levitt has been able to do pretty much anything he wants and find some level of success.
Whether it’s trying to be a song and dance man, starting his own creative company or even playing a young Bruce Willis, for some reason, JGL can do it all.
10 Flopped: Frankie Muniz
Frankie Muniz is an example of a child actor who seemingly disappeared after his first real role ended but not for the typical reasons.
However, as Malcom of Malcom in the Middle, Muniz did have a rather huge career in the early 2000s.
Malcolm in the Middle not only bore the name of Muniz’ character, but he was also the face (and literal voice) of the series. It was because of Malcolm’s personality and fourth wall breaking antics (and Muniz’ performance) that the sitcom separated itself from the usual family sitcom fare.
Muniz even became one of the youngest Emmy nominees ever when he was recognized for his work as Malcolm in 2001.
From Malcolm, Muniz landed several movie roles. Almost all of them were aimed at children Yet from 2000 to 2007, Muniz’ impish face was almost inescapable. He was smirking from every billboard.
After Malcolm ended, he pretty much vanished. Yet this wasn’t because Muniz had a mental breakdown or some crippling addiction. He just decided he didn’t want to act anymore.
Muniz collected all of his money from his child acting days and retired. He explored the world of professional racing, did quite well, and occasionally popped for the occasional role (usually as a fictionalized version of himself).
Otherwise, Muniz has stepped away from acting and just doesn’t have too much interest in going back. Muniz' Hollywood career is still a flop but a very intentional one.
9 A-Lister: Robin Williams
Throughout his career, Robin William inhabited many roles. There are multiple characters who have made many people fall in love with the comedian turned (sometimes) serious actors.
Yet the first real time that Robin William became a household name was on a ridiculous late '70s to early '80s sitcom, Mork & Mindy.
Mork & Mindy a spin-off of Happy Days, of all shows, saw Williams move from his rather vulgar stand-up to one of the title roles.
Williams played Mork, an alien from the planet Ork, and the show was exactly as straight forward and silly as that description. In truth, the only reason why Mork & Mindy worked at all was because of Robin William’s non-stop performance.
William tackled Mork the way he would approach countless other characters, with a lot of improv and stream of comedic consciousness.
Although Mindy of Mork & Mindy, Pam Dawber, faded to obscurity, William used it as a launch pad. It wasn't long after Mork & Mindy that Williams landed roles in The World According to Garp, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Dead Poets Society.
From the very onset of his career, Williams proved that while his bread and butter was zaniness, he could turn in a real powerhouse dramatic performance when called upon to do it.
Williams’ star shone all the way up his tragic death in 2014, where he lost his long battle with depression.
8 Flopped: Shelley Long
Back in the days when there was just handful of TV channels and not everything was available to binge-watch, the sitcom Cheers reigned supreme.
The NBC comedy, which was just about a single bar in Boston, was the most popular show on TV for years. Shelley Long played the (initial) audience surrogate and female lead of the series, Diane.
Diane was the stuffy, upper-class woman who found herself working at the bar and hating it. She quickly developed an on-again and off-again relationship with Ted Danson’s Sam Malone, starting a never-ending sitcom trope of a central couple who can’t seem to stand each other but never can break up for good.
Like Danson, Shelley Long could’ve ridden out the Cheers wave as long as it was on the air. Yet not halfway through the series, Long decided to leave and pursue a career in movies. Shelley Long left Cheers in the season 5 finale, just as Sam and Diane were about to get married too.
She was quickly replaced by Kirstie Alley as the show’s lead. Sadly for Long, her movie career went nowhere fast.
Shelley Long had a reasonably solid movie career before Cheers premiered and a little while it was airing. Yet removed the show, Long’s career floundered.
She never really managed to land a big role in a movie and eventually returned to TV. However, no role was as meaty or as well known as Diane in Cheers.
7 A-Lister: Will Smith
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was designed with one singular goal in mind to make a star of its lead Will Smith.
