Finding that big role is every actor’s dream. But if the character becomes too distinctive and popular (Ross from
Neil Patrick Harris - Doogie Howser,
Anyone over the age of 30 was introduced to Neil Patrick Harris as Doogie Howser, M.D., the genius child doctor from the series of the same name that ran on ABC from 1989-1993. Once the show ended, Harris had a lot of trouble shedding the image of “Doogie.” Ironically, it was a satirical cameo appearance as himself in the 2004 comedy Doogie Howser, M.D Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle that put Harris back on the map. Just a year later, he snagged the role of womanizer Barney Stinson on CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, a character that couldn’t be farther from Doogie. Even though he played Stinson for nine years, and is now often associated with that persona, the actor has officially emerged from the shadows of both roles to his current celebrity status.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus - Elaine Benes,
She went from being Jerry’s "just friends" companion on Seinfeld Seinfeld to becoming ( ) the president of the United States. Well, on TV, anyway. Louis-Dreyfus does such a stellar job at portraying the wonderfully vitriolic (and totally inept) Selina Meyer in the HBO political satire spoiler alert Veep, it’s sometimes easy to forget she was once the Elaine Benes. Despite spending eight years as the curly-haired character who was so popular she coined her own dance, Louis-Dreyfuss left Elaine behind. OK, who are we kidding, she’ll always be Elaine. But clearly, that persona isn’t holding her back from snagging huge, award-winning roles.
Jared Leto - Jordan Catalano,
With transformative performances in films like My So-Called Life Dallas Buyers Club (for which he won an Academy Award) and Suicide Squad (as the Joker himself), it’s hard to remember that, for many years, Leto was simply known as Jordan Catalano from iconic teen sitcom My So-Called Life. In the series, which originally aired on ABC, he played the rebellious bad boy with an undiagnosed learning disability. Even though the show only ran for one season from 1994-1995, that was enough time for his striking good looks to make him a poster boy for every teen magazine. Shortly after the show, Leto re-focused his attention on music as the lead vocalist for his band Thirty Seconds to Mars. It seems that time away from acting in major leading roles (he did appear in supporting roles in films like The Thin Red Line, Fight Club, and American Psycho) helped remove Leto from the public eye just enough so he could later re-emerge, with Catalano fully in the rear-view mirror. A breakout dramatic performance never hurts, either.
Ed O'Neill - Al Bundy,
Sure, anyone who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s has a hard time seeing Ed O’Neill without thinking of shoe salesman Al Bundy, seated on the couch, hand resting in his pants on Fox’s Married…With Children Married...With Children. But this veteran actor may have finally managed to shake that image thanks to his brilliant turn as Jay Pritchett in the multiple Emmy award-winning ABC sitcom, Modern Family. Pritchett is the complete opposite of Al: a wealthy businessman with a massive house. Despite having shed that image, O’Neill hasn’t forgotten the role that made him famous: in a recent photo shoot for The Hollywood Reporter, he re-enacted scenes from Married...With Children, with fellow cast member Sofia Vergara in Katey Sagal’s former role of Peggy Bundy.
Chris Pratt - Andy Dwyer,
His impressive physical transformation from pudgy to ripped contributed to the successful role-shedding. But Pratt managed to make us all forget his goofy roots as Andy Dwyer in NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation Parks and Recreation once he showed off his range in Marvel's adventure-comedy Guardians of the Galaxy. Following six years of playing Park and Rec's hilarious clown, not to mention a long string of supporting roles that always seemed to fall into the “goofy best friend” category, Pratt finally managed to break out of the typecast shell. Since then, he’s become one of the hottest leading men (who isn't a brit) in Hollywood, starring in multiple franchises, including Jurassic World and The LEGO movie franchises, alongside Marvel's Guardians series. For bonus points, he was even named runner up to the Sexiest Man Alive in People Magazine’s 2014 list. Also, sweet ax, dude.
