By Paula Hendrickson
Not that long ago, it seemed most TV actors were yearning to break into feature films. Many actors have left hit TV shows to pursue film careers that just didn’t pan out as planned. These days, the opposite may be true, as more and more actors known primarily for their film work are seeking out more rewarding roles on television.
The trend began several years ago as well-written and produced HBO and Showtime series drew critical praise. Basic cable networks like FX and AMC took notice and started ordering intense dramas with the kinds of meaty roles actors love. Cable’s shorter seasons really appealed to actors who’d been unwilling to sign on for broadcast television’s standard 22 episodes per year. The creative challenge of playing the same character for an extended period only increased their interest. (The fact that TV offers far more opportunities than are available in the limited number of feature films released each year is also a factor for actors who like to work.)
More than 10 years ago, James Spader transitioned to TV with gusto in his award-winning guest arc as Alan Shore on The Practice, but didn’t let the long-term commitment of a broadcast series stop him from accepting ABC’s offer of a spin-off series, Boston Legal. This past season, Spader’s performance as The Blacklist’s Red Reddington gave NBC a much-needed hit.
Other early adaptors included Glenn Close (Damages) and Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer), well before Claire Danes signed on to Homeland. In 2011, Dustin Hoffman starred in HBO’s short-run series, Luck. Last year, Kevin Bacon agreed to star in The Following after FOX agreed to shorter, more cable-like seasons. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright really took a risk by starring in House of Cards before anyone knew how well Netflix’s unusual distribution would work (and make binge viewing a national pastime).
Take a look at more recent shows. Woody Harrelson returned to TV and brought Matthew McConaughey along for the ride in season one of HBO’s True Detective. Not only has Laurence Fishburne co-starred in NBC’s Hannibal for the past two seasons, he also has a role in Black-ish, a comedy pilot recently picked up by ABC. Fargo’s Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman both come from the film world as well (Freeman also plays John Watson alongside Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes on PBS’s Sherlock, which only produces a few episodes each season to accommodate actors’ busy film schedules).
Even more movie stars are coming to network TV this summer. First up is John Malkovich as Blackbeard in NBC’s pirate adventure series, Crossbones, which premieres Friday, May 30. Later this summer, Halle Berry stars as an astronaut returning from a year alone in space in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi thriller, Extant, on CBS.
It took the broadcast networks a while to catch up with cable and start ordering actor-friendly short season series. I hope it’s a trend that continues, since I enjoy watching great actors portraying the kind of strong, original characters you only find on TV.
• Crossbones — Series premiere Friday, May 30, on NBC at 9 p.m. Central.
• Extant — Series premiere Wednesday, July 9, on CBS at 7 p.m.
Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, Television Week and TVGuide. Follow her on Twitter at P_Hendrickson and send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the May 28-June 3, 2014, issue