GO BIG-SCREEN: George Clooney
TV Triumph: ER
Film Follow-Up: From Dusk Till Dawn
All due respect to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Baby Talk (a.k.a. Look Who’s Talking the series), but Clooney’s most graceful and career-making transition from small to big screen happened in 1996. Dr. Doug Ross taught us he could be swoonworthy — and spout pages of medical jargon — but Robert Rodriguez’s vamp flick proved he could be badass and carry a film, too.
GO BIG-SCREEN: Will Smith
TV Triumph: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Film Follow-Up: Six Degrees of Separation
Though Bad Boys set the stage for Will Smith, Action Star, his performance in the lesser-seen Six Degrees proved Smith was Oscar caliber. He didn’t snag a nod for playing upwardly aspiring con artist Paul, but the back-to-back combo of gravitas and action roles positioned him as the rare Hollywood star able to straddle the line between artistic credibility and commercial success.
GO HOME: David Caruso
TV Triumph: NYPD Blue
Film Follow-Up: Kiss of Death
The tin standard of flubbed TV-to-film transitions, Caruso sealed his fate with a Kiss, then doubled down on the floppery with box office blunder Jade, which ”earned” him a Razzie nom. As it happened, he lost that year’s (dis)honor to?
GO HOME: Elizabeth Berkley
TV Triumph: Saved by the Bell
Film Follow-Up: Showgirls
To the delight of camp film enthusiasts the world across, Berkley’s turn as pelvis-thrusting ”dancer” Nomi Malone was a disaster on basically all the levels. Credit to her for not being too scared to try something new, but she might have done better to matriculate to California University with most of Bell‘s original cast.
GO BIG-SCREEN: Tom Hanks
TV Triumph: Bosom Buddies
Film Follow-Up: Splash
Though his greatest hits — and a matching pair of Oscars — were yet to come, Splash showed that Hanks’s charm could fill up an entire movie theater just as well as it could fill up a living room.
GO HOME: Pamela Anderson
TV Triumph: Baywatch
Film Follow-Up: Barb Wire
It turns out sex doesn’t always sell. Just ask the Razzie-anointed ”Worst New Star” of 1996. Where the comic-strip adaptation failed, it seems, was by putting the ”tease” in ”strip tease” — while TV fans in that era didn’t mind a little harmless, unfulfilled titillation, moviegoers expected more, and Barb Wire didn’t put out.
GO BIG-SCREEN: Will Ferrell
TV Triumph: Saturday Night Live
Film Follow-Up: Elf
Technically, Ferrell’s first (co-)leading turn came with 1998 SNL spin-out flick A Night at the Roxbury, but we’ll give him a pass for that club thumper. Ferrell actually proved his solo-star mettle as annoyingly, endearingly chipper fish out of water Buddy. Unlike many of Ferrell’s most memorable roles (Old School, Zoolander, Austin Powers), the success of Elf was squarely on Ferrell, and he pulled it off with a smile — because smiling is Buddy’s favorite.
GO BIG-SCREEN: Kristen Wiig
TV Triumph: Saturday Night Live
Film Follow-Up: Bridesmaids
Thanks to her double duty as cowriter and star, Bridesmaids showcased all Wiig’s formidable talents with more pinpoint precision than SNL ever could, and with the added bonus of letting her develop a character rather than a caricature.
GO HOME: Pretty much everyone else on Saturday Night Live
Where do I begin? Let’s see…Corky Romano (shown), the aforementioned Roxbury (Chris Kattan double whammy!), Hot Rod, Taxi, Baby Mama, The Ladies Man, Superstar, MacGruber, The Coneheads, Stuart Saves His Family… Do I need to keep going? Whether inspired by SNL or not, too many alums of the sketch show have proven that the ability to amuse an audience for two and a half minutes does not a feature star a-make (even factoring in exceptions like future Oscar nominees Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, and Joan Cusack).
GO BIG-SCREEN: Robin Wright
TV Triumph: Santa Barbara
Film Follow-Up: The Princess Bride
Wright’s re-introduction as the elegant yet feisty Princess Buttercup was just as fans of Kelly Capwell (Perkins Conrad Armitage) wished.
GO BIG-SCREEN: Woody Harrelson
TV Triumph: Cheers
Film Follow-Up: White Men Can’t Jump
After seven years of playing lovably lunkish bartender Woody Boyd, Harrelson played against type as a blacktop hustler. It didn’t show the edge or Oscar-worthy range he’d put to use in later films (Natural Born Killers, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and The Messenger, to name a few), but it was a solid transitional role.
GO BIG-SCREEN: The ladies of Friends
Film Follow-Up: Jennifer Aniston, Picture Perfect; Courteney Cox, Scream; Lisa Kudrow, Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion
Though Aniston ultimately found her footing as a box-office draw in more traditional rom-coms, she hoped to strike a genre balance with her first leading role and, if nothing else, proved she was more than Rachel Green. Cox was a standout in the huge cast of Kevin Williamson’s horror film pastiche, and Kudrow — who’d also done ensemble work in the 1997 well-received indie Clockwatchers — truly delivered as Michelle, who had the same quirk Friends fans loved about Phoebe?and some truly killer business suits. For longevity, though, top honors go to Aniston.
