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Classic TV Stars On Film

Here at the dawn of the 21st Century, an actor or actress seems to require only a single season as the star of a successful TV show in order to embark upon an equally successful movie career. Jennifer Love Hewitt, Neve Campbell, James Van Der Beek, and Sarah Michelle Gellar are only a few examples. Jim Carrey merely appeared as one of the cast members on "In Living Color" and is now one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood.

In the 40s, 50s, and 60s, it was considered unusual for a movie star to appear on TV. The truly big Hollywood legends would never think of doing a regular TV series. Picture Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant as the Beaver's parents. The mind reels.

But in the early days of television, established movie actors and actresses began making the switch to TV and stayed there. TV was a new medium, and needed talent. With a few exceptions, though, it was pretty much a one-way street. While there were many, many stars who had careers in both TV and film, this article focuses on a very special 15 people who had either great success, or at least long careers, in both mediums. We begin with one of those exceptions to the rule -- a big TV star who quit the small screen and turned in some exceptional performances on film.

After making 8 mostly forgettable films in the early 40s, Jackie Gleason switched to TV and was one of the kings of the airwaves during the 50s. Then, after an absence of almost 20 years from the big screen, he took a role in The Hustler and got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his flawless portrayal of Minnesota Fats. This was followed by solid performances in Gigot (1962), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), Soldier in the Rain (1963) and Papa's Delicate Condition (1963). Unfortunately, following another absence from Hollywood, this time of five years, Jackie finished his career with a number of less spectacular roles, including a buffoonish recurring character in the "Smokey and the Bandit" series. But we'll always have Minnesota!

Lucille Ball was the star of I Love Lucy. who was unquestionably the biggest female TV star of her time, had a long movie career even before that happened, appearing in about 75 films from 1929 to 1949. She was a Ziegfeld Girl and a Goldwyn Girl, but rose from the crowd of leggy starlets to become the first woman to own a film studio. Some of her more memorable films included Top Hat (1935), Stage Door (1937) -- in which she held her own with Kate Hepburn and Ginger Rogers -- and The Long, Long Trailer, made during her "I Love Lucy" days. Her last screen appearance was in a movie version of Mame in 1974, but it was unfortunately a critical flop.

When Robert Young died recently, many fans of his roles in Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D. were surprised to discover that he had been a well-established movie star before making the transition to television in the 50s, appearing in almost 100 films between 1937 and 1952 (an average of about 7 films a year). He co-starred with Spencer Tracy in Northwest Passage (1940), and appeared with two other Roberts -- Mitchum and Taylor -- in Crossfire (1947). Other notable films included H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), Journey for Margaret (1942), The Canterville Ghost (1944), Lady Luck (1946), They Won't Believe Me (1947), and Sitting Pretty (1948).

Before Donna Reed became America's perfect mom on The Donna Reed Show beginning in 1958, she had an admirable 40-film Hollywood career that included co-starring in America's favorite Holiday film, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), and an Oscar-winning and un-Donna Stone-like supporting role in From Here to Eternity.. You'll also enjoy her performances in They Were Expendable (1945), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), The Benny Goodman Story (1955), and Green Dolphin Street (1947).

George Burns had such a legendarily long career that you might expect to see a fairly lengthy filmography after his name. But the fact is that, previous to The George Burns And Gracie Allen Show and The George Burns Show, he'd only made two dozen films, mostly playing himself. It wasn't until 1976 that he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in The Sunshine Boys opposite Walter Matthau. He was also outstanding in Going in Style (1979), and was probably the only person alive who could have gotten away with playing God for laughs. Twice. He just made it to the century mark, as he promised he would, passing away less than two months after his 100th birthday.

From 1934 until 1994, Bob Hope appeared in over 80 films and TV series (including cameos). The highlight of his movie career was the series of "Road" films he made with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour from 1940 to 1952. He was the top box office draw in 1950. Some of his other notable films include The Ghost Breakers (1940), My Favorite Blonde (1942), and The Paleface (1948). At the same time he was appearing regularly on TV. In fact, he once introduced himself as "Bob 'First Commercial Broadcast' Hope."

