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Life after a hit show: 10 TV actors who made it big after making it big

Making it big in the competitive world of television and streaming is incredibly difficult. A hit show doesn’t come easy, and few projects are successful from the get-go. However, a precious few manage to capture the public’s attention, launching their stars’ careers and turning them into household names. Even so, every show has to end, and some actors find it difficult to move on after their hit show airs its last episode.

However, some actors are lucky enough to find another equally or even more successful project than their previous one. The Flight Attendant‘s Kaley Cuoco is the perfect proof, currently starring in not one but two hit shows after her 12-year stint on The Big Bang Theory. And just like her, many other actors found success after they had already made it big.

Kaley Cuoco

Cassie works on an airplane in The Flight Attendant.

Despite never receiving any Emmy nominations or critical acclaim for her work in The Big Bang Theory, Kaley Cuoco was a major part of the show’s success. The actress played Penny, the waitress/actress-turned pharmaceutical sales representative, throughout the show’s 12 seasons.

Cuoco diversified her resumé after Big Bang ended, providing the title character’s voice in HBO Max’s subversive animated show Harley Quinn. Since 2020, Cuoco has played self-destructive antiheroine Cassie Bowden in the surprise HBO Max hit The Flight Attendant. Her performance attracted rave reviews, earning her nominations for the Primetime Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG Award for the first season. With Harley Quinn in its third season and The Flight Attendant still going strong in its second, Cuoco is busier than ever.

Gina Torres

Jessica Pearson sitting in her office in Suits.

It might be generous to call Firefly a hit; after all, the show got canceled after only one season. However, it received critical acclaim and continues to garner intense fan interest, becoming a cult classic among the geek set. Gina Torres played Zoe Washburner in the short-lived series, the role that effectively launched her career.

Torres found another success nearly a decade later with USA Network’s legal drama Suits, playing the steely Jessica Pearson. While a moderate hit, Suits became a staple of the network’s line-up and went on for nine seasons. The show’s legacy was so strong that the network greenlit a spin-off focusing on Torres’ character. Alas, interest in the show dwindled, and Pearson got canceled after only one season.

Sterling K. Brown

Randall Pearson looking serious in This Is Us.

Sterling K. Brown was one of the undeniable breakout stars of the past decade. The actor made a splash with his tour de force performance in Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, playing co-prosecutor Christopher Darden and earning a Primetime Emmy for his performance.

The actor followed his success with a leading role in NBC’s family drama, This Is Us, playing Randall Pearson. Brown earned another Primetime Emmy award for his role in the show, plus a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and a Critics’ Choice Award. This Is Us concluded on May 24, but Brown’s future looks bright in television and movies.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Selina Meyer looking bored at a book signing in Veep.

Seinfeld was a landmark of ’90s television, becoming one of the most iconic sitcoms in history. The show followed Jerry Seinfeld and the lives of his three closest friends, George, Kramer, and Elaine. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who had previously worked as part of the cast of Saturday Night Live, played Elaine throughout the show’s nine seasons, earning the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in 1996.

Louis-Dreyfus returned to television with the neurotic Christine Campbell in CBS’s The New Adventures of Old Christine, a role that earned her an Emmy for Lead Actress in a comedy. However, it was her role as Selina Meyer in HBO’s biting satire Veep that cemented her legacy as one of the most iconic actresses in television history. Louis-Dreyfus won six consecutive Emmys for her performance, tying with Cloris Leachman for the most acting Primetime Emmy wins.

Most of the cast of Friends

The cast of Friends in formal clothes.

And speaking of iconic ’90s shows, Friends holds a place of honor in that conversation. The show, which followed the lives of six twenty-somethings in New York, made stars out of its cast members, launching them into stardom and earning them critical acclaim.

The show ended in 2004, and each actor went on to find great success. Jennifer Aniston became a movie star, recently returning to television with Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, for which she won a SAG Award and received an Emmy nomination. Lisa Kudrow starred in HBO’s The Comeback, earning two Emmy nominations and rave reviews. Following a failed spin-off focusing on his character, Joey, Matt LeBlanc played a fictionalized version of himself in Showtime’s Episodes, receiving four Emmy nominations and winning a Golden Globe. Courteney Cox starred in the ABC hit Cougar Town, earning a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, and is currently in the Starz series Shining Vale.

