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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Someone fire their agents! 26 actors who deserve better careers

Illustration for article titled Someone fire their agents! 26 actors who deserve better careers

1. Jamie Lee Curtis

The daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh automatically has the breeding of a star, but more to the point, she displayed the charisma of one in her scintillating turn in A Fish Called Wanda. So why has she had such a limited career? Her early performance as Laurie Strode in the first Halloween may have prevented directors from taking her seriously enough—it's certainly mired her in Halloween sequels, up to 2002's Halloween: Resurrection, and it no doubt led directly to her casting in the likes of The Fog, Terror Train, and Prom Night. Post-Wanda, she "upgraded" to forgettable mainstream fare like the My Girl movies and Forever Young, with a memorable turn in the unmemorable Freaky Friday remake. But her highest-profile moment came from her depressingly exploitative role in the popular but brainless actioner True Lies. Wanda showed she had the chops to be classy, funny, and sexy, yet her roles since then rarely allowed her to be any of the above, let alone all three. She's just one of many talented people who really deserve better than what Hollywood's handed them—specifically in her case, Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

2. Michael Keaton

It's hard to say whether Michael Keaton's negligible presence in show business lately has been a matter of bad luck, bad management, or personal choice. He's always been mercurial, jumping from broad comic turns in movies like Night Shift and Johnny Dangerously to more dramatic work in Clean And Sober and One Good Cop. And of course he probably made enough money in his two rounds as Batman that he never needs to work again. Still, Keaton has such a unique onscreen presence, simultaneously quick-witted and weathered, that he's nearly an always an asset, even when he agrees to star in crap like Multiplicity and Jack Frost. Keaton's recent starring role in the offbeat indie drama Game 6—and his work in the '90s as Elmore Leonard's Ray Nicolette in Jackie Brown and Out Of Sight—shows that he can still captivate an audience when he wants to. He'd be perfect as the lead in an FX-style drama like Rescue Me or Sons Of Anarchy, playing a semi-desperate character with a sharp edge and an unexplored tender side. Why not give him a call, TV producers?

3. Bob Odenkirk

While his Mr. Show partner David Cross scored another instant-classic television gig as "analrapist" Tobias Fünke on Arrested Development and landed nifty character-actor roles in acclaimed fare like Ghost World, I'm Not There, and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Bob Odenkirk has worked largely behind the scenes since Mr. Show's demise. He's popped up in regrettable fare like Monkeybone, My Big Fat Independent Movie, and Let's Go To Prison—which he also directed—but outside of his appearances on Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Odenkirk's diversity and unparalleled gift for comic rage have gone woefully underutilized.

4. Robert Forster

With 1997's Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino rescued Robert Forster from the dustbin of cinema history and roles that even Troy McClure would have turned down. (You might remember him from such films as Maniac Cop 3: Badge Of Silence, Satan's Princess, and The Kinky Coaches And The Pom Pom Pussycats.) Forster only got better with age. The glum pretty boy of Medium Cool and Reflections In A Golden Eye had become everyone's ideal dad: kindly, soulful, and blessed with effortless authenticity and soothing paternal warmth. Forster delivered a wonderful performance in the criminally underseen Diamond Men, but otherwise has picked up paychecks for bigger-budgeted crap like D-Wars, Supernova, Gus Van Sant's defilement of Psycho, and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. He's a working actor, but juicy, substantive roles have largely eluded him. Hopefully his upcoming appearance on Heroes will change that.

5. Judy Davis

Prickly and brittle, yet forceful, witty, and acerbic, Judy Davis scored a remarkable string of great performances in the early '90s, following creepily sexy turns in Barton Fink and Naked Lunch with equally volcanic performances in Husbands And Wives, The Ref, and The New Age. Since then, however, she's been typecast as ball-busting shrews in supporting roles. As big-screen opportunities dried up, Davis worked extensively in television, playing such real-life figures as Nancy Reagan, Judy Garland, and Marilyn Dean. Most recently, Davis has applied her idiosyncratic gifts to a supporting role in both the miniseries and series incarnation of The Starter Wife, a USA series based on Gigi Levangie Grazer's novel, a far cry from stealing the films of the Coen brothers, Woody Allen, and David Cronenberg. Sigh.

