We’re in the golden age of TV, where shows are given bigger budgets and more creative control in order to weave massive tapestries of intrigue and suspense, or leave us in stitches from laughter. TV now is very different from TV of twenty or so years ago, where sets were cheaper and working in television was considered a massive step down the ladder when compared to the “real actors” who appear in movies.
Naturally, many actors attempt to make the leap from TV to film, even though there isn’t quite such derision attributed to those who work in television. To make it in a hit movie – as a top-billed star, to boot – is further validation of talent. It’s the next thing you need to do to know you’ve “made it”. Sometimes, it’s hugely successful, like Tom Hanks who started in TV with Bosom Buddies, George Clooney, from ER, or Will Smith, from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
But those aren’t the actors we’re here to talk about.
Instead, we’ll discuss those who, no matter how talented they were on the small screen, just couldn’t hack it on the big screen. These are the ones who either came crawling back to TV, realizing their mistakes, or went back for punishment again and again and again.
15 Courteney Cox
To be completely fair, Courteney Cox did have a massive hit on her hands around the time she was in the midst of filming Friends, with 1996’s Scream and its sequels (which, as sequels do, worsened in quality as they went on). However, there is no denying the fact that while Cox rakes it in on the small screen, she’s nowhere near as successful when it comes to the silver screen.
While audiences loved seeing Cox as the uptight, persnickety, kind of b*tchy Gale Weathers (sound familiar?), her success in the films didn’t translate into nabbing major movie roles. Instead, Cox settled into a pretty comfy gig (later making $1 million per episode) with Friends, before transitioning to the leading role in Cougartown. Naturally, there were some bit roles on other TV shows, and she popped up in a couple films, but nothing nearly as major as the Scream franchise. In this case, despite failing in film, Cox is still sitting pretty on a pile of cash from TV!
14 Chad Michael Murray
Like Courteney Cox, Chad Michael Murray did fairly well in film when he first started out, appearing in ‘00s fare like A Cinderella Story and Freaky Friday, as the dude we’ve all come to know him as: a bit of a bad boy who conveniently happens to be secretly “deep” and into our leading lady. After he got a starring role on TV’s One Tree Hill, however, Murray found it difficult to get back into the Hollywood scene, especially once filming on the soapy drama wrapped in 2012. He’s been stuck in a bunch of lame TV movies, appeared in the sequel to The Haunting in Connecticut, and popped up in A Madea Christmas – not exactly the resumé you’d be hoping for coming off of a hit show.
Despite not achieving much success on the big screen – and having his fair share of drama on the small screen – Murray hasn’t rested on his laurels: he’s gotten roles in TV mini-series and TV shows to fill his time and flesh out his acting credits.
13 Tom Selleck
Some people might disagree with this one, but think of the major TV shows Tom Selleck has been on in the past that first come to mind. Magnum, P.I., Friends, and Blue Bloods. All TV, not a single movie among them.
Of course, if you want to reach a bit, you could point to 1987’s 3 Men and a Baby, but once he really got into TV, Selleck stopped popping up on theatre tickets and took his moustache into the homes of families everywhere. Even the “movies” he has done more recently are TV movies of the dad-variety, in which he plays a police chief named Jesse Stone. (There are nine of those out so far, with one more recently announced, if you were wondering.)
There’s no denying that Selleck has had a successful career, but it seems relegated to TV rather than scoring big at the box office. Hey, it seems to be working out pretty well for him, so who are we to judge?
12 Katherine Heigl
In a lesson not to bite the hand that feeds you, we have Katherine Heigl. When Heigl first started to get noticed among the Hollywood set, she was a buxom, brilliant blonde who played Dr. Izzy Stevens on the addictive medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. Then, her character was written off after Heigl publicly removed her name from Emmy consideration back in 2008, saying that she had not been given good enough material to work with that season. Shortly before that, despite having massive success with the 2007 film Knocked Up, she blasted it, calling it sexist.
Since positioning herself as the biggest b*tch in Hollywood, Heigl has struggled to find work on the small screen and the big screen, taking roles in movies that barely saw the light of day, with titles such as One for the Money, Home Sweet Hell, and Jenny’s Wedding. Even after attempting to get back into TV with two new shows, State of Affairs and Doubt, both were canned – after one season for the former and after only airing two episodes for the latter.