Christine Baranski

Agnes Van Rhjin drinking tea in The Gilded Age.

Christine Baranski might be the queen of television reinvention. The actress rose to prominence playing the bitter and alcoholic Maryann Thorpe in the CBS sitcom Cybill. Baranski won the 1995 Primetime Emmy Award for her performance, the first of what would eventually be a whopping fifteen nominations throughout her career.

Baranski earned further acclaim for her guest stints on The Big Bang Theory, playing Leonard’s cold mother Beverly, and her supporting role in The Good Wife as the tough Diane Lockhart, earning Emmy nominations for both roles. Baranski currently headlines The Good Fight, a spin-off centering on her Good Wife character, and plays a major role in Julian Fellowes’ historical drama The Gilded Age, cementing her rule on the television landscape.

David Tennant

Crowley on his throne in Good Omens.

Christopher Eccleston might’ve been the first Doctor in the rebooted Doctor Who, but it was David Tennant that essentially revitalized the show and turned it into a cultural staple. Tennant played the tenth incarnation of the Doctor, a warm, funny, and extremely emotional version of the time-traveling alien.

Tennant passed the baton to Matt Smith after three series, going on to star in the critically acclaimed crime drama Broadchurch, opposite the mighty Olivia Colman. In the following years, Tennant kept busy playing Kilgrave in the Netflix series Jessica Jones and Crowley in Amazon Prime’s Good Omens. He received critical praise for both performances, but the Emmys have yet to recognize his talents in the Primetime ceremony, although he won a Daytime Emmy in 2013 and an International Emmy in 2021.

Sandra Oh

Eve Polastri looking serious in Killing Eve.

Sandra Oh is one of the hardest-working actresses in the business. She rose to prominence in the early 2000s playing supporting roles in films before garnering critical acclaim for her performance in the hit ABC drama Grey’s Anatomy. For playing Cristina Yang, Oh earned her a Golden Globe and SAG Award in 2006, plus five consecutive Emmy nominations.

Four years after her stint on Grey’s, Oh returned to primetime television, playing Eve Polastri in the BBC America’s spy thriller Killing Eve. Her work received rave reviews, and Oh won a second Golden Globe and a second SAG Award. She received three consecutive Emmy nominations in the Lead Actress category but failed to win any. Oh also starred in the 2020 Netflix comedy The Chair, earning a SAG nomination in the Comedy category.

Elisabeth Moss

Offred oraying in an altar in The Handmaid's Tale.
George Kraychyk/Hulu

Although already a seasoned actress by the time she began playing Peggy Olson, Mad Men was Elisabeth Moss’ ticket to mainstream success and critical acclaim. Her performance earned her multiple nominations, including six at the Primetime Emmys, one at the Golden Globes, and two at the SAG Awards. Moss never winning an Emmy for Mad Men often ranks among the most egregious snubs in the Television Academy’s history; luckily, her next show would finally take her to the stage.

Starting in 2017, Moss began playing June Osborn, renamed Offred, in Hulu’s dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale. Her work finally won her the Emmy Award, plus a second one for producing the show. Moss also received acclaim for her work in Jane Campion’s crime drama Top of the Lake, earning an Emmy nomination for the first season. She’s currently starring in the Apple+ limited series Shining Girls.

Bryan Cranston

Walter White looking at the camera in Breaking Bad.

Thanks to his performance as the clumsy but well-meaning Hal in Fox’s comedy Malcolm in the Middle, Bryan Cranston became everyone’s favorite television dad. Cranston earned three Emmy nominations in the Supporting Actor in a Comedy category for his work but lost every time.

Two years after Malcolm ended, Cranston changed genres, and surprised everyone, by starring in the AMC neo-Western crime drama, Breaking Bad. The show and his performance received universal critical acclaim, with Cranston winning a plethora of awards, including four Primetime Emmy Awards, two SAG Awards, and a Golden Globe. Cranston managed to make a successful transition to the big screen, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for Trumbo, but his portrayal of Walter White remains iconic to this day.