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
9. Michael C. Hall: David Fisher (Six Feet Under) to Dexter Morgan (Dexter)
8. David Tennant: From The Doctor (Doctor Who) to Alec Hardy (Broadchurch)
7. Idris Elba: Stringer Bell (The Wire to John Luther (Luther)
6. Edie Falco: Carmela Soprano (The Sopranos) to Jackie Peyton (Nurse Jackie)
5. Jimmy Smits: Victor Sifuentes (L.A. Law) to Bobby Simone (N.Y.P.D. Blue)…
…to Matthew Santos (The West Wing) to Nero Padilla (Sons of Anarchy) ( with a little Miguel Prado in between)
4. Kelsey Grammar: Frasier Crane (Cheers, Frasier) to Tom Kane (Boss)
3. Katey Sagal: Peggy Bundy (Married with Children) to Gemma Teller Morrow (Sons of Anarchy)
2. Elisabeth Moss: From Peggy Olson (Mad Men) to Robin Griffin (Top of the Lake)
1. Bryan Cranston: Hal (Malcolm in the Middle) to Walter White Breaking Bad)