Television is a fertile breeding ground for Hollywood talent: before he would become a box office star with Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks made a name for himself on the cross-dressing sitcom Bosom Buddies; Bruce Willis played a private investigator alongside Cybill Shepherd on Moonlighting for a few years before his success with Die Hard. This transition isn’t simply a one-way street, however. Several actors spent years building respectable careers for themselves in film and later made the move to the smaller screen, where these supposedly “smaller” roles have brought them similar acclaim. The following are just a few of the most popular.
8 Kyle MacLachlan, Net Worth $3 Million
For the last several years, television viewers have known Kyle MacLachlan as Orson Hodge on Desperate Housewives or as the Mayor of Portland in IFC’s Portlandia. If their memory stretches back a little further, they’ll fondly remember him as FBI Agent Dale Cooper on the surreal television drama Twin Peaks. But the dashing actor got his start in David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of the sci fi epic Dune, playing protagonist Paul Atreides. While the film was a flop and critical reception was mixed, it led to MacLachlan becoming one of Lynch’s key players in his idiosyncratic filmography. Two years later, he was cast as the naïve protagonist of Lynch’s original and controversial film Blue Velvet, starring opposite Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper in what is considered one of his greatest roles. In the following years, he would earn roles in Oliver Stone’s biopic The Doors, top billing in the aforementioned Twin Peaks and the villain Cliff Vandercave in the live-action Flintstones movie, though things began to temporarily turn south for the actor after he co-starred in Paul Verhoeven’s disastrous Showgirls.
MacLachlan gradually returned to fame through the late 1990s and ’00s, first by voicing media magnate Donald Love in the groundbreaking video game Grand Theft Auto III, then through regular and recurring roles on television, such as Desperate Housewives’ Hodge and “The Captain” on How I Met Your Mother.
7 Kerry Washington, Net Worth $3 Million
Currently the star of ABC’s Scandal, Washington rose to fame during the last decade with key supporting roles in films such as the two Fantastic Four movies—starring opposite Michael Chiklis’ The Thing—as well as The Last King of Scotland, where she portrayed the wife of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. She has also played a romantic interest of Jamie Foxx’s twice: first in the biopic Ray, and more recently in Quentin Tarantino’s “southern,” Django Unchained.
6 Peter Dinklage, Net Worth $10 Million
5 Anna Paquin, Net Worth $12 Million
The star of HBO’s True Blood—there’s no shortage of HBO on this list—has been working in cinema and, more recently, television since 1993. Her breakout role was as the young interpreter Flora McGrath in the Academy Award-winning film The Piano, for which Paquin earned an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. In 2000, she appeared as the vitality-siphoning mutant Rogue in X-Men, a role she would reprise in its two sequels (she also filmed scenes which were ultimately cut for the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past).
4 Jessica Lange, Net Worth $15 Million
Lange was a major Hollywood star through the late 1970s and most of the ’80s, acquiring the lead role in the 1976 remake of King Kong for her first film appearance. In the following few years, she would play major parts in the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, All that Jazz and Tootsie, starring opposite major players Roy Scheider, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman, respectively. While her roles haven’t been as numerous since, she contributed praised performances to Titus, Big Fish and the TV movie Grey Gardens. Since 2011, she has starred in the anthology horror series American Horror Story, playing a different character each season.
3 William Petersen, Net Worth $35 Million
Nowadays, William Petersen is known to most people as Gil Grissom, the first central protagonist of the now sprawling television franchise C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation. Remembered for his reserved demeanour and poetic observations, Grissom supervised the Las Vegas crime scene investigation squad for the first nine seasons of the show. But Petersen was an established film star from the early 1980s through the mid-’90s. His first major role was as a rogue Secret Service Agent in To Live and Die in L.A., a thriller directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist). Roger Ebert praised Petersen’s performance as “tough, wiry and smart” and compared him to Steve McQueen. A year later, he was cast in the lead role of Will Graham in Manhunter—an adaptation of the first Hannibal Lecter novel, Red Dragon—where he garnered similar praise, though the part took a psychological toll on him.
With the exception of Fear, a psychological thriller featuring Mark Wahlberg in one of his first lead roles, Petersen worked primarily on smaller productions, TV movies and stage plays for close to a decade and a half before being cast as Grissom on C.S.I. His next project is a historical TV miniseries, To Appomattox, where he will portray Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.
2 Matthew McConaughey, Net Worth $65 Million
The last couple months have been kind to Matthew McConaughey: besides winning his first Academy Award for Best Actor for Dallas Buyers Club, he received top billing alongside Woody Harrelson in HBO’s newest drama, True Detective. His performance as nihilistic investigator Rustin Cohle has received universal praise and will likely be a major contender when Emmy season rolls around.
But unlike many actors, McConaughey didn’t start out in television (apart from one episode of Unsolved Mysteries in 1992). He gained stardom in 1993 with his role as sleazy burnout David Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, leading to performances in Contact, EDtv and acclaimed turns in A Time to Kill and Amistad. In the 2000s, he was the go-to man for romantic comedies, adding How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Fool’s Gold and Failure to Launch to his resume.
1 James Gandolfini, Net Worth $70 Million
Prior to the premiere of The Sopranos in 1999, HBO was known primarily for showing movies and James Gandolfini had made a name for himself in smaller roles in films like True Romance, Crimson Tide and Get Shorty. By the time the actor sadly succumbed to a heart attack in June of last year, HBO had gained a reputation as one of the finest television networks in the world and Gandolfini was an acclaimed, award-winning figure in both film and on the small screen.
Following Gandolfini’s death, Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle fame tweeted that “without Tony Soprano there is no Walter White.” Considering the widespread success and cultural recognition of antiheroic characters such as White, Mad Men’s Don Draper, Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister and most recently Rust Cohle and Marty Hart of True Detective, it seems Cranston has a point.