Though it's rarely recognized by major awards, the art of comedy requires a great deal of skill, technique, and, yes, even acting. So it's not a surprise that many comedians move into the world of drama; they're already telling stories and playing characters, so it doesn't take much adjustment. There's a rich history of comedians crossing over into drama, even winning the acting awards they couldn't get in the comedy world and sometimes moving into the world of drama permanently.
Robin Williams rocketed to fame as Mork from Ork, but he first got serious playing a Russian immigrant in “Moscow On The Hudson.” That also led to the "Theory of Robin Williams Facial Hair": When he’s serious, he’s usually bearded; clean-shaven Robin Williams is usually silly. (Kevin Kline is the reverse.) Williams eventually got three Best Actor nominations, all for roles that had elements of his manic standup act, but he finally won an Oscar with a truly serious turn in “Good Will Hunting.” Robin’s razor, it’s not your fault.
For years, Second City and "Saturday Night Live" alum Bob Odenkirk considered himself primarily a writer. When he first played Saul Goodman on “Breaking Bad,” it felt like a slightly more grounded version of a slimy lawyer he would have played on “Mr. Show.” But in “Better Call Saul,” Odenkirk demonstrates that he has serious dramatic chops, anchoring one of television’s best shows. He also started playing serious movie roles, like in “The Post.” Odenkirk’s success opened the door for other comedians-turned-actors in the “Breaking Bad” world, as Bill Burr, Lavell Crawford, Joe DeRosa and Josh Fadem all did dramatic turns.
When Whoopi Goldberg was tapped for the lead role in Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple," she'd primarily done comedy. Her one-woman stage show, "The Spook Show," was a collection of character monologues that Mike Nichols took to Broadway, and she also taught comedy and acting classes — one of her students was Courtney Love. Once she was established in Hollywood, Goldberg delivered dramatic performances in "Clara's Heart" and "The Long Walk Home" before winning an Oscar for "Ghost." In fact, she's one of only 15 EGOT winners, collecting two Emmys, a Tony Award and the aforementioned Oscar.
Adam Sandler was in the middle of a run of huge comedies when he made "Punch-Drunk Love" with Paul Thomas Anderson, a role specifically written for Sandler. If you're going to start making dramas, that's a pretty good director to go with. Sandler has continued to mix in dramatic work ever since, from James Brooks' "Spanglish" to his Independent Spirit Award-winning performance in "Uncut Gems." After tasting critical acclaim, the Sandman followed up by playing Hubie Halloween, because he remembers his roots.
Jim Carrey was a gigantic comedy star, the biggest in Hollywood, when he turned serious with “The Truman Show.” He followed it up with “Man On The Moon,” a serious biopic about a comedian who died young. Carrey also made his version of a Frank Capra movie with “The Majestic,” reunited with “Batman Forever” director Joel Schumacher for bizarre numerology noir thriller “The Number 23” and has recently gotten serious about his painting. Still, his best serious movie is “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind,” where his muted performance only in a few scenes reflects his normal, ultra-expressive film work.
“Dreamgirls” was Eddie Murphy’s most serious attempt at getting serious, playing R&B superstar Jimmy “Thunder” Early. No, he does not sing "Boogie In Your Butt" in this film. Murphy got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but it was rumored that he lost because of how much voters hated his follow-up, “Norbit.” It would have been hollow to win for "Dreamgirls anyway" — playing every single member of the Klump family was far more impressive. There was a lot of Oscar buzz for Eddie's 2019 role in "Dolemite Is My Name," but he was snubbed again.
Sarah Silverman mostly acted in comedies at the beginning of her career, not counting a role as “Raving Bıtch” in “The Way Of The Gun.” But while her on-stage persona is full of raunchy, intentionally provocative material, she's shown a remarkable ability for sensitive performances on screen in the past decade. She played a supporting role in Sarah Polley's "Take This Waltz," took the lead role as a suburban mom suffering from depression, and played her first real-life character in "Battle of the Sexes": Gladys Heldman, the founder of what eventually became the Women's Tennis Association.
