Classic TV Stars on Film
Here at the dawn of the 21st Century, an actor or actress seems to require only a single season as the star of a successful TV show in order to embark upon an equally successful movie career. Jennifer Love Hewitt, Neve Campbell, James Van Der Beek, and Sarah Michelle Gellar are only a few examples. Jim Carrey merely appeared as one of the cast members on “In Living Color” and is now one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood.
In the 40s, 50s, and 60s, it was considered unusual for a movie star to appear on TV. The truly big Hollywood legends would never think of doing a regular TV series. Picture Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant as the Beaver’s parents. The mind reels.
But in the early days of television, established movie actors and actresses began making the switch to TV and stayed there. TV was a new medium, and needed talent. With a few exceptions, though, it was pretty much a one-way street.
While there were many, many stars who had careers in both TV and film, this article focuses on a very special 15 people who had either great success, or at least long careers, in both mediums.
We begin with one of those exceptions to the rule — a big TV star who quit the small screen and turned in some exceptional performances on film. (Look for 7 more stars in Part II.)
After making 8 mostly forgettable films in the early 40s, Jackie Gleason switched to TV and was one of the kings of the airwaves during the 50s. Then, after an absence of almost 20 years from the big screen, he took a role in The Hustler and got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his flawless portrayal of Minnesota Fats. This was followed by solid performances in Gigot (1962), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962),Soldier in the Rain (1963) and Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963). Unfortunately, following another absence from Hollywood, this time of five years, Jackie finished his career with a number of less spectacular roles, including a buffoonish recurring character in the “Smokey and the Bandit” series. But we’ll always have Minnesota!
Look for videos of Jackie Gleason’s movies and TV shows at LovingTheClassics.com.
The star of I Love Lucy. who was unquestionably the biggest female TV star of her time, had a long movie career even before that happened, appearing in about 75 films from 1929 to 1949. She was a Ziegfeld Girl and a Goldwyn Girl, but rose from the crowd of leggy starlets to become the first woman to own a film studio. Some of her more memorable films included Top Hat (1935), Stage Door (1937) — in which she held her own with Kate Hepburn and Ginger Rogers — and The Long, Long Trailer, made during her “I Love Lucy” days. Her last screen appearance was in a movie version of Mame in 1974, but it was unfortunately a critical flop. Read our tribute article for her.
Look for videos of Lucille Ball’s movies and TV shows at LovingTheClassics.com.
When Robert Young died recently, many fans of his roles in Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D. were surprised to discover that he had been a well-established movie star before making the transition to television in the 50s, appearing in almost 100 films between 1937 and 1952 (an average of about 7 films a year). He co-starred with Spencer Tracy in Northwest Passage (1940), and appeared with two other Roberts — Mitchum and Taylor — in Crossfire (1947). Other notable films included H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), Journey for Margaret (1942), The Canterville Ghost (1944), Lady Luck (1946), They Won’t Believe Me (1947), and Sitting Pretty (1948). For more information and a complete filmography, see the Classic Movies
Look for videos of Robert Young’s movies and TV shows at LovingTheClassics.com.
Before Donna became America’s perfect mom on The Donna Reed Show beginning in 1958, she had an admirable 40-film Hollywood career that included co-starring in America’s favorite Holiday film, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and an Oscar-winning and un-Donna Stone-like supporting role in From Here to Eternity.. You’ll also enjoy her performances in They Were Expendable (1945), The Picture of Dorian Gray(1945), The Benny Goodman Story (1955), and Green Dolphin Street (1947).
Look for videos of Donna Reed’s movies and TV shows at LovingTheClassics.com.
George had such a legendarily long career that you might expect to see a fairly lengthy filmography after his name. But the fact is that, previous to The George Burns And Gracie Allen Show and The George Burns Show, he’d only made two dozen films, mostly playing himself. It wasn’t until 1976 that he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in The Sunshine Boys opposite Walter Matthau. He was also outstanding in Going in Style (1979), and was probably the only person alive who could have gotten away with playing God for laughs. Twice. He just made it to the century mark, as he promised he would, passing away less than two months after his 100th birthday.
Look for videos of George Burns’ movies and TV shows at LovingTheClassics.com.
From 1934 until 1994, Bob Hope appeared in over 80 films and TV series (including cameos). The highlight of his movie career was the series of “Road” films he made with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour from 1940 to 1952. He was the top box office draw in 1950. Some of his other notable films include The Ghost Breakers (1940), My Favorite Blonde (1942), and The Paleface (1948). At the same time he was appearing regularly on TV. In fact, he once introduced himself as “Bob ‘First Commercial Broadcast’ Hope.” For more links and information, see the Classic Movies Tribute to Bob Hope, written to celebrate his 100th birthday, and updated after his death a few months later.
Look for videos of Bob Hope’s movies and TV shows at LovingTheClassics.com.
An excellent example of an actress who became typecast in mostly minor roles in the movies, but put her unique style to good use on radio and then on TV, Eve Arden appeared in 50 films before making it big on television as the star of Our Miss Brooks in 1952. Her first big movie break came in 1937 when she played the wisecracking Eve in Stage Door. The character basically stuck forever. Eve was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her role of Ida in Mildred Pierce. She made a big screen comeback as wisecracking Principal McGee in Grease in 1978, recreating the Eve Arden of old one more time.
Look for videos of Eve Arden’s movies and TV shows at LovingTheClassics.com.