ByCraig Whyel, writer at
Film & TV news, previews and commentary
Craig Whyel

With the above-listed title in mind, I wanted to reference the best dramatic performances of stand up comedians in a film or television production.

The reason for this is because the internet has lists of “comedians” who turned to drama. The problem with that is those who compiled the lists merged “comedic actors” with “stand up comedians.”

There is, in my major, a major difference.

First, a “comedic actor” is, in essence, an actor specializing in comedy performances.

“Standup comedians” are not, as such, actors, they are basically themselves engaged in relating humor to audiences.

They really are quite different.

For example, take one of my favorite funny people in the world, recent Emmy Award winner, Bill Murray. To his credit, he has turned in a number of terrific dramatic performances.

But he is not a standup comedian.

He was an improvisational comedy performer and an alumnus of the legendary Second City troupe in Chicago.

To that end, I separated the two by solely focusing on the work of stand ups.

I would also like to add that some of the dramatic performances by stand up comedians are the ones I felt were among their best and not necessarily the roles that made them famous:

Jackie Gleason-Requiem for a Heavyweight 1962

Tightly, tightly wound.
Tightly, tightly wound.

“The Great One” has a number of great dramatic roles to their credit, but his supporting work in the Requiem for a Heavyweight was among his best because in playing Maish Rennick, a manipulative fight manager who basically throws his brain-damaged boxer “under the bus” for his own personal gain.

One of the challenges in playing the part was that the story was originally a teleplay done six years earlier to significant critical acclaim. In that production, Keenan Wynn admirably played the part of Maish.

To Jackie Gleason’s credit, he more than held his own amongst acting legends Anthony Quinn and Mickey Rooney.

From his stand roots to comedy acting roles, Gleason was used to owning each scene with a large and loud gusto.

His take on Maish was highly contained and effortlessly “giving scene” to his fellow cast mates.

His work as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler (the year before) earned him an Oscar nomination and largely overshadowed his work as Maish Rennick. It’s a shame because he was more than excellent.

Jerry Lewis-The King of Comedy 1982

Ready to pop.
Ready to pop.

When I first heard that he was starring in a Martin Scorsese comedy/drama with Robert DeNiro, I immediately assumed that Jerry Lewis would bring the comedy while “Bobby D” would bring the drama.

They flipped the script. As Jerry Langford, a TV talk show host kidnapped by a nutty autograph hound who fashioned himself a stand up, Jerry Lewis was as blunt as a baseball bat to the face.

What impressed me most by his performance was how he “held it all in.” Jerry Lewis has been all about the exact opposite.

The King of Comedy was an excellent but difficult film. The title seemed to imply a certain element of fun. It was anything but…

Whoopie Goldberg-The Color Purple 1985

No nonsense.
No nonsense.

Acting in The Color Purple was only her second film role. She performed as though she were acting her entire life.

There was a certain amount of risk involved on her part in taking the role. While taking a part in a Steven Spielberg-directed film seems like a no-brainer, but she had to weigh the decision against stopping her popular stand up shows and going on location for several months.

Finally, playing Celie a victim of rape, violence and in victim of all-around oppression…in short, a difficult role in a tough film, paid off for her with Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations as well as launching her acting career with considerable momentum.

Michael Keaton-Clean and Sober 1988

In dire need of an intervention.
In dire need of an intervention.

Playing Daryl Poynter, a highly unlikable real estate agent with addiction issues that significantly worsen his life was Keaton’s first and most important dramatic role. He proved that he could handle serious business and, in fact, was every bit as adept at drama as he was at comedy.

Steve Martin-Grand Canyon 1991

A near-fatal encounter.
A near-fatal encounter.

Martin more than held his own in an ensemble cast of actors all of whom (except him) had significant drama experience.

He played Davis, a butt-hole movie producer of shoot ‘em up action flicks whose life underwent a severe change when he is shot and nearly killed during a strong arm robbery gone bad.

Not sure why he didn’t get more notice for his outstanding work but it seemed to open the doors of opportunity for him to do more great dramatic roles.

Robin Williams-Homicide: Life on the Streets “Bop Gun” 1994

Williams with a young Jake Gyllenhaal to his right.
Williams with a young Jake Gyllenhaal to his right.

I know, I know. Good Will Hunting was an excellent movie, deserving of all the awards and acclaim it garnered.

But in a guest-starring role in a brilliant and nearly overlooked performance, Williams played Robert Ellison, a husband and father who stood by with his children as his wife was gunned down by thugs.

The character’s despair and guilt were almost too overbearing but Williams’ containment and dignity was early convincing evidence that one of the world’s best stand up comedians had the chops to be one of the best dramatic actors, which he went on to prove repeatedly.

In my mind, without this role, there would have been no future dramatic films for him.

John Leguizamo-Summer of Sam 1999

Trying to put on happy faces to no avail.
Trying to put on happy faces to no avail.

As Vinny in Spike Lee’s take on the Bronx during Son of Sam’s murderous rampage in the late seventies,

Leguizamo took his characteristic high energy (from his comedy routines) and turned it inward as an angry, scared Italian-American who was also boiling over with guilt from the possibility that he actually saw the killer.

Then he added a further level of intensity to his performance with a sizzling affair with a co-worker, played by Bebe Neuwirth.

Eddie Murphy-Dreamgirls 2006

Deeply troubled but massively talented.
Deeply troubled but massively talented.

Eddie Murphy didn’t need Dreamgirls, Dreamgirls needed Eddie Murphy.

Already entrenched in his well-deserved comedy legend, he played Jimmy Early like he had been doing dramatic roles his entire life.

Early was no cake walk. An amalgamation of several real-life soul singers, he was constantly struggling under the weight of his own…many…problems, which included addictions, struggling to be recognized and managing an ego that was as big as all outdoors.

There was some controversy related to Eddie Murphy not winning an Oscar for his role in the film. It was a shame, to be sure, but what really disappointed me on the heels of this film was that it didn’t open the floodgates for his doing more dramatic roles.

There’s still time for that to change.

Mo’Nique-Precious 2009

About as low as you can go.
About as low as you can go.

There was a lot of risk for Mo’Nique to tackle the role of Mary Lee Johnston. The character was as down and out as one could get and she easily took out her frustrations on her daughter. You could see her as a victim of her environment and, at the same time, a contemptible, miserable soul.

It would have been understandable for Mo’Nique to pass on the role. She had invested years in developing a successful stand up comedy act and to take months to film a role playing an unlikable character while passing on comedy gigs was taking a chance.

To her credit, she embraced that risk head. The payoff was an Oscar win.

Jamie Foxx- The Soloist 2009

Extreme talent and mental illness.
Extreme talent and mental illness.

He deservedly won the Academy Award for his work in the biopic, Ray, but his portrayal of Nathanial Ayers, a prodigy cellist whose struggle with schizophrenia led to being homeless was equally as great.

The shame with The Soloist, essentially a biopic, was that it didn’t deserve the reception it received.

If you have never seen a person in the throes of a schizophrenic mania, watch this film. Foxx completely nailed it.


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