The casting opposite of Leslie Nielsen Syndrome. It's a story found time and time again: a successful comedian, usually a film actor, suddenly tries to play against type and stars in a big, heavily dramatic movie, playing a dramatic role and generally acting all dramatic. Oddly enough, this shift has a pretty high chance of actually working, and becoming a permanent shift in the actor's roles.
The first question a viewer might have would be, Why does this happen so often? Well, As You Know, True Art Is Angsty. Many comic performers begin to feel they cannot get the acclaim and respect their dramatic counterparts do unless they start doing "serious" films. In addition, comedic films almost never win Oscars, leading stars to resort to Oscar Bait. It's instructive that most examples are film stars, since television's Emmys have separate categories for comedy and drama.
The second would be, You say this has a good chance of working. How can that be true? Well, what most non-actors aren't aware of is the fact that comedy is more difficult to act in successfully than drama. A mediocre performance is much more readable/watchable in a drama than in a comedy, because once comedy starts to fall apart, it's very hard to pull it back together again. Hence, a really good comic actor usually has the talent - the knowledge of their body, of timing, of the effects of subtle gestures - that can serve to make them brilliant at serious works as well. In some cases, when an actor does this long enough and successfully enough, they can become better known as a dramatic actor than a comedic one (just look at the Trope Namer).
Compare Cerebus Syndrome, where a series does this rather than an actor. As the examples below show, this doesn't always work well, but when the actor in question manages to do a really good job, it can lead to a surprised reaction: He Really Can Act! Contrast Leslie Nielsen Syndrome, where a successful drama actor becomes an equally successful comedian. Can be related to Comedy Ghetto.
When including examples, don't add natter saying they weren't funny in the first place. We all know about Chevy Chase and his problems already, God bless him.
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Tom Hanks first rose to fame with a series of comedies in the 1980s. Then, in 1993, he won critical praise and a Best Actor Oscar for his dramatic turn in Philadelphia; the following year he won again for Forrest Gump. Since then his stock in trade has largely been in dramatic roles with a comedic bent. The trope was hilariously Lampshaded in Real Life on his Inside The Actors Studio appearance when he spent 45 minutes discussing his art, only for a fan to gush that Turner and Hooch was her favorite movie ever!!! during the Q&A period. During a "Year In Review" for 2009, MSN stated how much they miss the funny Tom Hanks.
Family Guy hit the nail on the head in its first episode (which was already a joke on Seth MacFarlane's student film, "The Life of Larry"), when Peter mistakenly assumes that Philadelphia is in the same vein as Hanks' earlier work and laughs uncontrollably at the line "I have AIDS".
Tom Hanks has hosted Saturday Night Live 8 times, 6 of which were from 1985-1992 (roughly one a season). He even has recurring characters, cameos on some latter-day episodes, and, like Christopher Walken, Steve Martin, and Alec Baldwin, has his own "Best Of" clip show special.
Alan Arkin was one of the founding members of Second City before playing a sadistic villain in Wait Until Dark.
Anthony Anderson is starting down this road as well. First in straight comedies (some of which weren't well-received [like when he was in Kangaroo Jack]), then he was the comic relief in action flicks. Most recent, he's been doing dramatic work as a cop on K-Ville and Law & Order, and as a villain on The Shield.
Ashton Kutcher gained big fame for playing the resident ditzy hunk, Michael Kelso, on That '70s Show. During his run on the show, he was also known for other roles such as one of the leads in Dude, Where's My Car? and the MTV prank reality show Punk'd. His career took a turn so sharp, it got whiplash when he starred in The Butterfly Effect, a psychological thriller, then followed it up in 2006 with the noticeably more light-hearted, but still quite dramatic The Guardian. Since then, however he has returned to comedy by joining the cast of Two and a Half Men and while he tried to return to serious stuff by playing Steve Jobs in the biopic Jobs, it wasn't really successful.
