Movies + TV

No More Funny Business—Will Forte in Nebraska and What Happens When Comic Actors Go Dramatic

This month, SNL alum Will Forte makes the great cinematic leap from MacGruber to Alexander Payne's Nebraska (trailer below), delivering a subtle, resonant turn as the son of an alcoholic (Bruce Dern). But not every comedic actor's first foray into drama has been worth taking seriously.

• • •


Tom Hanks

Comic Start: Cross-dressing screwball in Bosom Buddies; Oscar-nominated ham in Big; rom-com cutup.

Dramatic Turn: Wrongfully terminated AIDS-infected lawyer Andrew Beckett in 1993's Philadelphia.

Reception: Cheers. Hanks won over the critics and the Academy, taking home an Oscar for Best Actor.

Post-Script: Enjoys his reign as Hollywood's most beloved genre-hopping macher-mensch.

• • •


Will Ferrell

Comic Start: Frat-boy high jinks on SNL; more frat-boy high jinks in the likes of Old School and Anchorman.

Dramatic Turn: Dabbled in dramedy in Stranger Than Fiction and in the somber indie Everything Must Go.

Reception: Grudging nods. No awards but some critical kudos for his nuanced performances.

Post-Script: His roles, A.O. Scott said, "embody Updike's definition of a grown man as 'a failed boy.'"

• • •


Bill Murray

Comic Start: An early SNL regular who did basic training in Stripes, then hunted gophers in Caddyshack.

Dramatic Turn: A traumatized World War I pilot in the 1984 adaptation of The Razor's Edge.

Reception: Jeers. Roger Ebert called him "too passive, too contained, too rich in self-irony."

Post-Script: Now Hollywood's esteemed elder statesman of passive, contained, self-ironic roles.

• • •


Adam Sandler

Comic Start: The guy who gave us Cajun Man, "The Chanukah Song," and films like Happy Gilmore.

Dramatic Turn: Weak-willed Barry Egan with overbearing sisters in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love.

Reception: Confusion. The film baffled many, but Variety called him "watchable and even engaging."

Post-Script: A return to the low-low-brow (Grown Ups 2) with one exception: the mordant Funny People.

• • •


Robin Williams

Comic Start: Alien observer ("Na-nu, na-nu!") in rainbow suspenders on the 1970s sitcom Mork & Mindy.

Dramatic Turn: T.S. Garp, the fatherless son of a feminist icon in 1982's The World According to Garp.

Reception: Mixed. The Times' Janet Maslin described his performance as "affecting...but erratic."

Post-Script: Three Oscar nods and a win for Good Will Hunting, but also a bunch of clunkers.

Details senior editor, James Gaddy.

• • •

Also on
Community's Joel McHale on Knife Fights, Reality TV, and Filming Beware the Night with Eric Bana
New Material from Andy Kaufman + His 5 Best Youtube Clips
Q&A: Aziz Ansari

From Top: Photographs courtesy of Merie Wallace/© 2013 Paramount Pictures, All Rights Reserved; Everett Collection (10); Warner Bros. Pictures.
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