Special Report

TV Stars Who Made a Successful Jump to Movies

Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images

We appear to be in a golden age for series television — even if the majority of the most critically acclaimed shows aren’t on conventional TV at all, but are offered by streaming services that can be accessed from computers and mobile devices as well as actual TV sets.

Given the quality of so many shows these days, it’s hardly surprising that movie stars on the order of Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Helen Mirren, Matthew McConaughey, and Don Cheadle have gravitated to the small screen in recent years.

Traditionally, however, it worked the other way: Many actors and actresses who gained fame in films got their start in TV series, then made the jump to movies. In fact, some, like Steve Carrell and Jennifer Aniston, will probably always be best-known for their iconic television roles (in “The Office” and “Friends,” respectively), no matter how many movies they star in. (These are the longest-running prime time shows in history.)

To assemble a list of TV stars who made the jump to movies, 24/7 Tempo reviewed credits for scores of prominent actors and actresses on IMDb, an online movie database owned by Amazon. Only performers whose first major acting credit was on a TV show or TV movie were selected, though some of them may have had uncredited or very minor roles in films before gaining prominence on television.

Click here to see the TV stars who made the jump to movies

Because they played numerous characters instead of one major role, the countless actors and actresses who went on to movie stardom after stints as regulars on “Saturday Night Live” have been omitted from the list. But see our list of the SNL cast members with the most successful movie careers.

Source: Rich Fury / Getty Images

1. Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt’s acting credits are numerous but several of his early roles were small parts in TV series in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Before he starred in movies like “Fight Club” and “Inglorious Bаsterds,” he made brief appearances on such TV shows as “Dallas,” “21 Jump Street,” and “Growing Pains.” At the same time, he took small uncredited roles in several films before his breakout role in “Thelma & Louise” in 1991.


Source: Courtesy of American Broadcasting Company

2. Bruce Willis

Before the “Die Hard” series, “6th Sense,” and many, many others, Bruce Willis played brief parts in the TV shows “Miami Vice” and “The Twilight Zone” and starred in “Moonlighting” with Cybill Shepherd. Willis has continued to work hard over the years, pumping out movies even to this day; currently, he has nearly 10 films in post-production.

Source: Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

3. Diego Luna

The Mexican actor got his start in several Spanish language TV shows in the early 90s. He eventually transitioned to the big screen and started to make movies in both Spanish and English. Luna played important roles in the films “Milk, “The Terminal,” and “Rogue One,” and established a film production company in Mexico. More recently, he returned to television, starring in “Narcos: Mexico” as real-life drug lord Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo.

Source: Scott Barbour / Getty Images

4. Goldie Hawn

Born in 1945, Goldie Hawn got her start in the late 1960s on the show “Good Morning World.” She then rose to fame on NBC sketch comedy show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” where she held a role from 1968 to 1970. During this time her career in film started to take off and she captured an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1969’s “Cactus Flower,” co-starring with Walter Matthau and Ingrid Bergman. She went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars for several decades.


Source: Jason Kempin / Getty Images

5. Jamie Foxx

Jamie Fox began his acting career on sketch comedy show “In Living Color.” He stayed on from 1991 until 1994 and then created his own sitcom, “The Jamie Foxx Show.” The show ran from 1996 to 2001 and received high ratings from critics. Foxx first moved to the big screen with a role in “Toys” (1992), later earning an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for “Collateral” and winning an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Ray Charles in “Ray.”

Source: Kevin Winter / Getty Images

6. Jared Leto

Jared Leto’s acting career began on the TV series “My So-Called Life” in 1994. He quickly moved to film, debuting in “How to Make an American Quilt” in 1995. Since then, he has acted in numerous films, including critically acclaimed performances in “Requiem for a Dream” and “Dallas Buyers Club” and the lead role in the forthcoming sci-fi film “Morbius.” Leto also founded the band 30 Seconds to Mars with his older brother Shannon Leto.


Source: Mike Windle / Getty Images

7. Jennifer Aniston

Jennifer Aniston is the daughter of actors John Aniston and Nancy Dow. She rose to fame with her portrayal of Rachel in hit series “Friends” and from there moved to the big screen. “Friends” remains probably her most iconic and hit role, but she also acted in “Office Space,” “Bruce Almighty,” “Marley & Me,” and more. Aniston continues to stay active and currently produces and stars in “The Morning Show” on Apple TV+.

