An actor in search of reinvention can start doing action movies, a concept The A.V. Club explored in our recent Inventory “Going Neeson.” But what about comedy? Usually it works the other way around, with comedians like Bill Murray and Steve Carell eager to prove that they’re “real” actors by taking on dramatic roles. But then there’s Leslie Nielsen, who started his career in TV dramas and adventure movies like Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure before Airplane! sent him down a completely different career path. Nielsen’s credibility as a voice of authority made him an ideal straight man, and by the ’90s he was working almost exclusively in comedic roles. Now his career as a dramatic actor is little more than a footnote in the narrative of his life. So while most of these actors are doing just fine, thanks, with their “serious” careers, if the awards and the critical praise and the serious discussions of craft ever lose their charm, they could always go full Nielsen—or, in a much less desirable scenario, full De Niro.

1. Michael Fassbender

Even in a deathly serious film like Shame, Michael Fassbender always looks like he could break into a cocky smirk at a moment’s notice. It’s a trait he shares with Jon Hamm, who’s been on a bit of a Nielsen streak himself lately. Quentin Tarantino saw this when he cast Fassbender as the gentlemanly Lieutenant Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds, where Fassbender held his own in a cast filled with charismatic personalities. (He originally auditioned for the part of Colonel Hans Landa, which eventually went to another actor skilled in bringing a comedic sensibility to dramatic roles, Christoph Waltz.) Although he doesn’t do exclusively “serious” roles—speaking of cocky, his Magneto is quite the charmer—Fassbender hasn’t done many comedies, although he displayed the essential comedic trait of commitment in the odd-duck indie comedy Frank. He should try it more often; he’s certainly got the confidence. [Katie Rife]

2. Helen Mirren


Listen, Helen Mirren’s been around. Over the course of her six-decade acting career, Mirren has both been in a high-class porno (1979’s Caligula, although she did not participate in the XXX scenes) and played the Queen Of England (2006’s The Queen), and you can’t acquire that kind of curriculum vitae without a healthy sense of humor about yourself. That sense of humor consistently comes through in interviews, when Mirren displays her self-deprecating charm. Mirren would be a delight playing opposite other performers in a comedic ensemble, where her natural charisma would invariably shine. And even though she’s a dame, she’s not above a bit of good-natured self-debasement in the service of her art. Exhibit A: Calendar Girls. [Katie Rife]

3. Joaquin Phoenix


Joaquin Phoenix has displayed a thoughtful approach to physical performance, using characteristics like Freddie Quell’s facial tic in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master to convey emotional nuance with subtle physical cues. This finesse would serve him well in comedy, where he could sell the hell out of absurd characters and situations. (His commitment to the world of Her gave real emotional heft, for example, to a scene where a man makes love to his operating system, a scene that in lesser artists’ hands would have read as silly.) I’m Still Here proved that he can unwaveringly commit to a bit, another valuable trait in a comedian. But perhaps the best calling card for Phoenix as a comedic actor is the scene where two uniformed cops shove him to the ground outside of LAPD headquarters in Inherent Vice. That was slapstick gold. [Katie Rife]

4. Denzel Washington


Like many on this list, Denzel Washington is a prime candidate for going full Nielsen in large part because of his complete and total commitment to a part. Outside of Daniel Day-Lewis, few actors immerse themselves so fully in preparation for their roles. So imagine the commitment Washington brings to his deadly serious characters applied to a comedic performance. He has often played men who can find humor in difficult circumstances—think of his fire-breathing turn as the villainous Detective Harris in Training Day, or the charming criminal Frank Lucas in American Gangster—but he’s never really done a straight comedy. (We’re going to pretend the awful Heart Condition didn’t happen.) Many of his latter-day roles involve portraying yet another glowering solitary man, but aside from his obvious potential as a great straight man—somewhat misapplied in Much Ado About Nothing—there’s still the charming rogue who could sell a swaggering comedy with ease. The man whose smile could melt icebergs in Mississippi Masala, with the loose-limbed charisma on display in actioners like Deja Vu or Unstoppable—well, that man could be a damn good silly goof. Someone who can take a pratfall has to be lovable for the audience to connect; God knows, when he turns on the charm, Denzel Washington makes lovable look easy. [Alex McCown]

