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10 Masterful Television Actors Who've Been Able to Transform Themselves After an Iconic Role

By Cindy Davis | Seriously Random Lists | December 19, 2013 | Comments ()


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By definition, it’s an actor’s job to become different people, so what’s the big deal when one succeeds? It depends, we say, upon just how well the wool is pulled over our eyes. There are plenty of excellent actors, Parenthood’s Peter Krause and Lauren Graham, for instance, who take on different roles that essentially feel like the same character with a slight twist. For these particular actors, we enjoy who they are and it’s really fine if they do some variation on Nate Fisher or Lorelei Gilmore the rest of their days. But let’s face it, no matter how good they are, Graham and Krause never fully stepped out of those iconic characters’ shoes. Conversely, there are actors who somehow manage to truly transform themselves in a way that makes us forget anything they ever did before. If you had told me I could ever stop seeing Edie Falco as Carmela Soprano, I’d have bet a (nonexistent) million it would never happen. And yet there she was—snarky, pill-popping Nurse Jackie, hopping premium channels and blowing away all my feeble expectations. (Meanwhile, Drea de Matteo changed almost nothing but her bad accent, going from The Sopranos’ Adriana to Sons of Anarchy’s Wendy.) Think it’s so easy? Look at the cast of Friends, Will & Grace, 24 or Seinfeld Some people might say Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ made the jump with Veep, but in Selena, I still see (a slightly sharper) Elaine.

Here are ten phenomenal actors who left an iconic role, then created another character so good, we forgot the first.


10. Neil Patrick Harris: Doogie Howser (Doogie Howser, M.D.) to Barney Stinson (How I Met Your Mother

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9. Michael C. Hall: David Fisher (Six Feet Under) to Dexter Morgan (Dexter)

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8. David Tennant: From The Doctor (Doctor Who) to Alec Hardy (Broadchurch)

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7. Idris Elba: Stringer Bell (The Wire to John Luther (Luther)

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6. Edie Falco: Carmela Soprano (The Sopranos) to Jackie Peyton (Nurse Jackie)

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5. Jimmy Smits: Victor Sifuentes (L.A. Law) to Bobby Simone (N.Y.P.D. Blue)…

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…to Matthew Santos (The West Wing) to Nero Padilla (Sons of Anarchy) ( with a little Miguel Prado in between)

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4. Kelsey Grammar: Frasier Crane (Cheers, Frasier) to Tom Kane (Boss)

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3. Katey Sagal: Peggy Bundy (Married with Children) to Gemma Teller Morrow (Sons of Anarchy)

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2. Elisabeth Moss: From Peggy Olson (Mad Men) to Robin Griffin (Top of the Lake)

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1. Bryan Cranston: Hal (Malcolm in the Middle) to Walter White Breaking Bad)

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Cindy Davis, (Twitter)







Are you following Pajiba on Facebook or Twitter? Every time you do, Bill Murray crashes a wedding.


Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • e jerry powell

    LEFT OUT TURANGA LEELA!

  • MissMuz

    Bryan Cranston FTMFW!

  • ClaraObscura

    Can I drop Thomas Gibson here (Dharma & Greg to Criminal Minds) or is everyone going to line up in lynch mode?

  • Debra Kessing

    I agree :)

  • emmettdigger

    So where is Chris Noth? He went from Mike Logan the hothead detective on Law and Order to Mr Big on Sex in the City to Peter Florick on The Good Wife. Now that I mention it, what about Julianna Margulies? She was Nurse Hathaway on ER and is now Alicia Florick on The Good Wife, arguably one of the best shows on right now.

  • bcarter3

    Pre-Golden Age TV:

    Laura Petrie > Mary Richards
    Perry Mason > Ironside > Perry Mason

    Pre-Golden Age TV > Golden Age TV:

    Hank Kingsley > George Bluth

    This sort of thing is much more common in the UK than it is in the USA. I'm convinced that at any given time, there are only ~50 working actors in the UK. and they all play multiple roles.

  • kirbyjay

    Wow! That's weird. I always said that I never thought of Mary Richards as Laura Petrie. They were two completely different people to me.

  • Lilith Square

    I really want to watch Broadchurch. I have an unslakeable lust for David Tenant that even that depression beard cannot quell. But. I actually have young children, which many parents will agree, tanks your tolerance for TV, books, and movies that include violence toward children, regardless of their quality. I watched that Torchwood miniseries "Children of Earth" when Thing 1 was a toddler and I was pregnant with Thing 2, and it gave me nightmares for months. MONTHS. I still haven't completely recovered. So every once in a while I think, "Hey, there's nothing else on, I heard the writing is brilliant, the acting is fantastic, and David Tennant wanders around in a rumpled suit." But I never pull the trigger because I want to sleep tonight. . . this month . . . EVER.

  • Dave Dorris

    Katey Sagal has aged incredibly well. Still a very beautiful woman.

  • Debra Kessing

    Jimmy Smits is an incredible actor. Had he played Nero in any show the awards people don't hate he would have walked in best supporting actor. That is all :)

  • LadyBuggy

    Is it odd that I never found Jimmy Smits very attractive until SoA?

  • ed newman

    Scott Baio----Chachi>Charles in Charge >Bob Loblaw

  • I think the most important thing about this list is...whether old-school 80s redhead or modernized badass biker chick, Katey Sagal still got it.

  • Art3mis

    Much as I love him, I have to take issue with the Idris Elba inclusion. Are those characters really all that different, if you leave off the accents? One's a criminal and one's a cop (...who also does criminal things), but otherwise I don't see a huge divide between them.

    How about Claire Danes? Angela to Carrie Matheson is quite a gulf. And while it's early for her new stuff, I'd nominate Allison Janney as well. The difference between CJ and BOTH of her new roles (Mom and Masters of Sex) is incredibly impressive.

