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"Every comedian wants to play Hamlet."
Showbiz proverb

The casting opposite of Leslie Nielsen Syndrome. It's a story found time and time again: a successful comedian, usually a film actor, suddenly tries to play against type and stars in a big, heavily dramatic movie, playing a dramatic role and generally acting all dramatic. Oddly enough, this shift has a pretty high chance of actually working, and becoming a permanent shift in the actor's roles.

Why does this happen so often? Well, As You Know, True Art Is Angsty. Many comic performers begin to feel they cannot get the acclaim and respect their dramatic counterparts do unless they start doing "serious" films. In addition, comedic films almost never win Oscars, leading stars to resort to using bait. It's instructive that most examples are film stars, since television's Emmys have separate categories for comedy and drama.

In addition, comedy is more difficult than drama for actors. A mediocre performance is much more readable/watchable in a drama than in a comedy, because once comedy starts to fall apart, it's very hard to pull it back together again. Hence, a really good comic actor usually has the talent - the knowledge of their body, of timing, of the effects of subtle gestures - that can serve to make them brilliant at serious works as well. In some cases, when an actor does this long enough and successfully enough, they can become better known as a dramatic actor than a comedic one (just look at the Trope Namer).

Compare Cerebus Syndrome, where a series does this rather than an actor. As the examples below show, this doesn't always work well, but when the actor in question manages to do a really good job, it can lead to a surprised reaction: He Really Can Act! Contrast Leslie Nielsen Syndrome, where a successful drama actor becomes an equally successful comedian. Can be related to Comedy Ghetto.

When including examples, don't add Natter saying they weren't funny in the first place. We all know about Chevy Chase already, God bless him.

Examples of Tom Hanks Syndrome include:


Specific Examples

  • Tom Hanks first rose to fame with a series of comedies in the 1980s. Then, in 1993, he won critical praise and a Best Actor Oscar for his dramatic turn in Philadelphia; the following year he won again for Forrest Gump. Since then his stock in trade has largely been in dramatic roles with a comedic bent. The trope was hilariously Lampshaded in Real Life on his Inside The Actors Studio appearance when he spent 45 minutes discussing his art, only for a fan to gush that Turner And Hooch was her favorite movie ever!!! during the Q&A period. During a "Year In Review" for 2009, MSN stated how much they miss the funny Tom Hanks.
  • Adam Sandler was first known for his run on Saturday Night Live and early comedies. His comic persona relied on flipping rapidly between "raging asshole" and "The Woobie." When Paul Thomas Anderson wrote Punch Drunk Love to capitalize on this dichotomy in a dramatic way, critics hailed Sandler as a breakout dramatic star, and the dramatic content of his roles has increased ever since.
  • Alan Arkin was one of the founding members of Second City before playing a sadistic villain in Wait Until Dark.
  • Anne Hathaway, another Disney veteran, successfully made the jump from The Princess Diaries, Hoodwinked and Ella Enchanted to Rachel Getting Married, Becoming Jane, Havoc, Brokeback Mountain, and The Devil Wears Prada. She has slightly returned to Disney with Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland remake as the White Queen. She has also performed as Viola in Twelfth Night with the New York Shakespeare Festival in 2009 in Central Park, almost a literal example of the above quote.
  • Anthony Anderson is starting down this road as well. First in straight comedies, then comic relief in action flicks, and most recently, he's been doing work as a cop on K-Ville and Law and Order, and as a villain on The Shield.
  • Ashton Kutcher gained big fame for playing the resident ditz, Michael Kelso, on That 70s Show. During his run on the show, he was also known for other roles such as one of the leads in Dude, Where's My Car? and Punk'd. His career took a turn so sharp it got whiplash when he starred in The Butterfly Effect, a psychological thriller, then followed it up in 2006 with the noticeably more light-hearted, but still quite dramatic The Guardian. Since then, however he has mostly returned to comedy.
  • Bill Murray first attempted it early in his career with The Razor's Edge, but quickly returned to comedy when the film was a critical and financial disaster. He tried again later with dramedies, first Rushmore, then his Oscar-nominated turn in Lost in Translation and later in Broken Flowers and The Lost City.
    • His SNL castmate Dan Aykroyd has had less success with this.
      • Not really -- Aykroyd nabbed an Oscar nomination for his role in the 1989 light drama Driving Miss Daisy (as Jessica Tandy's character's son) and he successfully pulled off his role in another light drama, 1991's My Girl.
  • Another British example is Bill Oddie, formerly one third of The Goodies, was also a member of the Cambridge Footlights. Now he's known for presenting Springwatch and other nature shows.
  • Bryan Cranston. Neurotic, bumbling father. High school chemistry teacher and methamphetamine cook.
  • Chris Farley of Saturday Night Live fame, after playing the fatty for laughs for several years, was itching to try dramatic work -- he was even having talks with co-star Vince Vaughn on a biopic film in which he'd star as Fatty Arbuckle, but as most of us know, things didn't work out that way for him.
  • Dave Gorman attempted to do this by writing a book. Hilarity Ensued.
  • Multiple Oscar winner and A-list actor Denzel Washington got his first Hollywoood gig in 1981 racial comedy Carbon Copy.
  • Prior to playing Philip Marlowe in the 1944 film Murder My Sweet, Dick Powell was best known for starring in lightweight musicals. Indeed, the film was originally named Farewell, My Lovely, but was changed so that it would sound less like a musical. Because of his success in this role he played several more such roles and became better known for them than for he had been for his musical roles.
  • Filipino "King of Comedy" Dolphy has been doing this way before Tom Hanks with roles in "Gigolo" in 1956, and as a gay character in the comedy-drama "Facifica Falayfay". It has been noticed that through his experience in starring in different mediums of entertainment, he was granted the insight of how a comedian can use his strengths to play various characters and how malleable emotions can be when you have to find different ways of cracking jokes to be filled with as much zest as when it was first shown.
  • In many 90's films, you can see Ed O'Neill trying to squeeze himself in the cast as Cop #1 or Cop #2. He'll usually have only one line or two, and only when the closeup comes you'll go "Hey, It's That Guy!!". He probably wanted a dramatic cop-show role or something, which he got on the short-lived LA Dragnet. Looks like some of Al Bundy's hell has rubbed on the actor. He did land the role of Governor of Pennsylvania, but that was on The West Wing, where he was a failed Democratic presidential hopeful.