6. Geena Davis

Generally speaking, unless you're a Hollywood veteran taking your last bows, it may be better not to win a Best Supporting Actor or Actress Oscar. Just ask Geena Davis, who won for her quirky-but-deep performance in the 1988 melodrama The Accidental Tourist—after nearly a decade of bright turns in well-liked TV and movie comedies—and has seen her star gradually dim in the two decades since. Davis scored in Thelma & Louise and A League Of Their Own, and won a Golden Globe playing the first female president in the legendarily mismanaged TV drama Commander In Chief, but the sprightly, gangly, slightly skewed girl-next-door type that was her stock in trade in the '80s has been all but replaced by something borderline cartoonish. Perhaps the Davis of old is gone for good, or perhaps people have forgotten how to write roles for the kind of woman she used to play: smart, capable, somewhat flustered, but easy to like.

7. Rachel Dratch

During her 1999-2007 stint on Saturday Night Live, Rachel Dratch was a star. As one of the show's longest-running female cast members, she took on characters like Barbara Walters, Debbie Downer, and an amorous hippie college professor. Most notably, though, she wasn't afraid to get ugly with her roles, playing, for instance, the drooling love-child of James Haven and Angelina Jolie, complete with an arm growing out of her head. Dratch's longtime creative partnership with Tina Fey looked like it would strike gold again with 30 Rock, only Dratch hit a snag—her character on the sitcom was replaced by Jane Krakowski. Dratch showed up in several cameo roles in the show's first season, but has since faded away. In spite of her noteworthy SNL run, Dratch has yet to find another outlet for her talents—she's appeared on Third Watch and The King Of Queens, and in films like Martin & Orloff, Dickie Roberts; Former Child Star, and Click. Nobody is more aware of the unfair career turn than Dratch, who bemoaned her downtime to New York magazine earlier this year: In response, Perez Hilton offered on his website to pay her to make some "funny videos," but whether that's better than not working is unclear.


8. Rory Cochrane

Considering the many actors who broke out of Richard Linklater's Dazed And Confused, it's baffling that Rory Cochrane—who nailed some of the film's biggest laughs as the constantly high conspiracy theorist Slater—wasn't among them. Perhaps it's because he inhabited the role so well that his follow-up projects didn't resonate quite so loudly. After all, Slater couldn't be further removed from Love And A .45's speed-crazed biker Billy Mack Black, or Empire Records' philosophical smartass Lucas; both characters proved that Cochrane was far more versatile than some of his Dazed co-stars, even though the movies themselves were less than revelatory. Cochrane's ability to constantly reinvent himself may have actually hindered his progress. Had he simply embraced playing the laidback stoner the way Matthew McConaughey did, who knows where his career might have gone? Instead, his résumé is full of middling indie pics that failed to find an audience, along with roles opposite big stars in major studio gambles that probably sounded good on paper, such as Hart's War and Flawless. These days, Cochrane seems to have settled into a respectable television career with small supporting parts on CSI and 24, but as his go-for-broke performances in Linklater's A Scanner Darkly and the underrated Right At Your Door demonstrate, he has so much more to offer.


9. Rick Moranis

On SCTV, Rick Moranis made comedy look easy, sliding gracefully from playing suave VJ Gerry Todd to fast-talking film producer Larry Siegel to the beer-addled Bob McKenzie—not to mention inhabiting disparate celebrities like George Carlin, Neil Young, and Dick Cavett. Unfortunately, outside of a few creative gambles like Streets Of Fire and Head Office (both critical and commercial failures), his films rarely made use of his chameleonic talents: Beginning with Ghostbusters, Moranis was rewarded only when he was playing nebbishes, a career trajectory that was cemented with the blockbuster hit Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and its sequels. From then on, Moranis was consigned to family-film hell, playing cartoonish nerd archetypes—and in the case of The Flintstones, a nerd from an actual cartoon—and looking vaguely embarrassed in mediocre comedies like My Blue Heaven and Splitting Heirs. Finally, he retired from acting, having never really broken out of that "loveable loser" box. It remains to be seen whether he'll ever be lured back to Hollywood, but a part that finally makes good use of Moranis' range could be one of film's great comeback stories.

