In the broadest sense as far as episodic TV is concerned, Playing Against Type can mean:
An actor whose primary style is in a specific genre is a guest star in one against his type. For instance, Bob Hope (whose primary style was comedy) guest-starring in a dramatic role (albeit not too heavy in this case) on Highway To Heaven. Sometimes, if the show is a crime drama and the guest star who is well known for playing good guy roles is the week's villian ... or if a major character in a situation comedy who is well known for his/her comedic talents faces a major traumatic event that requires the actor/actress to employ highly dramatic acting (as in, a Very Special Episode), the pre-show promotions may use a dramatic "(name of actor) ... as you've never seen him/her" to heighten interest in the show.
Rowan Atkinson is primarily known for his rubber-faced comic roles in Blackadder and Mr. Bean. In 2016, he took on the role of Jules Maigret, a serious and soft-spoken French detective who hunts down murderers in 1950's Paris.
Andy Griffith, best known as either kindly small-town sheriff Andy Taylor or folksy defense attorney Ben Matlock, went years without playing villainous characters after he rose to fame on television, but broke the streak in the early 1980s when he was cast as John Wallace in Murder in Coweta County; the movie was the true story of John Wallace, a wealthy but sadistic landowner who kills one of his sharecroppers for stealing his cattle (by he and his goons beating up the hapless farmer, then pistol whipping him so hard he caused his gun to discharge), and it took a hard-nosed sheriff (Johnny Cash) to bring him to justice. A year before Matlock debuted, Griffith played Judge Julius Sullivan, a callously cruel judge who sentences two teen-aged girls to prison for a minor crime. After Matlock, Griffith returned to roles against type, playing the sociopathic JackMacGruder in the made-for-TV film Gramps; MacGruder turns even more sinister in his attempts to sexually molest his grandson, Matthew, and physically makes his true character known to anyone who stands in his way. In each of his three "bad guy" roles, Griffith retained his "small-town character" traits, making each of these roles even more memorable.)
Peter Marshall, the genial game show host, as a corrupt, money-hungry record producer and agent in the Season 6 CHiPs episode "Rock Devil Rock" ... but more so because Marshall's character was associated with goth rock, when in contrast the real-life Marshall was (and still is) associated with adult standards and middle-of-the-road music. (Although he did have a few goth rock stars, including Alice Cooper and various members of KISS, as guests on The Hollywood Squares and his late 1970s talk show.)
Sesame Street has featured several of its main (human) cast in very different roles from their genial Street roles:
Allison Bartlett (Gina) has played several mentally and emotionally disturbed characters in episodes of the Law & Order franchise. She also played one of the mobster's mistresses on The Sopranos.
Roscoe Orman (Gordon) is a no-nonsense judge in several Law & Order episodes.
Sonia Manzano (Maria) has also appeared on Law & Order, both as a judge and as various criminals or witnesses trying to protect the main antagonist.
Emilio Delgado (Luis) — yep, also on the Law & Order franchise honor roll — averts most of the grit as he played the usually genial (albeit focused) international editor on the 1977-1982 newspaper drama Lou Grant.
This even extends to the Muppets themselves- as Ernie and Bert, Jim Henson and Frank Oz pretty much ended up in a role reversal of their Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear characters.
Speaking of Stephen King miniseries', his own take on The Shining contains two examples of Playing Against Type; Steven Weber (famous at the time for playing goofball Brian Hackett from Wings) played the slowly losing his mind Jack Torrence, and Rebecca De Mornay (famous for being typecast as psychotically dangerous women) played the very meek and demure wife Wendy.
Perhaps not so surprising to see him in a sinister role if you've seen him in Blue Velvet.
Ben Browder of Farscape fame played an Ax-Crazy man on CSI: Miami who set a fire that he intended to put out to prove he was good enough to join the fire department after their psychological screenings declared him unfit. The fire gets out of control and people died. His declarations that he's "A hero" are particularly disturbing as he did put out the fire, but seems unaware that people frown on that whole murder thing.
Ditto his role in Arrow, where we're inclined to believe he's not involved in the scheme the heroes are investigating just because it's him, then it turns out he's the mastermind.
Upstairs Downstairs was loaded with actors playing against type, including Angela Baddeley, Jean Marsh, Rachel Gurney, Gordon Jackson, and Meg Wynn Owen. Angela Baddeley was so aristocratic in Real Life that her name appeared in Burke's Peerage, yet she played a servant convincingly.
