When last year’s Academy Award nominations were announced, many were surprised “Opposite of Sex” supporting actress Lisa Kudrow wasn’t among the chosen.
But in the long run, perhaps more notable than her omission is the fact that a TV series star was a serious contender for an Oscar nomination.
The distinction between film and TV used to be rigid. Sometimes film stars would segue to TV when their bigscreen work was ebbing, like Loretta Young, Robert Young and Ray Milland. But TV stars rarely moved into films, and if they did, it was programmers that capitalized on their TV following, like Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz in “The Long Long Trailer.”
The pilgrimage of TV stars to Oscar glory had an improbable vanguard: Tom Tully.
Tully, supporting actor nominee for 1954, had just launched his TV serial career with CBS’ “The Lineup” when he notched a bid for his role in Edward Dmytryk’s “The Caine Mutiny.” Though he had more than a decade of film work behind him, the thesp continued with the skein through its six-year run, making features during hiatuses.
Two years later, Red Buttons, who had just finished the run of his TV variety show, had a lot of good-for-you sentiment going for him when he won an Academy Award for 1957’s “Sayonara,” the thesp’s first major film role.
During the 1960s, the trend continued at a trickle. Steve McQueen’s only regular tour of TV duty commenced the same year as he burst on the bigscreen in the B-horror “The Blob.” The actor played Josh Randall on the Western “Wanted: Dead or Alive” for three seasons before heading for film’s greener pastures for good.
McQueen delivered standout perfs in films such as “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape,” forever outgrowing his smallscreen origins. He earned his single Oscar nom for 1968’s “The Sand Pebbles.”
Another ’60s TV tough, Clint Eastwood (“Rawhide”), found his entry to bigscreen success via spaghetti Westerns and other films that, while popular, didn’t exactly turn Oscar’s head. It would take the thesp getting behind the camera and deconstructing the filmic myth he had promulgated to finally earn Acad laurels with 1992’s “Unforgiven”.
On a lighter note, Warren Beatty’s preppie Milton Armitage lasted only one year (1959) on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” but starting with 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” the multitalented actor would accumulate 14 Oscar bids, four of those for thesp work.
Perhaps the turning point in Oscar’s treatment of TV’s progeny came in 1970, when one of the unlikeliest crossover successes in film history, Goldie Hawn, captured the supporting actress trophy for her first major film role, in “Cactus Flower.” Hawn had made her name as a bubbly, body-painted regular on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” which she promptly left after her Academy triumph.
“Starting in the ’70s, there emerged a dichotomy between the older and the new Hollywood,” says Damien Bona, co-author of “Inside Oscar,” noting that the younger generation had less of a condescending view of their TV brethren, having grown up on it themselves.
Child star Jodie Foster snared a supporting actress statue for her street-smart prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 “Taxi Driver.” Prior to her nom, Foster had roles in short-lived (and feature-derived) series such as “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” and “Paper Moon” (playing the role that had won Tatum O’Neal an Oscar in 1974). Her first Oscar nom, at age 13, effectively ended her smallscreen career, as the thesp graduated to a mixed bag of adultish roles (“Foxes”) and Disney romps (“Candleshoe”), before hitting her stride in the 1980s (and taking the first of her two best actress Oscars, for 1998’s “The Accused.”)
John Travolta continued his gig as “Sweathog” Vinnie Barbarino on “Welcome Back, Kotter” for a year after snagging his first Acad bid, for 1977’s “Saturday Night Fever.” Travolta’s star would fade in the 1980s, though he never returned to television before his career revival (and second Oscar nom, for “Pulp Fiction”) in 1994.
Among other TV stars who successfully entered Oscar’s arena was ex-“Honeymooner” Art Carney, Oscared over formidable competition (Albert Finney, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino) for 1974’s “Harry and Tonto.”
Bona believes the quality of Carney’s performance and his theatre work played stronger factors in the thesp’s win, but allows, despite the two-decade gap, that “there may have been some residue of affection from his work as Ed Norton.”
Still, it was the younger set that dominated the pilgrimage. Michael Douglas had just about finished walking “The Streets of San Francisco” as Det. Steve Kelly when he earned his first Oscar for co-producing best pic winner “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975. He then took a supporting role in his next feature, “The China Syndrome,” the first of a spate of bigscreen roles that culminated with his 1987 best actor award for “Wall Street.”
