16 Comedic Actors Who Successfully Pulled Off Drama

Inside every clown, there is a man who wants nothing more than to be taken seriously. And maybe given an award for it.

Inside every clown, there is a man (or woman) who wants nothing more than to be taken seriously. And maybe given an award for it.

Photo Courtesy of Columbia Pictures| Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012
Despite some few notable exceptions (Kevin Kline, Marissa Tomei, Cuba Gooding Jr.), the Academy Awards tend to treat comedic performances the same way ESPN treats hockey. So if a comic actor really wants to get some recognition, they have to prove they have the chops to pull off a dramatic role. Here are some crying on the inside clowns who pulled it off.


Photo Courtesy of Columbia Pictures| Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012
Highlight: Punch Drunk Love
Honorable Mention: Reign Over Me, Spanglish
Even Happy Gilmore has tried his hand at drama, with at least one successful outing. He’s sensational as the repressed anger tornado in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, taking his usual manchild persona and making it tragic. In the other two movies? Eh….The effort is as commendable as the movie are unwatchable.


Highlight: Ray
Honorable Mention: The Soloist, Any Given Sunday, Collateral
Foxx has transitioned so well into drama that you almost forget he got his start dressing in drag on In Living Color. Next up, he’s going to play a badass bounty hunter in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, further putting to rest any hopes we had for Booty Call 2: Rise of Bunz.


Highlight: Casino
When you heard the words “Don Rickles” and “Las Vegas,” you were forgiven for expecting the bald comic to be on a stage with a microphone making fun of tourists’ shirts and wives – you were not, we suspect, prepared to see him as a pit boss under the watchful eye of Bobby DeNiro.


Highlight: Big Fan
Honorable Mention: Young Adult
On stage, Oswalt absolutely kills, which is why we found it odd that we did a lot more cringing than LOLing watching him play a creepily obsessed sports enthusiast in Big Fan. And Young Adult counts, too, since it was a black comedy and Patton’s role was again more (intentionally) cringey than hilarious.


Highlight: Valkyrie
Honorable Mention: The Riches, The Cat’s Meow, Shadow of the Vampire
The transvestite comic has shown some range, most notably playing a traitorous Nazi officer in cahoots with a one-eyed Tom Cruise in the Bryan Singer movie Valkyrie. And since no one bothered to watch The Riches, most people have no idea how good he was on that show, either. But he was. For reals. Don’t give us that look. We didn’t tell you to waste your time watching Rubicon.


Highlight: Moneyball
The fat kid from Superbad was up there rubbing elbows with the Pitt-Jolie’s at every award show, having proved he could handle himself in a movie that didn’t require him to say “pube salad” (unless there’s a deleted scene we don’t know about).


Highlight: Requiem for a Dream
Holy shit, Little Man. Where did this come from? Long known as one of the “lesser Wayanses,” Marlon took a real career detour when he played a smack addict in Darren Aronofsky’s nightmarish drug hootenanny. He may have parlayed it into six or seven Scary Movie appearances, but at least he had this moment.


Highlight: 24 Hour Party People
To us, he’ll always be Alan Partridge, but Coogan proved he could play a real life TV personality Tony Wilson (who was on the forefront of the Manchester music scene) completely straight, even if Wilson was slightly Partridge-y himself. And if you haven’t seen him skewer himself in the mock-doc The Trip, you should. (What? It’s a good movie. Not everything is a joke, you guys).


Highlight: Shattered Glass
Honorable Mention: Quiz Show
That was indeed the voice of Moe Szyslak playing grizzled real life New Republic editor Michael Kelly in the movie that remains the only good thing Hayden Christensen has ever done. (That’s right, we said it. The Star Wars prequels are bad. You heard it here for the 20,356th time). And yet we still must ask: If he’s playing a newspaper editor, why is he ripped? Is he always on the verge of auditioning for Conan: The Many-Voiced Warrior?


Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012
Highlight: Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Saphire
We’re man enough to admit to being scared shitless by Mo’Nique’s turn as a demonic Mombeast in Precious – as well as surprised, since nothing on her resume hinted that this was coming. She was in Broken Lizard’s Beerfest, for crying out loud.


Highlight: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Honorable Mention: Man on the Moon, The Truman Show, Doing Time on Maple Drive
Who knew In Living Color was secretly competing with the Royal Shakespeare Company as a dramatic actor farm team? Jim went from tugging on his butt cheeks to tugging on our heartstrings, and was so good in Spotless Mind that I bet you forgot Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo were in it, too, didn’t you?


Highlight: Lost in Translation
Honorable Mention: Broken Flowers, Get Low
Late period Bill Murray has seen him mellow into semi-comic, semi-dramatic roles and absolutely crush them. For his next trick, he’s actually going to be playing former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. We are a long way from Meatballs.


Photo Courtesy of FilmDistrict | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012
Highlight: Drive
Honorable Mention: Taxi Driver
You always knew Brooks could pull off drama because his comedy was so dry and deadpan that it wouldn’t require such a radical gear-shift. But we had no idea he could be intimidating until Drive. He managed to be unsettling even when sharing the screen with Ron Perlman, whom we’re still not convinced isn’t a shaved yeti. (Just joking, Mr. Hellboy. Please don’t crush us.)


Highlight: The Pursuit of Happyness
Honorable Mention: Ali, Six Degrees of Separation
Watching the once-Day-Glo-covered kid who rapped about how parents just don’t understand playing a homeless parent who understood all too well was jarring, to say the least. But the once Fresh Prince of Bel Air has a legit career now, where he can pinball between comedy and drama and even action flicks without anyone sneering (except Jazzy Jeff, who remains cripplingly jealous).


Highlight: Clean and Sober
Honorable Mention: Batman, My Life, One Good Cop
Despite appearing in stuff like Mr. Mom, Night Shift and Gung-Ho earlier in his career, Keaton always had the eyebrows of a dramatic actor. In the addiction-recovery drama Clean and Sober, his eyebrows finally found the right role battling his demons alongside drug counselor Morgan Freeman. And remember how batshit all the fanboys went when Tim Burton cast Beetlejuice as the Dark Knight? But he pulled it off.


Photo Courtesy of Miramax Films | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012
Highlight: Good Will Hunting
Honorable Mention: World’s Greatest Dad, Dead Poet’s Society, Awakenings, One Hour Photo, Insomnia
Williams remains the heavyweight champ of the comedy to drama transition. No one suspected the guy who used to bounce around the stage in a cocaine cloud would be sympathetic, heart-rending, or even blood-chilling. Go back and watch old Mork & Mindy episodes again and tell yourself, “this guy’s going to win an Oscar one day.” You won’t believe yourself. You’ll also return to an unrecognizable future because you interacted with your past self and tore the space-time continuum. But it’ll be worth it.