    • To be fair, while the transition has been hard, he's been critically acclaimed in all his performances. He now has a leading role on Modern Family. It's a family sitcom again, but they're happy and he's successful. It's like the anti-Bundy.
      • His first post-Married With Chidren role was playing Relish the Troll King in The Tenth Kingdom. So we can't say he's afraid to try new things.
    • He had a key role as an investigative reporter in the sports drama Blue Chips.
      • And Angelina Jolie's boss as well as Da Chief in The Bone Collector.
  • Starting his career as a street busker, Eddie Izzard always maintained that his ambition was to be an actor, not a comedian, but it was his stand-up comedy that first opened the doors to stardom. Since that time, he has begun taking more dramatic roles, such as starring in The Riches and playing resistance fighter Erich Fellgiebel in Valkyrie.
  • Eric Bana got his start as a stand-up comedian, with appearances on Full Frontal and his own show Eric, and has a small role in The Castle before playing notorious criminal Chopper Read in Chopper and became better known for serious roles.
    • Averted for American audiences; he didn't gain fame in the United States until Hulk and Troy came out, so many had no idea that he was a comedian in the first place.
  • Fred MacMurray was mostly known for comic roles until Billy Wilder cast him against type in Double Indemnity and The Apartment. MacMurray reckoned these were his best performances.
  • Onetime Talk Soup host Greg Kinnear has trended more towards serious film roles, including murdered comic Bob Crane as a troubled sex addict in Autofocus. Even in Little Miss Sunshine he was somewhat pathological. He has always retained his comedic edge, however. He hilariously spoofed his Oscar-nominated performance in As Good As It Gets on David Letterman by claiming he lost the actual Oscar win because of a breakfast scene where he "uses the wrong hand" to eat his breakfast. If he had used the other hand, he would have won.
  • From Fred Stone's dramatic performance in Alice Adams (though not in a starring role), one might not suspect that he had been famous for starring in a long series of musical extravaganzas (a forgotten genre of shows very similar to English pantomimes), starting with the 1903 production of The Wizard of Oz, in which he played the Scarecrow.
  • Ginger Rogers tried to remake herself in the 1940s as a serious actress. Her 1940s dramatic roles are largely ignored today, including Kitty Foyle, for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress.
  • Hilary "Lizzie McGuire" Duff seems to be trying her hand at this. After the show ended, she was type-cast in her typical tween-appealing roles before venturing for slightly more dramatic territory in Raise Your Voice and The Perfect Man (the latter somewhat less serious than the former). In both cases, it backfired when the films bombed at the box office and critics slammed not only the films, but also her performance. Whether or not her latest attempts with the Bonnie and Clyde re-make will be successful has yet to be known.
    • Well, the Bonnie and Clyde remake is out now that Hilary Duff is pregnant, which means great news for original Bonnie portrayer Faye Dunaway, who made it perfectly clear that it would be over her dead body that Duff play the role for which Dunaway became famous.
  • Hugh Laurie was not only a member of the legendary Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Group but served as its president, then went on to great comedic success in shows like Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster and A Bit of Fry and Laurie, among other projects. Outside of Britain, however, most audiences first became aware of him in the dramatic medical series House, though he puts his comic delivery to good use for the character's razor-sharp wit.
  • Jack Black, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly sang this number about their plight at the 2006 Oscars.
  • Jackie Gleason, famous from The Honeymooners gave a widely acclaimed performance in the drama The Hustler, and was nominated for an Oscar. He was also praised for Requiem for a Heavyweight.
  • Jamie Foxx got his start on In Living Color and was best known for his comedic film roles, though he also had several dramatic supporting roles as well. Then in 2003, he starred in the very successful Collateral and followed up with an Oscar-winning role in Ray, turning him into a bona-fide dramatic movie star.
  • Jerry Lewis appeared in Wiseguy as rag trade businessman Eli Sternberg in the "Garment Industry" story arc. Before that, he appeared in the infamous Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried, which was never released. He did better in Martin Scorsese's The King Of Comedy, in a part which was less of a stretch for him. He also Adam Wested his own deteriorating mental state in what was debatedly the best episode of Law and Order Special Victims Unit.
  • Jim Carrey began his career in a variety of small roles, but rose to fame as a comedic actor in In Living Color before breaking out in Ace Ventura as a spastic clown. He went on to a variety of other comedic roles before earnestly pursuing Oscar Bait such as The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though he always kept his comic edge. He lampshaded the trope in his first Golden Globe acceptance speech:

