Comedians take TV dramas seriously

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When Ray Romano was gunning for the role of Richard Hoover, the determined, van-driving papa in "Little Miss Sunshine," things didn't go quite as he'd hoped. He remembers having a great meeting with directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris but didn't land the role despite his strong resume, which included 10 years with "Everybody Loves Raymond."
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"Back then, there were (dramatic) scripts I wished people had more faith in me to do," says the actor, who has his roots in comedy, just like Greg Kinnear, who ultimately won the part.

Executive producing, co-writing and co-starring in the dramedy "Men of a Certain Age," Romano has recovered nicely and says he has learned why crossing from comedy to drama was so hard.

"Now that I'm on the other side in casting ('Men'), I understand," he says. "When you get names pitched to you that are only connected with comedy, or have a nondramatic aura about them, it's hard to see them in dramatic roles. I'm guilty of that myself."

Experiences like Romano's with "Sunshine" prove a well-known truth in the business: For a comedian, making that jump into dramatic territory never is easy.

When Ted Danson took the role of Arthur Frobisher, the unscrupulous billionaire on "Damages," it was a real switch from much of his previous work. The show's creators wanted him in the role--but they also informed the veteran Emmy-winning actor that he needed an acting coach.

"My ego went, 'Dear God, they don't think I can do this!' " Danson recalls. "But the teacher (Harold Guskin) really helped jar me loose from my ways. He was saying, 'You need to stop being such a nice actor.' When you do a half-hour comedy, there's almost a rhythm to it -- a metronome in the background -- and you have to dance that dance. Drama is different. I joke about this, but it's almost true: You can show up drunk and divorced in drama, but as long as you're real and in the moment, the story will propel you. How they cut the thing will make the drama."

Bryan Cranston in "Breaking Bad"
 

Like Romano, Denis Leary once lost out on a good dramatic role. In 1991, he showed up on Oliver Stone's casting couch hoping to land a part in "The Doors," and Stone asked: "Who do you think you are? Al Pacino?" But Leary, who also has roots in stand-up, found a way into dramatic roles on TV and, like Romano, he has done it by creating, or co-creating the show -- in his case, "Rescue Me."

"Comedy isn't easy," he says. "It's built in to your DNA in terms of rhythm and timing -- it's not something that can be taught. When Robert De Niro started doing big comedies later in his career, it was a shock. But there are scenes in 'Taxi Driver' that are very funny. He's a guy who has a built-in sense of comedic timing. I actually think it's easier for (comedians) to do drama than it is for dramatic actors to do comedy."

He adds: "I don't blame Hollywood for pigeonholing people. If you make the giant funny movie and it (grosses) over $250 million in its first weekend, they're going to pay you big money to keep doing that same role over and over again. That's why I purposefully stayed away from doing a sitcom in the beginning of my career. I wanted to have more leeway."

But getting Hollywood to give actors leeway isn't so easy. Before Eric McCormack -- who made two noteworthy dramatic appearances this year, on "Law & Order: SVU" and in the telefilm "Who Is Clark Rockefeller?" -- spent eight years on "Will & Grace," he had many dramatic roles, including as a villain on "Lonesome Dove."

"Back then, the switch to sitcom was very overnight, and it was definitely a different side of me that I couldn't wait to express," McCormack says. "But it's easier for everyone in Hollywood if you declare (a genre). 'Will & Grace' was great, but with success comes a stamp, and it's been strange to hear people say, 'I didn't know you could do (drama).' "



This attitude is nothing new. Jerry Stiller might be thought of as the classic sitcom dad because of long-running roles on "Seinfeld" and "The King of Queens," but he got his start in classical roles and the theater. This year, he and his wife, Anne Meara, had brief but memorable dramatic turns on "Mercy."

"After I did (Frank) Costanza for five years, I was out of work and CBS came along and wanted to replace the father in 'King of Queens,' " Stiller recalls. "They said, 'You've got the part if you want it,' and I turned it down. You're not just one character, but all these characters floating around."

In the end, he admits, "My mind said, 'Oh, go do it, you could use the money.' "

Perhaps because the money simply is less in other countries, actors there say they find themselves less straitjacketed. David Tennant, who recently played a somewhat comedic "Doctor Who," also was cast as Hamlet in the PBS production with Patrick Stewart. Martin Short, who has been working on "Damages" with Danson this season, says it's just not like that in his native Canada.

"There's no 'star' system per se there," Short says. "You just have to accept that in the course of the year, you will have this wide range of things you've done: theater, musicals, commercials, film, television. The question isn't about the material, it's, 'Do I bring a suit or not?' "

Hugh Laurie in "House"
 

Hugh Laurie is perhaps one of the best examples of an easy transition from comedy to drama, but many Americans watching him each week on "House" have little to no idea that he's enormously successful as a comedian at home in England. Leary recalls early in his career being in London and getting to see Laurie's work in "Blackadder" and "Jeeves and Wooster."

"So when he came over here and is playing this dramatic role on 'House,' I wasn't that surprised," Leary notes. "Then Americans are going, 'He's funny?' I'm like, 'He's comedy-hall-of-fame funny!' "

"You can become a victim of your own success," adds Bryan Cranston, who has won two Emmys for his serious "Breaking Bad" role but who spent six Emmy-free years on the comedy "Malcolm in the Middle." When that show ended, he recalls he was offered a lot of "derivative, silly dad" roles.

"It's up to the actor to get themselves out by carefully picking and choosing," he says. "The only real power we have as actors is to say 'yes' or 'no' and identify well-written material. I never want to be embarrassed by what I'm doing."

For each of his major roles, Cranston recalls having someone go to bat for him; first it was "Malcolm" executive producer Linwood Boomer, when word came down that executives might want to recast Cranston's Hal role after the pilot. With "Breaking," Cranston says, "I heard through the grapevine that the studio questioned whether the goofy dad from 'Malcolm' was the right choice. I was confident that the transition could be made, and Vince (Gilligan, "Breaking's" creator) spoke for me. That's a big leap of faith."

Richard Belzer of "Law & Order: SVU" can take credit for getting such actors as Robin Williams and Jerry Lewis to do guest roles on the show, and even without his support that series has become a haven for comedic actors who want a quick, dramatic turn.

"It's just semantics," Belzer says. "I'm an actor. I'm a comedian. I do what I need to to pay my mortgages. It's just another skill, another element to draw on."
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