GO HOME: The men of Friends
Film Follow-Up: David Schwimmer, The Pallbearer; Matthew Perry, Three to Tango; Matt LeBlanc, Lost in Space
The guys of Thursday night returned to the small screen almost as soon as they left it once they realized they couldn’t bring home the box office. Schwimmer did find some success behind the camera, helming plenty of TV (including 10 Friends episodes), the 2007 feature film Run Fatboy Run, and the 2008 Off-Broadway play Fault Lines. You have to respect a man who knows when to pivot.
GO BIG-SCREEN: Johnny Depp
TV Triumph: 21 Jump Street
Film Follow-Up: Edward Scissorhands
From teen punk to cult icon. Scissorhands began Depp’s longtime collaboration with Tim Burton that would set him up for some of his most interesting — and most problematic — projects, as well as at least one Oscar nomination (for the 2007 stage-to-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). As launching points go, this one was a stunner.
GO BIG-SCREEN: Katherine Heigl
TV Triumph: Grey’s Anatomy
Film Follow-Up: Knocked Up
Hear me out here: Heigl seemed poised for greatness after the success of Knocked Up. Then came the trash-talking, off-screen drama, and increasingly bad artistic choices. If only she’d played nice with comedy kingmaker Judd Apatow, imagine where she’d be today.
GO HOME: Bill Cosby
TV Triumph: The Cosby Show
Film Follow-Up: Leonard Part 6
A TV titan for years before his long-running namesake show, Cosby turned in dud after dud when he hit the big leagues. Put it this way: Leonard scored a measly 9 percent — 2 more approval points than his follow-up, 1990’s Ghost Dad. H-E-L-L-O! Keep it small, puddin’ man.
GO BIG-SCREEN: Jim Carrey
TV Triumph: In Living Color
Film Follow-Up: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
Critics may not have liked the slapstick, but no one can deny that it was a star-making turn for Carrey. Countless catchphrases were born, the names Einhorn and Finkle have never gotten so much play, and audiences lapped it up.
GO HOME: Roseanne Barr
TV Triumph: Roseanne
Film Follow-Up: She-Devil
Hell hath no fury like viewers who forked over hard-earned money to watch this dreck. Unlike the comedian’s eponymous show, She-Devil simply wasn’t funny — unless you count the absurdist hilarity of casting Ed Begley Jr. as a man who could trade up so dramatically. Also? If Meryl Streep can’t save a movie, something has gone seriously wrong.
GO BIG-SCREEN: Michael J. Fox
TV Triumph: Family Ties
Film Follow-Up: Back to the Future
If anyone was up to the task of equaling Alex P. Keaton, it was Marty McFly. Riding Doc Brown’s DeLorean into two more sequels, Fox also happened to land one of the best summer blockbusters of all time for his first leading role on the silver screen. Great Scott!
GO BIG-SCREEN: Queen Latifah
TV Triumph: Living Single
Film Follow-Up: Set It Off
Putting the ”threat” in ”triple threat,” the artist formerly known as Dana Owens traded in punchlines for punches in the ’96 heist flick. Capitalizing on the street cred she built as a rapper, Latifah also gave an inkling of her ability to stand out in an ensemble.
GO HOME: John Krasinski
TV Triumph: The Office
Film Follow-Up: License to Wed
Krasinski has stolen scenes as an also-ran in movies of all quality levels (It’s Complicated, Something Borrowed), but he never managed to find that same magic as a headliner. Robin Williams ran amok (and right over Krasinski and costar Mandy Moore) in this clunker, and Krasinski’s second effort, the George Clooney-directed Leatherheads didn’t improve his track record. [Insert awkward glance at camera here]
GO BIG-SCREEN: Lily Tomlin
TV Triumph: Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In
Film Follow-Up: Nashville
An Oscar nod for your first film role is nothing to sniff at. Tomlin had shown her comedic chops with characters including Edith Ann and Ernestine on the variety show, but she displayed dramatic depth in the Robert Altman ensemble showcase that foreshadowed her illustrious, Oscar-short-of-an-EGOT career.
GO HOME: Christina Applegate
TV Triumph: Married With Children
Film Follow-Up: Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead
While everyone loves a good themed fashion show, there wasn’t much else to DTMTBD that popped. Add to her résumé a succession of roles in forgettable B-movies (interrupted by ”Anchorman”), and Applegate’s career was definitely not ”right on top of that, Rose.”
GO BIG-SCREEN: John Travolta
TV Triumph: Welcome Back, Kotter
Film Follow-Up: Saturday Night Fever
Fever‘s Tony Manero could very easily have been a cousin of Kotter‘s Brooklyn Lothario Vinnie Barbarino, but it did give him a chance to dig in to a less tic-y character and launch 1,000 crushes across America with a few swings of his hips. It also set the stage for Grease — and a very good 1978 for Travolta.
GO HOME: Brandy Norwood
TV Triumph: Moesha
Film Follow-Up: I Still Know What You Did Last Summer
Though Brandy wasn’t solely to blame for this lackluster sequel, it certainly wasn’t a promising entrée to Hollywood. With very few exceptions, she has wisely opted to stayed in TV ever since.