Marc Warren, best known for playing a Loveable RogueWith a Heart of Gold on Hustle, stars in the TV adaptation of Hogfather as nightmarish Willy Wonka-like hitman Jonathan Teatime. And he's also played Count Dracula. Shiver. What's particularly interesting about the Hogfather role was that Warren himself thought up that presentation of Teatime and was actually hired with the expectation that he would play the character as something like a psychopathic Danny Blue. He's kept up the villainous work by playing the gentleman with the thistle-down hair in the BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
He also played a lecherous professor on Boy Meets World who harasses Topanga and tries to get Corey kicked out of college for defending her (that of course would be Corey played by Fred's real-life younger brother Ben Savage).
Speaking of the Law & Order franchise, Fred Savage isn't the only one doing that trick. If we go to SVU, Melissa Joan Hart played a teacher raped by her student and Jerry Lewis played Detective John Munch's mentally impaired uncle Andy. And in the original, Chevy Chase played an anti-Semitic Manipulative Bastard who made his son kill a Jewish woman he had a grudge against.
Dean Cain. To see Superman playing a serial rapist...Brrrr.
Also Stephen Colbert as the killer in an episode of L&O: Criminal Intent, as well as Whoopi Goldberg as a "Ma Barker" type gangleader, and Michael York as a metrosexual Charles Manson! Even Julia Roberts got to play a killer in Law & Order once (she took the part because she was dating Benjamin Bratt at the time). The Law & Order franchise is arguably the best place for established "good guy" actors to show that they can play villains.
Try and unhear The Fonz sneering "shut up, you stupid bitch" after being revealed to have plotted his wife's assault.
Adorable child actor Elle Fanning also played the part of an abused child who turned out to be a sociopathic liar and wound up setting one of the detectives' apartments on fire so they could stay together forever. It was very creepy.
Dakota (Elle's older sister) played an abused child with an entirely different twist in CSI: she was the product of incestuous rape, and her mother/"sister" had the rest of the family killed when her father in both senses of the word turned his attention to her.
In the same vein, notoriously sweet, good-girl actress Hilary Duff (best known as Lizzie McGuire, and for being as nice IRL as she is in most of her roles) played a neglectful, hard-partying teen mother in an episode of SVU.
Let us not forget the role he was best known for before he played Stabler: Depraved Bisexual Chris Keller on Oz. He treats Murder the Hypotenuse as a commandment regarding his lover, Beecher. Plus, at first he worked for Beecher's enemy (Vern Schillinger) and only pretended to be in love with Beecher on Schillinger's orders, part of a Batman Gambit to earn Beecher's trust and love and set him up for a heartbreaking rejection which drove The Alcoholic Beecher to fall off the wagon and hit the prison moonshine hard. And then when Beecher was at his absolute lowest, Schillinger revealed Keller's true loyalties to a drunken Beecher right before having Keller break Beecher's arms and legs. There was a Heel–Face Turn later that eventually led to Beecher forgiving him, but still.
Arguably, his dramatic roles are the initial Playing Against Type for him, as through his initial stages of acting, his background was actually in comedy.
It turns out that the oddball weirdos he's played over the years is closer to Meloni's actual personality than the tough-as-nails Stabler ever was. The man has an absolutely macabre sense of humor, enjoys the surreal and the bizarre, and can make a joke out of anything.
The original Playing Against Type actor that Law & Order exhibited: The late, great Jerry Orbach. Originally a Musical Theatre star, he was then-best known for playing sleazy Amoral Attorneys (so like Billy Flynn, a role he originated); In fact, he even played a defense lawyer on L&O before they recast him. Turning him into a jaded, snarkyLawful Neutral detective was an unexpected masterstroke, and he stayed attached to the show until his untimely death.
Orbach had played a very similar character to Briscoe in the 1981 film Prince of the City. Right before L&O, he played a sinister Mob type in Crimes And Misdemeanors.
And then, of course, there's Richard Belzer, who before becoming Detective John Munch (on Homicide) was most widely known for his stand-up comedy.
Martin Short, known for his goofy comic roles, plays a psychic trying to help the police solve a serial rape and murder case. Turns out he was the serial rapist and murderer all along, who targeted virgin women. "Best sex I ever had..."
Across the pond, comedic actor and game show host Bradley Walsh was thoroughly impressive as Briscoe's UKExpy Ronnie Brooks.
