When word came this week that Hugh Grant had been offered the chance to replace Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men (the role reportedly has gone to Ashton Kutcher), the reaction was a collective “huh?” Grant hasn’t exactly been setting the box office on fire lately (no, I did not hear about the Morgans, and I don’t know anyone who did), but he’s still an actor closely associated with the movies. If it had worked out, Grant would have been only the latest movie star to make the surprising switch from big screen to small. Whether it’s a last-ditch effort to jump-start a flagging career, or simply the most interesting project to come along, the results of these stars moving to TV are as varied as the types of shows they choose. Some have come away only with a few episodes — and a bruised ego — to show for it, while others have managed to reach new heights in their career. Here’s a list of 10 that took us by surprise:
Zooey Deschanel (The New Girl)
There are many places you can expect to see Zooey Deschanel, whether it be charming some mopey hipster in an indie rom-com, or airing her breathy vocals in a She & Him video. But a FOX sitcom about a newly dumped teacher who moves in with three guys and leads them all on a quest to navigate sexual politics isn’t one of them. Granted, this is an artificial observation since no one has yet seen The New Girl, which is set to debut this fall, but it immediately makes one wonder what’s going on with our favorite pixie-faced starlet. Has she grown tired of the bohemian life required of an indie queen, and now finds herself craving the chance for steady employment? Maybe she just caught a peek at those paychecks big sister Emily brings home from the set of Bones. Or, more troubling, maybe there just aren’t that many film projects available to her, at least ones that are interesting. After all, Deschanel’s most recent movie, Your Highness, while being directed by respected filmmaker David Gordon Green still managed to reduce her to glorified window dressing.
The New Girl does have a decent pedigree, with Liz Meriwether (No Strings Attached) as the writer and Jake Kasdan (Freaks and Geeks) directing the pilot. So it has potential. But much of Deschanel’s charm lies in her low-key demeanor and soulful glances. Will any of this translate in a weekly series?
Dustin Hoffman (Luck)
At 73, Dustin Hoffman is finally adding a regular role on a TV series to his resume. But Luck is no middle-of-the-road sitcom — it’s shaping up to be a bona fide television event. In addition to Hoffman, the upcoming HBO drama also includes the talents of Nick Nolte, writer David Milch (Deadwood) and Michael Mann (Heat), who directs the pilot. It’s an ensemble piece about the shady characters who populate a horse racing track, with Hoffman playing a gangster. Yes, the legendary actor has been able to keep busy with steady work in recent years, but getting a part that promises to be this rich and complicated must be a nice break from all the Kung Fu Panda and Little Fockers sequels.
James Franco (General Hospital)
Sure, nothing James Franco does is shocking anymore. Host the Oscars? Sure. Star in something called Rise of the Planet of the Apes? You bet. But when the Hollywood heartthrob announced he was going to do a stint on the ABC soap General Hospital, fresh off the successes of Milk and Pineapple Express, people kept having to make sure they weren’t reading an Onion headline. Even the show’s producers were skeptical. But the guy was serious, showing up for 44 episodes (and counting) as the nefarious, enigmatic artist Franco. While it’s all probably part of some long-ranging performance art piece by the actor, it surely helped shine a light on the flagging soap opera industry, which despite his contributions still may be circling the drain. Franco’s TV dalliance hasn’t hurt his film career. He’s coming off an Oscar nom for 127 Hours and has several high-profile projects in various stages of development.
Robert Carlyle (Stargate Universe)
In the U.K., it’s not uncommon for actors to move fluidly between high-profile, Oscar-winning movies and roles on TV. Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, they’ve all done it. Still, when Scottish star Robert Carlyle, known for his edgy roles in Trainspotting, 28 Weeks Later and The Full Monty, showed up as series regular on the Syfy spinoff Stargate Universe, it seemed an odd fit. How would this serious actor who reveled in the grime and misery of real life handle a bunch of science-fiction jargon while acting opposite Lou Diamond Phillips?
The show was well-reviewed, but it only lasted two seasons — a mere pittance in the Stargate franchise, where SG-1 ran for 10 seasons and Atlantis logged another five. We suspect it won’t hurt Carlyle’s future prospects, though. If anything, he’s opened himself up to an entirely new fan base, one so loyal that it might just follow him anywhere.
Glenn Close (Damages)
It would have been one thing had Glenn Close decided to star in a broadcast series. The Academy Award-winning actress had, after all, done well-respected TV work in the past with the Sarah, Plain and Tall movies, a South Pacific revamp and her Emmy-winning performance in Serving in Silence. But in taking on her first full-time TV gig in 2007, she chose the cable channel FX, which was known for edgier material like Nip/Tuck and The Shield. Many speculated that this must have been a reaction to the lack of good parts for actresses approaching 60. There probably was some truth in that, but Damages would prove to be far more than a lesser-of-two-evils project. Patty Hewes, the uncompromising litigator who never lets people know her true motives, would have been a desirable role for any actress in any era. And Close has knocked it out of the park each of the show’s three seasons, scoring three Emmy nominations and two wins. Instead of simply providing a curious footnote in the twilight of her career, Close has found a role that will be mentioned among the top of her many accomplishments.
