With Sean Penn guesting on ''Friends,'' Ken Tucker wonders what's next -- Ben Affleck as a wacky suburban dad?

By Ken Tucker
Updated November 02, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Friends: Danny Feld/Warner Bros TV

Friends

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Movie stars are invading the small screen

The only thing more surprising than seeing that the excellent but notoriously picky actor Sean Penn is guest-starring on ”Friends” this week is that NBC isn’t even making much of this mini-historic occasion. So far, the on-air ads I’ve been seeing have been promoting the episode’s Halloween theme, with the friends dressed in amusingly ridiculous costumes. (What will Penn trick-or-treat as? A dead man walking? A crossing guard?)

But then, I guess it’s a sign of the times — movie actors invading TV isn’t as much of a big deal as it used to be. One of this season’s new shows, ”The Education of Max Bickford,” features two Oscar winners: Richard Dreyfuss and Marcia Gay Harden. And the kick of it is, their combined star wattage still isn’t enough to have made the series a hit: Its ratings have been wobbly since its premiere. (The show itself ain’t bad though — check it out.)

I’m looking forward to seeing Penn on ”Friends” — it’s fun to see how a big-screen actor adjusts his style to TV, the way he blends in (or stands out) from an ensemble of actors we know so well. For any given movie actor, it’s become clear that you have a better chance of coming off well doing a guest spot than trying to carry a series: Just look at the failure last season of sitcoms headed up by Bette Midler (of whom there are few funnier actresses in showbiz history) and Geena Davis (of whom there are few actresses… um, taller… in showbiz history).

Movie stars crossing over to TV isn’t anything new, of course: Lucille Ball used to have a big star like William Holden drop by almost weekly at a certain point in her TV career, and James Stewart starred in TWO TV series that each flopped after a single season: ”The Jimmy Stewart Show” (1971-72) and ”Hawkins” (1973-74). (In that last one he played a lawyer named Billy Jim Hawkins — Billy Jim! Aw, shucks, as Stewart himself often said.)

These days, you never know when or in what capacity a film actor is going to pop up on TV. Joe Pantoliano, from ”The Sopranos” and most recently in theaters in ”Memento,” will guest-star on the teen-alien show ”Roswell” on Nov. 6. A cinema great like Sidney Poitier recently starred in the CBS TV movie ”The Last Brickmaker in America” to less than spectacular ratings. And a lesser light with one big film credit — Billy Zane, the villain in ”Titanic” — will premiere in November as the star of a TBS cable series called ”Invincible,” a mystical-martial-arts show that, in the pictures I’ve seen, make him look disoncertingly like David Carradine in ”Kung Fu.”

Who knows what’s next? A few more flops and Ben Affleck may soon be coming into your living room starring in ”Oh, That Ben!” as a wacky suburban dad who every week gets into crazy situations while trying to fulfill his dream of becoming — oh, I dunno — a movie star, maybe.

Do film actors guesting or starring in a TV show make you want to watch that show more?

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