Today it is a rare thing for a television star to make the successful transition to film. Those who do are few and far between. While it is uncommon today for a TV star to become a movie star, there was a time when it was not so rare. In fact, from the late Fifties into the Sixties several television stars made the transition to film, including James Garner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Tuesday Weld, among others. In fact, some of the biggest stars of the Sixties and Seventies rose to stardom on television.
It was in 1958 that Clint Eastwood was cast in the role of Rowdy Yates, the ramrod on a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri on the TV Western Rawhide. Among his competition for the role had been Bing Russell, who would later go onto a long run in the recurring role of Deputy Clem Foster on Bonanza. Rawhide debuted on 9 January 1959 on CBS. The show would prove to be a hit. In its second season (the 1959-1960 season) it ranked #20 out of all the shows on the air. For its third season it ranked #6 for its year. and for its fourth season #13 for the year. Although Clint Eastwood's role as Rowdy Yates would not be particularly big early in the show's run, it grew as time passed. This was particularly the case after the show's creator and original producer, Charles Marquis Warren, left after its first season. His successor Endre Bohem did not get along particularly well with Eric Fleming (who played trail boss Gil Favor) and as a result Rowdy took on a larger role.
As early as the third season of Rawhide, the press theorised that Clint Eastwood might want to leave the show. Indeed, in the early seasons of Rawhide Mr. Eastwood's only work outside of that show were guest appearances on Maverick and Mister Ed. All of this would change in 1963. That year a Western entitled The Magnificent Stranger was being made in Italy. The film was essentially an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo and was being directed by the then unknown Sergio Leone. Several different actors were considered for the lead role, including Charles Bronson, Richard Harrison, Frank Wolfe, and Rawhide star Eric Fleming. Mr. Leone watched an episode of Rawhide and instead found himself interested in casting Clint Eastwood in the lead of what would soon be called A Fistful of Dollars. The role was offered to Mr. Eastwood, who was initially hesitant to do it. After reading the script, however, he decided to take the lead role in A Fistful of Dollars. It would prove to be a career changing decision.
A Fistful of Dollars was released in September 1964 proved to be very successful in Europe, grossing $3 million (about 3 billion lire) in Italy alone. Despite this, it would not be released in the United States or the United Kingdom until 1967. The reason for the delay was quite simply the fact that neither Sergio Leone nor his producers had secured the rights to remake Yojimbo. This resulted in a lawsuit from Akira Kurosawa and Toho Co., Ltd. that delayed the release of A Fistful of Dollars in North America (and perhaps the United Kingdom as well) for nearly three years.
In the meantime Sergio Leone would make two sequels starring Clint Eastwood, For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Rawhide also came to an end after seven and a half years. The ratings for the show had been in decline for the last several seasons. The final season saw Eric Fleming leave the show, so that Clint Eastwood then became its star and Rowdy Yates the new trail boss. Sadly, Rawhide lasted only one more season. Not that it mattered, as Clint Eastwood soon be a verified film star in the United States as well as the rest of the world.
A Fistful of Dollars was released in the United States on 18 January 1967. It was followed by its two sequels: For a Few Dollars More on 10 May 1967 and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly on 29 December 1967. As hard as it is to believe given they are now considered classics, all three films in "the Dollars trilogy (as they came to be known) generally received bad reviews from American critics at the time. Regardless, they did very well at the American box office, particularly The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Clint Eastwood was established as a movie star in the United States.
From the late Sixties into the Seventies he appeared in such films as Hang 'Em High (1968), Coogan's Bluff (1968), Where Eagles Dare (1968), Paint Your Wagon (1969),Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), Kelly's Heroes (1970), Play Misty for Me (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), Magnum Force (1973), The Eiger Sanction (1975), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), The Enforcer (1976), and Escape from Alcatraz (1979). Mr. Eastwood also took up directing, his first feature film as director being Play Misty for Me (1971). Clint Eastwood's career as an actor has continued into the Teens, as has his career as a director. Over the years he starred in such films as Tightrope (1984), Heartbreak Ridge (1986), The Dead Pool (1988), In the Line of Fire (1993), and The Bridges of Madison County (1995). He directed such films (and starred in many of them as well) as Sudden Impact (1983), Pale Rider (1985), Heartbreak Ridge (1986), White Hunter Black Heart (1990), Unforgiven (1992), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Flags of Our Fathers (2006), and Gran Torino (2008).
