TV Stars Who Were Supposed To Become Movie Stars (But Didn't)

In the early days of television, few actors saw it as the path to a movie career. In fact, it was quite common to see actors move from film to TV as a way to extend their careers after movie role consideration dried up. But as television started developing stars of its own, it began to be seen as a springboard to film stardom.

Of course, that isn't as easy as it seems. For every Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Michael J. Fox, or Melissa McCarthy, there have been dozens of TV stars who have attempted but failed to become a movie star. Many of these actors have found steady work on the big screen and some have become critical darlings. But for one reason or another, they have been unable to translate their success on the small screen to true stardom on the big screen. To be fair, even big stars can have spotty records on TV.

Here are just a few of the TV stars who have failed to achieve similar success in movies.


  • What Made Him A TV Star:

    In the early 1980s, Caruso had a recurring role playing the leader of a street gang on Hill Street Blues. But it wasn't until he was cast as Detective John Kelly on NYPD Blue in 1993 that he became a bonafide star. Caruso won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Emmy for his performance as Kelly. But his stint on the hit show was short-lived.

    His Transition To Movies:

    NYPD Blue co-creator Steven Bochco claimed his producing partner, David Milch, begged him not to hire Caruso, as the actor had a reputation for being a malcontent. Sure enough, Caruso had been starring on NYPD Blue for little more than a year when he abruptly quit in 1994. Bochco believed the star thought he was too good for TV and deliberately set out to alienate cast, crew, and writers in order to be let out of his contract. After Bochco rejected the actor's demands for remaining on the show, a nasty stalemate set in for several weeks between the show and the actor before Bochco let Caruso out of his deal.

    The decision backfired on the actor. Not only did NYPD Blue successfully replace him with Jimmy Smits, but in 1995, his two big-budget starring efforts, Jade and Kiss of Death, tanked at the box office. His abrupt NYPD Blue departure also resulted in Caruso getting labeled as ungrateful, insecure, and greedy. He later admitted that he didn't handle the situation well.

    "I became the guy who had this great opportunity and walked away from it," he told The New York Times in 2000. "People still see me as this enigma. It was my fault,''

    Caruso confessed to the Times that he had been frightened by his success on NYPD Blue. "I didn't know how to handle the responsibility. I handled it like an amateur. I didn't realize how upset people were until the show was over. I didn't get it. And I think it has a lot to do with fear. I mean, I was terrified I couldn't meet the challenge of the job."

    He never got another chance to become a movie star, but he did earn renewed fame on television when he took on the role of Lt. Horatio Caine on CSI: Miami. He appeared on every episode of the show from its premiere in 2002 to its final episode 10 seasons later. When the series was canceled, Caruso retired from acting. He later opened an art gallery.

    • Age: 67
    • Birthplace: Forest Hills, New York, USA
  • What Made Her A TV Star:

    In 1982, Long was cast as Diane Chambers, the brainy, sometimes condescending, pain-in-the-butt, graduate student turned waitress, on Cheers. Long had initially wanted to be offered the part outright rather than having to audition for it, but eventually relented. She ended up earning two Golden Globe Awards and one Emmy (out of five nominations) for her performance.

    Her Transition To Movies:

    After her run on Cheers, Long starred in feature films like Irreconcilable DifferencesThe Money Pit, and Outrageous Fortune. But her film career did not take off the way many expected. After deciding to leave Cheers following the sitcom's fifth season, she had the lead role in Troop Beverly Hills, a critical and commercial failure. She had better success in the mid-1990s with The Brady Bunch Movie and A Very Brady Sequel, but it wasn't the type of role that led to a big-screen breakthrough. In recent years, she has been seen more frequently on television, including a recurring role on Modern Family.

    Over the years, Long has given various reasons for why she quit Cheers. She had a reputation for not always getting along with some of her co-stars, but on a personal level, she wanted to spend more time with her young daughter, who was born in 1985 in the middle of Long's Cheers run. In 2007, she said she left because she "didn't want to keep doing the same episode over and over again," and that she didn't want the role to become "old and stale." Although she missed working on the show, she "never regretted" her decision to leave.

    • Age: 74
    • Birthplace: Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA
  • 'Magnum, P.I.' Kept Tom Selleck From Being Indiana Jones, And He Never Got Another Chance Like That Again
    Photo: CBS / Warner Bros.

    What Made Him A TV Star: 

    Selleck was cast in the lead role for a potential television series called Magnum, P.I. in 1980. It was the actor's big break - the show ran for eight years and turned Selleck into a major TV star, earning five Emmy nominations and one win. But if CBS had agreed to George Lucas's request to release the actor from his contract, he may have found film stardom as Indiana Jones instead.

    When Lucas was casting for Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first film in a projected trilogy, he wanted to cast a relatively unknown actor in the lead role of Indiana Jones. "I was wary of Harrison [Ford] and I becoming like Scorsese and De Niro. I thought, 'Let's create a new icon,'" Lucas explained in an interview with Empire. "We found Tom Selleck, but as soon as the network heard, his option on Magnum P.I. got picked up."

    Selleck had about 10 days left on his contract when Lucas asked CBS to release the actor from his option. Instead, CBS picked up the show, forcing Selleck to drop out of Raiders. Lucas ended up casting Ford in the part, and the rest is cinema history.

