A panic-stricken middle-aged man, wearing little more than a gas mask and tighty-whities, is driving a dilapidated RV across the desert. Two unconscious bodies and a dead one slide around in the back — near his portable methamphetamine lab. He wants to make money before he dies of cancer.
A slightly younger man, dressed in snug leather pants and a glittery top with a plunging neckline, is gyrating his hips for an arcade dance contest. He’s doing the robot to a mix of “Sometimes When We Touch.” He’s hamming it up for the grand prize — a coupon for two free medium pizzas.
The worlds couldn’t be much farther apart, but they were both inhabited by a single man — Bryan Cranston. His dual roles, as a chemistry teacher turned meth dealer in AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and as the overwhelmed father of a dysfunctional brood of boys in Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle,” embody the ancient Greek faces of comedy and tragedy that adorn the Screen Actors Guild symbol.
“You don’t ever want to be stuck,” said the 55-year-old, who has won three Emmy Awards for lead actor in a drama. “As nice as ‘Malcolm’ was, it’s like eating your favorite dessert. After a while, you’re like ‘Ugh! I could really use some protein — something that is not sweet … please! You just crave something different.”
Being a skilled actor in one performance arena is difficult enough, but to excel in both comedy and drama — and to be recognized by a mass audience — has traditionally been next to impossible when it has come to television. But the rise of cable television and its nurturing of niche, often edgy programming has provided actors a new opportunity to play against type, branch into other genres and broaden their appeal.
“Finding a new way of presenting themselves is what actors thrive on,” said Larry Auerbach, associate dean of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and a former agent at the William Morris Agency. “It’s been that way since the beginning. But it used to be that they went to a different medium to do that — they did plays, they did movies. But TV is growing, and it’s getting easier to show range just by flipping to another network.”
While Cranston is perhaps the most notable example of this trend, he’s certainly not alone. After some two decades of playing the neurotic mental health expert Frasier Crane, Kelsey Grammer put aside one of the longest-running characters ever on prime-time TV to become a ruthless Chicago politician in Starz’s drama “Boss.” Jon Hamm became famous playing a brilliant but troubled ad man on AMC’s “Mad Men” and earned Emmy nominations in 2009 and 2010 for his comic turns on NBC’s “30 Rock.” And last year, Edie Falco became the first actress to collect lead actress Emmy trophies for both a drama (HBO’s “The Sopranos”) and a comedy (Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie”).
For some actors, such as Garret Dillahunt, the boorish patriarch on Fox’s “Raising Hope,” the move from drama to comedy was strategic. Before his sitcom, Dillahunt earned a name for playing bad guys including a blood-chilling part in HBO’s critically acclaimed “Deadwood” as an erudite and throat-slashing geologist who preyed on prostitutes.
“People constantly want to put you in a box,” he said on the set of the Fox sitcom. “You play psychopaths on ‘Deadwood’ for a while and people are like, ‘You can’t do comedy, you’re the drama guy.’ And you know, some people like doing the same thing — and maybe it makes them easier to market. But for me, what keeps me interested and awake is change in this business. It’s what I thought we are supposed to do as actors.”
Maybe, but try telling Hollywood that. Cranston recalls receiving plenty of post-"Malcolm” offers to play sweet-natured goofy dads. He turned them down.
“It would have been a career killer,” he said.
Katey Sagal, who played the bubbleheaded mother Peggy Bundy on “Married … With Children” for more than a decade, faced the same problem after the Fox sitcom left in 1997. After more stints on several comedy shows, Sagal has won widespread critical praise for her complex dramatic role as the biker gang matriarch on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy.”
“I kept getting scripts that called for a lowbrow, trashy housewives,” said Sagal, married to show creator Kurt Sutter. “When you’re in people’s living rooms for 11 years as one thing, it’s a combination of the industry doesn’t see you any different and they don’t want to see you any different. I had to go into a lot of rooms and show people that I didn’t have red hair, high heels and leopard [skin] on at all times. It was tough.”
But her “Married … With Children” costar Ed O’Neill said the shadow of Al Bundy was hard to escape. He appeared in the short-lived CBS cop drama “Big Apple,” but he believes a potential “Deadwood” role got “pulled out from under me” because of his crass sitcom character.
“I felt like that was one of those situations where ‘Married … With Children’ hurt me,” he said. “It’s like you’re pegged with the scarlet letter.”
O’Neill ended up doing another failed cop drama, this time a remake, “L.A. Dragnet.” From there he had a gig on HBO’s short-lived surf noir drama “John From Cincinnati” and did a David Mamet play — “I wanted something that was unknown, something out of my element. A half-hour comedy was the last thing I wanted to do,” he said, referring to his current role on ABC’s top-rated sitcom “Modern Family.” “I just wanted to do independent movies. Something more strikingly different. Maybe later.”
Naturally, actors from previous generations also wanted to move back and forth between comedy and drama in television – and some did. Buddy Ebsen starred in both the fish-out-of-water sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies” and the straight-forward crime drama “Barnaby Jones.”
Likewise, Carroll O’Connor turned Archie Bunker into a laughable bigot in the 1970s, and went on to play a southern sheriff in the police drama “In the Heat of the Night.” But the dramatic roles, while popular in their time, typically operated in black-and-white worlds where bad guys were caught at the end of each episode - unlike some of today’s more ambitious, demanding series which are centered on complicated, morally ambigious characters.
Often today, breaking the barrier between comedy and drama can come down to simple determination and luck, explained Cranston, who was intensely interested in playing Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” Fortunately, Cranston had worked with show creator Vince Gilligan before on an episode of the “The X-Files.”
“I wanted to go mark Vince,” Cranston recalled. “I wanted to creatively lift my leg on him, and the script, and leave my scent so that he saw me and nobody else doing this. It’s what I had been waiting for.”
Another route for actors to transition between genres is to showcase their acting chops in a short stint or guest-star role, according to TV historian Tim Brooks. Typically, comic actors take this route, as John Ritter and Martin Short did on the dark procedural “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Of course, Falco took the opposite path — heading from the deadly serious role of a mobster’s wife to a lighthearted three-arc run as Alec Baldwin’s character’s love interest on “30 Rock.” The move helped open the door to becoming the title character in Showtime’s dark comedy “Nurse Jackie.”
“I just wanted to use a different set of muscles,” said Falco, who won three lead actress Emmys for her performance as Carmela Soprano. “It was more about me spending 10 years of my life playing the same character. What other people think I’m capable of is not my concern. Then ‘Nurse Jackie’ came along. It’s not belly-laugh comedy, but it’s so much more low-maintenance.”
That’s not to say it’s any easier. The key, say actors, is not the genre, but the writing.
“I can’t really say which is harder,” Sagal said. “They both have their built-in challenges. With the comedies, I was working in front of a live audience and there was that adrenaline rush. There’s something about the energy — you get an instant reaction to what works and what doesn’t. But there’s something beautifully scary about not having that too. To really channel the character in a more intimate level. But at the end of the day, you just do what’s on the page.”
And as the cable universe continues to expand and the four major networks become less cookie-cutter in their programming, television actors relish the chance to explore the full range of their skills — no matter the consequences.
“We’re kind of gamblers, in a way,” Dillahunt said. “It can be a colossal failure when we try something new. But actors hate being told they can’t do something. It’s all about the risk.”