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From Susan Sarandon to Hilary Swank, Oscar Winners Are Flocking to Network TV Again

Several Oscar winners are leading network shows this fall. It's a rare occurrence in an age when streaming and cable get all the movie stars.
  • Photos: Fox, ABC
    Photos: Fox, ABC

    Does it count as a “golden age” if it’s kind of a bummer? Because if so, we are definitely in a golden age of Oscar-winning performers headlining network TV shows, a trend that flies in the face of both historical and modern-day trends in the entertainment industry. Yet here we are in a moment where three actresses who collectively hold four Academy Awards for their acting prowess are not only debuting on television, but on network television, which has long since ceded the terrain of prestige — first to cable, and then to streaming.

    Two weeks ago, Susan Sarandon (Best Actress, 1995, Dead Man Walking) premiered in the Fox drama Monarch about a country music dynasty headed up by her character, Dottie Cantrell Roman. This week, the new CBS legal dramedy So Help Me Todd premieres with Marcia Gay Harden (Best Supporting Actress, 2000, Pollock) playing an attorney whose screw-up son comes to work for her. And on October 6th, Hilary Swank (Best Actress, 1999, Boys Don’t Cry; Best Actress, 2004, Million Dollar Baby) stars in the new ABC drama Alaska Daily, as a big-city journalist who moves to Anchorage to get her life together.

    This kind of career matriculation is not unheard of, but it’s pretty rare. When Glenn Close joined the cast of The Shield in 2005, it was surprising to see an A-List movie star (though not an Oscar winner, somewhat infamously) sign up for a TV show not as a guest star, but as a series regular. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, you never saw Elizabeth Taylor or Dustin Hoffman or Marlon Brando move between film and TV projects. Movie stars were just that, while TV stars were unavoidably smaller. That mentality began to change, bit by bit, but only after television was able to make itself seem more prestigious. This began with the rise to prominence of HBO and Showtime, and extended to basic cable outlets like FX and TNT, which would cast the likes of Holly Hunter (Saving Grace) and Billy Bob Thornton (Fargo), while at the same time TV’s most prestigious stars, like James Gandolfini and Jon Hamm, were being cast far more frequently in films — often while their biggest TV hits were still going.

    Now, with the streaming age in full swing and limited series able to produce short bursts of TV seasons in little more time than it usually takes to make a movie, the line between movie stars and TV stars has been blurred to near invisibility. Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Oscar Isaac, Chris Evans, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett — honestly, the list of A-List movie-star talent who haven’t done a prestige TV show by now would be a lot shorter.

    Hilary Swank, 2005 Academy Awards (Everett Collection)

    But network TV? In the 2020s? With all due respect to some of the excellent TV that’s been produced for network in recent years and currently — there’s an argument to be made that Abbott Elementary is the best show on TV — this is about the perceptions of the Hollywood star chamber, not the quality of the work. Network television hasn’t been the province of crossover movie stars of late. And it is exceptionally rare for Oscar winners, who tend to exist at the apex of the Hollywood machine, to downshift into network TV once they’ve ascended the mountain. Usually it’s the other way around, where an actor will find early success on network — Will Smith on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; George Clooney on ER; Jamie Foxx on The Jamie Foxx Show — before ascending to the Oscar stage.

    This Swank/Sarandon/Harden moment is a reminder that that trajectory sometimes runs in the opposite direction, for a few different reasons. The move from film to TV can be a strategic one for performers with flagging careers, or for Oscar winners who have followed their big win with a box-office dud. It’s more common, for one thing, to see Supporting Actress or Supporting Actor winners star on network TV after their win, if only because the supporting winners are often character actors who move more seamlessly between film and TV. Cloris Leachman famously won the Best Supporting Actress for 1971’s The Last Picture Show while she was a cast member on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. John Houseman won the Oscar for The Paper Chase in 1974 and then reprised his character in the 1978 TV version of the film.

    Character actresses like Estelle Parsons, Linda Hunt, Mercedes Ruehl, and Dianne Wiest weren’t getting starring roles in films, so it makes more sense that they picked up roles on TV even after they were Oscar winners, and arguably their careers were richer for being able to pick up consistent work in whatever medium they liked. Marcia Gay Harden is a great example of this: She’s been a reliable presence in films, but the majority of her lead roles have come on television, where she’s worked pretty frequently since her Oscar win, in good shows that were gone too soon (Trophy Wife) or in CBS procedurals you definitely don’t remember existing (Code Black).

    Viola Davis, 2017 Oscars (Everett Collection)

    A few cases of Oscar winners doing network TV are asterisk-worthy. Helen Hunt won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1998 for As Good As It Gets while she was still a star on NBC’s Mad About You. Almost 20 years later, Viola Davis won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Fences while she was still starring on ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder.

