I grew up in an era where there was more obvious stratification between movie stars and TV stars, where a Tom Hanks or a Bruce Willis could make the leap from small screen to big, but when it was still unusual enough to remark upon.
Today, actors flow easily between the two, and nobody feels the need to joke about Shia LaBeouf having been on “Even Stevens” the way Hanks used to catch grief about “Bosom Buddies.” Still, there’s something that feels oddly satisfying to look at so many of this year’s Oscar nominations and be able to say, “I knew you when.” (And I’d have been able to say it at least one more time if Mila Kunis had gotten a nomination for “Black Swan.”)
Aaron Sorkin seems the most likely TV alum to walk home with gold for his “The Social Network” screenplay, which had many elements that would feel familiar to anyone who watched “Sports Night” or “The West Wing.” And here are some notable TV backstories for this year’s acting nominees (with video clips where available/appropriate):
More than a decade before he cut off his own arm in “127 Hours,” James Franco was one of the leads on NBC’s brilliant-but-canceled teen dramedy “Freaks and Geeks.” As Daniel Desario, leader of a clique of burn-outs at a 1980 Michigan high school, Franco so convincingly played a wannabe James Dean that he was later cast as Dean himself in an Emmy-nominated TV-movie.
Franco’s co-hosting the Oscar telecast with Anne Hathaway, whose first screen credit came on the same show as one of his fellow Best Actor nominees, “The Social Network” star Jesse Eisenberg. In “Get Real,” a family drama that ran a single season on FOX in 1999, the two played siblings.
And for a long time, “The King’s Speech” star Colin Firth was best known for playing Mr. Darcy in a 1995 British TV vesion of “Pride and Prejudice.”
“Winter’s Bone” star Jennifer Lawrence has been covered in some media circles as a complete unknown, but she played Bill Engvall’s daughter for several seasons on the TBS sitcom “The Bill Engvall Show.”
While Michelle Williams from “Blue Valentine” hasn’t turned out to be the most famous “Dawson’s Creek” alum (that would be Mrs. Cruise), she now has two more Oscar nominations than Joey, Dawson and Pacey combined.
(Also, while “Black Swan” star Natalie Portman has pretty much only worked in movies since “The Professional,” I wanted an excuse to include these two very different videos of her from “Sesame Street” and “Saturday Night Live.”)
John Hawkes from “Winter’s Bone” has spent a lot of time on HBO series, first as Seth Bulluck’s sidekick Sol Starr on “Deadwood,” then as Kenny Powers’ long-suffering brother Dustin on “Eastbound & Down,” in addition to having a voluminous list of TV guest credits. (Note: In part because Sol wasn’t the most well-serviced character on that show, there aren’t a lot of great Sol clips on YouTube, so here’s one of the show’s best scenes in which he happens to appear.)
Jeremy Renner from “The Town” was starring on ABC’s cop drama “The Unusuals” only a couple of years ago. Though the show’s ratings weren’t good, in hindsight I suspect ABC wishes it still had contractual control of one of the hottest actors in the business.
UPDATE: A commenter reminded me that Mark Ruffalo was on the short-lived UPN cop drama “The Beat,” which was memorable mainly for an odd editing approach where scenes about the cops’ personal lives were shot in a completely different style from scenes about their work lives (including back-and-forth editing when the cops were in uniform and would talk about their love lives and whatnot).
Both of the nominees from “The Fighter” did their time on the small screen. Melissa Leo spent five seasons on NBC’s brilliant ’90s cop show “Homicide: Life on the Street” as unflappable, unglamorous (Leo had to fight to perform without noticeable makeup, and was unfortunately brushed aside when the show tried to sex up its cast to attract bigger ratings), uncanny cop Kay Howard. She’s now doing some terrific work on HBO’s “Treme.”
Amy Adams, meanwhile, was briefly a regular on the Rob Lowe CBS series “Dr. Vegas,” and also appeared in a handful of early episodes of “The Office” as a purse saleswoman Jim dated until he realized she was no match for Pam. (You need Hulu+ to see clips of her in the episodes “Hot Girl,” “The Fire” and “Booze Cruise,” alas, but you can see her in this behind-the-scenes video Jenna Fischer shot for “Booze Cruise.”.)