An excellent example of an actress who became typecast in mostly minor roles in the movies, but put her unique style to good use on radio and then on TV, Eve Arden appeared in 50 films before making it big on television as the star of Our Miss Brooks in 1952. Her first big movie break came in 1937 when she played the wisecracking Eve in Stage Door. The character basically stuck forever. Eve was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her role of Ida in Mildred Pierce. She made a big screen comeback as wisecracking Principal McGee in Grease in 1978, recreating the Eve Arden of old one more time.

Roy Rogers the "King of the Cowboys" appeared in over 100 Western films from 1935 to 1951, then switched to TV, where The Roy Rogers Show and later The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show became big hits on early television. But it was all those 1930s and 40s oaters than made him a star in the first place.

Although Walter Brennan actually had great range and versatility as an actor, he lost most of his teeth as the result of a 1932 accident and thereafter made a career out of playing mainly rustic characters. Even while he was in his 40s, he often played much older than that. He eventually portrayed the ultimate rustic on TV's The Real McCoys. But what many don't realize is that from 1937 to 1942 he was nominated four times for Best Supporting Actor Oscars, winning three (a record), including the very first one ever given. Another interesting fact: Walter Brennan appeared in seven films with Gary Cooper.

Considering the country philosopher roles he is best known for, it may come as a surprise that Buddy Ebsen started out as a dancer on Broadway. In the movies, he danced with Eleanor Powell, Judy Garland, and Shirley Temple. He was supposed to play the Scarecrow, then the Tin Woodsman, in "Wizard of Oz", but through a series of circumstances this didn't happen. He eventually turned to non-dancing roles, and became Davy Crockett's sidekick in the popular series of coonskin cap movies in the 50s. He appeared in several more films before moving to television, where he gained fame on The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones. Ebsen passed away in July, 2003.

Milton Berle "Mr. Television" wasn't exactly a big hit in the movies previous to his pioneering work with the new medium, but he started at the age of 8, and considering that he turned 90 last year, he's certainly been at it a long time! He moved easily between movies and TV his entire career, and his most notable movies include The Loved One (1965) and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Uncle Miltie sadly left us in March, 2002.

Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore are two stars who are gaining popularity among younger TV viewers just discovering their work on the pioneering Dick Van Dyke Show, not to mention Mary's equally important Mary Tyler Moore Show, thanks to Nick at Night.
After his initial success on TV, Dick appeared in mostly humorous roles in a number of comedies and musicals in the 60s, most notably Mary Poppins (1964), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), and Bye Bye Birdie (1963), before returning to television.

Mary Tyler Moore also tried her luck with the big screen in the 60s, starring in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967, but quickly returned to TV, where she achieved great critical success in her own show. She appeared in several more films in the 80s, including Ordinary People in 1980, for which she won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She returned to TV, making a number of well-received made-for-TV movies. Her MTM Enterprises was responsible for a number of hit TV shows in the 70s and 80s, and she continues to be active in social causes.

Some might be surprised to know that the beloved, bumbling Skipper from Gilligan's Island Alan Hale Jr., had a long movie career beginning in 1941 and continuing until the early 60s. Although the films included a lot of low-budget war movies and westerns, there were a few standouts, including All Mine to Give (1957), It Happens Every Spring (1949), and Kill the Umpire (1950). He was known as a reliable supporting actor with a good comic touch.

Fred MacMurray had already had himself a pretty good movie career numbering 80 films (not to mention a career in Vaudeville before that) when he decided to try TV and ended up appearing on My Three Sons for 12 years. After that it was pretty much comedies and Disney films (he and Walt were buddies). But in the 30s, 40s, and 50s he appeared in many dramas and Westerns, sometimes as the hero, often as the bad guy or as an anti-hero (his best roles, really), including perhaps his best-known serious role, as the insurance salesman in Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck. Besides the Disney movies, other notable Fred MacMurray films have included The Caine Mutiny (1954), The Apartment (1960), Murder, He Says (1945), and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), among many others.

This is not a definitive list, by any means. You can probably name many more classic stars who also appeared on TV, such as Dinah Shore, Loretta Young, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, William Bendix, Jack Benny, Martha Raye, Spring Byington, Ward Bond, Lloyd Bridges, Ann Sothern, Marjorie Main, Jane Wyatt, Jane Wyman, and Shirley Booth.

Brad Lang. Classic TV Stars on Film. Classic Movies - Everything For the Classic Film Fan.


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