10. Timothy Olyphant

Back in 1997, those who saw Scream 2 probably didn't have exorbitantly high expectations of Timothy Olyphant, but in the dozen years since, he's put together too many excellent supporting roles to be ignored. After making an impression among the ensemble cast of Go in 1999, he mostly opted for roles in dude-flicks (though he stood out again in another group-cast indie fave, The Safety Of Objects) but to his credit, at least they were good ones. Aside from wasting time in Gone In 60 Seconds and The Girl Next Door, Olyphant added something to Rock Star and Live Free Or Die Hard. Perhaps that guy-geared résumé is what landed him his first cinematic lead, in last year's entertaining shoot-'em-up Hitman (and a role in Stop-Loss this year), but now he seems to be trying to bank a career on television. A Sex And The City appearance was his only TV experience before he took the lead role in Deadwood, a sharp contrast from recent screen time in the dumb comedy My Name Is Earl. In fact, Olyphant's versatility might just be what's holding him back: How do you brand yourself after showing up both on Christina Applegate's Samantha Who? and on Glenn Close's Damages?

11. Clifton Collins Jr.

An initial go-to actor for the Hughes brothers and in the cast for John Singleton's Poetic Justice, Clifton Collins Jr. was originally typecast as a Latino thug (he's half-Mexican), and a notable turn as a hitman for a drug cartel in Traffic only solidified the stereotype. But hey, at least he showed that he can be wildly entertaining while waving a pistol around and acting insane: Yep, that's him as a drug dealer (again) in The Rules Of Attraction, intimidating the shit out of James Van Der Beek and breathing life into the sluggish film. Thankfully, though, Collins is slowly turning simple thug-with-gun roles into thug-with-character-development roles. He helped immensely with his delicate portrayal of complex killer Perry Smith in 2005's Capote. It also appears he's finding parts that aren't criminals: His next movie is a sports drama, The Perfect Game. Then, uh, he's in a comedy-drama about homicide scenes (Sunshine Cleaning) and a thriller about serial killers (The Horsemen). Ah, well.


12. Lochlyn Munro

A Canadian who got his start on 21 Jump Street, Lochlyn Munro is too funny to forever be known only as the spazzed-out, beer-guzzling psycho roommate in Dead Man On Campus. (Perhaps it was his appearance in Wagons East that landed him the part?) Alas, it was all downhill from there: Screwed, Scary Movie, White Chicks, The Benchwarmers, and Daddy Day Camp all show up on his filmography. But dig up your DVD of A Night At The Roxbury—where did you put that?—and try not to giggle at Munro's portrayal of a ludicrously dedicated fitness trainer; Munro debatably plays "oblivious" to comic effect better than Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan. It's worth wondering what Munro would do with more screen time, but not too many people will be willing to check out Freddy Vs. Jason or Dracula 2000 to find out. But, hey, Munro graced the screen in Unforgiven, suggesting that he isn't all just dumb gags and dumb thrills. Then again… was that him in Deck The Halls?


13. Michael Badalucco

One of the characteristics that make the Coen brothers such great filmmakers is their ability to recognize acting talent that others have missed; their movies are populated with a virtual stock company of great but otherwise terribly unused character actors. Although he settled into a comfortable life of TV appearances, most notably as Jimmy Berluti on The Practice, the round-faced, squinting Michael Badalucco has appeared in a handful of films that serve mostly as reminders of how good an acting career he might have had if given the chance. The Coens first used him in a brief, memorable scene as a mob driver in Miller's Crossing, but it wasn't until his unforgettable appearance as a manic-depressive Babyface Nelson in O Brother, Where Art Thou? that his real potential shone through. A chilling performance as David Berkowitz in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam proved that he was capable of more than just comedic turns, and the Coens got another solid role out of him in The Man Who Wasn't There. But he's been ill-used since then.