    If you’re looking for a common thread in these Oscar-winner-to-network-TV stories, gender is one, and age is another. The vast majority of these examples are actresses, and it doesn’t take a galaxy brain to conclude that the relative dearth of roles for women in movies, especially as they get older, is a big factor in driving women to network TV. Actresses like Mary Steenburgen and Anjelica Huston were winning Oscars in the ’80s, but by the 2010s the big-screen roles weren’t there, but supporting roles on The Last Man on Earth and Smash, respectively, were.

    Whether finding refuge in the welcoming arms of network TV ends up being a good move for the Oscar winners in question remains to be seen. Some have found surprising success; others merely added a head-scratcher to their resumé. Take a look at ten of the most notable:

    Shirley Booth in “Hazel” (Everett Collection)

    Shirley Booth, Hazel (1961): Shirley Booth was primarily a stage actress who’d won a Tony Award for the William Inge play Come Back, Little Sheba. When the play was turned into a movie in 1952, Booth got the chance to reprise the lead role and won the Oscar, besting both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis for Best Actress. Nine years later, Booth was cast as the title role in Hazel, where she played the headstrong live-in maid to a wealthy family. Booth won two Emmys for the show, which lasted for five seasons across two networks (CBS picked it up for its final season). Booth’s kind of crossover success was an anomaly in an age where the Oscar tended to go to larger-than-life movie stars like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly.

    Shirley Jones, The Partridge Family (1970): Jones won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1961 for Elmer Gantry, a drama in which Jones played against type as a vengeful sex worker. She was much better known for her work in musicals like Oklahoma! and The Music Man, so it made more sense down the line when she was cast as the matriarch of a singing family on ABC’s The Partridge Family. The show lasted for four seasons and nearly a hundred episodes and endures as an artifact of American kitsch from the 1970s.

    Richard Dreyfuss, The Education of Max Bickford (2001): Dreyfuss was named 1977’s Best Actor for Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl and enjoyed a long run as a leading man. In 2001, he took his first regular role on a TV series in CBS’s The Education of Max Bickford, playing the title character, a college professor who was romantically involved with a colleague played by… Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden, who’d won her Oscar only a few months before.

    Geena Davis, Commander in Chief (2005): Davis’s 1989 Oscar win for The Accidental Tourist was the precursor to a decade-long stretch of lead roles, including Thelma & Louise, A League of Their Own, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. As the Aughts rolled through, Davis turned to TV, starring for one season as the President of the United States (a woman!), a role for which she won a Golden Globe.

    Sally Field on “Brothers & Sisters” (Everett Collection)

    Sally Field, Brothers & Sisters (2006): Sally Field was a two-time Oscar winner who famously (or infamously, depending on who you ask) got her start on TV with The Flying Nun. As the movie roles were drying up, she began doing more TV, starting with the short-lived The Court on ABC (she played a Supreme Court justice) and later on the more successful Brothers & Sisters, where Field won an Emmy for her performance as the widowed matriarch of a squabbling, politically engaged family.

    Kathy Bates, Harry’s Law (2011): The Best Actress of 1990 for her iconic role as Annie Wilkes in Misery, Kathy Bates signed on to David E. Kelley’s quirky law drama in 2011, playing the title character, who ran a ragtag law office out of a shoe-repair shop.

    Forest Whitaker, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior (2011): Did you know that in 2011, CBS franchised its successful Criminal Minds with a spinoff starring Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker (for 2006’s The Last King of Scotland) as an FBI special agent and leader of a team that included Janeane Garofalo and future House of Cards star Michael Kelly? Well, now you do.

    Octavia Spencer, Red Band Society (2014): A few years after winning Best Supporting Actress for The Help, and a few years before her starring role in Ma would make her an undeniable leading lady, Octavia Spencer starred in the short-lived FOX dramedy Red Band Society, as the head nurse in charge of a pediatric ward. The show only lasted 13 episodes.

    Halle Berry, Extant (2014): Berry famously became the first Black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar in 2002 for Monster’s Ball. While she continued to star in movies, she did sign up to star in the CBS sci-fi drama Extant (one imagines executive producer Steven Spielberg might have had something to do with luring her). She played an astronaut who returns from space inexplicably pregnant, and even more inexplicably, the show lasted two seasons before CBS ended it.

    Renée Zellweger, The Thing About Pam (2022): A scant two years after winning her second Academy Award (this one for playing Judy Garland in Judy), Renée Zellweger was on NBC in a fat suit playing real life murderer Pamela Hupp. The six-episode limited series was something of an anomaly for network TV and might indeed have been a better fit on streaming. Zellweger’s time on network TV was fleeting, though it remains to be seen whether Susan Sarandon or Hilary Swank can far better with their network TV ventures.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: So Help Me Todd, Alaska Daily, Brothers & Sisters, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, The Education of Max Bickford, Extant, Harry's Law, Hazel, Monarch, The Partridge Family, Red Band Society, The Thing About Pam, Forest Whitaker, Geena Davis, Halle Berry, Hilary Swank, Kathy Bates, Marcia Gay Harden, Octavia Spencer, Renée Zellweger, Richard Dreyfuss, Shirley Booth, Susan Sarandon