11 Mischa Barton
Sometimes you shouldn’t leave a successful TV show to make the jump to film, because it’s not always guaranteed you’ll be a success. This couldn’t be more true for Mischa Barton, who abruptly left the hit show The O.C. to take some time for “self-exploration” in the U.K., before attempting to hit it big in the movies.
Unfortunately for her, that did not happen. Misfire after misfire came Barton’s way, with low-rated film after low-rated film failing to break even or do much beyond their budgets. (Seriously, try and think of the last Barton movie you saw. It was likely The Sixth Sense, which came out when she was 13.) Numerous film credits are listed on her IMDb page, almost all of them unrecognizable, and many filmed within the same year, which gives you an indicator as to their quality. Even when Barton attempted a comeback on TV, she failed again, this time with The Beautiful Life, a series as shallow as its name that was cancelled after only two episodes.
10 Zach Braff
Yes, we know that Zach Braff hit it big with his major indie hit Garden State when “hipster” wasn’t a term used in our everyday vernacular, but nothing has come close to topping the success he found on Scrubs, which was so great it even outlived Braff’s starring time on it (although admittedly went downhill).
Braff popped up in a couple of films during his nine-year stint on the TV show, but nothing major, which might explain why he turned to Kickstarter in order to fund his own movie – which, you guessed it, starred himself. Despite obtaining some major talent for 2014’s Wish I Was Here, like Kate Hudson, Jim Parsons and Mandy Patinkin, it failed to recoup its budget of $6 million, and since then, Braff has only appeared in a few brief guest spots on TV shows. There’s no telling for sure if Braff will simply fade into obscurity, or if he’ll find another (TV) role to put his talent to good use, but we’re not holding our breath.
9 John Krasinski
Look, we loved John Krasinski as Jim Halpert on The Office, but maybe that’s why he hasn’t been able to break into film. We’re so used to seeing him as the affable, sweet guy who mugs for the camera – something he did for nine seasons – that it’s almost impossible to imagine him in any role that might require him to stretch his acting muscles. Even after Krasinski got super buff to play a CIA contractor in 13 Hours, we couldn’t really get into it, and the movie barely made back its budget.
During his super successful time on The Office, he appeared in a few successful films, but never as a leading role. Later, as the TV show began to wind down, Krasinski attempted to segue into leading man territory, but to no avail. (Although, to be fair, he did understand much of his audience, and appeared in quite a few rom-coms to appease his female fans.) Next up is another TV series for him, but if that doesn’t pan out, at least he has a gig as the voice in the Esurance commercials!
8 Jenna Fischer
Unfortunately, where Jim goes, Pam goes, and Jenna Fischer hasn’t done much better than her on-screen love interest in the film department. While Fischer was killing it as Pam Beesly on The Office, her attempts to reach a wider audience via film seem to have been ultimately unsuccessful. Sticking to her comedy roots, Fischer appeared in movies like Blades of Glory, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and Hall Pass, but she wasn’t given much screen time or much personality in the characters she played, usually acting as the put-upon wife. Since we know Fischer has some good comedy chops, it was disappointing to say the least.
Following the ending of The Office, Fischer appeared in a couple of forgettable films and shorts, before making a return to TV that has been moderately successful at best. Hopefully, we get to see this funny lady in some better stuff, but we recommend to sticking to what she does best: TV.
7 Topher Grace
Topher Grace is a guy who works well in a group setting, but when you try and position him as a leading man all on his own, he flails. Case in point: In the show that made him famous, That ‘70s Show, Grace worked really well with the whole ensemble. He also did well in smaller roles in Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 12 (two films in which he was, ironically, uncredited). However, when we look to his film Win A Date With Tad Hamilton!, which tried to see Grace as an object of romance, it failed and is relegated to being guilty pleasure viewing for a select few.
It’s not that Topher Grace hasn’t tried to get into film; he has, time and time again, and he has appeared in some big-budget films like Interstellar, but as maybe the sixth- or seventh-listed star – nowhere near the lead. His boyish good looks don’t necessarily translate past the awkward teenager he’s most famous for playing, and his career has definitely slowed since That ‘70s Show ended.
6 Andy Samberg
Okay, we know that Andy Samberg is no slouch when it comes to doing well in Hollywood, but he definitely fell short of expectations when it came to the big screen. (To be fair, we know that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is fantastic, and deserving of its multitudes of awards, but that’s not film.)
