As long as television has been around, movie stars have reinvented themselves as TV series stars.
Lucille Ball started out in films, then became a TV legend. Burgess Meredith and Cesar Romero both had long movie careers before they became Penguin and Joker opposite Adam Ward’s Batman. More recently TV’s given us Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies and Anthony Hopkins as one of the stars of HBO’s Westworld.
For every star who made the transition, though, there’s one who tanked. Not necessarily because the actor was a bad; TV has a lot of constraints movies don’t. The choice of a time slot can make or break a show, especially back before VCRs made recording shows an option. A successful film may be over in two hours; a successful TV series may run week after week for years. Some talented stars are stuck in shows that just suck.
These movie actors who couldn’t make the jump to TV series success — at least so far. Just like success, failure doesn’t have to be forever: Dustin Hoffman flopped in 2011’s Luck, but he’s now scoring with a role in Medici. As long as there’s life, there’s hope for a TV comeback.
Here are 15 Movie Stars Who Couldn’t Make It In TV.
15. Halle Berry
One advantage movies have over TV is that two hours of running time gives people less time to screw things up than a season or two of weekly shows. Case in point, Halle Berry’s 2014 – 2015 CBS series Extant, about an astronaut who gets pregnant during a year-long solo mission.
The show’s first season was well reviewed, but didn’t generate high enough ratings for the network. CBS decided a shakeup was called for. A new show runner came on board. Season 2 dropped four of the seven leads along with most of the season 1 subplots. The tone became more action, less sci-fi as Berry’s Molly went on the run from the bad guys.
14. Robert Downey Jr.
Long before Iron Man made Downey box office gold, he was known as a talented actor working in indie and off-the-wall films. Oh, and for doing lots of drugs which led in turn to lots of time behind bars. After wrapping up one stretch of prison time around the turn of the century, he joined the cast of Ally McBeal for its fourth season.
As Ally’s new boyfriend Larry, Downey played the voice of reason to Calista Flockhart’s flighty lawyer, and played it well. The show’s creator/writer David Kelley planned to have Ally and Larry tie the knot, but Downey’s drug problems got in the way. Downey was fired from the show so Larry, instead of proposing, broke up with Ally.
13. Vince Vaughn
The first season of a well-done show can blow viewers away because they have no expectations. Season 2 is tougher, because it has to live up to season 1. Such was the problem with Vince Vaughn’s season as a star of HBO’s True Detective.
The first season generated rave reviews for Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Louisiana detectives. The second season, which pitted cop Colin Farrell against crooked businessman Vince Vaughn, did not. One review said Vaughn was miscast as a black-hearted villain, and that the role was poorly written.
HBO President Michael Lombardo said the problem was that the writers needed more time to make season 2 as good as season but HBO had rushed them to get it on the air. Lombardo has promised season 3 – starring recent Oscar winner Mahershala Ali – won’t have that problem.
12. Naomi Watts
Naomi Watts’ first TV flop made her a movie star.
David Lynch’s follow-up to Twin Peaks was Mulholland Drive, a mystery that, judging from the pilot, would have made Twin Peaks look mundane and linear. The pilot didn’t sell, so Lynch expanded it and released it as a feature film. The expanded version didn’t make a lot of sense, but it gave a big role to Watts, who went from struggling actor to A-lister.
In 2017, Watts got good reviews in Lynch’s Twin Peaks revival on Showtime, but her Netflix starring vehicle, Gypsy, didn’t do so well. Watts executive-produced the ten-episode series, which starred her as an unstable therapist who insinuates herself into the lives of her patients. Gypsy won’t be back for a second season.
11. Wesley Snipes
NBC’s The Player has one of those oddball premises many TV shows have succeeded with. A gambling ring pits criminals against a designated crimefighter — the Player — and then takes bets on the outcome. A security expert investigating his wife’s murder becomes the latest Player, whether he likes it or not.
With plenty of action and crime film roles under his belt, Wesley Snipes must have seemed perfect for the role of Mr. Johnson, the ring’s Pit Boss. Showrunner John Rogers has said he loved the way Snipes approached the role, playing Johnson as someone who enjoys being mysterious, shadowy and manipulative.
10. Alicia Silverstone
When Miss Match debuted in 2003, it must have seemed like a perfect starring vehicle for Alicia Silverstone. She’d demonstrated no shortage of charm as the matchmaking star of the hit teen rom-com Clueless; in Miss Match she played a divorce attorney who doubles as a matchmaker. It had the added star power of Ryan O’Neal as Silverstone’s father and the creative mind of Sex and the City’s Darren Star behind it.
NBC pulled the plug after only eleven of eighteen episodes had aired. Miss Match was charming enough, but viewers weren’t watching. Possibly the problem was airing it on Friday night, which is notorious for having low audience turn out, supposedly because viewers are out having fun instead of watching shows.
9. Bette Midler
What could be a better way to put Bette Midler’s talent, brassy personality and screen presence in a TV series than to have her play herself? As it turned out, just about anything.
Bette, which aired from 2000 to 2001, had Midler playing a character named “Bette” — no last name given — who struggled to balance her high-powered schedule as a well-known singer/actor with the needs of her family. Celebrities including Danny DeVito and Dolly Parton made cameos playing themselves, but nothing seemed to make Bette work.
Lindsay Lohan, playing Bette’s daughter, dropped out after the pilot – probably one of her better career moves. Not so for Robert Hays, who replaced Bette’s original husband (Kevin Dunn) for one episode before cancellation.