14. Mos Def

Rappers-turned-actors are a dime a dozen, which is about what they're worth. One of the few exceptions is Mos Def, a critically acclaimed rapper whose movie appearances have shown him to be charismatic and intense. As inventive and emotional onscreen as he is on record, he can be breezily cool and sinister, often in the same role, but while he shows an admirable willingness to reach, he's been hobbled by ambitious failures, and more often than not, he ends up being the best thing in a bad movie: He was intensely watchable in the otherwise-dismal Spike Lee joint Bamboozled, and likewise the only worthwhile thing about the MTV abomination Carmen: A Hip Hopera. He's also done terrific work in movies that aim high but don't quite succeed (The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Be Kind Rewind) and TV projects that don't get the attention they deserve (Something The Lord Made and The Boondocks, where he has a hilarious reoccurring role as gay rapper Gangstalicious). If things don't change for him soon, his career will be defined by his appearances in blockbusters like The Italian Job: they'll make him money, but they'll leave him with the kind of sellout reputation he constantly decries in his music.

15. Mädchen Amick

David Lynch's , for all its greatness, unfortunately reads like a Who's Who of actors who deserved better careers than they ended up with. Although it's one of the most critically acclaimed shows in TV history—thanks in no small part to its dynamite cast—very few of them have had much success in the years since the series went off the air. Kyle MacLachlan started out as the best-known member of the cast, and ended up in Showgirls; the stunning Sheryl Lee did gross soft porn in Red Shoe Diaries before bouncing around various sub-par TV roles; and Eric DaRe, Dana Ashbrook, and Wendy Robie are all more famous for having been on Twin Peaks than for anything they've done since. Perhaps the greatest casualty was the striking, sensitive Mädchen Amick, who did a tremendous job as abused wife Shelly Johnson. Critics loved her, but success in that role didn't translate to movie roles; after a few unremarkable performances in duds like Sleepwalkers, Trapped In Paradise, and Wounded, she settled into TV movies and generic "friend-of-the-lead" series work. Like some of her fellow Twin Peaks actresses, she did time on Gilmore Girls, but she, like them, deserves much better.


16. Andre Braugher

When Homicide: Life On The Street debuted in 1993, it didn't just offer a more realistic take on the day-to-day drudgery of police work, it also featured one of TV's most complicated, non-stereotypical multi-ethnic casts. Andre Braugher's master detective Frank Pembleton quickly became the show's breakout character: a rigorously moral, frequently contemptuous cop with a keen sense of drama and a well-earned swagger. Braugher finally won an Emmy for his work on Homicide in 1998 (his last year on the show), and won another in 2006 for the underrated FX miniseries Thief, but for the most part, he's had difficulty finding roles that suit his commanding voice and visible passion. In movies, Braugher has largely been relegated to character parts that barely qualify as "supporting actor" material—cops, captains, soldiers, and his miserable role as a doomed dummy in The Mist. Maybe he's just going where the money is, steering clear of the kind of low-budget indies where he could soar, Paul Giamatti-style. Whatever the reason for his middling career, it's the kind of injustice that Frank Pembleton would never stand.

17. Dave Foley

Pretty much every member of The Kids In The Hall belongs on this list, since they've all shown more versatility and imagination in their comedy sketches than they've displayed in the smattering of bit parts they've taken outside KITH. But Foley is a particularly frustrating case, since a decade ago, he was holding down the center on the brilliant sitcom NewsRadio and doing fine voice work on Pixar's blockbuster A Bug's Life, while for much of the '00s, his résumé has been littered with cameos, comic relief, guest appearances, and TV-presenter gigs. He's been game throughout, but even when he was making the best of a two-year stint as the host of Celebrity Poker Showdown, he often looked depressed, defeated, and possibly drunk. Foley isn't necessarily a movie star, but there's no reason he shouldn't be anchoring another American sitcom or getting beefier character roles.