    His Transition To Movies:

    Although Selleck missed out on playing Indiana Jones, he did have other opportunities to establish himself as a movie star; his first starring role in a feature film came in 1983's High Road to China, and in 1987 he played one of the three leads in the hit comedy Three Men and a Baby. After Magnum P.I. ended its run in 1988, Selleck starred in films such as His Alibi, Quigley Down Under, Three Men and a Little Lady, and Mr. Baseball. The films earned mixed to negative reviews. His most successful post-Magnum P.I. big-screen role came in a supporting part in the 1997 comedy In & Out. In 2010, Selleck confirmed that Disney was considering the idea of another sequel to Three Men and a Baby. However, nothing seems to have come of the idea and Selleck hasn't appeared on the big screen in the last decade.

    While his movie career fizzled out, Selleck has remained a fixture on television. In addition to his Emmy-nominated work on Friends and a host of other small-screen roles, he has headlined the long-running CBS drama Blue Bloods.

    • Age: 78
    • Birthplace: Detroit, Michigan, USA
  • What Made Her A TV Star:

    Danes became a television star as a teenager when she starred in the short-lived but critically acclaimed series My So-Called Life. The series only lasted 19 episodes but gained a cult following that still exists decades after the show's cancellation. Danes won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Angela Chase. 

    Her Transition To Movies:

    Danes made her feature-film debut in an adaptation of Little Women in 1994, the same year she starred in My So-Called Life. Her big-screen success continued two years later when she starred as Juliet in Baz Luhrmann's version of Romeo + Juliet. "Claire Danes is the Meryl Streep of her generation," Luhrmann proclaimed about his young star. She portrayed Cosette in the non-musical adaptation of Les Misérables, but after a rough experience filming Brokedown Palace - she told the media that Manila was a horrible place that smelled like cockroaches, and the Philippine government responded by banning her films - Danes stepped away from acting to attend Yale University.

    "I was confused. I had a lot of opportunity and no way of knowing what I wanted to do with it. I needed to figure out who I was, what I liked," Danes said about her decision to go off to college for a few years.

    Her film career never quite recovered from that break, although she has played major roles in such films as It's All About Love, Me and Orson Welles, and Shopgirl, in addition to being part of ensemble casts in The Family Stone and The Hours.

    In 2010, Danes made a successful return to television when she won an Emmy for her portrayal of the title character in the HBO film Temple Grandin. The following year, the actress joined the cast of the Showtime series Homeland. She was on the show for all eight seasons, earning two Emmy wins for her portrayal of bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison.

    • Age: 44
    • Birthplace: New York, New York, USA
  • What Made Her A TV Star:

    Though she only appeared on three episodes of Felicity, the series significantly influenced both Jennifer Garner's personal and professional life. It's where she met her first husband (Scott Foley). And it's where she first made an impression on Felicity co-creator J.J. Abrams, who went on to create Alias, the show that made Garner a TV star. The actress was surprised when Abrams told her he had written Alias' lead role of Sydney Bristow with her in mind. After all, he had made her audition multiple times just for her guest spot on Felicity. "I asked, 'What did you see me in that made you think I could do this. Mr. MagooDude, Where's My Car?'" Garner told USA Today in 2002.

    In that same interview, Abrams explained, "There was something about her that I just thought was really special. I always thought she had something in her personality that was funnier and sexier and smarter and more mischievous than anything I'd seen her do. And when I wrote Sydney, I wanted to show that."

    Alias ran for five seasons, with Garner earning four Emmy nominations and winning one Golden Globe for her portrayal of the super spy.

    Her Transition To Movies:

    Garner started to make a push for movie stardom while she was still working on Alias. Steven Spielberg, who offered her a small role in Catch Me If You Can, said he knew she would be the next superstar after seeing her on her TV show. In April 2004,  Entertainment Weekly published an article headlined, "Is Jennifer Garner the next Julia Roberts?" The piece was published just days before 13 Going on 30 - Garner's first feature starring role - was released. The actress earned strong notices for the film, which was a hit.

    Many critics predicted substantial movie stardom for Garner. But her next starring role was in the superhero film Elektra - a spinoff of Daredevil - and it was neither a critical nor commercial success. She has continued to pop up on the big screen - in roles ranging from Oscar fare like Juno and Dallas Buyers Club to crowd-pleasers like Love, Simon and Draft Day - but hasn't been able to reach the kind of big-screen success that was once considered virtually inevitable.

    • Age: 51
    • Birthplace: Houston, Texas, USA
  • What Made Her A TV Star:

    Heigl got her first break on television when she landed the role of Isabel Evans on the WB science fiction series Roswell in 1999.  But it wasn't until she was cast as Izzie Stevens, a first-year medical intern on the ABC series Grey's Anatomy in 2005, that Heigl became a major TV star. The actress starred in the role for five seasons, taking home an Emmy in 2007.

    Her Transition To Movies:

    In 2007, the same year Heigl won her Emmy, she starred in Judd Apatow's Knocked Up. The film earned positive reviews and was a box-office hit, and the actress was anointed by some as Hollywood's new "It girl." After Knocked Up came a starring role in the romantic comedy 27 Dresses.

    "She is a superstar, without question," said 27 Dresses director Anne Fletcher. "She has the 'it' factor. You can’t buy it; you can’t learn it; you can’t create it; it just is. We haven’t had one of her in many years. Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan - those have been our go-to girls for romantic comedy for a very long time, but we haven’t had a new one... She’s going to have whatever she wants."

    Though 27 Dresses and the following year's The Ugly Truth both turned a tidy profit, they were met with negative reviews, and her subsequent leading roles led to diminishing returns, at the box office and otherwise. In 2012, Heigl admitted to regretting her departure from Grey's Anatomy and expressed an interest in returning to the show. Although that never came to pass, she did briefly return to series television when she starred in the short-lived NBC series State of Affairs in 2014-2015.

    • Age: 44
    • Birthplace: Washington, D.C., USA