It is the dream of every actor or actress that someday they will find themselves on the big silver screen. Hollywood is the ultimate destination, with its well-written scripts, giant budget, and talented peers. However, sometimes the glitz and glamor of the often dreamed about movie star career does not work out as envisioned. It may even be the case that the movie industry loses its appeal and the smaller medium of television begins to look good again—with its tight storytelling and large audience. Whatever the case, television as of late has seen an influx of movie stars who have given up the big screen in favor of the small one. The compensation may be smaller, but with TV writers and producers working to craft movie quality programming for half the cost, the work can be just as rewarding. These ten actors and actresses left the movie screen and returned to TV (even if only temporarily) to create some astonishingly good television.
10 Woody Harrelson
In television, Harrelson is best known for his role as Woody Boyd of Cheers, the bartender who often provided off the wall comedic humor when he misunderstood a situation. Harrelson stared on the show for many years, winning one Emmy, before leaving for the bright lights of Hollywood. During his early movie years he stared in hits such as White Men Can’t Jump, Indecent Proposal, and The People vs Larry Flint. More recently, he has stared in the Oscar winning No Country for Old Men, The Messenger, and super franchise The Hunger Games, as Haymitch Abernathy, trainer to Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark.
His success his movies has not yet diminished, but Harrelson made the bold move in 2014 to return to TV to co-star in True Detective, an HBO crime drama that has received high acclaim. Undoubtedly, Harrelson plans to return to movies (he’s already singed on for Now You See Me 2), but maybe he’ll grace us with his presence on TV more often.
9 Katherine Heigl
Like many actresses, Katherine Heigl worked in smaller TV and movie roles before finally landing a solid gig where she could stretch her acting wings. For Heigl, the role was on the science fiction teen drama Roswell, as Isabel Evans one of three alien/human hybrids. During that time she began making a name for herself, making several “sexy women” lists. When Roswell was cancelled after three seasons, Heigl did several TV movies before finally landing in a role that would change her career. When she took the part of Dr. Izzie Stevens on ABC’s medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, it was hard to say whether or not the show, which followed a group of surgical interns, would find any sort of audience. In hindsight, there was a little reason to fear as Grey’s became a mega hit for ABC as one of the highest rated shows on broadcast. In the final few years of her six-year stint on Grey’s, Heigl began moving back into the movie industry with films like 27 Dresses and Knocked Up. In 2010, Heigl left Grey’s Anatomy for good to pursue movies, but struggled to find scripts that met with box office success. Thus, Heigl will be coming back to television in the Fall 2014 NBC show State of Affairs, her first TV show in four years.
8 Robert Carlyle
Robert Carlyle has had quite the movie career. Known for his ability to be as authentic as possible in a role, Carlyle is best known for movie work such as psychopathic Begbie in Trainspotting and out-of-work amateur stripper Gaz in The Full Monty. After the birth of three children, Carlyle decided to move into television more permanently in order to have more family time. His first major TV role after his transition was as Dr. Nicholas Rush in Stargate: Universe, a show based in the hit Stargate franchise. While the show only lasted two seasons, Carlyle was touted as the leading role. After the cancellation of the science fiction show, Carlyle moved to broadcast TV to play Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold, in ABC’s fantasy fairy tale hit show Once Upon a Time, where he has earned praise and a pretty solid fanbase of “Dearies” who adore the somewhat malevolent and cunning wizard.
7 Viola Davis
Viola Davis is one of those actresses who is a triple threat: stage, movies, and now television. Davis began her career on the theater stage where she would eventually win a Tony and a Drama Desk Awards for her role in King Hedley II. After this, Davis moved to the movies where she had notable roles in Traffic, Antwone Fisher, Solaris, Doubt, and most recently, the award winning film The Help, which earned her an Academy Award nomination. Her movie career has not faltered as she has roles still to come over the next few years. But while those are being produced, Davis is moving back to TV, where she had a slew of smaller roles, to be the lead actress in Shonda Rhimes’s new ABC show, How to Get Away With Murder, set to begin airing in the Fall of 2014. Rhimes has a history of successful TV shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and super mega ratings hit Scandal) and with Davis playing the lead role, there is almost no doubt that this show will be another hit.