 Wow...it's gonna be so hard to talk out of my ass after this. (audience laughter) But I'll manage.

  • John C Reilly did an inverse of this trope. He was known for having a long career of acclaimed supporting roles in serious films, but was also known for being too unattractive to be a leading man. He found a way around this by starting a successful comedy career, first in Talladega Nights and later in such films as Step Brothers and Walk Hard.
  • Early in his career, John Cho was an inversion: a would-be dramatic actor who ended up making his name as the MILF Guy in American Pie, the wacky friend Chau in Off Centre, and most famously one half of Harold and Kumar. He's since stated he deliberately took comedic roles to avoid the "model minority" roles typically given to Asian American actors. But he's recently played this trope straight by transitioning into action/drama roles with Star Trek and FlashForward.
  • Jonathan Demme used to do comedies in the 80's, such as Melvin And Howard and Married to the Mob before moving on the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. Did Tom Hanks learn something from Demme?
    • Maybe Demme learned from Martin Brest. Brest hit big with the 80's landmark comedy Beverly Hills Cop with Eddie Murphy. He then got an Oscar nomination in 1992 for Scent of a Woman with Al Pacino.
    • Demme started out by subverting the Women In Prison films he made for Roger Corman, raising their standard by introducing intelligent and artistic elements. These weren't comedies, but were far from what would be considered "serious". Caged Heat actually has quite a bit in common with Silence of the Lambs: a thriller with strong feminist overtones, that features a prison break and an apparent distrust of the medical establishment.
  • Joss Whedon likes to cast according to this trope; his justification is that it's harder to be convincingly funny than it is to be convincingly un-funny.
  • Kal Penn also rose to fame through Harold and Kumar as well, but has largely put aside comedy roles as a popular supporting character on House ( before they Dropped a Bridge on Him). He has followed up with some puzzling choices, like playing a random Mook in Superman Returns and briefly working for the Obama Administration.
  • Keanu Reeves was mostly known for playing Theodore "Ted" Logan before 1995. Nobody, and I mean nobody saw his future as an action star in films such as Speed, The Matrix, and Constantine coming.
  • The career of the Turkish actor Kemal Sunal was an evolving version of this trope. He started in the 1970s, playing the Butt Monkey Idiot Hero. Over the years, his characters became less idiotic and more Skilled but Naive. By the time the 1990s arrived, his characters were downright tragic and his films less lighthearted in tone. His last film was supposed to continue this trend but he died just before filming started.
  • Stand up comedian and actor Kevin Pollak has several comedy movies and shows under his belt, but the roles he is perhaps best known for are as Lt. Weinberg in the suspenseful drama A Few Good Men, and Todd Hockney in thriller The Usual Suspects.
    • He has arguably come full circle since then, appearing in The Whole Nine Yards and its less-successful sequel The Whole Ten Yards amongst others.
  • Arguably Lee Evans, a madcap comedian known for his physical humor and over the top routines. He has had several parts in movies such as There's Something About Mary, The Fifth Element and Mousehunt, where he continued to use his energetic, wacky performance. Then in 2004 he played the role of a paranoid conspiracy theorist and murderer in the Psychological Thriller Freeze Frame. Also in 2004, his performance of Clov (opposite Michael Gambon as Hamm) in Matthew Warchus's production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame was critically well received.
  • Leonardo DiCaprio. Before Oscar nominations and critical acclaim in stuff like Titanic, Inception, The Departed, and The Aviator, he had a recurring role on Growing Pains.
    • Just after Growing Pains he did "This Boy's Life" with Robert De Niro. It's a movie about an abusive step-father. That was his ticket to serious movie roles. Titanic was just the block buster.
  • Lindsay Lohan keeps trying to break away from her Disney-built friendly image into more serious roles, mainly it seems with straight-to-DVD showings, but no one is buying.
  • Marilyn Monroe tried this because in real life people only saw her as the dumb blonde persona she was constantly cast as. Didn't quite work out.
    • Her earlier starring roles tended to be in films that were not just serious, but rather dark, as in Niagara and Don't Bother to Knock. The Ditz came later.
  • Comediennes Mary Lynn Rajskub and Camryn Manheim are best known for their dramatic roles in 24 and The Practice, respectively.
  • Matthew McConaughey is something of an inverter. He was in fairly serious films such as A Time to Kill, Amistad, and Contact, before cementing himself as the go-to leading man for romantic comedies and Shirtless Scenes. He has tried being an action star is films like Sahara and Fools Gold, but those were leavened with comedy and romance too.
  • Max Wall was a famous music hall (vaudeville) comedian and dancer who later in his life became a leading interpreter of Samuel Beckett's plays. Not totally surprising because Beckett's plays, despite their nihilistic absurdity, were influenced by music hall comedy.
  • Mel Brooks himself is an example of this trope through his work as a producer. Famous for comedy classics such as Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, Brooks has produced serious drama films such as 84 Charing Cross Road, The Elephant Man and The Fly.
  • Michael Crawford, once known for the BBC comedy Some Mother Do 'Ave 'Em, made a complete turnaround playing the very serious and sexual Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera.
  • Michael Keaton began as a comedic actor, and raised an outcry when he was cast as the action hero Batman. Since then, he's stuck to mostly comedy roles, but has played darker roles, such as a serial killer in Desperate Measures and a recovering alcoholic in Clean And Sober.
  • Michael Palin went from Monty Python to a series of travelogues, Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole, though his funnyman persona in exotic locales was part of the appeal. He also played a persecuted, mentally fragile headmaster (of a school for children with mental problems, no less) in Alan Bleasdale's dark semi-political TV drama GBH.
  • Hannah Montana- Oops, I mean Miley Cyrus, is trying to do this with her latest project, a film written by Nicholas Sparks (think The Notebook and A Walk To Remember). Plus, she's specifically said she wants to do "serious" movies.