Source: Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images

8. Jim Carrey

Funny guy Jim Carrey also got his start on “In Living Color.” He became a star in the ’90s, known for over-the-top slapstick comedy in films like “Ace Venture: Pet Detective,” “The Mask” and “Dumb and Dumber.” Carrey has also made classic movies like “The Truman Show” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” straying from goofy comedy into more serious territory.

Source: Courtesy of National Broadcasting Company

9. John Krasinski

Like Jennifer Aniston, John Krasinski will probably always remain best-known for the TV role that made him famous. Krasinski rocketed to fame playing Jim Halper on megahit sitcom “The Office.” Since then, he has managed to break out and act in other genres besides comedy. He co-wrote, directed, and starred in “A Quiet Place” which turned out to be a success critically and commercially. He has also returned to television but this time as an action star in Amazon’s Jack Ryan series.


Source: Christopher Polk / Getty Images

10. John Travolta

John Travolta got his start on ’70s TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter.” He then acted in several iconic movies of the period, including “Carrie,” “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease.” His career slowed down in the ’80s but was given new life with his role in “Pulp Fiction” in 1994. He’d go on to star in several more hits in the ’90s and ’00s and win an Oscar for his performance in “Get Shorty.”

Source: Rich Fury / Getty Images

11. Joseph Gordon-Levitt

JGL got his career started with several small roles as a kid in shows like “Family Ties,” “Dark Shadows,” and “The Powers that Be.” He began to act in movies and won a Young Artist Award for his role in “Angels in the Outfield” in 1994. After some success on the big screen, he returned to television and played the role of Tommy Solomon on “3rd Rock from the Sun” from 1996 to 2001. Since then, he has appeared in tons of movies, some big-name blockbusters, and other smaller indie films.


Source: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

12. Leonardo DiCaprio

Young Leo acted briefly in a range of series and shorts until finding a recurring role on “Parenthood” in 1990 and “Growing Pains” in 1991. He then made the leap to film in “This Boy’s Life” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” both released in 1993. DiCaprio has gone on to have one of the most prolific careers in Hollywood and is still acting in some of the biggest movies 30 years later, including “Inception,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood.” He is currently collaborating with Martin Scorsese on a TV adaptation of the best-selling historical crime book “The Devil in the White City” for Hulu.

Source: Andreas Rentz / Getty Images for Paramount Pictures International

13. Megan Fox

Megan Fox got her start in television on the series “Ocean Ave.” in 2002. She continued with other brief roles on TV shows until playing a leading part in “Hope & Faith” from 2004 to 2006. From there her career went nuclear when she landed a starring role in the first “Transformers” movie. She stayed with the Transformers series and starred in her own hit movie “Jennifer’s Body” in 2009. She returned to television for some episodes of “New Girl” in 2016.

Source: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

14. Melissa McCarthy

McCarthy first came into the spotlight for her role as Sookie St. James in hit show “Gilmore Girls” from 2000 to 2007. She continued playing TV roles until transitioning to movies in the 2010s. She received critical and commercial acclaim after starring in “Bridesmaids” in 2011 and has gone on to act in a number of other movies. McCarthy also founded a production company with her husband, actor Ben Falcone .


Source: Jason Merritt / Getty Images

15. Michael J. Fox

The “Back to the Future” star got his start as Alex P. Keaton on sitcom “Family Ties.” After the massive success of the “Back to the Future” trilogy, he continued to be in movies in the ’90s. He also returned to television, starring in the series “Spin City” from 1996 to 2000. In 1998, Fox announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but continued to act in smaller roles over the years. He officially retired from acting in 2020.

Source: Andreas Rentz / Getty Images

16. Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams got her start playing a leading role in “Dawson’s Creek” from 1998 to 2003. From there she moved to the big screen and has appeared in several movies, many with dark themes. She starred in “Blue Valentine” and “My Week with Marilyn” and has acted in numerous smaller roles in films like “Manchester by the Sea” and “Shutter Island.” Williams also starred in a number of Broadway shows and was nominated for a Tony Award.


