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What’s Behind Big-Name Actors’ Migration To Television


Brad Pitt’s new “War Machine,” out on Netflix in May, is part of a remarkable shift in star power towards television over the past 30 years. If you’re a part of Generation X or older, you remember prime-time television in the 1980s. It was dominated by sitcoms and “drama” series that included shows such “Moonlighting,” “Remington Steele,” “Cagney and Lacey,” “CHiPs,” “Hotel,” and soap operas such as “Dallas,” “Dynasty,” and “Falcon Crest.” There were also two shows that featured an extensive list of guest stars: “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island.”

In other words, in the 1980s, TV was a creative wasteland. It was a time when stars of the small screen looked to make the leap to the big screen. Several have been successful: Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Jennifer Garner, Woody Harrelson, Bruce Willis, Robin Williams, and more all got their start on television.

The guest “stars” appearing on shows such as “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” were actors whose careers had peaked 30-40 years earlier and who appeared in other television shows. Nobody was going to watch these shows in the early ’80s and see Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, or Harrison Ford.

The network dramas were, for the most part, lame. They were burdened with bad writing, average characters, cartoon-type villains, and cheesy plot lines. Cable television, in its infancy in the 1980s, didn’t have stations devoted to creating original series such as FX or AMC. Even HBO, where the renaissance of original TV programming started, only began broadcasting 24 hours a day in 1981. The public was at least 30 years away from Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. Options for actors were limited.

Then Writers Began Upcycling the Shows

The change began in the 1990s when producers such as Dick Wolf, Steven Bochco, and Tom Fontana took a risk and introduced grittier shows with darker story lines as well as more realistic characters, both good and bad. The result was “Law and Order,” “NYPD Blue,” and “Homicide: Life on The Street.” Medical dramas “ER” and “Chicago Hope” added to the lineups and brought with it one of the first crossovers from film to television.

However, in this case it was a director, Quentin Tarantino, who made the jump by directing the “ER” episode “Motherhood” after being asked by George Clooney (Clooney starred in the Tarantino-written “From Dusk Til Dawn.”). In the world of television, it was a big deal at the time since Tarantino was coming off an Oscar win for his screenplay of “Pulp Fiction.”

Well-written dramas became the norm, but it was HBO that took the dramatic television series to an entirely different level with the prison drama “Oz” (created by “Homicide’s” Tom Fontana) and two years later with the mob-themed “The Sopranos.” Both shows explored areas until that time were only explored by motion pictures.

Yes, “Oz” and “The Sopranos” featured plenty of cursing, nudity, sex, and violence. But the stories, character development, and scripts are what made them great and set them apart. In 2004, “The Sopranos” became the first cable television series to win an Emmy for Outstanding Drama.

The Ascendance of Basic Cable and Hollywood’s Return

In 2002, two cable networks changed their formats. FX, which had been carrying shows in syndication, produced some original comedy. American Movie Classics (AMC) was a counter to Ted Turner’s Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Both networks expanded their original programming, with FX leading the way with the crime drama “The Shield.”

Thanks to the creative freedom FX offered, creator Shawn Ryan pushed the boundaries of television regarding content for the first time to those not subscribed to premium channels. “The Shield” was a critical hit, opening the door for “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me” to premier in successive seasons.

In season four, ‘The Shield’ made huge waves because they landed actress Glenn Close, not as a guest star but a series regular. Close was a five-time Academy Award nominee for acting. It became a big moment for television because it marked a time when an established Hollywood actress chose to star in a television series.

Close’s departure at the end of season four saw the arrival of another Hollywood star, Forest Whitaker. Whitaker appeared in two seasons of “The Shield” and between won an Oscar for his work as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.”

Shortly after that, AMC became a player with shows such as “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and the smash hit, “The Walking Dead.” “Mad Men” won four Emmys for Outstanding Drama, and “Breaking Bad” won two. Over the next four to five years, more and more Hollywood stars moved to television.

The list includes Liev Schrieber (“Ray Donovan”), Kathy Bates (“American Horror Story”), Vera Farmiga (“Bates Motel”), Jon Voight (“Ray Donovan”), Laurence Fishburne (“CSI”), Tea Leoni (“Madam Secretary”), Scott Caan (“Hawaii Five-O”), Kevin Bacon (“The Following”), Billy Bob Thornton (“Fargo” and “Goliath”), Clive Owen (“The Knick”) and Paul Giamatti (“Billions”). In addition, Miles Teller from “Whiplash” along with “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn will start filming an Amazon series this fall.

‘House of Cards’ and ‘True Detective’ Were Pivotal

Two series believed to have cemented the reputation for Hollywood players (actors, directors, and writers) to turn to television are “House of Cards” and “True Detective.” The former brought Hollywood heavyweights two-time Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey, and Academy Award-nominated director David Fincher, not just to the small screen, but to the streaming screen of Netflix.

The series was shopped to HBO, Showtime, and AMC when Netflix stepped in, offered to buy two seasons worth of episodes, and, in a first, make all the episodes for each season available to view at once. Thanks in part to the success of “House of Cards,” Netflix jumped into the movie business. They purchased the rights to the film “War Machine,” starring Pitt and Ben Kingsley, for $60 million.

“True Detective” became somewhat a first in the television world. Usually producers tightly control television shows. In this case, director Cary Fukunaga and writer Nic Pizzolatto were given extensive creative control. The show was a critical smash, nominated for several Emmy awards including acting nominations for co-stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.

Pizzolatto was nominated for writing, and Fukunaga won for Outstanding Directing. McConaughey, in the midst of a career resurgence in 2014  after he won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in “Dallas Buyers Club,” was asked why he moved from film to television. He replied, “Quality. Not only quality that specifically came out of ‘True Detective’ which was quality of the highest, but I’m talking about quality of television today. Television is raising the bar on the character-driven drama series.”

That higher bar plus the multiple outlets for such shows are giving actors, writers, and directors more opportunities. In January Amazon offered $100,000 to any filmmaker whose movie was an official selection for the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, as long as they agreed to make their film available on Amazon Prime for two years (one year exclusively). While 80 percent of the 120 movies selected each year at Sundance get distribution deals, the Amazon offer provides those not chosen with guaranteed distribution, $100,000, and enhanced royalty rates.

Everybody wins, especially the consumer. Fans of well-written, character-driven dramas (and comedies) have more options than ever before and don’t have to leave the house to watch it. The influx of outlets is allowing for talented writers and filmmakers to leave a mark where they might have been shut out 15 to 20 years ago. Television is now the standard by which other mediums are measured.