18. Anna Faris

If Oscars were handed out to actors who give good performances in spite of ineffectual direction, terrible writing, and absolutely no support from the supporting cast, Anna Faris would be the new Katharine Hepburn. A cute blonde whose good looks belie an endearing, anything-for-a-laugh fearlessness, Faris has thus far eked out roles in a long series of lame, brain-dead comedies: The Hot Chick, Waiting…, Mama's Boy, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, and all four Scary Movie films. (To be fair, she also had small roles in Lost In Translation and Brokeback Mountain.) Still, Faris has emerged as an unlikely darling among critics frantically looking for something good while sitting through some of the worst films of the past several years. Will Faris look as good when her surroundings aren't so repulsive? It would be nice to find out.

19. John Lithgow

It isn't that John Lithgow has had a bad career—he's been a respected character actor on stage and screen for more than 35 years, and he starred in a very successful sitcom, 3rd Rock From The Sun, in the late '90s. But he's never really had a breakout movie role as a leading man, and he doesn't have the creepy-cool status that defines similarly quirky actors like Christopher Walken and John Malkovich. (You could never base a Saturday Night Live skit on a John Lithgow impression.) But anyone who's seen Lithgow's brilliant star turn in Brian De Palma's underappreciated 1991 thriller Raising Cain—or his supporting performances in De Palma's Blow Out, or The World According To Garp—knows he can ham it up with the best of them. Lately, Lithgow has been appearing in small roles every couple of years in films that haven't let him unleash his inner weirdo. Please, somebody get this guy a script where he's playing multiple roles, and possibly wearing a dress.


20. Steve Zahn

Steve Zahn is known for playing slackers, stoners, and loveable idiots, but sometimes it seems like he isn't really acting. He's done enough good work in great movies—Out Of Sight, Rescue Dawn, Shattered Glass, That Thing You Do!—to suggest that all the crappy comedies and forgettable action flicks on his résumé are squandering real talent. Even more disconcerting is Zahn's apparent lack of effort in utterly forgettable trash like this year's Strange Wilderness, where he coasted on his considerable charisma in lieu of giving an actual performance. Zahn is almost always a delight onscreen, but if he applied himself a bit more, he could be the smartest kid in the class.

21. Justine Bateman

To date, former Family Ties star Justine Bateman has had a leading role in just one film, 1988's lady rock 'n' roll band opus Satisfaction. Though she returned to the silver screen in 2006 with a small role in the Judd Apatow-produced comedy The TV Set, and appeared in four episodes of Desperate Housewives this year, Bateman still hasn't experienced the kind of late-period career rejuvenation her younger brother Jason has had post-Arrested Development. And as a 41-year-old actress, she faces an uphill climb in Hollywood. But she definitely has that dry Bateman wit and air of intelligence, and she's always been a likeable, attractive screen presence even when she's had to troll the depths of the Lifetime Movie Channel for roles.



22. Jonathan Silverman

After 25 years in show business, Jonathan Silverman's greatest claim to fame is being outshone by Andrew McCarthy and a corpse in the Weekend At Bernie's movies. While nobody is going to confuse him with Christian Bale, Silverman is an effortlessly charming light comic actor with leading-man good looks who could do well with a snappily written sitcom. On the mid-'90s Friends retread The Single Guy, Silverman was a winning presence on a lousy show. Imagine how funny he could be if he actually had something funny to say.