  • Patton Oswalt in Big Fan.
  • Peter Sellers largely averted this. Of his 50+ films, his dramatic leads were all in small-scale British-made efforts: Never Let Go, Hoffman, The Optimists, and The Blockhouse. After Never Let Go (an outright villainous role) flopped, he never tried so blatantly again to defy his comic reputation; he did the other films during a career slump. Some of his other films, such as Lolita and Being There, do incorporate dramatic elements (especially the former). He managed two Best Actor Oscar nominations over his career, for Dr. Strangelove and Being There, but never won. In any case, he never stopped doing straight comedy (until he died, of course).
  • Red Buttons was an early role model for this. He started out as one of the most popular Borscht Belt comedians, then won an Oscar for a serious role in Sayonara, then mostly did drama for the rest of his career.
  • Rick Moranis did this once for the action-packed Streets of Fire, but he hated his experience doing the movie because he wasn't allowed to improvise, so he goes back to doing funny movies. However, 5 years later, he did appear in the hilarious and heartwarming dramedy Parenthood with Steve Martin.
  • Robbie Coltrane was primarily known as a comedic actor-- until his work as the title character in the original British version of Cracker cemented him as an actor. Now, you'll see him in everything from Goldeneye to From Hell to the Harry Potter films as half-giant Rubeus Hagrid-- a character J.K. Rowling says was based on Coltrane's likeness. Add to that various documentaries on ITV focusing on his love of travel and means there of-- yes, he really can act. And inform.
  • Although Robin Williams went to Juliard for four years and trained with John Houseman, he became famous as a high-energy clown, first starting in Mork and Mindy. He started turning his comedic talents toward more dramatic subjects in Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society, to critical acclaim and an Oscar win for Good Will Hunting. Since then, he freely bounces between straight comedies, dramedies, and outright dark dramatic roles such as Insomnia and One Hour Photo. He claimed to never want to do a "funny" movie again after Patch Adams, but that didn't last, either.
  • Roy Hudd, a British comedian best known for his radio work, went on to do dark and seedy performances in Dennis Potter dramas.
  • Sean Penn's earliest acting consisted of mostly comedic roles such as Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High but afterwards his career took a dramatic turn starting with the film Bad Boys.
  • In an aversion to the trope, Steve Martin has peppered his career with dramatic roles as early as his second starring role, in 1981's Pennies From Heaven, but has always focused on comedy.
  • Directing example: Steven Spielberg. Before 1993, people asked, "what the hell is the director of lighthearted family films and popcorn blockbusters doing making a dark drama about the Holocaust?" And then, just to prove that Schindler's List wasn't a fluke, he went and made Saving Private Ryan. Sure, he still makes lighthearted family films and popcorn blockbusters, but those two movies established him as an auteur who could also do "serious" films.
  • Takeshi Kitano was first known as a comedian. He went on to appear in a number of dramatic films playing Badass yakuza characters and became a sort of Japanese Charles Bronson, though he occasionally inserted dark comedy into his roles. Western audiences who were first exposed to his yakuza films were quite surprised to see him in old reruns of the loopy game show Takeshi's Castle.
  • Terry Gilliam started off doing comedies such as Time Bandits and Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Gradually, starting with Brazil, he went into darker territory with movies such as 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
  • Monty Python alum Terry Jones is a noted history enthusiast. He's hosted a compelling three-part documentary series called The Crusades, about, well, the Crusades. Like his compatriot Palin, his sense of humor makes the subject matter more entertaining. At one point he compares the original cult of Assassins to the Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch "Kamikaze Highlanders". He also attempted to stage an interview with a goose, supposedly the direct descendant of a divinely inspired goose that served as the mascot for a crusader band. The really sad part is, that divinely inspired goose actually existed.
  • Will Ferrell branched out to more dramatic roles, such as Stranger Than Fiction and Winter Passing, but has continued to focus on comedy.
    • It turns out he's a brilliant actor, he's just been brilliantly acting unlikeable doucheknuckles for years.
  • Will Smith was first known for his humorous rapping and as a sitcom star in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. After Bad Boys paired him with fellow comedian Martin Lawrence as action heroes, Smith continued his action turn in the blockbuster Independence Day, cementing him as a full-fledged movie star able to do action, comedy, and romance. The Pursuit of Happyness and Seven Pounds added drama to the repetoire. 1993's Six Degrees of Seperation was critically accalimed and earned an Oscar nod.
    • In a double subversion, Smith's earliest critical praise for a dramatic role came before Bad Boys and Independence Day, but it's not exactly what he's remembered for.
  • Woody Allen. Before Annie Hall, he made slapstick comedies. After, he started with Interiors and went from there. Even Lampshaded in Stardust Memories when an alien (voiced by Allen, no less!) tells the Author Avatar of Allen to stop making serious films and just tell jokes. Until 2000, even his "comedies" were laced with seriousness, like Hannah and Her Sisters. Allen started making out-and-out comedies again with films like Small Time Crooks.
  • Double subverted with Kate Hudson. Previously known for light-hearted romantic comedies such as Raising Helen (though that did have a bit of drama) and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days she took up a role completely against type in The Skeleton Key but she returned to comedies after that.
  • Bruce Willis started off as a comedic actor in shows such as Moonlighting and movies like Blind Date. The studio fought the decision to have him star in the first Die Hard flick since they were sure a comedic actor could never play an action hero. He finally got the part and soon became one of America's most famous action stars.
    • And then proved in The Sixth Sense that he could handle non-action dramatic roles just as well.