Bradley Cooper: Zigzagged between comedies and dramas until The Hangover after which he did more comedies than dramas (some of which were romantic comedies) — at least until his starring role in Silver Linings Playbook for which he was nominated for an Oscar and his appearance in The Place Beyond The Pines. Cooper is currently working on American Hustle directed by David O'Russell and will be in an as-yet unnamed Cameron Crowe film.
Bill Murray: After his stint as a Saturday Night Live (both the unknown ABC version and the more popular NBC version) cast member, Murray attempted to do drama early in his career with The Razor's Edge, but quickly returned to comedy when the film was a critical and financial disaster. He tried again later with dramedies, first Rushmore, then his Oscar-nominated turn in Lost in Translation and later in Broken Flowers and The Lost City.
His SNL castmate Dan Aykroyd nabbed an Oscar nomination for his role in the 1989 light drama Driving Miss Daisy (as Jessica Tandy's character's son) and he successfully pulled off his role in another light drama, 1991's My Girl.
Another British example is Bill Oddie, formerly one third of The Goodies, was also a member of the Cambridge Footlights. Now he's known for presenting Springwatch and other nature shows.
Prior to playing Philip Marlowe in the 1944 film Murder, My Sweet, Dick Powell was best known for starring in lightweight musicals. Indeed, the film was originally named Farewell, My Lovely, but was changed so that it would sound less like a musical. Because of his success in this role he played several more such roles and became better known for them than for he had been for his musical roles.
Filipino "King of Comedy" Dolphy has been doing this way before Tom Hanks with roles in "Gigolo" in 1956, and as a gay character in the comedy-drama "Facifica Falayfay". It has been noticed that through his experience in starring in different mediums of entertainment, he was granted the insight of how a comedian can use his strengths to play various characters and how malleable emotions can be when you have to find different ways of cracking jokes to be filled with as much zest as when it was first shown.
In many 90's films, you can see Ed O'Neill trying to squeeze himself in the cast as Cop #1 or Cop #2. He'll usually have only one line or two, and only when the closeup comes you'll go "Is that Al Bundy?". He probably wanted a dramatic cop-show role or something, which he got on the short-lived LA Dragnet. Looks like some of Al Bundy's hell has rubbed on the actor. He did land the role of Governor of Pennsylvania, but that was on The West Wing, where he was a failed Democratic presidential hopeful.
To be fair, while the transition has been hard, he's been critically acclaimed in all his performances. He now has a leading role on Modern Family. It's a family sitcom again, but, unlike Married... with Children's Al Bundy, Jay is happily married to the kind of woman that Al would have lusted after on MWC, has one son, and is retired from working (though he still is a Deadpan Snarker in some places).
His first post-Married With Chidren role was playing Relish the Troll King in The 10th Kingdom. So we can't say he's afraid to try new things.
He had a key role as an investigative reporter in the sports drama Blue Chips.
And Angelina Jolie's boss as well as Da Chief in The Bone Collector.
Starting his career as a street busker, Eddie Izzard always maintained that his ambition was to be an actor, not a comedian, but it was his stand-up comedy that first opened the doors to stardom. Since that time, he has begun taking more dramatic roles, such as starring in The Riches and playing resistance fighter Erich Fellgiebel in Valkyrie.
Eric Bana got his start as a stand-up comedian, with appearances on Full Frontal and his own show Eric, and has a small role in The Castle before playing notorious criminal Chopper Read in Chopper and became better known for serious roles.
Averted for American audiences; he didn't gain fame in the United States until Hulk and Troy came out, so many had no idea that he was a comedian in the first place.
Fred MacMurray was mostly known for comic roles until Billy Wilder cast him against type in Double Indemnity and The Apartment. MacMurray reckoned these were his best performances.
Onetime Talk Soup host Greg Kinnear has trended more towards serious film roles, including murdered comic Bob Crane as a troubled sex addict in Autofocus. Even in Little Miss Sunshine he was somewhat pathological. He has always retained his comedic edge, however. He hilariously spoofed his Oscar-nominated performance in As Good As It Gets on Saturday Night Live by claiming he lost the actual Oscar win because of a breakfast scene where he "uses the wrong hand" to eat his breakfast. If he had used the other hand, he would have won.