Mandy Patinkin - Inigo Montoya,
“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Chances are, you best remember Mandy Patinkin for his most iconic role (and line) in 1987's The Princess Bride The Princess Bride. But these days, most don’t even realize he’s the same guy who plays Saul Berenson in the popular Showtime series Homeland. This isn’t necessarily just because of the passage of time – almost 30 years – but also because of how Patinkin has managed to cultivate a successful career beyond that unforgettable character. Prior to Homeland, Patinkin also appeared as a doctor in Chicago Hope, a role for which he won an Emmy, and as an FBI profiler on Criminal Minds. That said, Patinkin still often gets asked to repeat his most memorable line: indeed, he did just that back in 2014 during an interview with CBS news program. 60 Minutes
Zac Efron - Troy Bolton,
While his roles haven’t been groundbreaking by any means, this 28-year-old has still succeeded in doing away with his image as the lead in the 2006-2008 Disney movie franchise High School Musical High School Musical. Maybe it was his efforts to seriously bulk up, or change his look (and signature hairstyle!) as he matured, but we mostly think of Efron now as the beautiful young man who appears in a long list of comedies, like New Year’s Eve, Neighbors, and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. He’ll next appear in the film adaptation of the popular ‘80s TV series Baywatch, once again capitalizing on those ripped abs, bulked-up arms, and piercing blue eyes. But star high school athlete and singer extraordinaire Troy Bolton he is no more.
Christian Bale - Jack "Cowboy" Kelly,
Sure, he’s been acting for decades, from the young age of 13 when he was cast in Newsies Empire of the Sun in 1987, but it was his role as a plucky young newspaper boy in Disney's 1992 film Newsies that brought Christian Bale fame . Bale’s next iconic role as serial killer Patrick Bateman in 2000's American Psycho turned the corner for his career, showing his incredible range and his penchant for method acting. While he rode the wave of that character for some time, Bale was again able to strip that persona away, almost literally, once he lost 63 pounds to play Trevor Reznik in The Machinist in 2004. Since then, Bale has risen so far up the A-list that both his Newsie and American Psycho characters are now just blips on his massive acting radar. Starring as Batman in Chris Nolan's acclaimed trilogy, as an electrifying con artist in American Hustle and, most recently, as eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry in The Big Short, you never know what to expect from Bale -- apart from a great performance, of course.
Jason Bateman - David Hogan,
Speaking of Batemans, Jason stepped out of his roles in ‘80s sitcoms like The Hogan Family Silver Spoons or even The Hogan Family, to take on another iconic role as Michael Bluth in the seminal comedy Arrested Development. However, despite the immense popularity of the series, one of the first Netflix resurrections after Fox cancelled it (with a potential movie still in the works), Bateman has cast a net that’s so wide, Bluth is just one of many personas in his repertoire. From Horrible Bosses to The Gift , Bateman is now known for both comedy and drama, as well as moving behind the camera as a director.
Mila Kunis - Jackie Burkhart,
Arguably the only mention these days of Kunis’ role as Jackie Burkhart on ‘90s/’00s sitcom That '70s Show That ‘70s Show is the fact that she and now husband Ashton Kutcher starred in it together. Kunis has moved on from her big break into starring roles in feature comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Friends With Benefits, Ted, and, most recently, Bad Moms. Beyond that, she’s also known for her role in the 2010 drama Black Swan, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. Kunis might still be with “Kelso,” but she’s definitely no longer referred to as that spoiled teenage brat she played way back when.
Will Smith - Will Smith,
Fresh Prince, no more. Smith does make plenty of call-backs to the role that made him famous, including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air rapping the old theme song live on The Ellen Degeneres Show just last year. That role, however, is far in the past of his now lengthy career. Smith left his sitcom roots to become one of the most bankable stars in the world, playing a diverse list of roles from Muhammad Ali, to once-homeless entrepreneur Chris Gardner, to an FBI agent in Bad Boys. Most recently, Smith added supervillain to the list, as Deadshot in Suicide Squad. His auntie and uncle in Bel-Air would be proud. Of course, Smith never would have gotten his Fresh Prince role if not for his first brush with fame as a hit-making rapper -- a persona he still pulls out now and then to drop a hit record. Talk about versatility. Friends, George from Seinfeld, etc.), that dream can turn into a nightmare, seriously hindering job prospects in the future.
That said, some actors have successfully managed to shed old roles that all-but defined them early on to carve out new and exciting paths — so much so, in fact, you might even forget they played that memorable character back in the day.
Here are 11 of the most interesting cases of actors who managed to shed their most famous roles, and spark a whole new image.