General Examples

  • Several Hongkong actors have moved on from otherwise lighthearted comedies to full-blown critical acclaim in this manner. Case in point, the two leads of Infernal Affairs, Tony Leung and Andy Lau - both even co-starred in a '70s period dramedy, "The Royal Tramp", and Andy's Guiness Record for starring in the most movies was a direct result of padding his resume with dozens of comedic roles. Recently, one such actor, Alfred Cheung, who made his name as the Plucky Comic Relief, even won an award for his first serious role.
    • It should be noted here that Andy and Tony first got into show business as part of a Five-Man Band of teen idols, while Alfred... let's just say he's got the Plucky Comic Relief look down pat.
  • Tom Hanks Syndrome is parodied in Tropic Thunder by Jack Black and Ben Stiller's characters, Jeff Portnoy and Tug Speedman respectively. Jeff is a comedic actor trying to get out of his typecasting through a more serious role, and Tug is an action star who'd previously starred in a dramatic Oscar Bait bomb.
  • Many of the best-known actors from Spanish 60's comedies (José Luis López Vázquez, Alfredo Landa, Concha Velasco, José Sacristan et al.) started sweeping awards and praise when they played breakthrough dramatic roles in the 70's, with audiences not having noticed until then they were pretty good actors.
  • This went as far back as the movie Show People about a silent film actress who wanted to be taken seriously but instead got her start as a comedienne.
  • Meta example: The classic movie To Be or Not to Be (both versions) is a dramedy about a comedian who wants to play Hamlet who is actually played by "a comedian who wants to play Hamlet"--Jack Benny in the original and Mel Brooks in the remake.
  • Referenced in Thirty Rock. Tracy is afraid of losing his youthful edge because "do you know what happens to a comedian when he gets old and loses his audience? He starts getting offered serious roles!"
    • Also parodied after Tracey wins an Oscar. He gets sick of being viewed as a serious actor and wants to be seen as a crazy comedian again, so he tries to lose the respect of the media. It backfires when all of his crazy antics are misinterpreted as insightful commentaries on society.
  • Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino, and Peter Lorre did stand-up comedy before launching their respective film careers.
  • Kevin Smith has penned an entire rant about the sequence in which actors/directors must do artsy, comic, and "money" films in order to maintain optimal popularity and funding while still being allowed to enjoy at least some of the roles or films they are involved in.
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