From Fred Stone's dramatic performance in Alice Adams (though not in a starring role), one might not suspect that he had been famous for starring in a long series of musical extravaganzas (a forgotten genre of shows very similar to English pantomimes), starting with the 1903 production of The Wizard of Oz, in which he played the Scarecrow.
Ginger Rogers tried to remake herself in the 1940s as a serious actress. Her 1940s dramatic roles are largely ignored today, including Kitty Foyle, for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress.
Hilary "Lizzie McGuire" Duff seems to be trying her hand at this. After the show ended, she was type-cast in her typical tween-appealing roles before venturing for slightly more dramatic territory in Raise Your Voice Ultimately it backfired as the film did rather poorly at the box-office and was not well received by critics, afterwards she went back to doing comedies and turned down Darker and Edgier roles, stating that she felt that doing those types of roles would be a betrayal to her teen fanbase. In spite of that there was talk of her starring in a remake of Bonnie and Clyde, though that was delayed due to her pregnancy, and after she gave birth the filmmakers considered re-casting but the film ultimately went into Development Hell and little has been heard since, though Hilary has since starred in some more serious Direct-to-Video films and was in Gossip Girl
Hugh Laurie was not only a member of the legendary Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Group but served as its president, then went on to great comedic success in shows like Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster and A Bit of Fry and Laurie, among other projects. Outside of Britain, however, most audiences first became aware of him in the dramatic medical series House, though he puts his comic delivery to good use for the character's razor-sharp wit.
Jackie Gleason, famous for portraying Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners, gave a widely acclaimed performance in the drama The Hustler, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. He was also praised for Requiem For A Heavyweight.
Jamie Foxx got his start on In Living Color! (he was added in during the third season. His most popular recurring character was Abhorrent Admirer Ugly Wanda and his celebrity impressions included Little Richard, Lionel Richie, and Princenote though, ironically, not Ray Charles) and was best known for his comedic film roles (anyone remember him from Booty Call?), though he also had several dramatic supporting roles as well. Then in 2003, he starred in the very successful Collateral and followed up with an Oscar-winning role in Ray, turning him into a bona-fide dramatic movie star.
Wow...it's gonna be so hard to talk out of my ass after this. (audience laughter) But I'll manage.
Early in his career, John Cho was an inversion: a would-be dramatic actor who ended up making his name as the MILF Guy in American Pie, the wacky friend Chau in Off Centre, and most famously one half of Harold and Kumar. He's since stated he deliberately took comedic roles to avoid the "model minority" roles typically given to Asian American actors. But he's recently played this trope straight by transitioning into action/drama roles with Star Trek and FlashForward.
Demme started out by subverting the Women In Prison films he made for Roger Corman, raising their standard by introducing intelligent and artistic elements. These weren't comedies, but were far from what would be considered "serious". Caged Heat actually has quite a bit in common with Silence of the Lambs: a thriller with strong feminist overtones, that features a prison break and an apparent distrust of the medical establishment.
Joss Whedon likes to cast according to this trope; his justification is that it's harder to be convincingly funny than it is to be convincingly un-funny.
Stand up comedian and actor Kevin Pollak has several comedy movies and shows under his belt, but the roles he is perhaps best known for are as Lt. Weinberg in the suspenseful drama A Few Good Men, and Todd Hockney in thriller The Usual Suspects.
He has arguably come full circle since then, appearing in The Whole Nine Yards and its less-successful sequel The Whole Ten Yards amongst others.
Arguably Lee Evans, a madcap comedian known for his physical humor and over the top routines. He has had several parts in movies such as There's Something About Mary, The Fifth Element and MouseHunt, where he continued to use his energetic, wacky performance. Then in 2004 he played the role of a paranoid conspiracy theorist and murderer in the Psychological ThrillerFreeze Frame. Also in 2004, his performance of Clov (opposite Michael Gambon as Hamm) in Matthew Warchus's production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame was critically well received.