After having served in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II, Charles Buchinsky (who had not yet taken the name "Charles Bronson") worked a variety of jobs before he finally joined a theatrical troupe in Philadelphia. He later moved to California where he enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse. He made his television debut in an episode of Fireside Theatre in 1949 and his film debut in a small role in You're in the Navy Now in 1951. Over the next few years he appeared in such films as The People Against O'Hara (1951), The Mob (1951), Red Skies of Montana (1952), The Marrying Kind (1952), and Pat and Mike (1952). Over time he began getting much more visible roles, including Igor in House of Wax (1953), Hondo in Apache (1954), and Captain Jack in Drum Beat (1954). He also appeared on television in such shows as The Red Skelton Show, Biff Baker, U.S.A., and The Roy Rogers Show. By the mid-Fifties Charles Bronson was a frequent guest star on television shows, including such shows as Lux Video Theatre, Treasury Men in Action, Gunsmoke, Medic, Warner Brothers Presents, Studio 57, The Millionaire, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Studio One, M Squad, Have Gun - Will Travel, and Sugarfoot. He also had substantial roles in such films as Target Zero (1955), Jubal (1956), and Run of the Arrow (1957).
It was the year 1958 that would mark a major turning point in his career. It was in that year that Charles Bronson had his first starring role in a film, as Deputy US Marshal Luke Welsh in the minor Western Showdown at Boot Hill. That same year he played the lead role in the American International Pictures gangster movie Machine-Gun Kelly, directed by Roger Corman. It would not be starring roles in two B-movies that would make Charles Bronson a household name, however, but rather a very short lived television show. On Man with a Camera Charles Bronson played freelance photographer Mike Kovacs, who worked for everyone from insurance companies to the police. Man with a Camera did not prove particularly successful. The show ran for only half a season from October to January in the 1958-1959 season. It returned in October for the 1959-1960, but only ran until February 1960. Despite running two season, Man with a Camera produced a meagre 29 episodes.
While Man with a Camera was not a roaring success, it did give Charles Bronson a higher profile than he had before. Indeed, it would be in 1960 that Mr. Bronson appeared in one of his best known roles of all time, that of gunfighter Bernardo O'Reilly in The Magnificent Seven. While The Magnificent Seven was a phenomenal success and certainly helped Charles Bronson's career a good deal, he had not quite achieved film stardom yet. He still made guest appearances on television, on such shows as The Loretta Young Show, Laramie, Hennesey, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Dr. Kildare. He would even have regular roles in two more short lived shows, Empire and The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters. And while Charles Bronson was the protagonist in the 1961 film Master of the World (opposite Vincent Price, no less), he played lesser roles in such films as A Thunder of Drums (1961) and the Elvis Presley vehicle Kid Galahad (1962).
The turning point for Charles Bronson would come in 1963, when he appeared in two films that would largely aid in his transition from television star to movie star. The first was directed by Magnificent Seven director John Sturges, The Great Escape. In the film Charles Bronson played Danny, the Tunnel King who must overcome a growing case of claustrophobia. The second was 4 for Texas, in which he played the antagonist, the outlaw Matson. In Mr. Bronson's next few films he would play bigger roles, including the lead in Guns of Diablo (1965) and major roles in The Sandpiper (1965), Battle of the Bugle (1965), and This Property is Condemned (1966). He also continued to appear frequently on television, guest starring on Bonanza, Combat, The Big Valley, Rawhide, The F.B.I., and The Fugitive.
The year 1967 saw the film that would finally turn Charles Bronson into a full fledged movie star. In The Dirty Dozen Mr. Bronson received third billing (top billing went to another TV star turned film star, Lee Marvin) and played Joseph Wladislaw, a one time coal miner who had been convicted of shooting his squad's medic. He also happened to be the only member of the Dozen to survive. The Dirty Dozen proved phenomenally successful. Afterwards it is rare that Charles Bronson received less than third billing and, more often than not, he had lead roles in his film. After The Dirty Dozen Charles Bronson made only two more guest appearances on television shows, on The Virginian and Dundee and the Culhane.
