Film Makers Find That Small-Screen Stars Are Bankable

Tom Selleck is in theaters everywhere kissing Paulina Porizkova in "Her Alibi" and is currently shooting another feature, "Hard Rain," in Cincinnati.

Michael J. Fox is still on TV every Sunday but he will also star on the silver screen this year in a new Vietnam movie, "Casualties of War," and in the sequel to the 1985 smash hit "Back to the Future."

Bruce Willis will play a Vietnam vet in "In Country," Don Johnson will soon be seen as a different kind of detective in "Dead Bang," Shelley Long will lead a group of Girl Scouts in "Troop Beverly Hills" and Danny DeVito will be directing Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in the dark comedy "The War of the Roses." And Cybill Shepherd, a film star turned TV star, returns to the big screen as a museum curator in love with her co-star Robert Downey Jr. who plays her reincarnated husband in "Chances Are."

To the casual observer, such a list of movie stars and their ongoing film careers are far from remarkable. But just a few years ago, all of these actors were toiling on television--honing their craft in a medium from which there might be no escape. Film stars never deigned to work on television and television stars were rarely allowed to work in the movies.

Today, however, TV celebrity seems to be the fastest ticket to a lustrous film career.

"We tend not to differentiate a lot between the small screen and the large screen," said Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, whose 3-year-old Touchstone Films division has repeatedly capitalized on the celebrity and talent of such TV stars as Ted Danson, Selleck, Long and DeVito. "A lot of our most gifted and talented actors and actresses have a background in television."

The conventional wisdom that television is a lower class of acting and that the moviegoing audience won't shell out film dollars to watch actors they're used to seeing on TV for free is long out of date, according to Katzenberg and several other film industry sources.

In the last few years, Willis, Fox, Danson, Selleck, Johnson, Long, DeVito and several others have all moved from television to film work with some success--some with extraordinary success. Selleck, Willis and Fox are three of the highest-paid actors in film. DeVito, who started in features but became widely known through the hit TV series "Taxi," is both acting in and directing features. Even enduring TV comedy star John Ritter, who has shown little box-office strength in past features, has a major movie--Blake Edwards' "Skin Deep"--coming out soon.

"I think with the cable movie channels and the popularity of home video rentals, the audience is starting not to distinguish between movie stars and TV stars because they're able to see both on television every day," said John Kimble, talent agent and one of the partners of Triad.

"And American television is so popular now around the world and the budgets for features are so high that one of the studios' motives is that they are able to pre-sell foreign advances with actors that are well known. And many of our television stars are better known around the world than our movie stars."

Certainly actors moving from television to films is not unprecedented. Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Sally Field, Goldie Hawn, Michael Douglas, John Travolta, Robin Williams, Mary Tyler Moore, Alan Alda and Tom Hanks have all made the transition with relative ease. And a host of comedians who first hit it big on TV's "Saturday Night Live"--including Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy--have gone on to become some of the world's biggest movie stars.

Kimble said that there are still some "important" film directors who refuse to consider television actors for their films because they don't want any kind of automatic association with another character. The stigma of television as a lower art form still flourishes in some quarters, although, as time goes by, Kimble said, the number of directors who believe it is dwindling.

"I think that a belief in class distinctions in the arts is anachronistic, it's repugnant," said Joel Schumacher, director of "St. Elmo's Fire," "Lost Boys" and "Cousins," which stars Ted Danson. Schumacher insisted that he would not hesitate to cast a TV actor in the movies.

"I think that kind of distinction is idiotic," Schumacher said. "Look at me. I'm directing the Chicago production of David Mamet's 'Speed the Plow,' and I'm lucky that Mamet didn't say, 'He's a feature director, what's he doing on the stage?'

"People, especially actors, have to grab their opportunities where they can. It's not so easy for an actor to choose what medium he's going to work in. I mean, look at Michael J. Fox: He was kid who was lucky to get a part in that show. Should he be punished because he worked on TV? What was he supposed to do, Shakespeare in some little theater in London?"

Some Hollywood deal makers believe that a TV actor's association with a likable television character can work to a film's advantage. One agent, who did not want to be identified, said that one of the reasons for the success of "Back to the Future," Michael J. Fox's first major film, was simply that Fox played a character similar to the one that made him famous on television. As soon as people saw his face on the screen, they were predisposed to like him and the movie.

In his subsequent films, Fox has tried to distance himself from his television role in order to prove that he is capable of more than just performing as a lovable, wisecracking adolescent. But one of the primary reasons for the commercial failures of such movies as "Light of Day" and "Bright Lights, Big City," this talent agent said, was that Fox portrayed characters that his fans were not comfortable with.

"It is smart for television actors to try to distance themselves from their TV character," Kimble said, "but there's a fine line between not jarring your public too much and showing them that you can do more than they've seen. John Travolta transferred from ("Welcome Back Kotter") into features in the '70s, and as long as he did something somewhat related to his TV character he was successful. Whenever he went too far away from (head sweat hog Vinnie Barbarino), his movies didn't do so well."

And what if a TV star's film vehicle bombs? Not much. At least, not until several have bombed. Tom Selleck starred in three box-office disappointments before connecting with the mega-hit "Three Men and a Baby," and he has another disappointment on his hands now with "Her Alibi," a comedy that has grossed just $11 million in three weeks despite a massive studio advertising campaign.

"The studios will give you so many chances to hit before they stop trying you," Kimble said. "The public is a little more generous. When you are that undefinable thing called a 'star,' they give you a lot of chances. But one bad film will not hurt someone like Selleck. He is a star, and he will remain a star. Just like everyone else, he will have periods of success and periods of failure."

"Actors have to have room to fail or else they won't ever take any risks," said Katzenberg, whose company is currently shooting the hard-bitten drama "Hard Rain," in which Selleck plays a character "like nothing he's ever done before."

"Celebrity can go up and down depending on his momentary success or failure, but you can't take away his talent," Katzenberg said. "Selleck is as big a star as there is. He can do anything he wants."

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