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Window of inopportunity

Thesps only have short summer hiatus to test bigscreen waters

Though it’s conventional wisdom to divide actors into bigscreen and small-screen stars, there has always been overlap.

For decades, mature thesps experiencing a decline in their film fortunes (think Rock Hudson) found new work on TV. Likewise, charismatic younger figures — including Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen — made their mark on the tube before transitioning into pics, a path traced more recently by Robin Williams, Bruce Willis, Johnny Depp and George Clooney.

But there have always been actors — James Garner, for instance — who have pivoted between these two worlds. And these days, there is no firm demarcation point, for now more than ever, TV represents a proving ground for young talent, as well as a place where more seasoned actors can find a place to prosper while awaiting their next close-up.

Yet even when film projects beckon, actors starring in series TV can’t always manage to accept those offers. For the most part, movie work must be limited to those periods when shows are on hiatus. And sometimes, even projects that seem promising don’t ultimately work out.

John C. McGinley, who worked steadily in movies before joining the cast of “Scrubs” in 2001, is in just that bind right now.

“I’m supposed to do a film called ‘Are We Done Yet?’ with Ice Cube in Vancouver,” he says, “but Cube has moved the dates. And now the filming may bump up against the sixth season of ‘Scrubs,’ which begins in early August.”

Zach Braff, star of “Scrubs” and the writer-director of the critically acclaimed feature “Garden State” (2004), has also struggled with TV’s demands. He recently adapted a Danish film called “Open Hearts,” but actually making the movie has proved more difficult.

“Scrubs” duties restrict such activities to July. So when some actors he hoped to cast became unavailable this summer, he had to postpone filming. “I’ll have to make it next year,” he says.

On the other hand, Braff credits “Scrubs” with helping “Garden State” see fruition.

“I’d like to think that I’d have gotten it made somehow,” he says, “but being on a TV show gets your script moved to the top of the pile.”

Indeed, he extols the benefits of series TV for actors with bigscreen ambitions: “In a way, it’s ideal because you work really hard for half the year on TV, and then you have five months to do what you’d like. And you don’t have to rush out and take a job for money because you make a nice living in TV.”

Ben McKenzie is one of several young actors to spring from obscurity to fame thanks to “The OC,” which has just been picked up for a fourth season. Like Braff, he recognizes his good fortune: “I have a great job, an acting job, not a waiting-tables job. That’s a huge thing. I don’t have to worry about money. I can just do other things for the love of it.”

One such project was last year’s “Junebug,” an indie pic in which McKenzie played a character worlds away from “The OC’s” Ryan Atwood. But though TV may have helped McKenzie land the role, he insists that such an association benefited the film as well.

“Producers are finally awakening to the cross-promotional avenues that have opened up,” he says. “It’s now much easier to get projects if you have a TV career. It’s a shorthand for success.”

Adam Brody, who plays McKenzie’s buddy Seth Cohen on “The OC,” has experienced similar good fortune, landing memorable supporting turns in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “Thank You for Smoking.”

“TV doesn’t have the stigma that it used to,” says Brody. “It used to be film or TV. Now, especially when you’re young, they look to TV to see who they can farm to the major leagues. There’s a level of fame that movies have a hard time competing with. I was a little worried at first, but the film community has welcomed us.”

Ironically, just as movies seem to be embracing TV actors as never before, the quality of series television has reached new highs. Dennis Haysbert, who played President Palmer on “24” and now stars in David Mamet’s “The Unit,” has certainly benefited from that trend.

“I’m dealing with television scripts week in and week out that are often better than the films I’m offered,” he says, making an exception for the pic he’s currently shooting, Bille August’s “Goodbye Bafana,” in which Haysbert plays Nelson Mandela.

The actor likens his choices to a pilot’s options: “Everybody wants to fly jets. Films are like F-18s. TV is like an Apache helicopter. When you have good scripts, it doesn’t matter whether you’re flying an Apache or an F-18. Both can be very exhilarating.”

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