Alec Baldwin (30 Rock)
Once a potential megastar, thanks to his terrific performance in 1990′s The Hunt for Red October, by 2006 Alec Baldwin’s star was in danger of burning out. In addition to his horrendous personal life being splashed all over the tabloids, his movie career seemed limited to a bunch of forgettable direct-to-DVD dramas and jerk-boss roles in mainstream comedies like Fun With Dick and Jane, Along Came Polly and (shudder) Elizabethtown. Yet due to his undeniable comic genius he could still wrangle a nearly annual gig hosting Saturday Night Live. Luckily, Tina Fey was paying attention, and realized she had the perfect man to play her officious boss in a sitcom set behind the scenes of an SNL-like variety show.
Still, despite the seemingly perfect fit, it seemed odd to see Baldwin’s name as a regular in the NBC comedy. Especially when 30 Rock was considered the little sibling to similarly themed, Aaron Sorkin-led Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip that launched the same season. Surely Baldwin’s contribution would be merely as a guest star who would pop in every now and again just to make life hell for the real stars … right? Fey had a different idea and made the relationship between her nerd comedy writer Liz Lemon and Baldwin’s haughty but lovable Jack Donaghy the central part of a show that just finished its fifth season, and has racked up several Emmy Awards, including two for Baldwin.
Yes, he’s constantly talking about quitting the show, and acting in general, but we’re glad to have him on the small screen for as long as it lasts.
Kiefer Sutherland (24)
It wasn’t that Kiefer Sutherland was the kind of actor you thought was too big for TV, but he gave off the vibe that maybe he thought he was too good for it. He had seemingly moved on to the indie phase of his career, and he seemed far from the type to front a gimmicky action show about a federal agent using rogue methods to fight terrorists. But 24, which debuted in the wake of 9/11, was a runaway hit and Sutherland’s character, Jack Bauer, has become a barometer in real-world discussions involving interrogations of terror suspects. The show ran for eight seasons and is the subject of constant speculation about a theatrical feature. TV has been so good to Sutherland that he’s returning to FOX this fall for Touch, from Heroes creator Tim Kring, as a father who discovers his mute, autistic son can predict the future.
Jennifer Love Hewitt (Time of Your Life)
The late ’90s were a strange time, weren’t they? Back in 1999, for instance, it seemed like Jennifer Love Hewitt was bound for A-list status, after having starred in the inexplicably popular I Know What You Did Last Summer movies and the John Hughes wannabe Can’t Hardly Wait. So it was curious to say the least when the budding starlet agreed to topline a FOX drama called Time of Your Life, which featured her Party of Five character heading to New York to find her biological father. Frankly, it seemed like the kind of project that Party of Five fanatics would dream of her doing — like, in a perfect world — more than something she would seriously consider at that stage of her career.
Ratings were weak from the start, despite the presence of future stars Jennifer Garner and Pauley Perrette, and the show only ran 10 episodes before being yanked off the schedule. Some thought it would be just a blip on her radar, but Hewitt never went on to that big movie career that once seemed like such a sure thing. She did ultimately find success back on television with Ghost Whisperer, which ran five seasons.
Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City)
While landing the lead on an HBO series is today an accomplishment coveted by stars of any and all ilks, back in 1998 it didn’t have quite the same cachet. The network was still busy convincing people that it wasn’t TV, it was HBO. Sarah Jessica Parker had a steady stream of movie roles to her credit, most of which involved some variation of “put-upon girlfriend” or “unattainable dream girl,” and she probably could have coasted in that mode for the next several years. But she took the plunge, inhabiting the role of New York columnist Carrie Bradshaw, who entered into new relationships as often as she changed her uber-fashionable wardrobe.
The clothes, the city and most importantly, the frank sexual talk between Carrie and her three friends (Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis) tapped the zeitgeist and became no less than a cultural touchstone. Parker went from being a marginal movie star to a indelible TV icon.
Dan Aykroyd (Soul Man)
Not many folks were paying much attention to Dan Aykroyd in 1997 when he quietly turned a guest spot on Home Improvement into a two-season sitcom about a motorcycle-riding minister raising his family in Michigan. It wasn’t a notably bad show, and ratings were respectable, but its unremarkable run places it alongside the crash and burn that was The Chevy Chase Show as official signs that the world had moved on from the original SNL cast. Part of the problem was Aykroyd’s seeming ambivalence toward being on a sitcom in general, and this one in particular. The star would say in interviews that he didn’t envision the show lasting a long time, and that he was more at home working on a variety of projects as opposed to being tied down to a regular TV gig. He would later say that it was ABC’s attitude toward the show that made him want to quit.
So this one ends up a bit of a “what if” scenario. Had Soul Man continued on for six seasons, as Aykroyd feared it would, would he now enjoy a more visible status, with plenty of quality projects to choose from, instead of being that guy who’s always threatening insisting that Ghostbusters III is right around the corner?
Photos: (24) © 2009 Fox Broadcasting Co. Credit: Brian Bowen Smith/FOX; (Zooey Deschanel) © 2009 by Mike Halloran/ZUMA Press/Newscom; (Sex and the City) © HBO