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Reverse Typecasting: What Happens When An Actor's Current Role Destroys Past Work

March 26th, 2008 12:02pm EDT
James GandolfiniTypecasting is an actor's worst nightmare. The last thing a professional wants to happen is getting pigeonholed into the same role time after time following a breakthrough performance. Usually this happens at the beginning of a career, such as the case of Bob Denver. Denver was Gilligan for the rest of his career and essentially the rest his life. In fact, we dare you to think of one role Jim Nabors played other than Gomer Pyle (a prize to anyone who shouted out "Lugs Harvey in Stroker Ace").

In recent years, we have noticed a new phenomenon. In the past it was not as common for actors to switch mediums from movies to television, which is quite the norm today. This creates an opportunity for veteran actors to play what might turn out to be a life-changing role, after they already have an established body of work. In fact, sometimes these roles define the actor so precisely it all but destroys their past work. We call this "reverse typecasting" - when a current character is so strong it completely changes how the actor's previous roles are viewed. Following are five examples of this phenomenon:

5. James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano - The Sopranos

Try to watch the scene in Crimson Tide during the intense standoff on the bridge without noticing Tony Soprano with his pistol cocked and ready to fire. Oh sure, he goes by the name Lt. Bobby Dougherty in this case, but in the back of your head it is impossible not to think Denzel Washington is about to get whacked. It would be difficult to find one man with Gandolfini's talent that is more associated with one role. Whether it is in Get Shorty or 8MM, when Gandolfini enters a scene the tension always intensifies because we are trained to know something is about to happen. Unfortunately, his pre "Sopranos" roles rarely live up to the expectations we have of our favorite capodecina.

4. Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones - Sex and the City

Kim CattrallWe would be remiss to ignore the impact this character has had on Cattrall's career. Re-watching the original Police Academy now makes one wonder why Samantha never mentioned her police training to the rest of the girls. In our weekly Mannequin viewing we wait patiently through the ramblings of Meshach Taylor's Hollywood Montrose character and terrible Starship songs to finally see Cattrall's eventual nude scene as Emmy Hesire. Every week we are disappointed because there is no nude scene. This is not the Samantha Jones that we know.

3. Neil Patrick Harris as Barney Stinson - How I Met Your Mother

Neil Patrick HarrisNeil Patrick Harris just outright owns the character of Barney Stinson. NPH is an interesting case in the fact that he may be the first actor in history to initially be typecast (Doogie Houser, M.D.) who completely squashes the initial typecasting by playing a character so different and even more defined. Here is an example. Let's look at the character of Carl Jenkins he played in Starship Troopers. This movie came out in 1997, which is right in between the two roles that made him famous. When "Starship Troopers" premiered and NPH walked on the screen the initial reaction was, "Ha, look it's Doogie!" Re-watching the film today the first reaction to Neil Patrick Harris has become the battle cry, "Suit Up". (A case can be made that his role as himself in Harold and Kumar go to White Castle paved the way for this to happen.) For Neal Patrick Harris to pull this off is, as Barney would say, "Legendary."

2. Yeardley Smith as Lisa Simpson - The Simpsons

Yeardley SmithThe Legend of Billie Jean is borderline un-watchable now. Every time Yeardley Smith's Putter is on the screen we are completely taken out of this intense "girl on the run after just trying to buy a scooter" thriller (OK, maybe that is a good thing). Unlike most of the other voice actors on "The Simpsons," Smith does not change her voice to play her character. As a result, every role she plays sounds exactly like Lisa Simpson. If they ever release a special edition of "The Legend of Billie Jean" (we are not holding our breath) they should just digitally remove Putter from the film and replace her with a cartoon Lisa Simpson because at least it would stop people from asking, "Why does that girl sound like Lisa Simpson?" What's fair is fair, right?

1. Kevin Dillon as Johnny 'Drama' Chase - Entourage

Kevin DillonNo actor has systematically destroyed all of his prior work as much as Kevin Dillon did by playing Johnny Drama in "Entourage." What makes his role so special is that he plays an actor who had bit parts in many films and television shows throughout his career. Not only does Dillon's character Bunny in Platoon (whose star Charlie Sheen is enjoying success in television right now) completely take us out of the movie, but we start rationalizing that this is actually Johnny Drama playing Bunny, not Kevin Dillon. It's a shame that "Platoon" is a movie about the Vietnam War viewers are denied a Johnny Drama cry of "VICTORY!"

Story by Mike Ryan
Starpulse contributing writer