Just after Growing Pains he did "This Boy's Life" with Robert De Niro. It's a movie about an abusive step-father. That was his ticket to serious movie roles, along with What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Titanic was just the block buster.
Lindsay Lohan tried to break away from her family-friendly image several times, and his zig-zagged from comedy to drama several times with mixed results.
Maria Falconetti's performance as Joan of Arc in The Passion of Joan of Arc is regarded as one of the finest in cinematic history.
Marilyn Monroe tried this because in real life people only saw her as the dumb blonde persona she was constantly cast as. Didn't quite work out.
Her earlier starring roles tended to be in films that were not just serious, but rather dark, as in Niagara and Don't Bother to Knock. The Ditz came later.
Comediennes Mary Lynn Rajskub and Camryn Manheim are best known for their dramatic roles in 24 and The Practice, respectively.
Matthew McConaughey is something of an inverter. He was in fairly serious films such as A Time to Kill, Amistad, and Contact, before cementing himself as the go-to leading man for romantic comedies and Shirtless Scenes. He has tried being an action star is films like Sahara and Fool's Gold, but those were leavened with comedy and romance too.
Max Wall was a famous music hall (vaudeville) comedian and dancer who later in his life became a leading interpreter of Samuel Beckett's plays. Not totally surprising because Beckett's plays, despite their nihilistic absurdity, were influenced by music hall comedy.
Michael Keaton began as a comedic actor, and raised an outcry when he was cast as the action hero Batman. Since then, he's stuck to mostly comedy roles, but has played darker roles, such as a serial killer in Desperate Measures and a recovering alcoholic in Clean And Sober.
Michael Palin went from Monty Python to a series of travelogues, Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole, though his funnyman persona in exotic locales was part of the appeal. He also played a persecuted, mentally fragile headmaster (of a school for children with mental problems, no less) in Alan Bleasdale's dark semi-political TV drama GBH.
Miley Cyrus tried to do this with the movie adaption of the Nicholas Sparks book The Last Song which though a critical dissapointment was succesful at the box-office, she went to comedy with So Undercover(which would not see release until 2013) and drama again with the remake of LOL neither of which were particularly well-received, though she was praised for her guest-starring role on Two and a Half Men.
Peter Sellers largely averted this. Of his 50+ films, his dramatic leads were all in small-scale British-made efforts: Never Let Go, Hoffman, The Optimists, and The Blockhouse. After Never Let Go (an outright villainous role) flopped, he never tried so blatantly again to defy his comic reputation; he did the other films during a career slump. Some of his other films, such as Lolita and Being There, do incorporate dramatic elements (especially the former). He managed two Best Actor Oscar nominations over his career, for Dr. Strangelove and Being There, but never won. In any case, he never stopped doing straight comedy (until he died, of course).
Red Buttons was an early role model for this. He started out as one of the most popular Borscht Belt comedians, then won an Oscar for a serious role in Sayonara, then mostly did drama for the rest of his career.
Rick Moranis did this once for the action-packed Streets of Fire, but he hated his experience doing the movie because he wasn't allowed to improvise, so he goes back to doing funny movies. However, 5 years later, he did appear in the hilarious and heartwarming dramedy Parenthood with Steve Martin.
Robbie Coltrane was primarily known as a comedic actor— until his work as the title character in the original British version of Cracker cemented him as an actor. Now, you'll see him in everything from GoldenEye to From Hell to the Harry Potter films as half-giant Rubeus Hagrid— a character J.K. Rowling says was based on Coltrane's likeness. Add to that various documentaries on ITV focusing on his love of travel and means there of— yes, he really can act. And inform.
Takeshi Kitano was first known as a comedian. He went on to appear in a number of dramatic films playing Bad Ass yakuza characters and became a sort of Japanese Charles Bronson, though he occasionally inserted dark comedy into his roles. Western audiences who were first exposed to his yakuza films were quite surprised to see him in old reruns of the loopy game show Takeshi's Castle.
