The old show biz chestnut really is true: an excellent comedian can become an excellent actor, but dramatic actors rarely make good comedians.
As Groucho Marx wrote in 1959, “There is hardly a comedian alive who isn’t capable of doing a first-rate dramatic role. But there are mighty few dramatic actors who could essay a comic role with any distinction…All first-rate comedians who have played dramatic roles are almost unanimous in saying that compared to being funny, dramatic acting is like a two-week vacation in the country.”
The great comedy producer Hal Roach maintained, “The great comedians imitate children. To be a great comedian you have to be a great actor, and to be a great actor you have to portray something. There is not a great visual actor that I know whose every movement is not that of a child…”
While not every comedian has the inherent skills necessary to give a convincing dramatic performance, the list of those who have succeeded is rather impressive, and even includes a few surprises, from Charlie Chaplin to Robin Williams.
With the post-war years and Television Age, many established comedians dared to take on dramas on both television and in film. Red Buttons was an established burlesque comedian who gained a national following with his own TV show in 1952, and who surprised many by winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Sayonara in 1954. He also made a fine dramatic contribution to the disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure, and, in his later years, his acting earned him an Emmy for a heartbreaking guest role on ER. Comedian Shelley Berman said of Buttons, “I could name just a few [comedians as good actors], and whenever I am asked to name them, I have named Jackie Gleason, as an actor; I remember Jack Benny being a beautiful actor, and the other beautiful actor who’s a comedian is Red Buttons.”
Ed Wynn had already achieved legendary status as “The Perfect Fool” on stage and radio, and regarded as a comedy master by his peers, almost thirty years before taking on dramatic roles in the late 1950s. In 1956, after a painstaking rehearsal process, he received an Emmy nomination for his role as Army in Rod Serling’s live TV classic Requiem for a Heavyweight. Serling later cast Wynn in two episodes of The Twilight Zone. Wynn continued to find work in other dramatic roles on television, and also appeared in the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank, for which he received an Oscar nomination for his role as Mr. Dussell. “When he had a chance to do it,” Red Buttons said, “Ed Wynn was a wonderful, wonderful actor in the twilight of his career.”
The aforementioned Groucho Marx considered it an honor to be given the opportunity to act in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” on The Bell Telephone Hour in April of 1960. He played Ko-Ko the Lord High Executioner. “There were greater talents around to perform the operetta,” Groucho wrote, “but certainly no bigger Gilbert and Sullivan fan than myself.”
Two more of television’s comedy pioneers, Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason, also found success in dramatic roles. In 1961, Gleason co-starred with Mickey Rooney and Anthony Quinn in the film version of Requiem for a Heavyweight.
Gleason gives an intense performance as Maish, the downtrodden, debt-ridden boxing manager. That same year, he played Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, starring Paul Newman. Gleason’s portrayal won him an Academy Award nomination. “I knew that I liked dramatic work,” he said in a 1984 interview for 60 Minutes,
“and I was fortunate enough to be successful at it. I was between two heavyweights, Paul Newman and George C. Scott. And they’re awful good. And if you don’t want to look like a wimp, you’d better wind up and throw a couple. So you had to act in self-defense.” Comedy director Garry Marshall said of him, “Jackie Gleason was mostly known as a comedian from TV but he was also a heck of an actor and did some wonderful work in films, and probably did not receive enough accolades as an actor.”
As for Berle, forever known as “Mr. Television” for almost single-handedly jump starting television’s popularity with his variety show in 1948, took the plunge into drama and received an Emmy nomination for his role in “Doyle Against the House,” an installment of The Dick Powell Theater, televised in October of 1961. “In a straight role,” he explained, “there’s no going after laughs, no pauses or waiting– ‘if this is supposed to be funny shall I take three beats?’ It is much more difficult to be funny and to get laughs…” Gleason, by the way, praised Berle’s acting, saying “I have known many comedians–Berle is one–who were superb in serious drama, but there are
very few serious actors who do comedy well.” Berle made numerous appearances in TV dramas throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, and, in January of 1995, appeared in an unlikely program, the youth-oriented Beverly Hills, 90210, as a nursing home patient suffering from Alzheimer’s. He sensitively portrayed a frightened man unable to maintain a firm command of his lucid moments, and received another Emmy nomination for the part.
