There used to be a time when the line between television stardom and movie stardom was pretty clearly delineated. Didn’t really matter if you were the biggest cheese in TV land, you were still a cut below even second-rate movie stars. That’s what prompted enormously popular TV stars from Pernell Roberts to David Caruso to try making the leap from the small screen to the big and failing. It’s also what prompted the more successful leaps of Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. Poor Burt had to come finally come back to TV, but even if you tried, I bet you can’t imagine Clint Eastwood doing the weekly grind. Or Tom Cruise. Or Meryl Streep. And yet, some names that are even more legendary than any of those names once upon a time graced TV screens on a weekly basis.
The situation with Jack Lemmon is more akin to that of Steve and Clint, but many fans of Jack Lemmon are completely unaware that he could have become a big sitcom star rather than a two-time Oscar winning movie star. In 1949, when television was really just starting to become something more in people’s minds than a trick like mind-reading, Jack Lemmon was cast as a bumbling valet in a show called “That Wonderful Guy.” The title character was a not-so-wonderful drama critic whose cynicism was not quite enough to make his valet quit. Especially when the valet was fresh out of acting school and looking for his big break. Lemmon was given one last chance to establish himself as an early TV legend before getting his big break at becoming a movie legend when he starred with his then-wife Cynthia Stone in “Heaven For Betsy” in 1952. This sitcom about newlyweds lasted about as long as “That Wonderful Guy.”
By the time Jack Lemmon co-starred with Tony Curtis in the classic comedy “Some Like it Hot” both were two of the biggest movie stars in the world. The near-miss of a career as a sitcom star was a decade behind Jack Lemmon. A little more than a decade later would see Tony Curtis fall from those heights of movie stardom just enough to make television still want him and for him to want television. The show was “The Persuaders” and it cast Curtis as a street-smart guy from Brooklyn who was paired with a British aristocrat to handle crimes that were not quite suitable for the established agencies of law enforcement.
Here’s a weird one. In her twilight years when movie roles for someone her age are few and far between, it is easy enough to see Shirley MacLaine taking on a role in “Downton Abbey.” Aside from the age issue, there is also the fact that “Downton Abbey” is sold as a classy British-style drama offering. Nothing wrong with taking a part in a prestige production. But “Shirley’s World” was a sitcom into which MacLaine stepped just a couple of years after “Sweet Charity” and just five years before an Oscar nomination for “The Turning Point.” Of course, there was the appeal of MacLaine’s character being a globe-trotting photojournalist. Location shooting on some of the most exotic and metropolitan islands on the planet surely helped bring Shirley to TV as well. Even so, I can’t help but imagine that Shirley must have had at least one conversation with her brother Warren Beatty in which he shared enough horror stories about appearing in a weekly series. Perhaps Shirley reminded her younger sibling that he wasn’t the star of “Dobie Gillis” so his experience would not be appropriate to her situation.
One might well expect Gene Kelly to have joined the likes of movies stars such as Frank Sinatra in trying to find success in the form of a variety show. (Sinatra failed…twice!). And, indeed, Gene Kelly did host a strange form of variety show called “The Funny Side” in 1971. While the musical/dance nature of that bizarre little comedic look at married life seems more suited to Gene Kelly’s talents, the truth is that Kelly appeared in “The Funny Side” after being out of acting for several years as well as following his biggest flop as a director, “Hello, Dolly.” By contrast, when Gene Kelly took on the role originated by Bing Crosby in a television adaptation of “Going My Way” he was just two years removed from an acclaimed non-musical dramatic performance in “Inherit the Wind.” The most unexpected thing about Gene Kelly’s foray into the world of half-hour sitcoms is less that he chose to do so while “An American in Paris” and “Singin’ in the Rain” were only about a decade behind than the fact that the man who brought masculine athleticism to movie dance chose to portray a priest.