It doesn’t really need to be said that the '90s sitcom succeeded beyond its wildest dreams as Smith is one of the biggest movie stars ever.
Before Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will Smith was only known for one thing. He was a rapper, not an actor.
Smith had made a name for himself as rapper, going by the stage name of Fresh Prince, and NBC approached him with a sitcom. The sitcom was developed to capitalize on Smith’s rapping career.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air certainly did that, but also introduced Smith to a whole host of new fans.
Although viewers grew to love the Banks family surrounding Will, the rapper turned actor was the real star of the production.
Fresh of Bel-Air was Will Smith’s acting debut and he used the series to land the movies Bad Boys, Independence Day, and Men in Black. These are some of Smith’s most iconic roles ever and they all immediately followed one another, during and after the run of Fresh Prince.
Nowadays, the TV watching audience is so massive that it’s impossible to have a starring vehicle like Fresh Prince. Will Smith got one of the last and most successful star vehicle sitcoms.
6 Flopped: McLean Stevenson
For most of you reading this list, the name McLean Stevenson isn’t going to mean anything. Some of that unfamiliarity has to do with the sitcom that McLean was apart of, MASH.
To this day no one has beaten the series finale numbers of MASH but the show did run from the '70s to the '80s. It was a whole another era of television.
Yet the real reason that hardly anyone will recognize McLean Stevenson’s name is because of how hard his career flopped.
When it was on the air, MASH was a phenomenon. Everyone was watching and talking about it. This is no small feat as it focused on one of the most unpopular wars ever, the Korean War. McLean Stevenson played the commanding officer of the surgical camp of MASH, Lt. Colonel Henry Blake.
He wasn’t quite the lead of the show, but he was certainly one of its stars. MASH was more an ensemble than anything else and Stevenson didn’t really enjoy being a team player.
The actor didn’t like playing the supporting role and asked to be let out of his contract during the third season of the show. This turned out to be a huge mistake.
After leaving MASH, Stevenson didn’t really find any sustaining work. He bounced around to a few sitcoms.
In almost all of them, he was given the lead role but none of them lasted more than a season. Meanwhile, MASH kept growing and growing, leaving Stevenson far behind.
5 A-Lister: George Clooney
It’s a well-known Hollywood fact that George Clooney, one of the biggest movie stars of all time, got his start on TV. Yet the TV role that’s usually ascribed to Clooney’s career is the opposite of a sitcom, ER.
While it’s true that his role as charming ER doctor Doug Ross launched his movie career it wasn’t Clooney first real TV role (or even first time on a TV show called ER.)
One of Clooney’s earliest roles was as the young nephew of a nurse, Ace, on the short-lived sitcom titled E/R. Yet his major role was The Facts of Life where he played handyman, George Burnett.
On the family friendly sitcom about a group of girls attending a boarding school, Clooney would float in and out as the handsome and feathered hair worker.
It’s a laughably small role for a someone who go on to become a huge star, but Clooney was noticeable, simply for being one of the few male characters on the series.
From Facts of Life, Clooney would bounce around to other sitcoms. He had a semi-recurring role on Roseanne too.
It wouldn’t be until the late 90’s and early 00’s where his career really launched into the stratosphere with big movies but it all started on a goofy sitcom.
4 Flopped: Jenna Fischer
As Pam Beesley, Jenna Fischer became the crush of every Office fan. Fischer took a role that could’ve been completely boring and maybe just a little bit aggravating and made her a total sweetheart.
Pam is the heart and soul of The Office. Yet despite all her obvious talent, Jenna Fischer has never really escaped the role of Pam.
The Office wasn’t Jenna Fischer’s first role ever, but it might as well be considered that way. Before The Office the actress has done little more than bit parts. She even has an uncredited and unnamed appearance in Steve’s Carrel’s 40 Year-Old Virgin.