Meanwhile, Jamie Bamber's first TV appearance after leaving Law & Order: UK was as the criminal of the week (or rather one of them) on an episode of CSI: Miami. Although he was far less monstrous than most of the bad guys this show has dealt with, it was still unnerving to see him pick up a golf club and bash some poor girl's head in, then try to blame it on his partner, smugly declaring that reasonable doubt as to who was guilty would easily get him acquitted. Especially after years of seeing him play varying versions of Nice Guys, the most recent of which was a heroic by-the-book cop. Other examples include his role of Martin Klar, a corrupt arms dealer who briefly became Echo's abusive husband on Dollhouse, and his part as an uber-sleazy photographer on Major Crimes who was such a Jerkass (among other things, he actually witnessed the murder that was being investigated but didn't call the cops as it would have revealed that he'd been spying on the victim) that the team was downright disappointed that he was innocent of the primary crime—and equally pleased and smug when they managed to nail him for manslaughter (for basically setting in motion the events that led to the incident). His most recent example as the titular John Doe: Vigilante actually subverts this, as while the man is a Serial Killer, his victims are Asshole Victims—child abusers/molesters, rapists, abusive husbands/boyfriends.
One of the most famous examples of this trope might have come about when Nichelle Nichols, an African-American woman, played against her entire race and gender. Specifically, Nichols was cast as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. Uhura was the fourth-most powerful person on the Enterprise, a valued member of the ship's command team, and even kissed the (white) William Shatner—TV's first kiss between a white and black couple—in a landmark episode. At the time (the mid-to-late 1960's), black women played one type of role on television—servants, often sassy. By playing Uhura, Nichols shattered every perception of what African-American women could be. Her influence even spilled over into the real world—Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, named Nichols as one of the reasons she entered the space program, and none other that Martin Luther King Jr. personally praised Nichols for her work and urged her to stay on the show when she considered leaving, saying "You are playing a role that is not about your color! This role could be played by anyone—this is not a black role. This is not a female role! A blue eyed blonde or a pointed ear green person could take this role!"
Whoopi Goldberg (mentioned above) specifically cites seeing Nichols playing Uhura as one of the landmark moments of her childhood; after watching an episode, she ran to her mother and cried "Momma! There's a black lady on TV and she ain't no maid!" Decades later, Goldberg, by then known for her comic talents, requested that the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation find a role for her, even offering to play a janitor if it meant honoring Nichols. The producers instead came up with Guinan, the wise and mysterious bartender on the Enterprise who was even able to stand up to Q, a nigh-omnipotent Reality Warper.
Speaking of TNG, you owe it to yourself to watch the episode of Extras with Patrick Stewart. He's got some wonderful ideas for a screenplay.
The Star Trek universe (tee hee) also has Dwight Schultz as the timid engineer Barclay, a few years after playing the clinically insane "Howling Mad" Murdock on The A-Team.
Pauline Quirke, known for her comedic fat lady role in Birds of a Feather, literally turned heads in her role as a serial killer in a crime drama called The Sculptress.
Christopher McDonald who always plays smarmy, Jerkass characters showed up in Stargate Universe, in a row everyone expected to be a smarmy, Jerkass self interested Senator as quite a few politicians have been before him in the franchise. Then he turns out to be smart and noble and ends up performing a Heroic Sacrifice to save the crew.
Bob Saget, best known as playing Danny Tanner on Full House and serving as the original host of America's Funniest Home Videos, was and still is an incredibly vulgar stand-up comedian. He once stated in an interview he took the "clean" jobs because he needed the money for his family.
He also seemed to enjoy the dissonance and shock value that comes from people who only know his "wholesome" work discovering his stand-up comedy.
Phil Silvers, famous for playing fast-talking swindlers, appears in an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker as a Jewish retiree scraping by on his pension in a decaying neighborhood. He's a thousand miles away from Sergeant Bilko and also completely convincing.
Lost has Dominic Monaghan of The Lord of the Rings fame playing Mancunian failed rock-star heroin addict Charlie Pace. Though as the show progressed and he kicked the junk, he seemed to revert to a lovable (albeit taller) hobbit.
Doug Hutchison made his name playing psychopathic villains: Tooms on The X-Files, Catherine's Dark Messiah kidnapper on Millennium, and sadistic guard Percy Wetmore in The Green Mile. So it comes as a surprise that Horace Goodspeed is a well-meaning hippy ("Namaste!") whose greatest flaw is his failure to stand up to the more evil DHARMA members (i.e. most of them).
Prior to The Golden Girls, Betty White had played raunchy Sue Ann on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, while Rue McClanahan had played The Ditz on Maude. Thus Betty was originally considered for Blanche and Rue was considered for Rose. Neither actress wanted to play such a similar role, so they suggested the switch. As a result, younger viewers are astonished to see their prior series.
Betty White probably shocks a lot of people with her dirty mouth when she appears in skits on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
...as her former one-time MTM "rival" Cloris Leachman did on Dancing with the Stars and the roast of Bob Saget.