How do you follow up a decade-long run on one of the highest-rated comedies on network TV? You switch to dramatic roles, which Ray Romano proved adept at. He’s still funny in places in “Men Of A Certain Age,” “Get Shorty” and “Parenthood,” but they're all really dramas, as is "The Big Sick." In “Vinyl” he even does a love scene — don’t tell Debra!
Jerry Lewis put away the slapstick and the crazy voices for his part as a comedian and talk show host in Martin Scorsese's "The King Of Comedy." Lewis plays Jerry Langford, who gets kidnapped by Robert De Niro's crazed fan in a dark story. But it's not as dark as Lewis' legendary unreleased film "The Clown Who Cried," which is about a circus clown imprisoned in a concentration camp. It's never been released because the filmmakers couldn't secure the rights from the original screenwriter but also because it's a Jerry Lewis film about a clown in the Holocaust.
Chris Rock is one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time, but he hasn't always gotten his due as an actor, despite an impressive debut in "New Jack City" nearly 30 years ago. He mostly made comedies, occasionally playing small roles in films like "Panther" and "Dogma," but he got very serious about acting in the last decade, starring on Broadway and playing the main character in the fourth season of "Fargo."
Mary Tyler Moore had two wildly successful sitcom roles under her belt with her own show and "The Dıck Van Dyke Show." She was cheery and could turn the world on with her smile, but in her Oscar-nominated turn in "Ordinary People," MTM was chilling. She got a Best Actress nomination for her role as a grieving, emotionally withdrawn mother, the antithesis of Laura Petrie and Mary Richards. Moore would play another grieving mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, eight years later opposite Sam Waterston's Honest Abe in "Lincoln."
The late Don Rickles was the king of insult comedy, but he also played a dramatic role in Martin Scorsese's "Casino." Scorsese cast Rickles as pit boss Billy Sherbert because he wanted the authenticity of someone who was in Las Vegas in the era of the film. The side benefit was that he got Rickles as a performer between takes, when he'd make jokes and mercilessly roast Scorsese himself, as he did when Marty got a Lifetime Achievement Award from AFI.
When Rob Reiner directed Aaron Sorkin's "A Few Good Men," he lined up an all-star cast: Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland and...Kevin Pollak? Yes, Reiner cast the standup comic and impressionist, who had already proved his acting chops in "Willow" and Barry Levinson's "Avalon," but he got the part only because Jason Alexander suddenly became unavailable — no one thought "Seinfeld" would get a second season. Pollak also played one of the five guys in the lineup in "The Usual Suspects," but (SPOILER) he is not Keyser Soze.
Bill Murray has always dabbled in drama, starting off with “The Razor’s Edge” in 1984, but he had a late-career resurgence with his collaborations with Wes Anderson, including tour de force performances in “Rushmore” and “The Life Aquatic.” He was robbed of a Best Actor Oscar in Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation" because the Academy simply doesn't respect comedy. Murray's dramatic breakthrough came in “Mad Dog And Glory,” where he holds his own opposite Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman as a brutal gangster who aspires to be, what else, a standup comedian.
Jamie Foxx was always a talented performer on "In Living Color" and his own eponymous show, but no one expected the guy who played Ugly Wanda to get two Oscar nominations in a single year. (He lost for "Collateral" but won Best Actor for "Ray.") Foxx's move into dramatic roles started with "Any Given Sunday" in 1999, continued with "Ali" in 2001, and by 2005 he was dominating the Oscars.
Michael Keaton was a standup comic and aspiring actor who started off almost exclusively in comedies. Then he did "Clean And Sober," where he played a cocaine-addicted real estate agent, and since then he’s been an A-lister in both worlds. He's done plenty of great serious work, but in 1982, would anyone have believed that the star of the morgue/prostitution comedy “Night Shift” would eventually play the lead in the consecutive Best Picture winners ("Birdman" and "Spotlight")? Not to mention Batman, who he'll be playing again at age 69.
Richard Belzer played detective John Munch for 22 straight years on two NBC dramas, but there are certainly generations of viewers who don’t know he was a standup comedian for two decades before that. He played small parts in “Night Shift” and “Scarface” in the early '80s but got his break when Barry Levinson cast him as Munch in “Homicide: Life On The Streets,” despite thinking he was a “lousy actor.” Levinson had no idea Munch would be the longest-running character in TV history.