6 James Spader
Known for his more eccentric movie roles such as Pretty in Pink, Sex, Lies and Videotape, and science fiction Stargate, Spader had a string of busts before heading to TV to play Alan Shore in The Practice. His character was so successful and popular that it earned Spader his own spinoff, Boston Legal, where he won three Emmy Awards. His new found “hit” status opened many more doors to him, including playing the villain, Ultron, in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the sequel to the unprecedented box office hit The Avengers, set to make its way to theaters next year. This new found movie success, however, has not caused Spader to leave the world of TV. He is currently staring in the NBC crime drama, The Blacklist, which was renewed for a second season before the spring.
5 Robin Wright
Unlike some of the other actors on this list, Robin Wright has spent more time in the movies than on TV. While she did star in the award winning drama Santa Barbara, she is more widely known for her movies roles, such as: The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. With such an illustrious movie career behind her, it was a bit shocking for her take up a role that wasn’t on the big screen. Wright has the honor of being the only person on this list to return to TV without really returning to TV. In 2013, Wright singed on to play Claire Underwood, the shark like politician’s wife on Netflix’s original series House of Cards. The brilliant House of Cards has gone on to earn national recognition and even earned Wright a Golden Globe for her work. The series has already been renewed for 2015, so there is more of Wright’s tight and amazing performance to come.
4 Claire Danes
Claire Danes’s first big breakthrough came on TV when she played 15-year old Angela Chase in cult hit My So Called Life, which only ran for one year but is considered to be a show that died before its time. After this, Danes moved on to film, staring in Little Women and Romeo + Juliet. In 2010, Danes moved back to TV to star in HBO’s TV miniseries Temple Grandin, for which Danes won the Golden Globe and Emmy Award. Showtime decided to take advantage of her talents and, to date, she is staring as bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison on Homeland, a role which has earned her still more awards and recognition.
3 Robin Williams
“Nanu nanu!” Robin Williams became a star when he stared as Mork, a displaced alien come to study human life, on 1970s program Mork & Mindy. Having reached critical acclaim for his zany humor on TV, Williams branched out to movies where—after a few busts—he found success in Good Morning, Vietnam, a role which earned him a Golden Globe. After that it was on to other successes such as Dead Poets Society, Hook, Aladdin, Mrs. Doutbfire, Jumanji, and Good Will Hunting. After such a successful movie career, Williams decided to return to TV in CBS’s comedy The Crazy Ones, opposite Sarah Michelle Gellar. While the show has been cancelled after only one season, we hope Williams doesn’t leave TV for too long.
2 Jessica Lange
Jessica Lange is one of the most accomplished actresses of the modern era with two Oscars, two Emmys, five Golden Globes, and a string of other awards. Her biggest and most well known roles have been in the movies, such as Tootsie, Frances, Blue Sky, and Titus. While Lange has done a few TV movies here and there throughout her long career, her best television work has been over the past few years in American Horror Story. The show, having just finished its acclaimed third season, has seen Lange play everything from a nosy next door neighbor, a nun, to the Supreme leader of a witch coven. All of these incredibly intricate roles have earned Lange awards and recognition and an even more devoted fan base. Lange will be starring in the fourth season of American Horror Story: Freak Show, as a German expatriate in a circus act.
1 Matthew McConaughey
Matthew McConaughey had very little TV experience behind him before he broke out into movies with films like : Angels in the Outfield, Amistad, and Contact, before falling into the romantic comedy niche market with films such as The Wedding Planner and How to Loose a Guy in 10 Days. While this earned him recognition, it also stalled his career for sometime as the roles became less developed and less successful. In an attempt to revamp his career, McConaughey moved away from the rom-com and into more serious roles culminating in his 2013 success Dallas Buyers Club, which earned him his first ever Oscar win for portraying a cowboy dying of AIDS. With that acclaim behind him, McConaughey turned back to TV to star in HBO’s crime anthology True Detective, proving that he could work both the big and little screen and show that his acting abilities in serious drama can match the earlier success he has as a rom-com heartthrob.