Jonathan Winters’ comic improvisations on stage and television delighted audiences as well as his peers, and made his best-know dramatic role appear virtually effortless in an episode of The Twilight Zone, titled “A Game of Pool.” In it, he plays a deceased local pool-playing legend sent back to Earth to teach a young hotshot player (Jack Klugman) some humility. “A lot of people who’ve seen me do a couple of dramatic things come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t know you could act–I thought you only made noises.’ They forget that all of us can act; what else are we doing up there?”
Carol Burnett did some moonlighting from her comedy-variety show in 1974 to star in the TV drama Friendly Fire. Burnett once said, “I have seen comedians switch over to drama with greater success than I have seen straight actors switch to comedy. Straight actors who aren’t really comedic force something too much.”
Another TV legend, Dick Van Dyke, will be forever associated with his classic sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, and several beloved Disney musical comedies. A recovering alcoholic in real life, he tackled the issue of alcoholism head-on in the 1974 TV drama The Morning After, in which he portrayed a successful man in denial of his drinking problem, until his world begins to unravel. That same year, he played a cold-hearted murderer on the Columbo episode “Negative Reaction.” In the 1990s, he found more success with his series Diagnosis Murder.
George Burns was never called upon to try his acting chops in a serious drama, but he played opposite Walter Matthau in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (his best friend, Jack Benny, had planned to take on the role, but died of cancer before filming began). At the age of 80, Burns won the 1975 Oscar
for Best Supporting Actor for his efforts. When asked at the time to evaluate his own acting abilities, he replied, “Good acting is when Walter Matthau says to me, ‘How are you?’ and if I answer ‘Fine,’ that’s good acting. If Walter Matthau asks me ‘How are you?’ and I answer ‘I think it fell on the floor,’ then that’s bad acting.” His Oscar win led to starring roles in comedies including Oh, God! and Going In Style.
And then there is Peter Sellers, who, to this day, stands above all others as a comedy actor, best remembered as Inspector Clouseau in Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther films. However, Sellers turned in a remarkably subtle and quietly magnetic performance as the quiet, simple-minded gardener Chance, in the 1979 film Being There, co-starring Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas.. Powerful millionaire Douglas and his wife MacLaine befriend him and somehow mistake his inane statements for brilliant insights. Soon even the President (Jack Warden) and TV talk show hosts fall under Chance’s spell as they hang on his every word.
Sellers read the novella, by Jerzy Kozinski, in 1972, and in the intervening years campaigned to play Chance But he revealed at the time that, the day before shooting began, he panicked about how to play the role. He said to his wife, “I’ve had this thing for six years and, you know, I don’t know how I’m going to play Chance. I thought I knew everything about him, how he spoke, how he walked, acted, thought, but I realize now that I have to go and do it tomorrow, and I really don’t know.” He figured it out soon enough. This was Seller’s next-to-last and certainly his finest among many of his brilliant film performances. It is one of incredible restraint; he speaks just above a whisper (with an American accent) and confines his physical movements to slow, deliberate gestures. The role earned him his only Oscar nomination.
The list goes on: Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and Robin Williams ventured from their familiar comedy techniques to play dramatic roles with considerable success. Williams won a Best Supporting Oscar in 1998 for his performance in Good Will Hunting, and Murray was nominated in 2003 for his role in Trainspotting. “It may sound funny,” Murray once said, “but [dramatic roles] are fun. They’re important, because they let people see another side of you. I think comedy’s a little harder. To play comedy, you have to be able to play straight. The way you modulate it and deliver it is what makes it become funny–but you have to be able to play straight.”
Jerry Lewis suffered the slings and arrows of his critics almost perpetually throughout his solo film and television career of the ‘50s and ‘60s (with the exception of The Nutty Professor). Only in his last decade or so did his comic genius receive proper appreciation, especially from his fellow comedians. But he earned praise for his dramatic performance in the 1983 film The King of Comedy as a late-night talk show host stalked and kidnapped by social misfit Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). Lewis plays it straight throughout, giving an utterly believable, restrained performance, like nothing he had done before or since. He said years earlier that “the hard job is doing comedy. That’s what’s rough. Acting is a snap, but acting for an actor is hard work…because that’s all he does.” In referring to Groucho’s comment about acting, Lewis concurred, “It is like two weeks in the country. Christ, that’s a pleasure, and easy…that’s nowhere as naked as being a comedian.”
So there you have it. Until next time…