After being widely believed to be one of the most talented members of Saturday Night Live, many people thought that Samberg would go the way of some of the comedic geniuses before him who went on to incredible film success, including Adam Sandler (recent films not withstanding), Will Ferrell, and Mike Myers. Unfortunately, things didn’t pan out quite as well for Samberg, who made major flop after major flop – one of which starred Sandler as well! While his movie choices have been confusing to say the least, Samberg seems to have realized that TV is where his true talents lie, and we can only hope he sticks to his day job.
5 Alexis Bledel
As the brainy Rory Gilmore in Gilmore Girls, Alexis Bledel won over hearts and audiences throughout the show’s seven-season run. During the show’s heyday, Bledel was lucky enough to see some moderate success in films, as well, in such offerings as Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and Sin City. Unfortunately, like the other entries on this list, obtaining success as a top-billed star was out of reach for Bledel, who tried her best with movies like The Good Guy, which was a box office bomb, costing $8 million to make and taking in only $100k, and Violet & Daisy, which cost the same and took in a paltry $17k! Despite being one of the most beloved TV actresses, the silver screen just never took to Bledel.
Luckily for the plucky Rory Gilmore, though, we’ve been blessed with a Gilmore Girls revival and Bledel’s goosebump-inducing performance in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, so it’s not all bad for our favourite bookworm!
4 Melissa Joan Hart
Melissa Joan Hart has jumped from successful TV project to successful TV project, going from Clarissa Explains It All to Sabrina, the Teenage Witch to Melissa & Joey, but despite doing pretty well on the small screen, Hart has never had a hit film, despite decades of being in the biz!
Relegated to appearing in TV movies and opting for some voiceover work, Hart has been forgettable at best in her atrocious feature offerings, which makes it all the more surprising that she’s able to land major TV gigs year in and year out! Maybe it’s because she’s considered “TV cute” and not “leading lady gorgeous”, or maybe it’s because, despite her experience, her acting skills are mediocre at best, but Hart seems to have found a comfortable groove in TV, which is good, because we doubt film studios are breaking down her door to get her in their next big-budget movie.
3 David Caruso
Remember David Caruso? Depending on your age and TV preferences, this redheaded actor might be an unknown to you, but his story fits in perfectly and is a case of ego trumping opportunity – and luck. After a successful stint on NYPD Blue, Caruso suddenly decided to leave the show in 1994 in pursuit of greener pastures. Too bad all his attempts to make it at the box office were huge flops! None returned on their budget and all were panned by critics.
Naturally, sensing that the tide had turned against his leading man potential, Caruso returned to what he knew: TV. He made it onto CSI: Miami, proving that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and inspired people everywhere to provide pun-filled retorts while sliding on a pair of sunglasses, and that’s pretty much the legacy he’s going to leave on the acting world, as far as we can tell!
2 Matthew Perry
Poor Matthew Perry. It seems that no matter how hard he tries, he’ll never be able to replicate the success he found on Friends (which seems to be true of most of its stars). During and after his role on the beloved sitcom, Perry tried to launch himself into a big-screen acting career, but no one took the bait. Sure, he had a couple minor hits, like The Whole Nine Yards and 17 Again, but the former is more likely due to the stellar ensemble cast (especially Bruce Willis), and the latter to Zac Efron’s insane popularity at the time.
Other than those films, Perry hasn’t done too well, and seems to keep hitting roadblocks on the TV front as well. Since Friends ended, Perry has attempted a grand total of four other sitcoms – all of which were cancelled after one or two seasons. Despite being easily the most popular character on the show that launched him into the spotlight, Perry hasn’t been able to harness that popularity into a successful film – or TV – career.
1 Aaron Paul
It pains us to say this, it really does, because we wanted Aaron Paul to kill it in film. After playing Jesse Pinkman on the perfect Breaking Bad, we all thought that the entertainment world was Paul’s oyster, because he had shown such depth and range. Unfortunately, the pickings were slim when it came to film, and Paul chose the wrong ones every single time.
Big budget films like Need for Speed and Exodus: Gods and Kings stank it up at the box office, and smaller indie fare like A Long Way Down didn’t do much better. After attempting quite a few films following the end of the show that made him famous, Paul wisely chose to return to TV, in Netflix’s BoJack Horseman and Hulu’s The Path, both critically lauded shows that allow Paul to really immerse himself in a character without having to resort to uttering his one-word catchphrase often said by Jesse Pinkman. It’s still early for Paul, though, so while he may have failed in film thus far, perhaps there’s still something perfect for him on the horizon.