White's career has cycled through types a few times. The role of Sue Ann itself was playing against the type she'd established in various programs in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, having reestablished herself as the super-nice one on Golden Girls, she's spent the 1990s and 00s playing against it: for example, in her guest appearance in Everwood, where her character was slightly racist; or on Boston Legal, where she killed a man; or on Ugly Betty, where she played herself as a manipulative gambling addict ("All that Golden Girls money went right down the nickel slots!"), or Kitty's Jerkass mother in That '70s Show.
One of the drawing points of the film Lake Placid was the chance to see Betty White play a foul-mouthed role.
Criminal Minds enjoys casting former child and teen stars as crazed killers. James Van Der Beek (as a multiple personality stricken home invasion murderer) and Frankie Muniz (as an insane comic book artist turned gang member butcher) appeared in the second and third seasons, respectively. In the fourth season, Luke Perry and Wil Wheaton appeared as unsubs. As one cast member joked:
Matthew Gray Gubler(Spencer Reid): I'm always getting held hostage by teen idols - first James Van Der Beek was a guest star and held Reid hostage, and this time it's Luke Perry. I actually saw Scott Baio out front, and I swear he looked at me.
Comedic actors are not immune, either: Jamie Kennedy played a cannibalistic serial killer in the third season episode "Lucky", and George Costanza (Jason Alexander) played a mastermind manipulator in the fourth season episode, "Masterpiece".
Alexander also played against type with a surprisingly low-key turn as an ice-cold, utterly amoral supergenius on Star Trek: Voyager.
At the height of Seinfeld, Alexander went way against type as a charming, charismatic mentalist on Remember WENN, written by his longtime friend Rupert Holmes.
The pilot episode features DJ Qualls as one half of a serial killing partnership. Qualls had, to that point, mostly been known for playing awkward comic relief characters.
Jackson Rathbone played a janitor suspected of murdering a number of young men and the janitor's female split personality who was the actual killer. He was absolutely brilliant. It almost makes you cry when you see what he was reduced to in Twilight.
Stewart also played a pretty skeevy informant in an episode of Castle.
Bug Hall, best known for his portrayal of Alfalfa in the 1994 Little Rascals movie, played a schizophrenic serial killer who is haunted by the images of his friends who perished in a fire he accidentally started.
Mitch Pileggi as the shotgun-wielding remorse killer in "Normal". No, not Skinner!
Ben Savage of Boy Meets World fame is normally known being in sitcoms. While not as extreme as other examples, his role in the episode "Nelson's Sparrow" was as a younger version of Mandy Patinkin's Jason Gideon.
Except for the occasional transsexual ex-NFL player in the The World According to Garp) or excitable airplane passenger (as originally played by William Shatner) in Twilight Zone: The Movie, and a comedic role in Harry and the Hendersons.
After playing a sugary-sweet, innocent maternal character in La Ninera, Florencia Pena played the greedy, dysfunctional, politically incorrect mother in Casados Con Hijos. Guillermo Francella, whose roles as fathers are always of the Greg Brady type, was cast as the drunken, idiotic and also greedy and dysfunctional father.
The same happened in the Chilean version of Casado con Hijos. Javiera Contador plays the mother, and she actually was known as The Ingenue heroine in several telenovelas...
Another Chilean case in the 80's. Deceased lead actor Tennyson Ferrada was typecast as sweet and gentle grandpa-type mentors, but then La Ãšltima Cruz (The Last Cross) came... and he played the Magnificent BastardBig Bad patriarch.
Dianne Wiest, more usually known as the sweet, motherly type (for just a few among many examples, consider: the preacher John Lithgow's wife in Footloose, the mother in The Lost Boys, and conservative senator Gene Hackman's wife in The Birdcage), instead gets to appear as the wonderfully menacing, insane, and monstrous Evil Queen in The 10th Kingdom. As she put it herself in the behind-the-scenes featurette, "It's quite delicious really. I get to kill anybody who gets in my way, so you'd better stay away from me. Otherwise you might end up dead."
She also then appeared as the hard-bitten D.A. in charge of Sam Waterson's prosecutor's office on Law & Order.
John Glover is usually the actor of villains in movies and TV shows. The personality he exhibits seldom, if ever, changes.
He acts out a scientist Dr. Jason Woodrue in Batman & Robin. Dr. Woodrue had no regard for ethics in his experiments, especially his super-serum.
All throughout the TV series Brimstone he acted out the Devil. Yet he also acted out an angel once in a while, as all the angels and demons were brothers who looked alike.
He famously acted out Lex Luthor's father Lionel on Smallville. Again, a villain just like the preceding. A twist of fate: Lionel meets with a change of heart in Season 4 and becomes a ally to Clark Kent, but not without having moments that make you seriously doubt his alignment. Promise and Traveler comes to mind. But after his death, the Lionel Luthor who escaped from the parallel universe is the Lionel who never changed, thus a revert to his former evil character.
