11 Comedic Actors Who Made the Move to Drama (with Varying Results)


Actor Jason Segel, best known for his role as the goofy but lovable Marshall Eriksen on CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, is earning serious Oscar buzz for his latest film The End of the Tour.

Segel plays renowned author David Foster Wallace in the film, which focuses on the extensive 5-day interview the author conducted with Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky during the last days of Wallace’s book tour for his massively influential 1996 novel Infinite Jest.

The film was well-received at its Sundance premiere in January, and entertainment outlets singled out Segel’s performance in particular as worthy of Oscar attention. Segel’s performance, critics said, was made more impressive coming after a nine-season run as a comedic actor on a network television show: the actor reportedly flew to the set less than 24 hours after wrapping the series finale of How I Met Your Mother.

With Segel earning rave reviews for his dramatic turn as Wallace, we thought we’d take a look at some other comedic actors who have taken the leap into dramatic roles, with varying degrees of success.

Check out the list below, and let us know who we missed in the comments section.


1. Steve Carrell

Carrell earned himself an Oscar nomination for his performance in last year’s true-story film Foxcatcher. The actor, best known for his breakout role as bumbling boss Michael Scott on NBC’s sitcom The Office, turned in a masterful performance as John E. DuPont, the eccentric multi-millionaire Olympic wrestling sponsor who was convicted of third-degree murder in 1997.

Before Foxcatcher, Carrell played suicidal uncle Frank Ginsberg to terrific effect in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine. The versatile actor could be in line for another Oscar nomination for his role in the upcoming gay rights drama Freeheld. Carrell plays gay attorney and founder of Garden State Equality Steven Goldstein in the film, set for release in October.

2. Robin Williams

Robin Williams is perhaps the quintessential example of an actor able to seamlessly shift between comedic and dramatic material. From his early days of stand-up, to his title role as a wacky alien on the TV show Mork and Mindy, to turns as an animated genie in Aladdin and a cross-dressing nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire, when Williams brought the funny, he brought it hard.

But the actor was equally, if not more, comfortable in dramatic roles; he picked up the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as psychologist Sean Maguire in 1997’s Good Will Hunting and earned three other Oscar nominations over six years for his performances in The Fisher King, Dead Poets Society, and Good Morning, Vietnam.

Williams’s shocking suicide last year at age 63 robbed movie lovers of a unique talent, but fans of the late actor will get one more chance to see his comedic side when his final film, Almost Anything, gets released this month.

3. Bill Murray

Murray got his start on “Saturday Night Live” in 1975 before successfully parlaying his growing popularity into a string of comedic hits through the 80s and early 90s, with roles in Caddyshack, Stripes, Tootsie, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day.

Murray continued to appear in comedies in the late 90s with roles in Kingpin, The Man Who Knew Too Little, and an appearance as himself in the 1996 Michael Jordan-fronted comedy Space Jam. He also earned critical acclaim for his role as Herman Blume in 1998’s Rushmore.

But it was his role in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation that cemented Murray’s status as an actor with serious range. Murray earned an Oscar nomination for his role as washed-up actor Bob Harris, who meets and forms an unlikely relationship with Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte in Tokyo.

Murray has since returned to more quirky comedic fare, including roles in five Wes Anderson films (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel), The Monuments Men, and an upcoming role as a music manager in Barry Levinson’s Rock the Kasbah.

4. Jonah Hill

Jonah Hill first gained exposure with bit parts in raunchy comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Grandma’s Boy, Accepted, and Knocked Up. But he exploded onto the comedy scene with a star-making performance in the instant-classic Superbad in 2003, playing a teenager desperate for sex alongside a bumbling Michael Cera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s now-iconic “McLovin’.”

After more roles in the Judd Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, Hill broke into the dramatic mainstream with an Oscar-nominated performance in 2011’s Moneyball as baseball-statistics wiz Peter Brand, who helped Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics redefine the way the game is measured.

Hill would earn another Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Leonardo DiCaprio’s sidekick in Martin Scorcese 2013’s cautionary tale about American excess, The Wolf of Wall Street. The actor also did a solid job playing disgraced New York Times reporter Michael Finkel in this year’s True Story.

5. Jim Carrey

Carrey has made some questionable choices in his long career (The Majestic and The Number 23 come to mind), but the funnyman has come a long way from his early days on “In Living Color” and in comedies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber.

Though he first captured audiences’ attention in those roles and in other comedy hits like The Mask and Liar Liar, Carrey proved he had the chops for drama with his starring role in 1998’s The Truman Show.

The following year, Carrey earned rave reviews for his role in Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, before turning in an all-star performance a few years later in Michel Gondry’s trippy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where he played a man trying to scrub the memories of an ex-girlfriend from his brain.

Carrey was never nominated for an Academy Award, but he did pick up a Golden Globe nod for Sunshine and two Globe wins for Moon and Truman Show. While he’s stuck mostly to formulaic comedy in recent years (Mr. Popper’s Penguins, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Dumb and Dumber To), he recently signed on to star in the Brett Ratner-produced upcoming indie thriller True Crimes.

