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October 8, 2015

17 comedic actors who moved into dramatic television roles

by Richard Keller, posted May 1st 2008 12:20PM

The comedians who made inwards into drama are featured in this articleAs AOL Television continues their look at the 50 Best TV Comedies -- Ever with their Top 10, we here at TV Squad are also looking at television comedy, but with a slightly skewed difference. Last week, we took a look at the Saturday Night Live cast members from 1996 to 2006 that made it to the big time. This week, we get a bit more serious.

There are those in the industry who say that it is easier to go from acting in a drama to acting in a comedy than it is the other way around. Yet, as you will see from the list we've compiled after the jump, there are plenty of comedic actors who have jumped from the world of comedy films, stand-up comedy, and television sitcoms into the more serious world of drama. In many cases they have had even greater success than they did on the other side of the tracks. There have even been instances where they stayed in the drama genre and never went back to being funny.

As with the other lists we've compiled on comedians over the last few weeks there were a few rules that were set for this one. First, their dramatic appearance had to be one that made somewhat of an impression with the television audience, good or bad, when they saw them; a cameo featuring a few lines of dialogue was not considered. Next, they had to be familiar stars in movies, stand-up or television. Finally, the members of this list needed to have a sizable comedy portfolio before they jumped into drama. If they jumped between television dramas and comedies as a regular cast member they were not included. Of course, there were a few exceptions.

So, stop laughing, and let's begin...

Anthony Anderson -- After roles in TV comedies like Hang Time, and All About the Andersons and movies such as Scary Movie 3, Barbershop and Kangaroo Jack, Anderson did a total 180 when he moved into television drama. His first major dramatic role was as the very scary Antwon Mitchell on The Shield. Last year, he portrayed a less scary, but still dramatic, New Orleans cop on the FOX series K-Ville. Starting on Friday he'll be joining the ranks at Detective Kevin Bernard on the original Law & Order.

Lucille Ball -- Lucy was primarily known for her quarter-century of work in television comedy, starting with the ground-breaking I Love Lucy in 1951 and ending with the disappointing Life With Lucy in 1986. However, that doesn't mean that she couldn't do drama. In fact, long before she stepped in front of a television camera Lucy starred in a number of dramatic films. She used this dramatic prowess in a few made-for-TV movies. The most famous of these is the 1985 telefilm Stone Pillow, in which she played a tough New York bag lady named Florabelle.

Richard Belzer -- After a successful career in stand-up, and a very short career as a talk show host, The Belz decided to go the dramatic route in episodic television. In turn, he created one of the longest running dramatic characters (since 1993) on television today. I talk about one Detective John Munch, who has appeared in practically every single show on television. This includes his regular roles on Law & Order: SVU and Homicide: Life on the Street and guest starring roles on The Wire, Arrested Development, Law & Order, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, The Beat, and Sesame Street.

Carol Burnett -- Another Lady of Television Comedy who did some damn fine work in television drama. Her most famous dramatic role was in the 1979 movie Friendly Fire, in which she portrayed a mother who tried to find out how her son died in Vietnam. Burnett was nominated for an Emmy Award for her that role. In the same year she appeared in the movie The Tenth Month as a middle-aged woman who is accidentally impregnated and decides to give birth and keep the baby.

Jim Carrey -- At the height of his success on In Living Color, Jim decided to broaden his acting skills and appeared in the FOX made-for-TV-movie (remember those?) Doing Time on Maple Drive. In the telefilm, Carrey played Tim Carter, an alcoholic who was a part of a bigger dysfunctional family. Carrey gained critical acclaim for the role and the movie was nominated for three Emmy Awards.

Bill Cosby -- Out of all of the people on this list, Bill Cosby started his dramatic career early with his role on the spy-drama I Spy. Playing trainer Alexander Scott to Robert Culp's Kelly Robinson, Cosby was the first black actor to have a lead role in an American television drama. He would reprise his role in the 1994 TV movie I Spy Returns. Coincidentally, that was the same year that Cosby returned to series television after The Cosby Show with the crime-drama The Cosby Mysteries.

Courteney Cox -- Now, before you get your hackles up, I'm not talking about her role on Misfits of Science. That was really not a show that appeared in our universe -- you only dreamed it did. No, the dramatic role for Cox came after her stint on Family Ties and that show about six friends who drink a lot of coffee of out these huge mugs. This would be her portrayal of Lucy Spiller on the FX series Dirt.

Dick Van Dyke -- This can't be right...Dick Van Dyke is 82 years old? And, for most of that time he has been on television or in the movies -- mostly comedies. Heck, he was a household name in the 1960s with the classic The Dick Van Dyke Show and he was a cast member, although shortly, during the last years of The Carol Burnett Show. However, some of the newer generation of fans know Mr. Van Dyke from his role as Dr. Mark Sloan on the CBS medical-mystery-drama Diagnosis Murder. And, since he couldn't get away from solving crimes, he moved over to Hallmark Channel in 2007 for the Murder 101 TV-movie series.

Andy Griffith -- Another actor who had two different sets of fans in two different generations. Well, maybe it was the same generation of fans, but just a bit older. On the comedy side Griffith stared in the 60s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show, then followed it up with The New Andy Griffith Show in the early 70s. Later in the 70s he appeared in such dramatic TV-movie fare like Savages, Pray for the Wildcats (with William Shatner), and Winter Kill. He returned to series television with the drama...Ah, you thought I was going to say Matlock, weren't you? Well, that wasn't until 1986. Before that he played Harry Broderick in the ABC science-fiction drama Savlage 1.