However, not every TV thesp who earns Oscar’s notice with their first noteworthy film role parlays it into a high-profile career. One of TV’s leading lights for two decades, Mary Tyler Moore, grabbed a nom for her embittered mother in “Ordinary People” — a departure from her signature roles on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and her eponymous 1970s sitcom. Moore’s co-star, Judd Hirsch, also earned a nom just as he was completing his run as Alex Rieger on “Taxi.” Neither thesp’s film career reached such heights again.
Moore “played a dark character, very much against type,” says Bona, who refutes the notion that the actress’ TV roots cost her the award, instead citing the fact that Moore’s character did not evince the growth and range that marked the work of winner Sissy Spacek (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”).
The 1980s spawned two of Oscar’s biggest TV-reared success stories, who are this year threatening to notch their fifth and fourth nominations, respectively: Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington.
Hanks, whose film debut in the 1980 slasher pic “He Knows You’re Alone” somehow eluded Oscar’s notice, first made a splash on the crossdressing-for-laughs ABC sitcom “Bosom Buddies.” After TV refugee Ron Howard’s “Splash” made Hanks a bankable film star in 1984, the thesp never turned back, scoring his first Oscar nom (for “Big”) six years after tearing off his TV character’s blouse for the last time. A score of blockbusters, three more noms (and two consecutive Acad victories) would follow.
Washington had beaten Hanks to the Oscar party. In 1988, Washington, who at that point had logged six years as Dr. Chandler on the medical drama “St. Elsewhere,” earned a supporting actor nom for “Cry Freedom,” only his fourth venture into film. Washington finished the show’s run that same year, and like Hanks, has almost eradicated any vestige of being “from TV,” what with such films to his credit as “Malcolm X,” “Crimson Tide” and “Glory” (for which he won a 1989 supporting actor Oscar).
“I don’t think there really is a stigma for an actor coming from television today,” Bona says. “It’s just that the films most TV people are offered tend to be light and inconsequential, playing up their characters from the show rather than letting them stretch. But I don’t think Academy voters automatically dismiss TV actors.”
The migration continued apace in the 1990s. Marisa Tomei leapfrogged from daytime TV (“As the World Turns”) to a brief primetime stint (“A Different World”) to Oscar with her supporting actress win for “My Cousin Vinny” (1992).
“One Life to Live” vet Tommy Lee Jones took supporting actor honors for “The Fugitive” (1993). Among the actors Jones defeated was a young thesp who’d had a recurring role late in the run of ’80s sitcom “Growing Pains”: Leonardo DiCaprio.
The 1997 supporting actor race is a milestone of sorts for thesps who had spent at least part of their salad days on the TV set. Burt Reynolds (“Gunsmoke”), Greg Kinnear (“Talk Soup”) and Robert Forster (“Banyon”) all had multiple tube credits by the time they each earned their first noms. And winner Robin Williams, though after two decades of film work and four Academy Award bids seemed eons away from Ork, spent four years in a red jumpsuit on “Mork and Mindy,”
“The wall between movies and television is coming down,” says Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman. “I think TV has lost much of its declasse aura, partly because the movies that are ruling the box office are so second-rate. When ‘Double Jeopardy’ is No. 1, who’s going to look down at TV?”
TV’s biggest recent Oscar success, Helen Hunt (whose career skipped from features to TV series and back again for more than 20 years) had collected two consecutive Emmys for “Mad About You” when she took home Oscar for 1997’s “As Good as It Gets.” It didn’t hurt, however, that Hunt had primed the bigscreen pump by toplining the 1996 action smash “Twister,” thesp’s first hit film.
Despite the win, Hunt did complete one last season on “Mad,” but also lined up another promising big-budgeter, “Cast Away” (co-starring Tom Hanks).
In this year’s Oscar race, aside from Washington and Hanks, TV’s ranks contribute Julianne Moore (“As the World Turns”), Hilary Swank (“Beverly Hills 90210”), Jim Carrey (“In Living Color”), past winner Kevin Spacey (“Wiseguy”) and Haley Joel Osment (“The Jeff Foxworthy Show”).
“TV stars will always want to be movie stars,” Gleiberman says. “Movie stardom just seems more mythological than TV stardom, though in general our pop culture has been demystified, what with the E! channel and entertainment news programs. Such a TV-news presence is part of what today’s film stars are. The era of film people turning up their noses at television is over.”