6. Jamie Foxx

Foxx got his start on “In Living Color” and in his own comedy show “The Jamie Foxx Show” in 1996.

The actor would go on to do a string of comedies like Booty Call, Held Up, and Breakin’ All The Rules.

But Foxx put the acting world on notice with his unflinching portrayal of musician Ray Charles in the 2004 movie Ray, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Foxx was also nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category that year for his work alongside Tom Cruise in the hitman thriller Collateral.

Foxx now has feet firmly planted in both comedies and dramas, with star turns in Jarhead, The Kingdom, Law Abiding Citizen, Horrible Bosses, Django Unchained, and last year’s Annie remake. Up next for Foxx is the action-thriller Sleepless Nights from Swiss director Baran bo Odar.

Not Quite

1. Adam Sandler

Sandler earned his “class clown” reputation as a core cast member of early 90s “Saturday Night Live” before pivoting to juvenile (but enormously entertaining) comedies like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore.

The actor continued to do steady comedic work later in the decade with roles in The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy, and Big Daddy before turning in a respectable performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 dramedy Punch-Drunk Love.

But Sandler later misfired with a string of movies including Spanglish, Bedtime Stories, and Funny People, the latter of which failed to find the proper balance between comedy and drama.

A notable exception is the 2006 film Reign Over Me, in which Sandler played a man grieving over the death of his family in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Sandler has returned to comedies, albeit with diminishing returns (things hit a low point with 2011’s Jack and Jill). But the actor is hoping to recapture that early success with The Ridiculous Six, the first in a four-picture exclusive deal with Netflix that the actor signed last year.

2. Ben Stiller

Stiller found early success with early roles in Reality Bites, Heavyweights, and the “Ben Stiller Show” before breaking out in the Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary in 1998.

But the actor’s strangely electric performance in the drug addiction drama Permanent Midnight was undermined (through little fault of his own) by a frustratingly meandering script and shaky direction from first-timer David Veloz.

Stiller has since turned in decent performances in indie dramas like Greenberg and last year’s While We’re Young, but the actor’s foray into the genre hasn’t given him the cred other actors have earned for their transitions. Stiller is set to stick with comedy in next year’s Zoolander 2.

3. Will Ferrell

Ferrell is another “Saturday Night Live” alum who successfully switched over into mainstream movie success.

After early roles in Austin Powers, A Night at the Roxbury, and Zoolander put him on the comedy map, Ferrell became the leader of  the “Frat Pack” (and a god to college-aged stoners everywhere) with his role as Frank (the Tank) in 2003’s Old School.

Ferrell kept up the funny through roles in Anchorman, Kicking and Screaming, Wedding Crashers, and Talladega Nights before delving into more serious fare with 2006’s Stranger than Fiction and 2009 adventurer Land of the Lost.

It’s not that these movies were bad; Ferrell’s performances in each were actually pretty solid. It’s just that these roles failed to establish him as a true dramatic talent, meaning he didn’t “quite” make the leap into drama.

Ferrell was much better in the criminally under-seen drama Everything Must Go.

4. Dane Cook

Cook became a comedy superstar with a slew of highly popular stand-up comedy specials in the early 2000s.

He used that success to get roles in small-time comedies like Waiting and Employee of the Month, where he excelled in an environment of low-stakes laughs.

But the comedian couldn’t navigate the jump to drama, flailing in the 2007 thriller Mr. Brooks alongside Kevin Costner and in Dan in Real Life the same year.

Cook has a chance to redeem himself with his upcoming starring role in the sci-fi thriller 400 Days for director Matt Osterman (Ghost from the Machine).

5. Mike Myers

Myers, like many on this list, got his start on “Saturday Night Live” in 1988. He quickly became known for his portrayals of out-there characters in Wayne’s World, the Austin Powers films, and So I Married an Axe Murderer.

But the Canadian funnyman took two misguided forays into drama, both in 1998: the almost incomprehensible Pete’s Meteor found Myers adopting an Irish accent in his first dramatic role, and the equally disappointing 54 found the actor taking on the role of Studio 54 co-owner Steve Rubell, to middling results.

Myers scored a massive hit with the animated comedy Shrek in 2001 (a role originally meant for Chris Farley before his untimely death) and its three sequels and continued to make comedies with varying degrees of success through the decade (though the Love Guru was simply terrible).

But Myers may have found his calling as a director; his 2013 documentary Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon is a throughly entertaining examination of the life of the prolific Hollywood manager.

Honorable Mentions

Eddie Murphy (48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, Dreamgirls)

Steve Martin (Saturday Night Live, The Jerk, The Man with Two Brains, The Spanish Prisoner)

Marlon Wayans (Don’t Be a Menace, Scary Movie, White Chicks, Requiem for a Dream)

Jack Black (Tenacious D [band], School of Rock, Tropic Thunder, King Kong)

Jerry Lewis (The Stooge, The Bellboy, Nutty Professor, The King of Comedy)


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