Eddie Izzard -- I'm pretty sure that you wouldn't get confused between the comedian Eddie Izzard and the dramatic actor Eddie Izzard. As far as I know, Wayne Malloy, the character Izzard portrays on the FX drama The Riches, isn't an active transvestite. Then again, we normally don't see Wayne on off-hours, so who knows.

Hugh Laurie -- Before coming across the pond to star in the FOX drama House, Laurie was known as one of the bigger comedians over in the U.K. Most of us Americans have seen his comedy courtesy of rebroadcasts of Blackadder The Third, Blackadder Goes Fourth and Jeeves and Wooster. In the last show he co-starred with Stephen Fry, his partner on another comedy series named A Bit of Fry and Laurie. I always wanted the House character to meet the character that Fry played on Bones last season.

Dennis Leary -- Many of us discovered Dennis Leary during his short comedy segments on MTV (when it played music videos, so it was a looonnnggg time ago). Since then he acquired quite a decent acting resume in both comedy and drama. After getting his TV feet wet in the comedy The Job, Leary decided to make his own luck and came up with the FX drama Rescue Me, where he plays the very messed-up Tommy Gavin.

Howie Mandel -- Howie's transition from comedy to drama was pretty quick. After several years of comedy success in Canada in the late 70s, Mandel joined the NBC drama St. Elsewhere in 1982 as Dr. Wayne Ficus. While he continued with comedy Mandel remained on Elsewhere for the show's entire run.

Bob Newhart -- Bob didn't get into dramatic television roles until fairly recently. His most famous dramatic role, and the one that earned him an Emmy nomination, was as patient Ben Hollander in the NBC drama ER. He also had a recurring role as Morty Flickman on Desperate Housewives. Recently, Newhart has portrayed the very straight-laced Librarian to Noah Wyle's adventurer in TNT's The Librarian movie series.

Rosie O'Donnell -- I was kind of torn about this one. Rosie has been on the FX series Nip/Tuck as the character Dawn Budge, but she has played that up as more a comedic role. But, then I saw that she had a guest-starring role on the drama Queer as Folk, so I gave her the credit she is due. Plus, she portrayed the mentally challenged Beth Simon in the telefilm Riding the Bus with My Sister.

Martin Short -- Martin had only one dramatic television role, but it was a memorable one. In 2005 he appeared as the "psychic" Sebastian Valentine on Law & Order: SVU. Turns out, Valentine wasn't a psychic at all, but a killer named Henry Palaver. And, boy, he was a creepy little killer.

Maura Tierney -- Holy Frik! I just looked up Maura Tierney's history on IMDb and saw that she has been in nearly 200 episodes of ER. Wow, no wonder she wants her character to die. Well, Ms. Tierney is on the list because of her five-year stint on the NBC comedy NewsRadio. She played Lisa Miller -- a character who had much more luck in one day than Abby Lockhart has had in nearly a decade.

Lily Tomlin -- Although she portrayed a killer on the NBC crime-drama Homicide: Life on the Street, Tomlin may be known more for her role as Deborah Fiderer on The West Wing. She joined the series in the third season as President Bartlet's private secretary.

Robin Williams -- After his role as Mork on Mork & Mindy, Williams pretty much stuck to the stand-up circuit and movies. However, he has returned to TV for two dramatic roles. His first was as family man Robert Ellison on a 1994 episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. His next dramatic role was most recently as crazy Merritt Rook on Law & Order: SVU. Still, no matter how dramatic he is, a bit of his comedy still comes out. While watching this week's SVU he used the term 'Ol' Sparky' in a sentence -- a phrase he has used constantly in his comedy routines.

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Read the title people, sheesh...

But I digress, I just wanted to note that Anthony Anderson had a previous appearance as Stabler's partner on SVU.

May 05 2008 at 4:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sorry, but it's Denis Leary.

May 04 2008 at 6:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Where's Will Smith?

May 03 2008 at 9:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You have it wrong on Robin Williams - he has done quite a few dramatic movies, such as Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, Good Morning, Vietnam (sort of a dramedy) and most famously, Good Will Hunting, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. In my opinion, his dramatic movies are actually better than his comedies. Great actor and comedian all around - I'm just surprised you missed all of that about his career.

May 02 2008 at 10:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You also left Danny Kaye off the list. His career was almost exclusively comedy/musicals. He had one (that I know of) non-comedy role in the 40s or 50s (The Five Pennies) but made quite an impression in the 1980s in Skokie, a made-for-television movie about a Holocaust survivor's attempts to bar the American Nazi party from marching in Skokie, IL. He also had a small but powerful dramatic role in The New Twilight Zone (Paladin of the Lost Hour) before returning to comedy for his last role as the Huxtable's dentist in The Cosby Show.

May 02 2008 at 2:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Chuck & Bob

You left out Billy Crystal. The SNL folks were pursuing him around the time that he accepted the role of Jodie Dallas (the first openly gay tv character) on "Soap". True, that was a comedy show, but so much of it was played straight. I still shed a tear over the episode when Jodie was stood up at the altar, and anybody who doubts his chops as a serious actor needs to watch the 3rd season, when he went to court for custody of his baby, even knowing that no judge at the time would grant custody to a homosexual in the 1970's.

May 02 2008 at 1:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


I am not sure about this lsit...Courntey cox?! I am not sure about this! viewmy.tv

May 02 2008 at 5:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think you missed an important distinction: working in comedy vs. actually being funny, which about half this list is not (or I never heard of them).

May 02 2008 at 4:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So yet another half assed list eh?

No Tom Hanks no Will Smith or any number of people - why even bother posting lists (17 for gods sake - top 20 maybe)
If you are not going to try...

As for the criterea for getting on the list ..hopeless...

May 02 2008 at 3:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

No Will Smith??

May 02 2008 at 2:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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