Source: Christopher Polk / Getty Images

17. Olivia Wilde

Olivia Wilde started in TV series “Skin” in 2003 and then moved to hit series “The O.C.” in 2004. She later appeared in “The Black Donnellys” in 2007 and joined the cast of “House” in 2007. From there she began getting roles in movies like “Tron: Legacy” and “Cowboys and Aliens,” but has continued to hop between movies and television. In 2019 she directed her first film, “Booksmart,” winning an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.

Source: Courtesy of American Broadcasting Company

18. Robin Williams

Robin Williams got his start as an actor and comic in the late ’70s on “The Richard Pryor Show” and “Laugh-In,” and went on to star in “Mork & Mindy.” He first starred in a film in 1980 playing the title role in “Popeye.” Before his untimely death in 2014, he won acclaim for appearing in such classic films as “Good Will Hunting,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Dead Poets Society,” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Source: Christopher Polk / Getty Images

19. Ryan Gosling

Canadian Ryan Gosling began his career as a kid on Disney’s “The Mickey Mouse Club,” appearing from 1993 to 1995. He also played roles in TV shows “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and “Goosebumps” in the ’90s. By the early 2000s he had transitioned to film and starred in several indie movies. His big break came in 2004 with “The Notebook” and he has continued to act in both indie films and blockbusters like “Blade Runner 2049.”.


Source: Courtesy of American Broadcasting Company

20. Sally Field

Sally Field began her acting career in television in the 1960s. She starred in “Gidget,” “The Flying Nun,” “The Girl with Something Extra.” During the same decade she also began to appear in movies but her big roles didn’t come until the mid-’70s with appearances in “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Heroes,” and “Hooper.” She won the Best Actress Oscar twice, for “Norma Rae” (1979) and “Places in the Heart” (1984)

Source: Courtesy of National Broadcasting Company

21. Seth Rogen

Seth Rogen started out as a stand-up comedian in Canada and began his acting and writing career with the American teen comedy series “Freaks and Geeks.” His first movie role was actually a small part as a bully in “Donnie Darko” in 2001. Since then, he has co-written and starred in several comedies including “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express.” Rogen has also taken more serious parts, like playing Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in 2015’s “Steve Jobs” biopic.


Source: Kris Connor / Getty Images

22. Shia LaBeouf

Shia LaBeouf started out as a child actor, first rocketing to fame starring as Louis Stevens on Disney’s “Even Stevens” in the early 2000s. He reestablished himself as more than a Disney Channel actor starring in both “Disturbia” and “Transformers” in 2007. Shia has strayed away from the blockbuster hits more recently and even wrote his own film, “Honey Boy.”

Source: Emma McIntyre / Getty Images

23. Steve Carell

Steve Carell’s most iconic character is certainly Michael Scott from “The Office,” a part he played from 2005 to 2013 — but he first gained prominence as a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” from 1999 to 2005. Over the years he has mostly played notable comic roles in films like “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and “Evan Almighty,” but also taken on some more serious ones, including parts in “Foxcatcher” and “Vice.” Back on the small screen, he was nominated for an Emmy for his role in “The Morning Show” on Apple TV+.

Source: Courtesy of American Broadcasting Company

24. Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks, who has appeared in some of the biggest movies of the last 40 years, got his first major role on 1980s TV show “Bosom Buddies.” From there he played more minor roles until winning a starring role in “Splash” in 1984. He went on to anchor such movies as “Big” and “A League of Their Own,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Forrest Gump,” “Captain Phillips,” and many, many more, picking up two Best Actor Oscars.


Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution

25. Will Smith

Will Smith started out as a rapper in the 1980s called the Fresh Prince. His music did modestly well but when he began starring in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” his popularity went through the roof. After the show ended, he moved up to leading blockbuster films in the mid-90s and beyond. Some of his biggest early hits were “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.” Smith has proven to be a prolific actor and has more movies on the way.

Source: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

26. Woody Harrelson

Harrelson has played in funny movies, serious movies, and everything in between. He’s known for iconic roles in “Natural Born Killers,” “White Men Can’t Jump,” and “The People vs. Larry Flint,” among others. His first big part came as a star of the TV series “Cheers,” joining the cast after Nicholas Colasanto passed away suddenly from a heart attack. He appeared in 200 episodes from 1985-1993 and then transitioned to the big screen — returning to TV for the harrowing first season of “True Detective,” on which he delivered a terrific performance of a volatile police officer chasing a serial killer.

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