As Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in the new biopic “Steve Jobs,” Seth Rogen is the latest funnyman to chase Oscar glory by turning serious. Rogen is following in the foosteps of of Jonah Hill, his co-star in the 2011 laffer “This is the End.” Hill got his start as a lovable goofball in “Superbad” (2007) and “Get Him to the Greek” (2010) before earning Supporting Actor nominations for “Moneyball” (2011) and “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013).
Those films marked a departure for Hill in both style and tone. We had underestimated him in both those derbies and could be doing the same with Rogen now. While he sits at 17th on our Best Supporting Actor chart, he could well be boosted in the ranks by the success of “Steve Jobs.” It won over both critics and audiences last weekend, scoring 87 at Rotten Tomatoes and 82 at MetaCritic while doing boffo business in limited release.
Remember, the motion picture academy has a long tradition of embracing comedians-turned-dramatic-actors dating back to 1957 and Red Buttons. The stand-up impressed voters with his moving portrayal of an Korean War airman in “Sayonara” (1957), and was rewarded with a Supporting Actor Oscar for his efforts.
Fast forward 40 years to 1997 when Robin Williams, who came to fame as as Mork from Ork on “Mork and Mindy,” prevailed for his supporting turn as Matt Damon’s helpful psychiatrist in “Good Will Hunting.” Prior to that, he had reaped three Best Actor nominations for “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987), “Dead Poets Society” (1989) and “The Fisher King” (1991).
The most successful example of a sitcom-star-turned-leading man is Tom Hanks, whose big break was for playing a man forced to dress as a woman to live cheaply in “Bosom Buddies.” He starred in a string of light comedies before winning back-to-back Oscars for “Philadelphia” (1993) and “Forrest Gump” (1994). He was also nominated for “Big” (1988), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), and “Cast Away” (2000) and is a strong contender this year for “Bridge of Spies” proving the transition can be enduring.
Two years after Buttons won, TV pioneer Ed Wynn was nominated for his supporting turn as a Jewish dentist hiding from Nazis in “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959); he lost that race to Hugh Griffith for “Ben-Hur.”
Jackie Gleason was the next TV comedian to be embraced by the motion picture academy. The “Honeymooners” star was nominated for playing Minnesota Fats in “The Hustler” (1961). He lost to George Chakiris in “West Side Story,” perhaps due to vote splitting with his costar George C. Scott.
Gleason’s TV pal Art Carney, famous for playing the dimwitted Ed Norton on “The Honeymooners,” won Best Actor in 1974 for playing a curmudgeon who embarks on a cross-country journey with his cat in “Harry and Tonto.” He beat out Albert Finney (“Murder on the Orient Express”), Dustin Hoffman (“Lenny”), Jack Nicholson (“Chinatown”) and Al Pacino (“The Godfather, Part II”).
After roles in Neil Simon‘s comedies “Murder by Death” (1976) and “The Cheap Detective” (1978), as well as starring in the short-lived sitcoms “Calucci’s Department” and “The Dumplings,” James Coco caught the attention of Oscar voters as Marsha Mason’s gay neighbor in one of Simon’s serious films, “Only When I Laugh” (1981). He lost Supporting Actor to John Gielgud, a dramatic actor playing it for laughs in “Arthur,” proving the axiom goes both ways.
Before his iconic role as Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid” (1984), Pat Morita was best known as Arnold, the friendly diner-owner on “Happy Days,” and for a recurring role as Ah Chew on “Sanford and Son.” Morita received an Oscar nomination for his efforts, but lost to Haing S. Ngor for “The Killing Fields.”
Straddling the line between comedy and drama works too, as Albert Brooks demonstrated in “Broadcast News” (1987). As Aaron Altman, the noble yet unappealing D.C. reporter, Brooks brought an added poignancy to his usual comedic persona, and although he lost to Sean Connery in “The Untouchables,” it nonetheless established Brooks as more than just a comedic actor.
“Saturday Night Live,” a long-standing training ground for comedians, has produced two nominees in the Supporting Actor category. First was Dan Akyroyd as Jessica Tandy’s long-suffering son in “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989). Then came Eddie Murphy as a James Brown-esque soul singer in “Dreamgirls” (2006). Both roles proved a departure for the comedy veterans, yet neither actor won, losing to Denzel Washington in “Glory” and Alan Arkin in “Little Miss Sunshine,” respectively.
Probably the closest any ‘SNL’ alum came to winning an Oscar was Bill Murray for his somber turn in “Lost in Translation” (2003), a role that starkly contrasts the bombastic personality of “Caddyshack” (1980) and “Ghostbusters” (1984). Murray was neck-and-neck with “Mystic River’s” Sean Penn, with both actors winning Globes, with Penn ultimately taking the Oscar.
Given his film persona, it’s hard to believe that Woody Harrelson got his start as Woody Boyd, the sweet, naive bartender on “Cheers.” After seriously redefining his image in “Natural Born Killer” (1994), Harrelson reaped a Best Actor nod for playing Hustler founder Larry Flynt in “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996), losing to Geoffrey Rush in “Shine.” He followed that up with a Supporting nod for his role as a US soldier assigned to deliver death notices in “The Messenger” (2009); that time, he lost to Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds.”
2004 saw a trio of TV-comedians contending for Oscars. Alan Alda, best known for his Emmy-award-winning role as Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce on “M*A*S*H,” received his first nomination for playing the villainous Senator Owen Brewster in “The Aviator.” He competed in the Supporting Actor category as did Thomas Haden Church, star of the sitcoms “Wings” and “Ned and Stacey,” who played Paul Giamatti’s randy sidekick in “Sideways.” Both lost to Morgan Freeman in “Million Dollar Baby.”
That was the year Jamie Foxx made good on the dramatic potential shown in “Any Given Sunday” (1999) by reaping a Best Actor bid for “Ray” and a supporting one for “Collateral,” winning for the former. His stunning transformation into Ray Charles may have come as a surprise to voters who remembered him best from “In Living Color” and “The Jamie Foxx Show.”
Last year Steve Carell transformed into the murderous millionaire John du Pont in “Foxcatcher,” a far cry from his goofy Michael Scott on “The Office.” He may have lost the Oscar to Eddie Redmayne for “The Theory of Everything,” but he established his credibility as a dramatic leading man.
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