15 Comedians Who Took A Turn For The Dramatic

It’s so famous that it’s almost a cliche: if you want to give a dramatic role some really serious punch, get a comedic actor to play it. The audience will be shocked to see them in a serious part, and most of them are actually pretty skilled — after all, it often takes more skill to play the clown than the hero. While it doesn’t always work, when it does it’s a fantastic effect, and these 15 famous comedians have all made impressive switches to drama at some point in their life.

15. Will Smith

It’s hard to remember that Will Smith actually got his start as a vaguely comedic rapper, who then segued into the Fresh Prince, making his fortune on the sitcom circuit before transitioning into big budget action flicks. He’s still one of the most bankable names in Hollywood, and is in the process of expanding his dynasty, and getting his kids into the scene too: both his son and daughter have had hits. All this from a big eared kid who liked wearing glow in the dark clothing. Even though he usually hits action films, he does occasionally branch into drama, like with Ali and Pursuit of Happyness.


14. Whoopi Goldberg

Whoopi Goldberg was an immensely successful standup comic at one point, renowned for her raucous and obscenity-laced routines that left people in stitches — a far cry from the vaguely out of it and generally tame version of her that we see on The View. Yet, somewhere in the middle she found some degree of success on-screen — much of which was based on her role in the award winning The Color Purple. It was her first major arrival on film (Oprah’s too) and was met with near universal acclaim. She spun it off into some other serious roles (Ghost and the like) quite a few comedies, and then into comfortable semi-retirement with insipid shit like Hollywood Squares.

13. Will Ferrell

Will Ferrell plays manchildren. That’s pretty much it. He spouts off some non-sequiters, yells at the camera, looks awkward, there’s a bit of innuendo, and there you have it: summer blockbuster comedy. Hell, most of his time on SNL was more or less that. But his one real attempt at doing a slightly more serious role was absolutely amazing, and sadly not a big commercial success. Stranger Than Fiction had him as an IRS auditor who suddenly started hearing the voice of a narrator, an author who was writing about his life. It’s hilarious, sad, metaphysical, and far and away the best thing Ferrell has ever done. It’s a shame he’s unlikely to do more, given how poorly it performed.

12. Eric Bana

Eric Bana isn’t as well known in the USA as he is in his native Australia, though he’s had a string of pretty big titles: the Ang Lee version of Hulk, Troy, Star Trek, Hanna and more. Far and away his most incredible performance was in the biopic of renowned Australian killer and general lovable madman Chopper Reid. Yet Bana got his start in sketch comedy, and was part of a 66 episode long run of a show called Full Frontal, most famously for his impressions. He even had a short lived comedy show called the Eric Bana show — a far cry from the brutal and violent thugs he’s played in a number of other situations.

11. Mo’Nique

Mo’Nique had an incredibly good run as a stand-up comedienne and star of The Parkers on UPN. She was also a go-to sassy black friend in a bunch of movies along the way. Yet somehow she got from sassy and black in family friendly fare and obscene and foul-mouthed in her stand-up (a dichotomy most comedians have no trouble with) to starring in Precious as one of the most vile and horrible human beings to ever mark the screen. Seriously, she’s a horrible, horrible person in that film, and she did a great job playing it. She won roughly a billion awards for doing it – including an Oscar.

10. Bill Murray

Bill Murray is a perfect example of a comedian who moved away from the funny stuff to heavier roles, but it could be because all his recent attempts at humor have been utterly crap. You look at Murray’s old stuff, like his time on SNL, Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, and the guy was a comic genius. Seriously, one of the funniest people in show business. These days his comic attempts are limited to crap like the Garfield movies — but he’s become an incredibly good dramatic actor. The king of bittersweet, Lost in Translation was a runaway critical and box office success, and his work with Wes Anderson has gained him almost universal acclaim. It seems to be a pretty smart move for a comedian who isn’t making people laugh any more — go into drama.

9. Jamie Foxx

Jamie Foxx not only spun away from comedy into being a successful serious actor, but also a Grammy winning musician. It’s kinda crazy to think that the guy from In Living Color (oh boy, I’m dating myself now) and The Jamie Foxx Show somehow morphed into an award winning actor. Look at some of the movies he’s been involved with, they were fantastic: Any Given Sunday, Collateral, Dreamgirls and especially Ray. Not only that, but he’s gained a huge amount of attention for his musical career over the last couple of years. Ever since he collaborated on Gold Digger with Kanye, he’s been pumping out award winning studio albums, and his songs have gotten a ton of air time.