Michael Kostroff built his career with film after film where he played a heroic crusading lawyer. Then comes The Wire where he played Maurice Levy, Baltimore's go-to attorney for drug dealers and one of the most vile and unlikable characters in a show that deals almost exclusively with Black and Gray Morality.
Michael Shanks' main role for the past decade or so has been the nerdy, courageous archaeologist Daniel Jackson, in Stargate SG-1. Then you've got Burn Notice, where he's cast as Victor, a psychotic, amoral super-scary spy, who has it in for the protagonist. It's great to watch.
Before that, he played the part of a psychopathic date rapist stalker in Judicial Indiscretions, in which he is definitely not redeemed at the end, though he is (sort of) in Burn Notice.
He was also a spy in 24, and a criminal in Eureka who nearly destroyed the entire town through his arrogance. And let's not forget his role as the sociopathic Balance of Judgement and his insane avatars in Andromeda.
While still a heroic character, his role as Carter Hall/Hawkman on Smallville is nearly the complete opposite of Daniel Jackson in terms of personality.
Done to a large extent in Roots, which largely cast actors known for positive, wholesome roles as its nastier characters, including Robert Reed, Ralph Waite, Lorne Greene, Burl Ives, Sandy Duncan, and Chuck Conners. It also went the other way by casting Ed Asner, best known as the gruff, surly Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as a slave ship captain who is conflicted and tortured about his trade.
Wil Wheaton did this on not one but two CBS shows in the 2007/08 season, guest starring as a selfish comic book creator (who shoulders a cosplaying Klingon out of his way) in an episode of NUMB3RS and as the aforementioned baddie of the week in Criminal Minds. A few years earlier, he played a crazy homeless guy on CSI.
Not to mention a (more comedic) douchebag version of himself on The Big Bang Theory to the point where he is now Sheldon's arch nemesis.
Eric Peterson, famous for the series Street Legal, spent most of his career playing wise, smarter characters. Contrast his role as the cranky, short tempered, yelling at butterflies Oscar Leroy on Corner Gas.
Similar to the Fred Savage example above, Alan Tudyk (who is probably best remembered as the adorable pilot Wash, from Firefly), played a child molester on CSI.
Contrast his role as Doc in 3:10 to Yuma with his appearance on Dollhouse. Dude's got range.
As mentioned above, Dollhouse averted this trope with Alan Tudyk. Tudyk's first appearance on Dollhouse was as a stoner architect not unlike Wash. It turned out to be Playing Against Type after all, though, because he was actually the Joker-esque psycho Alpha.
Hugh Laurie was known in England for his comedy, particularly his cheerfully stupid roles in Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster. Then he adopted an American accent to play a cynical, near-Sociopathic Hero genius in the American drama House. Thanks to the different accents, some people still can't quite accept Bertie Wooster and House as the same actor. It was also lampshaded in some of the FOX promos for the series, when the announcer announces Hugh Laurie's name, he then says derisively "You idiot!" before announcing that he's the star lead of House.
He played a cynic in Sense and Sensibility. The character is very similar to his House character, but is actually a decent person. And he doesn't have an American accent, obviously.
Don't forget that he also played an extremely loud-mouthed and scary IAD officer in dirty cop drama Street Kings.
The Shield is famous for its resurrection of Michael Chiklis's career, let alone allowing him to pretty much escape being typecast as the "stern, but lovable father figure" after his previous long-running series The Commish. It also re-energized the career of comedic actor Anthony Anderson, whose tenure on the show as ruthless Machiavellian drug kingpin helped open up new acting opportunities for him, ultimately culminating in him landing a main character role on Law and Order.
Michael Chiklis later was in No Ordinary Family where he plays a nice guy once again. However, instead of a tough cop he now plays an insecure part time police sketch artist and it is the wife who is the successful scientist and breadwinner.
The Commish also to a point, as before that he was best known for his portrayal of John Belushi in Wired, the ill-conceived bio of his life. In fact, many industry insiders considered his career over before it really started because of that movie.
An in-show example of this occurs in the Christmas Special of The Worst Witch where nasty, scary and mean Miss Hardbroom is cast as the kind and benevolent Fairy Godmother in the pantomime of "Cinderella".
When William Hartnell took on the role of the Doctor in 1963, it was after decades of playing "Hard Men" and Barking Sergeant Majors. Verity Lambert, looking for someone who could play a harsh and antiheroic character while still making him loveable, was impressed by Hartnell's 'warmth', and he took the role in part to move against his existing typecasting.
After leaving the series, Carole Ann Ford tried to ensure that she wouldn't be typecast as innocent girls (being much older than Susan in real life) by immediately playing a (very unglamourised) hooker in the downbeat ITV crime series Public Eye.