Mr. Bronson spent the rest of the Sixties appearing in such films as Guns for San Sebastian (1968), Farewell, Friend (1968), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Lola (1970), Rider on the Rain (1970), and The Family (1970). In the Seventies he would see even more success, particularly after the controversial but highly successful Death Wish (1974). In addition to Death Wish, in the Seventies he appeared in such films as Red Sun (1971), Chato's Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), Mr. Majestyk (1974), Breakheart Pass (1975), The White Buffalo (1977). Telefon (1977), and Borderline (1980). The Eighties would see his career decline a bit from what it had been in the Seventies. From the Eighties into the Nineties he would appear in sequels to Death Wish, as well as such films as Death Hunt (1981), The Evil That Men Do (1984), Murphy's Law (1986), Assassination (1987), Messenger of Death (1988), Kinjite (1989), and The Indian Runner (1991).
Sadly, in Mr. Bronson's later years he suffered from Alzheimer's disease. He died of pneumonia at the age of 81 on 30 August 2003.
At least in comparison to a period from about the mid-Fifties to the early Sixties, relatively few movie stars have emerged from American television in the ensuing decades. Certainly it does still happen, as Tom Hanks, Michael J. Fox, Will Smith, George Clooney, and Johnn Depp certainly prove, but it does not seem to happen with the frequency it did in the Fifties and Sixties. What is more, television in the Fifties and Sixties did not simply produce movie stars, but arguably superstars. With regards to film in the late Twentieth Century, it is very hard to find bigger movie stars than Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Clint Eastwood.
Of course, the question is why these particular actors succeeded in making the transition from television to film when so many before and since them have failed. Certainly there are some factors common to most or all of them. It is notable that, except for Tuesday Weld (who as a woman would not have been expected to do so at the time), nearly all of them served in the military in some form or another. Indeed, both Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson served in World War II. Although it may only be coincidence, it could also be that the military gave them the discipline necessary to not only succeed in acting, but to make the transition from television to film.
Another factor in the success these particular actors had in going from TV to film may have been the fact that they played what many have called anti-heroes, but what I prefer to call non-traditional heroes. This was true even of the characters many of them played on television. Indeed, James Garner came to fame as Bret Maverick, a professional gambler who preferred using his wits to his guns and was not below scamming his opponents (who always deserved it, of course). Steve McQueen played a bounty hunter, often a villainous figure in Westerns, albeit one with a soft heart. Even Tuesday Weld played a very non-traditional character on television. On Dobie Gillis Thalia was not the typical, sweet girl next door type of most sitcoms of the time, but a girl whose primary concern in life was money. Beginning in the late Fifties and continuing into the early Seventies was a period of immense, cultural change. It was the time of the Sexual Revolution, the Civil Rights movement, feminism, and the beginnings of the Gay Rights movement. With such change in the air, actors who regularly played non-traditional heroes would be more inclined to see success than those of the more traditional variety. The time had come for James Coburn as Derek Flint.
Of course, regardless of any other factors, the most pivotal one may have been the simple fact that American, prime time, broadcast television may well have been at its height from about the mid-Fifties to the early Seventies. The broadcast networks had little in the way of competition for viewers' time. After all, there was nothing in the way of cable channels, the World Wide Web, personal computers, or video games. It should not be surprising, then, that even a low rated, network programme might well draw more attention at that time than it would now. This naturally allowed many actors on television shows as the time to become household names. I rather suspect most people in 1960 knew who Tuesday Weld was. How many people can name any of the actors on even moderately successful network sitcoms today? In the end, television stars were simply much bigger then than they are now. If more of them became movie stars back then, it may have been because they were closer to movie stars to begin with.
Regardless, I doubt we will ever see another period when quite so many television stars successfully make the transition to film. It is an era long past. It would seem, to paraphrase Norma Desmond, that television has gotten small. While there can be no doubt that more television actors will make the transition to film, I seriously doubt that they will do so in large numbers.