Hollywood 1980s: TV as Source of Big-Screen Comedians

The most distinctive attribute of the decade’s big movie stars is that many of them have come from television, where they were groomed and polished their craft. We are not talking about one or two TV stars that made it big in Hollywood. We are talking about a group of performers who, singly jointly, have come to dominate American film comedy of the l980s. As alumni of the Second City revue companies or NBC’s Saturday Night Live, they wrote, produced, and starred (in different capacities and different combinations) such popular films as Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and National Lampoon’s Animal House and its variants.

Is it premature to celebrate the togetherness of film and TV, mediums that were once in direct competition with each other Gone are the days when the two cultural media used to be “natural enemies.” Unlike radio, which was always considered a legitimate avenue for screen actors to pursue before or during their screen careers, television was regarded a threat to the very existence of film.

As late as the 1950s, there was a good deal of resentment and suspicion of the new, increasingly popular, medium. Hollywood’s studios feared so much the competition from television that they prohibited their stars from appearing on the small screen. For example, Clark Gable’s MGM contract stipulated that he would appear in television productions only if they became a substantial part of the business (i.e as advertisement for his big screen work). Gable’s lengthy screen career was marked by only two TV appearances, both in the late l950s: the first when he presented an Academy Award, and the second, when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Humphrey Bogart also avoided television, regarding it suspiciously as a threat to his livelihood as a movie actor. He subsequently made only one big television appearance, in l955, recreating his previous stage and film role as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest.

As late as 1969, Jimmy Cagney shocked the television industry, when he refused a lucrative offer for a ten-second commercial. Committed to screen acting, it was a matter of principle to him, no matter how much money he was going to earn.

For better or for worse, this suspicion forced television to develop its own stars: Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Bill Cosby and, of course, the performers of Saturday Night Live. The transition from TV to film stardom is not always smooth and not always possible. Mary Tyler Moore and Shelley Long are still struggling to find the right vehicles.

It took several years for Tom Selleck to have made the transition from Magnum P.I. to a bankable screen star. However, Three Men and a Baby (l987) showed that with the right vehicle, he and Tad Danson, another popular TV star (Cheers), could attract moviegoers. While only thirteen of the l00 top-grossing movies have lacked bankable movie stars, at least half of them were directed and or produced by a star filmmaker, Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg and his entertainment empire are their own stars, dominating the shape and form of such starless blockbusters as E.T., Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Goonies, and the technologically wonderful Who Framed Roger Rabit. Bob Hoskins is a talented British actor, but it’s doubtful whether viewers flocked to see the film because of his performance.

The blockbusters that lacked A-list directors or star-performers have been high-concept films. Behind the success of each one of them stands a hip factor, an original idea, a technological innovation, a spoof of previously made films. For example, the l980 comedy Airplane was a zany spoof of the Airport disaster movies. Fast-paced, with a nonstop string of gags, Airplane had three directors, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, who collaborated again in “Ruthless People” (1986).

Written and directed by Bob Clark, the starless “Porky’s” (1982) was another bawdy, raucous comedy. Set in the Eisenhower era, its rude humor was specifically designed for teen-aged audiences, who made it the fifth most popular film of the year. Porky’s also has the distinction of being the only blockbuster to have opened in the winter (March). Most of the hits have been released in the two high-seasons of filmgoing, during the summer or Christmas.

The success of Ron Howard’s “Cocoon” (1985), but not its sequel, depended less on its narrative and protagonists (played by distinguished stage or screen actors), than the format and visual style of a Sci-fi comedy, in the best tradition of the Lucas-Spielberg movies. Cocoon was marked by an adolescent sensibility, being a tale of elderly people’s need for rejuvenation, told from the point of view of young people.

If one were to choose the two figures who have put their stamp on the American commercial cinema of the l980s, one would have to single out Eddie Murphy as a performer and Steven Spielberg as a filmmaker. It seems irrelevant to ask how many people have actually laughed while watching The Golden Child. Or whether the recently released Harlem Nights is an ego trip or a self-promoted star-vehicle.  The fact remains that Murphy’s name appears five times in the credits of Harlem Nights. The vast majority of blockbusters have featured major movie stars. This has been one of the few consistent attributes of commercial American cinema from its beginnings. Stardom as a system, created and fabricated by the movie moguls, may no longer exists, but individual stars (and their agents) have never been as powerful as today. The old studios, as we knew them, may be dead, but big movie stars are well and alive in Hollywood.

This essay was written in 1990