Jon Pertwee was mostly known for Goons-esque comedy roles and voice acting before being cast as the suave Gentleman Adventurer-style Third Doctor. He had in fact been cast for his comic abilities as the producer who cast him wanted to go in a more comedy-based direction, but ended up playing the role straight in an action show (although his comic talents were well-used).
Tom Baker, who played the unshakable, joyful and adorable Fourth Doctor, had been mainly playing tormented, cold and darkly charismatic villains, and relished the opportunity to play such a heroic role ("I seem to have played so many psychotics, it will be a pleasant change"). Finally in a role that fit his natural personality, he heavily identified with the character, and became quite addicted.
Peter Davison was better known at the time as an actor in drama. This was something of Stunt Casting but served to indicate that the Doctor was going to become a more human and emotional character after Tom Baker's Angst? What Angst?.
Catherine Tate was well known for being a catchphrase driven comic (which is played pretty straight in her previous appearance in the Christmas special)- she surprised everyone by pulling off a serious role in the fourth series.
Rik Mayall, known in the UK for his insane and violent roles in The Young Ones and Bottom, as well as The Comic Strip Presents and other similar shows, did a non-comedic and largely straight performance as a police detective in an episode of Jonathan Creek, the first acting role he took after a serious head injury. He is also the narrator of a children's show called Jellikins / Jellabies, which is a show aimed at 2-6 year olds.
Jenna Leigh Green is best remembered for playing Libby, a certain cheerleader who used to be the Trope Namer for Alpha Bitch, on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. However, in the Cold Case episode "Wednesday's Women", Green plays the younger version of an undercover schoolteacher who taught African-Americans kids in the Jim Crow-era South who feels guilty in recruiting her best friend who ends getting murdered after they're found out.
Bryan Cranston was known for playing a Bumbling Dad on Malcolm in the Middle. He then won the Emmy for Best Drama Actor four times (three in a row) playing Walter White, high-school chemistry teacher turned ruthless meth cook and drug lord.
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan cast Cranston against type several years earlier in The X-Files episode "Drive" as a racist jerk. It's also an example of Gilligan playing against type; see the Film Writing entry for this trope.
Jesse Plemon, before Breaking Bad, was known for his role on Friday Night Lights as the Adorkable Nice Guy Landry. In Breaking Bad he plays Todd, who is quite affable, but is also a complete Sociopath who is able to execute a child without hesitation.
DJ Qualls makes a guest appearance in the second season episode "Better Call Saul," with his character initially appearing to be one of the nerdy losers who he'd made a career out of playing. It then turned out that he was actually an undercover DEA agent, with a much tougher personality than you'd expect to see from the guy.
A memorable episode of ER had comedian Bob Newhart in a very unfunny role as an architect who is losing his sight and contemplating suicide.
He didn't just contemplate it.
Atsuko Tanaka is mostly a seiyuu known for her deep voice, which goes along great with professional badass ladies with no-nonsense personality (eg: Major Motoko Kusanagi). Her deep alluring voice is also sometimes used for villainess roles. But, in Juken Sentai Gekiranger, she voiced the penguin-sensei Michelle Peng, who, while a professional in her own way, is very peppy and has a very high-pitched voice, you REALLY won't recognize her right off bat.
What do Amy Adams, Dan Lauria, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Brian Austin Green, Dean Cain, Tori Spelling, Shawn Ashmore, and Maggie Lawson have in common? They're all Smallville villains, of course.
Character actor Kenneth MacDonald, best known for playing smooth villains in The Three Stooges shorts and B westerns, had a recurring role as a judge on Perry Mason.
MacDonald's Playing Against Type goes as far back as 1947; in Crossfire, he has a brief sympathetic role as an Army officer who assists in the capture of an anti-Semitic killer.
After decades of being mostly known for his role as the Enterprise's resident Butt Monkey on Star Trek, I'm sure it was a relief for Walter Koenig to portray Magnificent Bastard Al Bester on Babylon 5. He eventually stated that while he is very happy he played Chekov, for this reason his favorite role in his career was Bester. It also made him the envy of other Trek alum.
Played with in the case of Brad Dourif's character Brother Edward, a former serial killer before he was mindwiped and given a new personality. His former personality never emerges, and throughout the episode he is a kind, forgiving monk dedicated to doing the right thing.
Jeffrey Combs, known for his Smug Snake roles in Trek (particularly Weyoun), played a telepath assistant to an episode's villain in a first-season episode of B5. The reason it falls under this trope is that he's ultimately responsible for bringing the villain down; his own character was explicitly not a bad guy.