Monty Python alum Terry Jones is a noted history enthusiast. He's hosted a compelling three-part documentary series called The Crusades, about, well, the Crusades. Like his compatriot Palin, his sense of humor makes the subject matter more entertaining. At one point he compares the original cult of Assassins to the Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch "Kamikaze Highlanders". He also attempted to stage an interview with a goose, supposedly the direct descendant of a divinely inspired goose that served as the mascot for a crusader band. The really sad part is, that divinely inspired goose actually existed.
After leaving Saturday Night Live in 2002, Will Ferrell branched out to more dramatic roles, such as Stranger Than Fiction, Winter Passing, and Everything Must Go, but has mostly stuck with comedy.
Will Smith was first known for his humorous rapping and as a sitcom star in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. After Bad Boys paired him with fellow comedian Martin Lawrence as action heroes, Smith continued his action turn in the blockbuster Independence Day, cementing him as a full-fledged movie star able to do action, comedy, and romance. The Pursuit of Happyness and Seven Pounds added drama to the repertoire. 1993's Six Degrees of Seperation was critically acclaimed and earned an Oscar nod.
In a double subversion, Smith's earliest critical praise for a dramatic role came before Bad Boys and Independence Day, but it's not exactly what he's remembered for.
Woody Allen. Before Annie Hall, he made slapstick comedies. After, he started with Interiors and went from there. Even lampshaded in Stardust Memories when an alien (voiced by Allen, no less!) tells the Author Avatar of Allen to stop making serious films and just tell jokes. Until 2000, even his "comedies" were laced with seriousness, like Hannah and Her Sisters. Allen started making out-and-out comedies again with films like Small Time Crooks.
Double subverted with Kate Hudson. Previously known for light-hearted romantic comedies such as Raising Helen (though that did have a bit of drama) and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days she took up a role completely against type in The Skeleton Key but she returned to comedies after that.
Bruce Willis started off as a comedic actor in shows such as Moonlighting and movies like Blind Date. The studio fought the decision to have him star in the first Die Hard flick since they were sure a comedic actor could never play an action hero. He finally got the part and soon became one of America's most famous action stars.
And then proved in The Sixth Sense that he could handle non-action dramatic roles just as well.
He'd already done several non-action dramatic roles including In Country, Mortal Thoughts, 12 Monkeys, and Pulp Fiction, he just keeps having to prove it.
Larry Hagman had made a brief cameo in Fail-Safe, but he really became well-known as Major Tony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie. However, his next two series, The Good Life and Here We Go Again, both comedies, failed to last more than half a season, and his role of J.R. Ewing on the much longer-running Dallas restricted him specifically to dramatic material.
Barbara Eden, the other star of I Dream of Jeannie, appeared in various dramas before her big break and also appeared with her former "Master" on Dallas near the end of its original run. However, she seemed a bigger victim to the Leslie Nielsen Syndrome and has bounced between dramatic and comedic material.
Bill Cosby proved that he was, for a comedian, excellent at drama and won an Emmy for Best Actor in a Dramatic Series for each of the three seasons of I Spy, making him the first colored actor to do so. Though comedy remains his forte, making this more akin to the Leslie Nielsen Syndrome, Cosby would also do other dramatic material.
Jon Pertwee is best known as Doctor Who #3. He played the role as a serious action oriented James Bond expy. However, he was known for comedies before being cast as the Doctor. After the Doctor he return to comedy for Worzel Gummidge which isn't too unusual, however, when you think about it.
Gioachino Rossini is an unusual operatic example whose career changed after La gazzetta (his only comedy written for Naples) flopped. While he did keep a mix of buffa and seria in his operas throughout his career, it was mostly comedic before The Barber of Seville and virtually all dramatic after he set music to an adaptation of you-know-who'sOthello.
The failure of Un giorno di regno did the same to Giuseppe Verdi, whose sole comedy thereafter was Falstaff.