  • BuffyloGal

    I kept scrolling and scrolling and thinking, "Fuck me, but where in the hell is Bryan Cranston?". Faith restored. He is amazing, and not just for his roller skating skills either.

  • Haystacks

    Dule Hill - from Charlie on The West Wing to Gus on Psych.

  • Guest

    Elisabeth Moss could start on The West Wing transformation list as well.

  • Three_nineteen

    Casey McCall isn't anything like Nate Fisher, but maybe people just don't remember Sports Night? I don't watch Parenthood so I can't comment on the difference between his characters there, but are they really alike? Because Nate Fisher was not that great a person.

    Speaking of Sports Night, Josh Charles going from Dan Rydell to Will Gardner is pretty great (with an amazing stop on In Treatment, but almost no one saw that show either)

  • Cree83

    Nate Fisher was the Worst Person. I have only seen the first 2 or three episodes of Parenthood, back when it first started, but I hope for the pretend sake of his pretend family that he's not much like Nate.

  • I remember Sports Night, but I still see Krause...always pretty, pretty Krause.

  • Art3mis

    I think Dan Rydell and Will Gardner are functionally identical, except for their professions--they're both snarky, kinda damaged commitment-phobes who semi-secretly have real emotions buried underneath.

  • Three_nineteen

    Ooh, and speaking of Six Feet Under, Jeremy Sisto went from Billy to, well, any other role he's had on TV, like Law and Order and Suburgatory.

  • Jiffylush

    Kidnapped!

    It was actually really good but only went one season and even then the last episodes were burned off at odd hours.

  • maja

    as for josh charles, haven't seen sports night (yet), but i agree with you for his "in treatment" to "the good wife" transition. fantastic. .

  • Pasqualie

    I can definitely see some Dexter in David Fisher.

  • ed newman

    I was ready to get the old dander up about Grammer's omission and then there he was high up on the list. You win this round, Davis.

  • snrp

    Elizabeth Moss from Zoey Bartlet to Peggy Olsen! HOW SOON WE FORGET; LIKE TEARS IN THE RAIN, etc.

  • maja

    hugh laurie in blackadder and later in house md.

  • BWeaves

    Don't forget Bertie Wooster.

  • maja

    oh, definitely.

  • Boss was such a gleefully enjoyable absurd show. So over the top, so much fun to watch. Shame it was cancelled.

  • John W

    I've never seen SoA yet, so the two most striking to me are Kramer to Boss (prematurely cancelled IMO) and Malcolm's dad to Heisenberg.

  • Untamed

    No list like this should neglect to mention the original Steve McQueen who was the first actor to jump from TV star to movie star. And you also seem to have forgotten George Clooney who was laughed at when he bowed out of ER but has left that show in his dust.

  • kirbyjay

    Steve McQueen, probably the coolest guy on the planet ( when he was alive) was not an actor. He was a movie star and he always played Steve McQueen. I'm not dissing him because he is in my all time top 5, but he had limited range and seldom put more than two sentences together. No one didn't want to watch Steve McQueen in his heyday.

  • kirbyjay

    Clint Eastwood was also one of the first to successfully make the transition from tv to movies. Ironically, he was much more animated as Rowdy Yates in Rawhide, than he ever was in a movie.

  • Pawesl

    I think this only relates to Television roles. No TV actors who jumped to movies or vice versa.

  • Untamed

    Yes, I see that.

  • Guest

    The term "Iconic Role" for some of these is dubious at best. Also alot of these actors / actresses did other perception changing projects before said "transformative" role:

    Example: 3. Katey Sagal: Peggy Bundy (Married with Children) to Turanga Leela (Futurama). Fixed that one for you.

    Additonal: 11. David Duchovny (X-Files) From Fox Mulder to Hank Moody (Californication).

    11. Edward James Olmos: From Lt. Martin Castillo (Miami Vice)
    to Admiral William Adama (Battlestar Galactica).

  • Given that Futurama lampooned Married ... with Children in an episode, I really don't think it was as big a leap from Peg Bundy as you're trying to say.

  • mairimba

    I wouldn't say Leela is much of a transformative role for Katey. She's even sayed that she has no idea what most things her character says mean. And that she just straight up uses her own voice, but in a bit of a higher tone. She walks in, reads her lines, and that's it.

  • elirt

    Voice acting isn't just reading lines. Katey is very much invested in her character and has helped hone her personality.

  • mairimba

    I'm just repeating what she said in an interview.

  • stella

    Holy shit that is Katey Sagal!

  • Joey.blowey

    Yes @disqus_i0Udr6p9l1:disqus , the internet is full of surprises

  • stella

    Its like every day is a fantastical adventure online.

  • Guest

    YUP.

  • Arran

    The main thing to take away from this is that Jimmy Smits is fucking great.

  • Captain_Tuttle

    It's true. I've probably already told this story, but I met him back when I was an usherette at the Public Theater. He was there for summer Shakespeare rehearsals and was wandering the halls. He stopped and asked me about the shows that were currently running, and we had a lovely little discussion about live theater in general. The thing I remember most was that he had the most beautiful skin I'd ever seen on a man. I called my mom the second he walked away. She's still jealous about that one.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Was that 12th Night summer? Because I was impressed by him in that. (maybe anyone looks good next to Julia Stiles)

  • Captain_Tuttle

    It was Much Ado. . . . Opposite the chick from 3rd Rock from the Sun, if I recall.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Yessss...that was a great cast.

  • Guest

    Except for Dexter...

  • Bert_McGurt

    "4. Kelsey Grammer: Frasier Crane (Cheers, Frasier) to Sideshow Bob (The Simpsons) to Tom Kane (Boss)"

    Sorry, had to drop that one in there.

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