8. Hugh Jackman
Hugh Jackman has been an A-lister since he first played Wolverine. He’s demonstrated he can do comedy, romance, and straight drama but series television? Not so far.
2007’s Viva Laughlin was based on a British TV series.. Blackpool had Ripley, a seedy, scheming British casino owner, fantasizing about the glamor of Vegas in between song and dance numbers. The American reboot placed the casino in a small town near Vegas, which undercut the absurdity of Ripley dreaming about Vegas. The show also softened the ruthless edges of the British Ripley.
One reviewer concluded Jackman was just too good in the role of a big-league casino owner: the lead’s lack of charisma became much more obvious next to a genuine star. The show folded after two episodes.
7. Harvey Keitel
The US remake of the UK hit Life on Mars shows some premises can’t be stretched out too long. The UK original lasted two season of eight episodes each. The first season alone of ABC’s version hit 17 episodes.
When protagonist Sam Tyler, a 21st century cop, finds himself in the 1970s, he has to figure out how to get home. Or is he hallucinating? If he is, which time period is real? In between trying to figure it out, Tyler keeps clashing with his boss Hunt – a hard-boiled cop willing to bend the law to nail a perp.
Harvey Keitel, an actor with a flair for tough antihero types, made a great Hunt, but like Snipes he couldn’t save the show. The plots and shticks wore thin over time, and so did the ratings. The producers believed it was just too original for network TV.
6. Woody Allen
Woody Allen broke into TV back in the 1950s writing skits and comic scripts for various series. He made the jump to movies and didn’t work in series TV again until 2016’s Crisis in Six Scenes. The critical consensus was that he should have stayed on the big screen.
The Allen-written miniseries starred Allen and Elaine May as an elderly New York couple in the 1960s. Like a lot of Allen’s films, the comedy came partly from their own pretentiousness, partly from an absurd development — a female terrorist (Miley Cyrus) holes up in their apartment between bombings. Unfortunately the comedy was in very short supply — it’s the kind of series where “it’s not completely awful” was an upbeat review.
5. Shirley Maclaine
TV Guide dubbed 1971 “the year of the big star” because so many movie stars turned to television. Shirley Maclaine’s made her own effort that year with Shirley’s World.
The star of Terms and Endearment and Postcards From the Edge was known back then for playing quirky, bubbly characters. Sure enough, photojournalist Shirley Logan was quirky and bubbly as she stumbled into humorous scrapes around the world.
Ironically Rock Hudson, nowhere near the actor Maclaine or the other big stars were, outlasted them all. His mystery series McMillan and Wife ran for several seasons as part of the NBC Mystery Movie rotating-series slot. NBC Mystery Movie actually ran opposite Smith Family and Shirley’s World, helping to kick them into oblivion.
4. Peter Weller
TV historians have multiple stories of network suits cancelling a show for no clear reason. Odyssey 5 may have been one of them.
The show starred Peter Weller of Robocop and Buckaroo Banzai fame as the leader of a space-shuttle crew that witnesses the Earth below them being destroyed. An alien reveals Earth is only one in a series of destroyed planets, then sends their minds back five years to find the cause and prevent it.
On top of the threat of global destruction, Weller and his team find life in the past surprisingly hard. They’re stuck reliving times in their lives that they’ve outgrown or refighting personal battles they lost the first time around. When Showtime whacked the series after one season — no explanation given — both the personal struggles and the looming threat to Earth were left unresolved.
3. Jimmy Stewart
Jimmy Stewart’s CV includes It’s a Wonderful Life, Destry Rides Again, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Rear Window. And also two TV series he’d probably prefer to forget.
The title of 1971’s The Jimmy Stewart Show made its star the selling point, but that didn’t help. When a professor’s son turns boomerang kid and moves his family back in with dad (Stewart), hilarity was supposed to ensue. It didn’t.
Hawkins was his 1973 series that did no better. Stewart plays a folksy but brilliant country attorney — Matlock before Matlock — with a flair for getting his invariably innocent clients off and exposing the real killer. Hawkins shared its timeslot with two rotating series, so it only aired eight episodes before CBS mercy-killed it.
2. Henry Fonda
Robert Downey Jr. chafed at the demands of a TV work schedule, but Henry Fonda loved it. Made by a production company that churned out shows fast, the 15 season 1 episodes of Fonda’s The Smith Family took 46 days to shoot, which left the star lots of free time.
Although Fonda was famous for films ranging from Twelve Angry Men to The Grapes of Wrath, that didn’t goose the ratings for this formulaic, amiable sitcom about a cop and his family. Casting Ron Howard as his son (between The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days) didn’t help either. One reviewer said the penguins in a recent documentary were more human than the Smiths.
1. Roddy McDowell
Roddy McDowell began his film career in the 1930s and kept working at it into the 1990s. Although he had plenty of guest appearances on TV, such as voicing the Mad Hatter in Batman: The Animated Series, his series-regular roles have consistently been in flops.
Spinning off his roles in the original Planet of the Apes films, McDowell appeared as the friendly chimp Galen in 1974’s Planet of the Apes TV series. The story of Galen and two humans fleeing through the ape-ruled future failed to catch viewers the way the movies did.
In the equally short-lived 1977 series, Fantastic Journey, McDowell as a cynical genius brought much needed acting talent to the cast, but not enough to save things. 1982’s Tales of the Gold Monkey, with McDowell as a bar owner, at least made it an entire season before cancellation.
Any stars we missed? Take your shots in the comments.
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