Sally Field got started in sitcoms like Gidget, The Flying Nun, and The Girl With Something Extra. Fed up with doing nothing but comedy, she fought for and won the title role in Sybil, opposite Joanne Woodward, as a girl with multiple personalities. The role won her an Emmy. Her next venture into drama was her gritty, Academy Award-winning turn as textile worker Norma Rae, but she was still considered a "flash in the pan" until she won her second Oscar as Edna Spalding in Places in the Heart, which cemented her as one of America's greatest actresses and silenced the skeptics for good.
Gene Kelly was best known for doing musical comedies like An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain but was greatly praised for Inherit the Wind.
Sylvester Stallone had his first starring role in the softcore pornography feature film "The Party at Kitty and Stud's" (1970). Afterwards, he starred in the erotic off-Broadway stage play Score. Then, he would move to more broadcast and 'serious' entertainment.
Keiju Kobayashi: Mainly goofy but grumpy salaryman characters in the 50s and 60s, feared authority figure typecast in the 70s and 80s with roles as Hideki Tojo in The Militarists, General Ushijima in Battle Of Okinawa, and Isoroku Yamamoto in The Imperial Navy.
Emma Stone was mainly known for teen comedies but after The Help has been shifting to less comedy roles and more dramatic roles though she hasn't completely abandoned comedy.
Several Hong Kong actors have moved on from otherwise lighthearted comedies to full-blown critical acclaim in this manner. Case in point, the two leads of Infernal Affairs, Tony Leung and Andy Lau - both even co-starred in a '70s period dramedy, "The Royal Tramp", and Andy's Guiness Record for starring in the most movies was a direct result of padding his resume with dozens of comedic roles. Recently, one such actor, Alfred Cheung, who made his name as the Plucky Comic Relief, even won an award for his first serious role.
It should be noted here that Andy and Tony first got into show business as part of a Five-Man Band of teen idols, while Alfred... let's just say he's got the Plucky Comic Relief look down pat.
Tom Hanks Syndrome is parodied in Tropic Thunder by Jack Black and Ben Stiller's characters, Jeff Portnoy and Tug Speedman respectively. Jeff is a comedic actor trying to get out of his typecasting through a more serious role, and Tug is an action star who'd previously starred in a dramatic Oscar Bait bomb.
Many of the best-known actors from Spanish 60's comedies (José Luis López Vázquez, Alfredo Landa, Concha Velasco, José Sacristan et al.) started sweeping awards and praise when they played breakthrough dramatic roles in the 70's, with audiences not having noticed until then they were pretty good actors.
This went as far back as the movie Show People about a silent film actress who wanted to be taken seriously but instead got her start as a comedienne.
Meta example: The classic movie To Be or Not to Be (both versions) is a dramedy about a comedian who wants to play Hamlet who is actually played by "a comedian who wants to play Hamlet"—Jack Benny in the original and Mel Brooks in the remake.
The comedian does play Hamlet - very, very badly. So badly that in Mel Brooks' version, he needs to be fed the lines from the "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy of Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet.
Referenced in 30 Rock. Tracy is afraid of losing his youthful edge because "do you know what happens to a comedian when he gets old and loses his audience? He starts getting offered serious roles!"
Also parodied after Tracey wins an Oscar. He gets sick of being viewed as a serious actor and wants to be seen as a crazy comedian again, so he tries to lose the respect of the media. It backfires when all of his crazy antics are misinterpreted as insightful commentaries on society. Then Jack Donaghy tells him all he has to do is go back to acting on television, and no one will ever respect him again.
Shia Lebeouf also did stand-up before branching out his roles. The change did occur later, however.
Kevin Smith has penned an entire rant about the sequence in which actors/directors must do artsy, comic, and "money" films in order to maintain optimal popularity and funding while still being allowed to enjoy at least some of the roles or films they are involved in.
Groucho Marx discusses the phenomenon in his memoir Groucho and Me.
To some extent, this is happening to Jackie Chan. He gained his fame the world over through Crazy Awesome stunts and comedy that he does himself, but as age and injury start to catch up with him- he's begun to dial back the amount of life-threatening stunts and started to flex his other acting chops. For most Americans the best display of this was his take as a mentor figure in The Karate Kid reboot.