13 Modern TV Stars People Forgot Were Massive Movie Stars

List Rules

Vote up the TV actors you remember as Hollywood A-Listers.

Since television first began competing with the movies for audiences, numerous movie stars looked to TV as a way to extend or revive their careers. Some, like Lucille Ball, found far more fame on the small screen than they ever had on the big screen. Others, like Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, were huge stars in movies and on television.

The trend of faded movie stars seeing their fortunes change by heading to television has continued into the 21st century. Younger viewers may see Kevin Costner on Yellowstone or Jane Fonda on Grace & Frankie and not even realize that they were huge box office draws a few decades earlier. But they were.

Which of the actors listed here would you be surprised to learn used to be a movie star?


  • 1
    53 VOTES
    James Spader
    Photo: The Blacklist / NBC

    For the past few decades, James Spader has had a very successful and varied career on television, starring in shows such as The Practice, Boston Legal, The Office, and the long-running drama The Blacklist. The actor won three consecutive Primetime Emmys for his portrayal of attorney Alan Shore on The Practice and Boston Legal and has earned two Golden Globe awards for playing crook-turned-FBI informant Raymond "Red" Reddington in Blacklist. David E. Kelley, the creator of The Practice and Boston Legal, revealed during a panel discussion presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association that Spader almost didn't get the chance to take on the role of Alan Shore:

    I was told that no one would ever welcome James Spader into their living room. People will watch him in the movies, but they will never let him in their own home.

    In the 1980s and '90s, Spader was more recognized for his work in films than on TV. He often played unlikeable characters in supporting roles, such as a snobbish rich high schooler Pretty in Pink, Diane Keaton's backstabbing colleague in Baby Boom, or a nosy lawyer in Wall Street. Spader's big break came when he was cast as the lead in Steven Soderbergh's 1989 indie film Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Spader's performance as Graham, a troubled man who videotapes women talking about their sexuality and fantasies, earned him the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.

    Spader followed this up with lead roles in Bad Influence, White Palace, and True Colors. In 1996, he starred in Crash, an erotic thriller that won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was also nominated for the festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or. Even after turning his focus to television in the 2000s, Spader continued to portray lead or supporting roles in films such as the black comedy Secretary and the historical drama Lincoln.

  • C. Thomas Howell
    Photo: Animal Kingdom / TNT

    For a few years in the 1980s, C. Thomas Howell was one of the hottest young actors in Hollywood. After making his film debut in E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, a 15-year-old Howell played the leading role of Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders. He was then in cult classic Red Dawn, was a part of the cast in the short-lived ABC drama series Two Marriages, and was a finalist for the role of Marty McFly in Back to the Future.

    His most prominent film in the 1980s was 1986's Soul Man, in which he portrayed a white student pretending to be black to get a scholarship. Although the film was commercially successful, it received mainly negative reviews and was condemned by, among others, the NAACP and Spike Lee for its subject manner and use of blackface. In 2014, Howell claimed that he didn't regret taking the role, saying that the film was "an important part of [his] life" and "an important film" for ethnic relations in the United States.

    Soul Man basically ended Howell's career as a movie star, although he found some success in supporting roles and being part of ensemble casts in films such as 1993's Gettysburg. Howell has found more steady success on television. He had the recurring role of Dr. Daniel Stinger in the Freeform series Stitchers, played a retired Navy SEAL in the CBS show SEAL Team, and appeared several times on the TNT series Animal Kingdom.

  • 3
    29 VOTES
    Debra Winger
    Photo: The Ranch / Netflix

    Although Debra Winger had made a handful of appearances on television in the 1970s, it wasn't until 2005 that she found true recognition in that medium. She was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for portraying the title role in the TV film Dawn Anna. It was based on events surrounding the real-life mass shooting at Columbine High School, and Winger played a single mother whose teenage daughter is one of the students slain. Winger later starred in the third season of the HBO series In Treatment, on the Netflix series The Ranch, and the short-lived Apple TV+ show Mr. Corman.

    Before 2005, Winger was known primarily as a film actor and a quite successful one. She got her first big break when she was cast as Sissy, the female lead opposite John Travolta in Urban Cowboy. Two years later, she received both an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe nomination for her role as a factory worker who becomes involved with an aspiring Navy pilot in An Officer and a Gentleman.

    By the time she was again nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe for 1983's Terms of Endearment, Winger was firmly established as an A-list actor. But while she continued to be recognized for her performances, her ability to be a box office draw had declined by the mid-1990s. Her most successful film role in recent memory is likely her portrayal of Abby in the 2008 independent film Rachel's Getting Married.

  • 4
    46 VOTES
    Jessica Lange
    Photo: American Horror Story / FX

    Jessica Lange is one of just three actors (along with Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett) to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress AND Best Lead Actress. She won the former in 1982 for her comedic performance in Tootsie and the latter in 1994 for Blue Sky. Even more impressively, she's in a very small group of people to have won at least one Oscar, one Emmy, and one Tony Award - AKA the “Triple Crown” of acting.

    Lange made her film debut in the 1978 remake of King Kong, a performance that earned her a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year. In 1982 she won the Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie and was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance as troubled 1930s film star Frances Farmer in Frances. This feat made her the first person since 1943 to be nominated in two acting categories in the same year.

    Lange received three more Oscar nominations before winning her second Oscar for her performance as a bipolar housewife in Blue Sky. In 1996, Entertainment Weekly named Lange as one of the 25 Greatest Actresses of the '90s. Aside from Blue Sky, her films in that decade included Cape Fear, Night and the City, A Thousand Acres, and Cousin Bette.

    As Lange entered her 50s, the roles offered to her in films became less and less appealing. So she began focusing more on television work. She earned her first Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie in 2009 for her performance in Grey Gardens. She was nominated in four straight years for performances in the anthology series American Horror Story, winning an Emmy in 2012 and 2014. In 2019 she received her fifth Primetime Emmy nomination for her work on that series, this time in a Guest Star role. That same year, she also appeared in eight episodes of Season 1 of the Netflix comedy-drama series The Politician, portraying Dusty Jackson.