What are movie stars doing on TV?
Television history is littered with the flop shows of film actors who tried and failed to transition to the small screen. Did you know, for example, that James Stewart played a lawyer in Hawkins, a CBS drama that lasted just one season, 1973-74?
By contrast, the paragon of medium migration is Carroll O’Connor, who’d been nibbling around the edges of big movies (Point Blank, Kelly’s Heroes) when he decided to do All in the Family. He became, of course, one of pop culture’s most beloved performers. That’s the key, really: A film actor can’t cash in on his or her movie-star persona, but instead must bury it, in the quirks and catchphrases of a flawed but likable character we want to be with, season after season.
In recent years, actors ranging from James Spader to Sally Field have made the movie-to-TV move. But matching actor to role and concept is tricky-fluky. On paper, for example, James Woods as a cocky lawyer in a show called Shark screamed ”major audience turnoff” to me. I thought, Who’d want to see Woods, who specializes in jabbery smug, as a courthouse crusader? Boy, was I wrong: Shark, one of the top-rated new shows this season, plays into the current trend of having a smart, sarcastic SOB leading a team of attractive young costars (one word: House).
Jeff Goldblum has done his share of TV — 1980’s Tenspeed and Brown Shoe is a cult item — but he’s primarily known as the guy in everything from Jurassic Park to The Big Chill. His new series Raines on NBC plays into the trend of crime solvers who have visions (one word: Medium). Indeed, as a cop who solves murders by talking to hallucinations of the victims, Goldblum’s wide-eyed blank stare and droning voice prove droll comic effects.
Will people watch Goldblum’s familiar face every week? It’s a crapshoot: Few viewers bought Ray Liotta in Smith earlier this season, perhaps because he seemed to be working a variation on a goodfella. Others fare better. William Petersen, who’d been solid in feature films such as Michael Mann’s superb Manhunter and William Friedkin’s hard-boiled To Live and Die in L.A., opted for mass stardom in CSI. More recently, Kyra Sedgwick, whose film career has been alternately classy and spotty, decided to buy a lotta red lipstick and sign on for The Closer, winning awards and ratings by perfecting a charming Columbo-meets-Cagney-minus-Lacey character.
And so the process continues: Holly Hunter is ready to go the cop route in the upcoming TNT series Saving Grace. And Glenn Close, having had a taste of weekly TV work with her sterling season-long stint on The Shield, has signed on for an FX drama about a high-profile New York litigator. Let’s just hope that as lawyer shows go, it’s no Hawkins.