Dick Van Dyke, who usually plays the comic relief in musicals like Mary Poppins or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as well as ad exec Dick Burgess on The Van Dyke Show, played the Murderer of the Week (a henpecked photographer who shoots his wife and the man he hired to make it look like a murder/suicide) on an episode of Columbo.
For five years, Michael C. Hall played the timid but well-meaning and likable David Fisher on Six Feet Under. After it ended in 2005, he returned a year later as the cunning, monstrous, and sociopathic title character on Dexter. Further examples from Dexter include John Lithgow, at the time best known for 3rd Rock from the Sun, as the ultra-disturbing Trinity Killer in Season Four (although as mentioned earlier, he had frequently played villains prior to 3rd Rock), and Jimmy Smits, known for playing noble heroes on NYPD Blue and The West Wing, as the increasingly unstable murderer-wannabe Miguel Prado in Season Three.
The short lived 1991 series, Good and Evil, had this trope as its selling point. Created by Susan Harris, the woman behind Soap, Benson, The Golden Girls and others, it was a soap opera spoof telling the story of two sisters, one good and one evil, and their families. The sisters were played by Teri Garr, known for her ditzy girl-next door roles, and Margaret Whitten, best known for her bitchy roles. Naturally, Garr played the bad girl, and Whitten the good girl.
Sharon Small in the TV movie No Child of Mine. She is most famous for sympathetic, genuinely good-hearted characters like Barbara Havers on The Inspector Lynley Mysteries and Trudi Malloy on Mistresses, and is absolutely adorable. In No Child Of Mine, however, she plays a pathologically, violently abusive mother, and does it so convincingly that the result can be nauseating.
Before playing Supernatural's Castiel, Misha Collins mostly played creepy guys (the serial rapist/murderer in Karla) or Russians ("Vlad" in CSI) or creepy Russians (Alexis Drazen in 24). He probably only auditioned for Castiel because the part was advertised as a demon, rather than an angel.
The humorless, uptight, conservative, virginal Cas is basically the opposite of Misha himself in every way. He has confirmed that the wildly altered future version of Castiel seen in the fifth-season episode "The End" is disturbingly similar to his real-life personality, noting that he enjoyed preparing for the orgy scenes.
Bill Engvall is mostly known for comedy (he's the "Here's Your Sign" guy). He plays Det. Jimmy Dupree in HawthoRNepretty damn vicious, using tactics that would probably get an actual detective reprimanded at least.
This is a debatable example since people familiar with Chase's off-screen antics (especially the ones that led to his permanent ban from Saturday Night Live) can reasonably argue that he's actually playing himself.
From the same show, Joel McHale typically plays shallow jerks. Though Jeff may start as one, over time he is portrayed as a begrudgingly selfless and deeply insecure and damaged man, far from his typical role.
In Shining Time Station, the second Mr. Conductor is played by George Carlin. Mr. Conductor is a genuinely kind, supportive, and upbeat character, very different from Carlin's famous stage personality. In this case, George wanted to play against type very much, and this show gave him the opportunity.
Will Arnett playing a loving, caring husband and father on Up All Night is far removed from the selfishjerks he normally is known to play.
Rene Auberjonois got a rep for playing an effeminate wimp during his stint on Benson, but ended up played tough guy Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, even making his voice more gravelly.
And then there was his playing a child-molesting priest on Saving Grace.
Faran Tahir initially plays to type when he appears as an Al Qaida-aligned terrorist in the NCIS pilot episodes on JAG, but makes a second appearance on JAG as a different character, a CIA operative who Harm manages to smuggle out of Libya.
Buddy Hackett, foul-mouthed and notoriously undisciplined comedian, once appeared on Make Room for Daddy as “Buddy Bruno,” taking over for two weeks at the Copa while Danny went on vacation. The episode had him as the (presumably) single father of a small girl whom he is raising rather irregularly, if lovingly. In the second half of the episode he has to tearfully plead with the child welfare people to let him keep the girl. Definitely against type!
Can you say "Samantha Stephens took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks?" Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery played the title character of an ABCMade-for-TV Movie titled The Legend of Lizzie Borden.
You remember Kate Capshaw? That annoying Damsel in Distress from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom who was always screaming and getting into trouble and needed Indy to get her out. Among her lesser known roles is a 1987 made-for-tv film called The Quick and the Dead (nothing to do with the Sam Raimi film) where she actually plays a strong-willed, independent woman who becomes an Action Girl by the end.
Robbie Coltrane was (and arguably still is) known primarily as a comedy actor, or else Rubeus Hagrid. First-time viewers of Cracker may be shocked to see Coltrane playing a character who, while allowing for flourishes of wit and ribald humor, is extremely flawed and borderline unlikable. Coltrane won three BAFTAs for the role, proving himself a remarkably versatile talent.
