True Detective begins on HBO this Sunday, and let me just say that, having watched the first three episodes, the series is phenomenal. It’s brilliant not so much because of the serial killer case, which is interesting, and not so much because of the writing, which is good, but because of Harrelson and especially McConaughey, who has seriously become the most compelling actor in Hollywood over the last two years, thanks to turns in Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Dallas Buyer’s Club, and my second favorite movie of 2013, Mud. He’s hit another level, and in True Detective, he takes this character — who is all wrapped up in the philosophy and the meaning of existence — and he delivers his lines with thoughtful perfection.
You’ll occasionally see it when a new actor comes on the scene, a guy so engaging and electric you feel completely drawn to him, like Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson or even Vince Vaughn in Swingers. But it’s unusual to see that from a guy who has been around for two decades, and in True Detective all you want to do is listen to McConaughey speak. It truly is a Cranston-like performance, and for anyone else up for a Best Actor Emmy next year, forget about it. McConaughey has it sewn up.
What’s also unusual about True Detective is how it features not one, but two A-list Hollywood actors. Television, obviously, has gained a ton of credibility over the last decade, and in many people’s opinions, it’s better than film now. Television has been able to attract a lot of very good, very credible actors from the movie industry, but even still, in most cases, those actors are on a downswing in their film careers, or their biggest movies are behind them. Not so with Harrelson and McConaughey, who are still in their prime. After the two years he’s had, McConaughey is probably one of the most in-demand actors around, so it’s still a little unusual for him to jump to a television series (granted, it’s only eight episodes, and he’s already ruled out returning next season, but that was still 5 months of work).
Anyway, I wanted to examine who have been the biggest stars to make the leap from film to television, and while you can’t quantify an actor’s talent objectively, you can look at their lifetime box-office (which is admittedly misleading, as many of these actors benefited from supporting roles in huge film franchises). A lot of box-office stars get their starts in television, but these are the highest grossing actors who returned to television either after or during the midst of their successful film careers:
1. Robin Williams (#8 all-time at the box office): The Crazy Ones
2. Woody Harrelson (#43 all-time): True Detective
3. Don Cheadle (#52 all-time): House of Lies
4. Alec Baldwin (#54 all-time): 30 Rock
5. Karl Urban (#85 all-time): Almost Human
6. Zoe Saldana (#89 all-time): Rosemary’s Baby: The Series (NBC, announced)
7. Dennis Quaid (#93 all-time): Vegas
8. Jada Pinkett-Smith (#100 all-time): Hawthorne
9. Halle Berry (#102 all-time): Extant (CBS, announced)
10. Clark Gregg (#105 all-time): Agents of SHIELD
11. Kevin Bacon (#137 all-time): The Following
12. Sean Bean (#146 all-time): Game of Thrones
13. Matthew McConaughey (#171 all-time): True Detective
14. William H. Macy (#184 all-time): Shameless
15. Liev Schreiber (#219 all-time): Ray Donovan
Box-Office Numbers via BoxOfficeMojo