8. Bruce Willis

Woah, woah, woah, slow the fuck down. Bruce Willis? Used to be a funnyman? Well, technically, Bruce Willis started in comedy, moved to action, then moved to serious movies, and now is mostly doing action comedies. Yeah, it’s confusing. Willis got his big start in Moonlighting, an incredibly well received sitcom. Yet rather than go into the world of comedy, Die Hard catapulted him into action movies, where he became the badass everyman. He wasn’t ripped like the big stars of the 80s, but was tough and unstoppable. Then, when he got bored of that, it was 12th Monkey, Pulp Fiction, and Sixth Sense (with the occasional Armageddon). Now he pops up a lot in action comedy films. Red was superb, for example. That’s a hell of a lot of shifts for one career.

7. Michael Keaton

Keaton hasn’t had as much luck as some of the other people on this list: not because he’s didn’t try and transition, but because he’s had a really hard time getting anything decent recently. The only movie of his in the last five years that I’ve even heard of was doing the voice of Ken in Toy Story 3. Yet at one point he was a major star, with a series of 80s comedies to his name. There was the show Working Stiffs, and the movies Night Shift, Mr. Mom, Johnny Dangerously, and Gung Ho. He worked with Tim Burton on Beetlejuice, which ultimately lead to him being the big screen lead chosen for the first two Batman flicks of the 80s and 90s — but the 00s were not kind to him, and he’s pretty much disappeared from the public eye.

6. Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger’s big break in the USA was 10 Things I Hate About You, where he played a charming sociopathic bad boy, which had many peg him to be the next big romcom idol. But apart from A Knight’s Tale, he immediately ditched the comedic and leading man roles, and switched to heavy dramas, earning a name for himself as an up and coming dramatic force. With titles like a Monster’s Ball and Ned Kelly under his belt, it was his part in Brokeback Mountain that really drove home that he was a heavyweight actor, and then Batman: The Dark Knight which was nothing short of amazing. It’s astonishing to think what might have happened had he not ODed on prescription drugs.

5. Jim Carrey

Jim Carrey’s flirtations with serious movies have been constant, but only marginally successful. But when they work, they’re incredible. The rubber faced comedian got his start on In Living Color (oddly called James Carrey in the opening credits) but was catapulted to stardom with Ace Ventura. Kids loved the stupid faces, and adults generally loathed him. However, when he tried his hand at serious acting with the Truman Show, it blew everyone away. Always goofy, even in his serious roles, he still manages gravitas and pathos. Unfortunately, it’s pretty hit or miss when it works. Truman Show? Fantastic! Eternal Sunshine? An incomparably fine movie. Man on the Moon? Wonderful. The Majestic and The Number 23? Not so much.

4. Woody Allen

Woody Allen was a successful stand-up comedian and movie star, famous for his distinctly New York style, and his frequently paranoid and neurotic routines. He’s one of the godfathers of modern Jewish humor — intelligent and at the same time deeply self-effacing. He’s produced, directed, and starred in dozens of movies, mostly comedies to begin with — but his later work has skewed more towards drama, and while it retains his characteristic wit and humor, the darker undercurrents are fascinating. Gone is the slapstick and wackiness of his earlier work, instead now focusing on romantic comedy dramas, like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris and Match Point. While still funny, they’re a very different flavor to his previous stuff.

3. Sean Penn

It’s funny, Penn was only in the comedy business for a very short amount of time, spending almost his entire career devoted to drama, yet that one role has haunted him through his entire time on screen. In Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he played Jeff Spicoli, the stoned surfer. To a generation of kids, that was what surfers sounded like. Even though he moved to drama straight afterwards, many still see him as the stoned teenager. Which misses that he’s one of the most critically acclaimed working actors, with a list of awards and nominations longer than he is tall. Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown, I Am Sam, Mystic River, 21 Grams, Milk, Tree of Life. He chooses excellent projects, there’s no doubt about that. Not bad for a stoner kid.

2. Robin Williams

Robin Williams is just about the perfect example of a comedian whose work in the world of drama is mind blowingly good. His stand-up routines were always amazing (arguably due to the copious amounts of coke he was doing), but it wasn’t until he started taking on serious projects that his obvious acting chops came through. Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting, Patch Adams, Death to Smoochy, Insomnia, One Hour Photo. Sure, he still does the occasional mediocre family comedy (RV, I’m looking at you), but his dramatic work is far more memorable. What’s even more impressive is when he takes his turn as a villain like he did in One Hour Photo and Insomnia, in both cases being way, way more creepy than I ever imagined he could be.

1. Tom Hanks

Hanks is someone who made a complete 180 from being a young comedic actor to becoming a major dramatic heavyweight. Let’s see, we start with Bosom Buddies, Big, The ‘Burbs and Turner and Hooch. All pretty solid, right? Then look at his dramatic roles: A League of Their Own, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, Cast Away, Catch Me If You Can, and so on and so forth. He was amazing in all of them — though Spielberg deserves some credit too. Even though he definitely got his start as a comic actor, and still does the occasional funny bit, it’s drama where he shines, and what he’s known for. He really is a comedian who made a much better dramatic actor.

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