Earlier this month the star of a network television sitcom, Allison Janney, won an Oscar. In fact, she had to cut her appearances at post-Oscar parties short because she had to be at work on the CBS show “Mom” the next day. While this has happened before, Janney’s victory for “I Tonya” and the lack of media attention to a sitcom star winning a movie award just shows how the television and film worlds have merged to an extent that actors now move freely in between both venues.
Until fairly recently you were either a television actor or a film actor. You pretty much did one or the other. It was even common for young actors to stipulate that they would only audition for film. Some actors such as Bruce Willis were able to parlay their TV stardom into movie careers, while many film stars were often fearful of taking television work because they thought it would ruin their film careers. Donald Sutherland famously turned down the TV series version of “MASH” after creating the role of Hawkeye in the film because he wanted to keep working in movies. Sutherland has joked that when he first met Alan Alda who took the role, Alda greeted him by saying, “Thank you for my life.”
In Oscar terms it has been pretty rare for the star of a TV star to win film’s highest honor while still appearing on the small screen. Helen Hunt managed to win the 1997 Best Actress award for “As Good As It Gets” while still appearing on “Mad About You.” Other examples of winners or even nominees appearing on sitcoms simultaneously to their nomination are hard to find. Cloris Leachman was appearing as a frequent guest star on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when she won the Oscar for Supporting Actress for “The Last Picture Show” in 1971.
Mary Tyler Moore herself was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for “Ordinary People” in 1980 but this was three years after her famed sitcom had ended. “Ordinary People” costar Judd Hirsch though was still appearing on TV’s “Taxi” when he earned a Supporting Actor nomination for that same film. Helen Mirren also notably won an Oscar (“The Queen”) the same year she took home an Emmy (“Elizabeth I”), but the latter was not for a recurring role.
So perhaps the big news of Janney’s win was that it really was no big news. As actors move between television and film, and streaming services blur the distinction between the two, even more the age old prejudice against being a “television actor” seems to be gone for good. Heck, even Meryl Streep has signed on to appear on a TV series this year.