Actress/comedian Mo’Nique had a thriving standup career, her own sitcom, “The Parkers,” and plenty of comedic film work, but her first serious role was as the abusive mother in “Precious.” All she did with that first dramatic acting opportunity was win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Someone needs to give her another big part.
Woody Harrelson‘s time on “Cheers" proved that you have to be a pretty smart actor to play dumb so successfully for years. People did not recognize his dramatic chops, possibly because the character was also named Woody. But his work in "White Men Can't Jump" was impressive, including his jump shot. Then he went on to rack up multiple Oscar nominations in “The People vs. Larry Flynt," "The Messenger" and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." You could say the Academy is a place where everybody knows his name.
After years as a standup comedian and regular on “Laugh In,” Lily Tomlin was already an established and successful comedian when she did Robert Altman‘s “Nashville,” for which she received an Oscar nomination. Since then she has made plenty of comedies and won a Tony for her blockbuster one-woman show on Broadway (“The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”). But she can always deliver in a serious role, as demonstrated in her mostly comedic and often dramatic turn on “Grace and Frankie.”
For many years, Jackie Gleason was the biggest comedian in America, both literally and figuratively. But when he got serious in “The Hustler," Gleason replaced the bombast he displayed as Ralph Kramden on “The Honeymooners” with silence and meticulous body language in the role of Minnesota Fats, and he earned his lone Oscar nomination.
Steve Martin’s first attempt to break out of comedy came with the cult classic “Pennies From Heaven” in 1981. He made his way into dramatic roles with “Roxanne,” his modern update of Cyrano de Bergerac. Eventually he started writing plays and serious novels, one of which turned into a star vehicle for him: “Shopgirl.” But his most impressive serious effort came as a con man in David Mamet’s “The Spanish Prisoner," where Martin’s easygoing charm turns into something much more menacing. He can also play the hell out of a banjo.
"Get Out" was a stunning first directorial effort from Jordan Peele, a longtime sketch comedy veteran, first on "MAD TV" and then his own show, "Key and Peele." His first dramatic acting role was in "Fargo," but it didn't seem like he needed much more experience. Peele won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay but didn't slow down one bit, co-creating the show "The Last O.G." and co-producing Best Picture nominee "BlacKkKlansman," a film that also took home Best Screenplay. Peele may be retiring from acting, which makes sense when you're on a hot streak like he is.
Will Forte was an interesting choice to play Bruce Dern’s son in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” which also featured Bob Odenkirk in a dramatic role as his brother. But when you see Forte's post–"SNL" work, it makes sense because there is a deep sadness and humanity alongside the wackiness in his gone-too-soon apocalyptic comedy, “Last Man On Earth."
Takeshi Kitano was one half of Japan’s most popular comedy duo well before he got into the world of films. Perhaps intentionally breaking from his former career, which included a stance hosting a Japanese game show, "Takeshi's Castle." Kitano’s films as an actor and director tend to be violent and dark, although not without moments of humor. Extremely dark humor.
While many in the U.S. know him best as the acerbic, cane-wielding title character on "House," Hugh Laurie has decades of comedic experience behind him, often with his frequent collaborator Stephen Fry from "Jeeves and Wooster," and in all incarnations of "Blackadder." Recently he delivered a chilling turn as a very bad man in "The Night Manager" miniseries.
Melissa McCarthy is such a powerhouse comedic performer, it's no surprise that her first foray into drama in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" got her a Best Actress nomination. It's rare that a comedian can replace Julianne Moore in a project and deliver an even better performance, but that's what makes McCarthy the greatest female comedian of her generation.
Dan Aykroyd was the first of the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players to get an Oscar nomination for acting, for his role in "Driving Miss Daisy." He's quite good in it, although part of us wishes he'd played it as Fred Garvin: Male Prostitute.
Sean Keane is a comedian residing in Los Angeles. He has written for "Another Period," "Billy On The Street," NBC, Comedy Central, E!, and Seeso. You can see him doing fake news every weekday on @TheEverythingReport and read his tweets at @seankeane. In 2014, the SF Bay Guardian named him the best comedian in San Francisco, then immediately went out of business.