5. Daniel Day-Lewis


It’s not that Daniel Day-Lewis—ahem, unprecedented three-time Best Actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis—has never been funny on film before; there’s occasionally a twinkle behind his Methodical eyes. But imagine what an actor with such commitment and intensity could bring to something completely absurd. If Day-Lewis lives in a tent and refuses to call his co-stars by anything but their character names, what might he do with his own version of Billy Madison? He might very well create an entirely new genre of movies so funny that they’re scary. [Josh Modell]

6. Shia LaBeouf


After Shia LaBeouf was accused of plagiarizing Daniel Clowes in December of 2013, the Transformers star kicked off a campaign of bizarre public behavior he later explained by way of borrowing the go­-to excuse of Hollywood’s pretentious and/or just-­fucking-around class: It was all performance art. But The Beef is no Marina Abramović (though he stole from her, too), and his sky­written apologies and appropriated mea culpas were closer to acts of anti-­comedy. (See also: the Unknown Comic impression he pulled at the Berlin Film Festival.) The actor could easily follow that muse into the late­-night world that’s been so kind to the aggressive antics of Tim & Eric and Eric André, deadpanning his way through hifalutin works of mindfuckery 15 minutes at a time. Failing that, he could just plagiarize himself and tap back into the rubber­faced idiosyncrasies that made him a star during the three-season run of Disney Channel’s Even Stevens. [Erik Adams]

7. Sam Elliott


In casting “doppelgängers” for their motley crew of civil servants, the producers of Parks And Recreation hit upon the ideal similar-­but­-different match for the mustachioed, meat-loving, Scotch­-swilling Ron Swanson: The guy who says “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner.” Despite turns in comedic fare like The Big Lebowski and Thank You For Smoking, and despite the number of one-­liners he drops in Road House (“This place has a sign hangin’ over the urinal that says, ‘Don’t eat the big white mint’”), Sam Elliott hasn’t played a lot of characters like Ron Dunn. But he should, especially if the writing and direction allows him to play the part as straight as he would a Wild West legend like Virgil Earp or Wild Bill Hickok. Elliott carries himself with such gravitas that the slightest hint of irreverence can score him a laugh—especially if it’s carried off with that shit-­eating grin he flashes at The Dude in The Big Lebowski. [Erik Adams]

8. Viola Davis


Like Leslie Nielsen’s pre-Zucker brothers, Viola Davis’ image as an actress trades on her credibility as an authority figure. She commands attention when she walks into a room, is an expert in delivering intense monologues, and does a absolutely killer bemused smirk to boot. So while Davis would have to loosen up a bit in order to play a truly comedic role—she even brought gravitas to her role in Madea Goes To Jail—cast in a part that ironically references her other roles, and with the proper sidekick to regard skeptically, she just might make a great straight woman, or, at the very least, an intriguing one. [Katie Rife]

9. Liam Neeson


Who’d have the guts to tell Hollywood’s favorite gravel-voiced shooter of shifty Europeans that he should restrict himself to a single late-career renaissance? Clearly, nobody in Liam Neeson’s inner circle. Although the Irish actor’s upcoming film schedule is still packed full of kicked doors, dead scumbags, and people getting took, Neeson has made a few feints in the direction of comedy of late, appearing as the antagonist in Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways To Die In The West and throwing his gravitas behind the cameo-smorgasbord battle scene in the second Anchorman film. But it was his 2011 appearance as himself, on Ricky Gervais’ rightfully brief HBO series Life’s Too Short, that outlined the particular set of skills Neeson possesses to make his transition into comedy a natural one: a brutal, unflinching deadpan, and a resourceful willingness to play with and mock his increasingly terrifying image. It’s worth remembering that those same traits were what once made Robert De Niro’s early forays into comedy so successful and surprising; it remains to be seen whether Neeson can walk the tricky line of self-parody that eventually consumed the star of The Godfather: Part II, Goodfellas, and Little Fockers. [William Hughes]