The Olsen twins frequently had the Tomboy And Girly Girl dynamic in all their projects. Ashley was always the Girly Girl while Mary-Kate was the Tomboy. Winning London swapped their roles around as this time Mary-Kate played an uptight Child Prodigy Chloe while Ashley played the easy-going Lad-ette Riley.
In a case of a production companyPlaying Against Type, QM Productions (which specialised in law-and-order shows throughout its 27-year existence) made The Invaders, the WWII series Twelve O'Clock High (based on the movie of the same name) and the horror anthology Tales Of The Unexpected (not that one). The company's only theatrical feature (1971's The Mephisto Waltz) was more going against type, since it was a horror movie.
Jason Biggs is best known for his work on the American Pie films, with the majority of his other roles basically being derivative of that performance, typecasting him as a nebbish loser with difficulty standing up for himself. His character in Orange Is the New Black is a welcome change of pace, allowing to utilize a much wider range of emotions, be a bit more proactive as a character, and deliver a few What the Hell, Hero? speeches whenever he feels wronged.
The legendary Ned Beatty has made his entire career playing nice guys, loveable goofballs, and forgetful nudniks who wouldn't hurt a fly. Yet in the CSI episode "Sweet Jane", he turns in an absolutely chilling, completely charming performance as Doctor Dave, a gentle pediatric dentist who not only was a kind and considerate dentist who made sure his patients first visit wasn't pain-filled and traumatic, but was also a vicious serial killer responsible for the deaths of at least five victims. (Like Buddy Hackett above, this also extends to animation - Beatty voices the avuncular and completely evil Lotso in Toy Story 3.)
Many guest stars on The Muppet Show were given the opportunity to show off talents they were not known for, in addition to their well-known talents.
Kevin Tighe has been doing this for a few decades now, because he is so connected with his Emergency! character Roy Desoto. With Roy being a big hero type, he has often played villains since then.
Actor Brian Thompson has spent most of his career playing villains. You need a huge, muscled barbarian? Check. How about any number of menacing aliens? He's your man. Crazed killers? You bet. Mafia thugs? Oh yes. How about a vampire who's also a crazed killer mafia thug. Sure, why not? How about a conscientious white knight law enforcement officer who is so cool he doesn't have to carry a gun and convinces most criminals to surrender just by talking to them and never has an unkind word for anyone? Yeah, well, he did that too, in Key West, just about the only heroic character he's ever played in his entire career. He also played Hercules of all people in the Jason and the Argonauts miniseries.
Kevin Whately, better known as Sergeant (later Inspector) Lewis on Inspector Morse, took a break from the role in 2013. A year later, he played a joyfully corrupt ex-copper McGhee on Inspector George Gently. In fact, he plugged both of the male leads with a rifle —in a John Woo church shootout— before he finally bit the dust. This occurs in the finale episode "Gently Into the Cathedral".
In an interesting variant in Teen Wolf, it's the fact that Doug Jonesnever dons any prosthetics during his appearance as Barrow. Which is pretty shocking considering not only his penchant for doing so in other works and the prevalence of such effects on this show.
Filipino noontime "variety show" Eat Bulaga. Every Lenten season, the show's "Dabarkads" (mainstays, mostly comedians) appear in heavy, tear-jerking dramas instead of their usual menu of knock-knock jokes and ribald humor. Not surprisingly, veteran funnymen like Vic Sotto, Joey De Leon, and Michael V often end up doing a much better job with drama than those who actually specialize in drama.
Robert Englund, although a mainstay of horror films, first hit the big time in V as the lovable woobie Visitor, Willie. This created a TV image strong enough that when Freddy's Nightmares had an Origin Story story for Krueger, Englund's face was largely obscured to avoid associations with Willie.
In the mid-90's, Peter Boyle was best known as the gruff, crass Jerk with a Heart of Gold Frank Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond. Audiences were shocked, then, when he was chosen to play the title character in "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose," an episode of The X-Files. While there's definitely a bit of Frank (specifically the jerkiness) in the part, Clyde is also far more multilayered and complex—he's a genuinely psychic individual cursed with the power to foretell how people will die. Boyle plays the role with a surprising mix of humor, pain, and vulnerability (he even kills himself at the end of the episode), and his turn as Clyde is often praised as the best guest star in one of the best episodes of the series.
Mark Harmon has built his career on playing honorable men—doctors, law enforcement officers—but gave such an absolutely bone-chilling performance as Serial Killer Ted Bundy in the 1986 miniseries The Deliberate Stranger that he freaked himself out.
15 years later, he gave an equally scary performance as the murderous Thomas Capano in the 2001 miniseries And Never Let Her Go.