For some actors, typecasting is hard to shake — they’re either known for comedy or known for drama, and generally pigeonholed into roles that fit one genre or the other.
From his time as a cast member on Saturday Night Live to a string of comedy films like Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day, this veteran actor took an interesting turn when he began to star in more dramatic films, notably as Polonius in Hamlet (2000) and opposite Scarlett Johansson in the 2003 film Lost in Translation. Murray impressed critics and others so much that he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for the latter role. He then went on to pursue even more dramatic roles in films like B roken Flowers, St. Vincent, Hyde Park on Hudson (where he played Franklin D. Roosevelt), and, most recently, the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, for which he took home an Emmy. While he still focuses on comedy, including his Netflix special A Very Murray Christmas that debuted last year, voicing Baloo in The Jungle Book, and making a cameo in the Ghostbusters reboot, Murray has proven to be an actor with true versatility.
Let’s be honest: the late, great Robin Williams will always be known for his comedy. But it was also made evident that he could strip that all away and take on more dramatic roles with performances in iconic films like Good Will Hunting (for which he won an Academy Award) and Awakenings. While there’s always a slight element of humor in each of his performances, Williams was able to perfectly portray deep emotions in characters like unorthodox teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society, the disturbed Seymour “Sy” Parrish in the psychological thriller One Hour Photo, and the suicidal Hunter “Patch” Adams in Patch Adams. Sadly, the actor left us too soon, before we got to see more of his dramatic stylings. Some of Williams’ last projects reverted to the comedy genre, including a starring role in the short-lived CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones.
While the majority of his ventures have continued to go down the comedy lane, Sandler showed viewers a very different side of himself when he starred in romantic dramedy Punch-Drunk Love in 2002. He even managed to get “two thumbs up” for his performance from famous movie critic Roger Ebert. In Ebert’s review of the film, he wrote that Sandler had “revealed depths and tones we may have suspected but couldn’t bring into focus.” Funnily, Ebert suggested at the time that surely Sandler couldn’t “go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he?” Fourteen years later, it's apparent that he can. But at least the funnyman has proven that, should he desire to, he does, indeed, have the skills to play more than those fun and silly roles. If they’re bringing in bank, after all, why mess with a good thing?
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air no more. The actor once known as the scrawny young high school student who moved from the projects of West Philly to “live with his auntie and uncle in Bel Air” managed to completely rid himself of that persona and become a bona fide A-lister. Today, he’s considered one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. While Smith’s shift to movies did originally follow that comedic path, including leading roles in films like Men in Black and Bad Boys, he showed some range with Academy Award-nominated performances in the dramatic films Ali, where he portrayed the great (and late) Muhammad Ali, and The Pursuit of Happyness, based on the real life of once homeless entrepreneur Chris Gardner. While Smith can still show off his comedy skills (he’s currently working on Bad Boys 3), the A-lister focuses on more challenging roles nowadays, including the 2016 movie Suicide Squad, where he plays Deadshot, and upcoming dramas Collateral Beauty and The American Can.
Arguably the king of comedic catchphrases (“Alllllrighty then!” “Sssssssmokin!” “B-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l” -- the list goes on and on), this actor with the elastic face and spastic limbs turned heads with a far more subdued performance in the 2004 science fiction-comedy/drama-romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the company of established dramatic actors like Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood, Carrey managed to impress by shedding the slapstick and demonstrating some true range. Who would have thought that the man known as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and one-half of the Dumb and Dumber duo would be in an Academy Award-winning film a decade later? Most recently in 2014, Carrey put his bowl cut and crazy faces back on to reprise his role as Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber To. But it appears he’s pivoting back to drama, with roles in the upcoming crime drama/thriller True Crimes and romance film The Bad Batch.
It was like we blinked and Jonah Hill went from the goofy chubby kid in Superbad to delivering a stunning performance opposite Brad Pitt in Moneyball that earned him an Academy Award nomination. He followed that up with a second Academy Award-nominated performance in The Wolf of Wall Street, opposite another A-lister, Leonardo DiCaprio. Sure, he’s returned to his comedy roots with roles in films like This is the End, 21 Jump Street, and 22 Jump Street. But this comedy actor has earned his “drop the mic” status as a recognized dramatic film star. He’ll next appear in the comedy/drama War Dogs alongside Miles Teller.
One of the more recent additions to this category, Romano, a stand-up comedian, is known mainly for his lead role in the long-running sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, and as the voice of Manny in the Ice Age movies. But earlier this year, he did a complete 180, taking on the key role of Zak Yankovich, head of promotions for a record company in the Martin Scorsese period drama Vinyl. Sure, the show, which aired on HBO, was canceled after its first season. But that was enough time for Romano to show that he’s more than a one-trick-pony.
Seeing Hank Azaria in such a morally questionable role as the one he currently plays in the Showtime series Ray Donovan is slightly disturbing when you realize he’s also the longtime voice of characters like Moe, Apu, and Chief Wiggum on the animated sitcom The Simpsons. But he's made the comedic reputation and goofy voices easy to forget with TV movie roles in Tuesdays With Morrie and Uprising, a drama/war flick. He’ll next appear in The Wizard of Lies, a TV movie based on the life of Bernie Madoff that stars Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. He'll play Frank DiPascali, Madoff’s key lieutenant. Despite making us cringe as a dirty former FBI head on Ray Donovan, Azaria’s feet are still firmly planted in comedy as he continues to provide those distinctive voices on The Simpsons, and prepares for a role in upcoming TV comedy series Brockmire.
Sometimes, comedy actors try unsuccessfully to show range by attempting a more dramatic role, only to revert to humor once it’s clear that fans just won’t accept the change. (Ryan Reynolds, anyone? While he’s laughing all the way to the bank thanks to
Deadpool, the guy just can’t seem to capture a stellar leading dramatic role.)
That said, in some unique cases, comedy actors have managed to stun viewers by delivering a head-turningly fantastic performance that truly shows their versatility — and ability to do far more than just generate laughs.
Here are 10 of the most successful pivots from hilarity to tears.