It is her time as Pam Beesley that made Jenna Fischer, if not a household name than a recognizable face. Yet no one has seemed interested in making Fischer a star.
Since The Office has ended, it’s not even as if Fischer has gotten a role that could make her star. She’s just been pretty much absent or landed supporting roles in movies or TV shows that are doomed to fail.
With the recently premiered Splitting Up Together, Fischer finally has landed the lead in a sitcom again. While that show will have a season 2, it’s future beyond season 2 is murk. Sadly, it’s not a smash hit or critical darling.
3 A-Lister: Steve Carell
Before The Office, Steve Carell wasn’t an unknown quantity. He had been on The Daily Show for years and had scene stealing moments in the movies Anchorman and Bruce Almighty. Yet it’s only really after going through The Office, that Carell hit true A-Lister status.
The Office and The 40 Year-Old Virgin released during the same year, making 2005 a very exciting time in Carrell’s career. Since then, he hasn’t really slowed down.
As Michael Scott, the lovable buffoonish boss of The Office, Carell crafted a role that made audience fall in love with him and separated himself from the original UK version of The Office.
After plugging away for years, The Office provided Carrell a veritable mountain of evidence that he was a star waiting to happen.
For years, Carrell tried to balance his role on The Office with big-screen comedies. Eventually though he had to cut ties with the sitcom. Carrell left The Office in season 7 of the series and it proved to be the perfect move for his career.
Rather than flop without The Office to back him up, Carrell kept going.
Like many comedic actors before him, including Robin Williams, Carrell has been able to balance comedy and drama staying in demand no matter the project.
2 Flopped: Amanda Bynes
The story of how Amanda Bynes’ career flopped is very tragic and not even worth the lamest jokes.
Bynes began her career as a Nickelodeon star. She started on All That, essentially the kid version of Saturday Night Live, and transitioned that into her own sketch comedy show as well as several movie roles and a sitcom in What I Like About You.
At a very early age, Amanda Bynes showed a lot of talent and promise. When she transitioned from child actor to adult actor, things started to crumble quickly.
Amanda Bynes became the subject for a ton of tabloid fodder around 2010 for her very bizarre and very public behavior. Bynes would wear obvious wigs in public, spout very bizarre statements on social media and in public.
Overall, she just seemed very unstable. However, this wasn’t just another example of a child star on the emotional rocks. It slowly came out that Bynes had some very real mental issues that were going untreated. The actress was seriously ill.
After a long time in the public eye, Bynes was hospitalized, treated and put under a conservatorship by her mother.
Now it appears that the actress is much healthier but her acting career has sort of withered and perished. There are rumors that she might return to acting but things aren’t very promising with Bynes' last credit being in 2010 with Easy A.
1 A-Lister: Tom Hanks
It’s hard to imagine a time when Tom Hanks wasn’t beloved and known the world over. However that time does exist. It’s the early '80s, when Hanks was just a lowly sitcom actor.
The insane level of Hanks’ fame is impressive enough. Yet it becomes even more remarkable when the sitcom role that put him on the map is considered.
In 1982, Hanks starred in the sitcom called Bosom Buddies. In the show Hanks and Peter Scolari dressed up in drag to live in all-female hotel.
As you can imagine most of the jokes surrounded around Hanks being a man dressed as a woman. Bosom Buddies was just that lame.
From Bosom Buddies, Hanks also landed a role on the sitcom Family Ties where he played the alcoholic Uncle Ned to Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton.
It wouldn’t be until 1988’s Big when Hanks graduated out of (humiliating) sitcom roles onto something more substantial. From Big to A League of Their Own to Forrest Gump and Toy Story, Hanks’ career has been a long line of him churning out hit after hit.
Movie stars aren’t as important as they once were but there’s no other word for Hanks but movie star. And, it all started with him playing a paper thing character in an even more ridiculous sitcom.
Do you agree with our list? Are there any big sitcom stars who flopped or soared that we missed? Sound off in the comments!