23. Andy Richter

There's something just plain depressing about the fact that one-time Late Night With Conan O'Brien sidekick Andy Richter is popping up next in a teen sci-fi flick starring High School Musical's Ashley "The Tiz" Tisdale. Richter was, at one point, an integral part of one of TV's most offbeat and irreverent TV shows. His cherubic good-naturedness meshed magically with O'Brien's now-familiar frenetic humor and angular look. Together, their onscreen chemistry and writing brought their show a bevy of Emmy awards and a youthful audience not usually tuned into late-night television. Since leaving the show to pursue life off the couch, he's been relegated to cameos in Will Ferrell movies and mediocre sitcoms like Andy Richter Controls The Universe and the more recent Andy Parker P.I. It seems Richter has been pigeonholed in traditional everyman/bumbling-dad roles instead of showcasing his ability to channel the funny and bizarre, as he did alongside Conan.

24. Tony Hale

It seemed like Tony Hale's career barely got off the ground before he dropped off the pop-culture radar yet again. Best-known for his role as Byron "Buster" Bluth on the feverishly adored, short-lived Fox show Arrested Development, Hale brought a certain spot-on awkwardness to the role of a pampered man-child whose hand gets bitten off by a bowtie-wearing seal. Before Buster, Hale toiled away in minor roles on popular shows like The Sopranos and Sex And The City, as well as a memorable Volkswagen commercial where he seat-dances to "Mr. Roboto." Still, Hale's ability to inhabit oddball characters while endearing them to his audience seems to have gone unnoticed by Hollywood, which has barely made use of him post-Arrested. While Justin Bateman, Will Arnett, and Michael Cera are enjoying their career bumps, Hale has been relegated to failed sitcoms and small roles in underseen films like Stranger Than Fiction.

25. Thora Birch

The trajectory of child film stars are, more often than not, difficult to watch as they tackle puberty, rebellious urges, and the transition to adult roles. But Thora Birch seemed right on track: She followed roles in pleasant childhood films like Now And Then with critically embraced leads in American Beauty and Ghost World. While her co-star, Scarlett Johansson, has gone on to mega-stardom, it was Birch who brought the beloved, cat-mask-wearing Enid so much subtlety and alienated likeability. Yet, at 26, she seems unable to find roles that bring her alterna-girl relatability to the screen, which is a crying shame given the dearth of interesting-seeming women in Hollywood. Though she's hinted at hopes of directing, she continues to plug away in front of the camera, stuck in B thrillers like the upcoming, badly titled Winter Of Frozen Dreams.

26. Tony Todd

Tony Todd had a fine career to date, thank you very much, but he has a personal presence deserving of wider fame. Even those who don't know his name have probably seen him: He plays the titular villain in the Candyman movies, and the mysterious William Bludworth in the Final Destination series. He's done guest spots on The X-Files, Smallville, 24, and more—in particular, his memorable turns on Star Trek: The Next Generation as Worf's brother Kurn were in keeping with his tendency to play imposing figures with hard-to-parse motivations. But anyone's who's seen Todd's other Star Trek appearance, as the grown-up version of the young Jake Sisko on a time-warping episode of Deep Space Nine, has seen his ability to convey depths of sadness beneath that forbidding exterior. Those who typecast him would do well to exploit that talent again.

27. Lauren Ambrose

As the artsy youngest child, Claire Fisher, on the popular HBO show Six Feet Under, Lauren Ambrose made growing up in a dysfunctional-family-run mortuary look impossibly cool. The role was a natural transition for Fisher, who brought a sardonic wit to roles in bland, big budget studio films, like In & Out and the teen comedy Can't Hardly Wait. Since Six Feet Under bowed out in 2005, Ambrose has mostly stayed busy onstage, with plum roles on Broadway. Fans rejoiced earlier this year, though, when she was cast as sister to indie-film hero Parker Posey for the short-lived Fox sitcom The Return Of Jezebel James. But the show turned out to be a total dud—a reinforcement of the caricatures of modern women as either shrill career types (Posey) or free-spirited, quirky single gals (Ambrose)—and it vanished after just three episodes. Which leaves Ambrose free for better work. Hello? Hollywood?


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