From the small screen to the big screen

What do Bruce Willis, Robin Williams, Woody Harrelson, Don Johnson, Shelley Long and David Caruso all have in common? They were all hugely successful television stars.

What divides them?

Willis, Williams and Harrelson went on to become hugely successful film stars. Here, Johnson, Long and Caruso failed.

It is now the cast of Gossip Girl  turn to attempt to convert a successful TV career, into movie stardom (Ed Westwick who plays Chuck Bass features in the upcoming flick J Edgar while Leighton Meeston is currently starring alongside Selena Gomez and Katie Cassidy in Monte Carlo). How will they fare?

It can be an ego shattering decision for every television star in America: when and how do they make the break into big time films? For many, it has proved impossible. Careers and hopes have been dashed, if not ruined, by the promise of movie stardom.

Ted Danson and Tom Selleck fall under this category. Selleck starred in the television series Magnum I but flopped on the big screen. His films Three Men and a Baby and the tortured sequel Three Men and a Little Lady seem scant return for his apparent star potential. Selleck now has to content himself with making guest appearances in sitcoms he once starred in.

It is the same story all over again with Ted Danson. In the now defunct show Cheers, Danson could do no wrong. Danson went onto partner Selleck in the Three Men films, but throughout the 1990s nose dived against high expectations. At 60, Danson’s chance of big screen recognition is virtually over, and in the Steven Spielberg war epic Saving Private Ryan, he played no more than a cameo role.

When booming careers are left on hold in television series for too long, the chances of acceptance at the cinema appear to be slim. Many leading stars, of all ages briefly appeared on television. For example Brad Pitt (Dallas), Leonardo Di Caprio (Growing Pains), Claire Danes (My So Called Life), Neve Campbell (Party of Five) and Jennifer Aniston (Friends) to name but a few. However the transformation has to be fast. Young stars are currently the key, before they become totally typecast. Regulars in the top shows it would appear, have less guarantee of success in films than ever before.

Why do America’s television stars want to break away from the small screen and transfer to the big screen anyway? Many don’t. For instance, the stars of the American High School programme Saved by the Bell, graduated quite happily to cult television shows such as 90210 and other dramas. They are aware that American television shows are by far the most powerful in the world. Hundreds of millions watch shows such as Desperate Housewives, Mad Men and Gossip Girl or re-runs of ER, Friends, Cheers and Seinfield. The stars are handsomely paid, many between $100 000 and $300 000 an episode, giving them movie star annual incomes.

However for some the lure of films themselves, seems irresistible, especially for actors who want to launch themselves with a character virtually opposite to the one the public love on the small screen.

But the stakes are high and the roll of failed film careers among television stars is long. In the series Miami Vice, Don Johnson had it all. Yet following his ill fated venture into the world of films (including a film with the prop[hectic title Good Morning and Goodbye), Johnson is now the most spectacular failure. By the time he had tried a cop action film (Dead Bang), and a biker Western (Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man), Johnson’s status as the biggest action star on television had withered and died.

David Caruso symbolised a classic case of leaping too soon, with too little. Caruso, 42, had spent just one year on the show NYPD as the heroic John Kelly when he was tempted to quit by the offer of Jade, one of writer Joe Eszterhas’ trilogy of thrillers that began with Basic Instinct and Jagged Edge. But the film was neither sexy nor scary, with the gingery Caruso unconvincing as a sex symbol. Another flop, Kiss of Death, followed its title summing up Caruso’s film career.

The question is: What makes a movie star? In truth, nobody really knows what makes a great movie star. It is a combination of a great script and the charisma of an actor. Do you want to spend a couple of hours in a cinema with these people, watching them on huge screen? That is the key question: that is the making of a movie star. To be a star, you need three things. You have to be smart, you have to have talent and the audience have to want to watch you.

Yet even this is not always enough. Think of the Friends cast. Matthew Perry, Matt Le Blanc, David Schwimmer and Lisa Kudrow have all done okay at the box office, but none of their films have exactly set the world alight.

Perhaps those who make the smoothest transition from the small screen to the big screen are those who choose a first movie, with a similar character to that of their TV hit - and then move swiftly on in the vein of Bruce Willis, Woody Harrelson et al. Robin Williams‘ proved he could make audiences laugh in the face of war in Good Morning Vietnam and in Dead Poets Society, showed he delivered pathos too.

This bodes well for Westwick. In his latest film, Gossip Girl’s resident bad boy plays against type as a law abiding agent. The role is important to show that Westwick can deliver something very different to his character, Chuck Bass, in the CW show. However such is the power of television contracts that if the television shows are a success, the main stars are shackled to them for a minimum of five years and sometimes seven. This does have an advantage. It means that the soapies can all make films during the summer hiatus and see how things work out. Perhaps this new breed of televisions cum film stars have ‘one up’ over their predecessors....