10 Best Movie Roles by Stand-Up Comics Turned Actors

Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 5:38 pm
By Shane Rivers

With the release of Funny People, Adam Sandler once again demonstrates his success as a stand-up comic turned actor. You might also be surprised to know that Eric Bana, Sandler’s co-star in the film, got his start as a stand-up comedian and sketch show performer in Australia. That got the ’ol gears to turning, and I asked myself, “Self, what are the 10 best movie roles by stand-up comics turned actors?” I now proudly present the answers to that question.

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1. Actor: Rodney Dangerfield

Role: Thornton Melon

Film: Back to School

Rodney DangerfieldWhy It’s Great: Much like his role in Caddyshack, Dangerfield plays a rags-to-riches character who annoys the hell out of many of the wealthy snobs he meets (in this case, Dr. Philip Barbay). When Thornton Melon isn’t bribing his way into college, he’s putting the moves on Dr. Diane Turner, who also happens to be one of his professors. He hires author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to write a term paper on one of his own books, then tongue lashes the legendary writer when the work receives a failing grade. And in addition to helping the duo of Keith Gordon and Robert Downey, Jr. become big men on campus, Melon also performs the legendary “Triple Lindy” dive to enable the school to win the big swim meet.

Favorite Scene: Forced into taking an oral exam to pass the semester, Melon is faced with just one question…but in 27 parts. When all hope seems lost, he’s suddenly inspired by Dr. Turner’s recitation of “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas. From there on, Melon becomes a virtual fountain of knowledge, recalling every shred of information and passing all his classes (much to his own surprise).

2. Actor: Jamie Foxx

Role: Ray Charles

Film: Ray

Why It’s Great: Jamie Foxx demonstrates his talents as both a singer and actor in this film which examines 30 years in the life of legendary performer Ray Charles. While the musical numbers are certainly brilliant, it’s Jamie Foxx’s unflinching portrayal of Charles’s battles with segregation and drugs which steal the show. An inspirational role which deservedly earned the talented Foxx an Academy Award for Best Actor. Foxx would later mimic the voice of Ray on Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” which was a nice bonus.

Favorite Scene: Any scene in which Ray struggles against his heroin addiction. Sweaty and disheveled, Ray fights his demons and eventually emerges as a better man for having done so, but Foxx masterfully coveys the hellish journey to the viewer.

3. Actor: Adam Sandler

Role: Barry Egan

Film: Punch-Drunk Love

Why It’s Great: Sandler drops his funny-man persona and slides right into the skin of a repressed businessman who sells novelty toilet plungers. Constantly browbeaten by his seven sisters, Barry has massive quantities of rage lurking just beneath his sad sack exterior. It all explodes when he begins seeking a relationship with a mysterious woman, while at the same time being pursued by the thuggish brothers of a money-hungry phone sex operator. Sandler has played straight roles since Punch-Drunk Love, but none have been so emotionally effective (see this page about Adam Sandler movies for more information).

Favorite Scene: After being attacked by the four brothers of a phone sex worker, Egan calls the woman to give her a piece of his mind. This results in his being transferred to the owner of the phone sex line, a crude Utah mattress salesman played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The two men, both filled with pent-up rage, engage in an epically crude argument which manages to be both comical and frightening at the same time.

4. Actor: Steve Martin

Steve MartinRole: C.D. Bales

Film: Roxanne

Why It’s Great: Martin updates the tale of Cyrano de Bergerac and sets it in small-town America. C.D. Bales is witty, charming and a master of many skills; unfortunately, he’s also got a freakishly oversized nose. Convinced he can never capture the heart of Roxanne, a beautiful local astronomer, he writes her love letters but allows her to think they’re from a handsome local fireman whom she has a crush on. But in the end, true love wins out, and the charming Bales gets the girl. Delivering a message of hope for ugly guys everywhere, the role deftly blends the comedic and physical talents of Martin with his emerging dramatic abilities.

Favorite Scene: When a barfly insults his nose at the local watering hole, C.D. challenges the man to a contest of insults. The drunk is no match for the clever fire chief, and Bales also demonstrates that he can fight as well as he can talk. If you’ve ever been accosted by a loud-mouth drunk, this is a must-see exercise in fantasy fulfillment.

5. Actor: Robin Williams

Role: John Keating

Film: Dead Poets Society

Why It’s Great: Williams has put together an impressive acting resume in-between his manic stand-up performances. In the role of unorthodox teacher John Keating, he lets his naturally humor and charisma shine through while providing a future generation with the inspiration needed to think for themselves. From triumph to defeat, Keating runs a gamut of emotions in his effort to inspire.

Favorite Scene: During their first lecture, Keating takes the students out into the hall and familiarizes them with the Latin phrase carpe diem (“seize the day”). At the prompting of their teacher, the young men look at photos of previous school graduates, and Keating whispers carpe diem as if the ghosts of the past were giving the boys encouragement.

6. Actor: Woody Allen

Role: Alvy Singer

Film: Annie Hall

Why It’s Great: Prior to Annie Hall, Allen was primarily known for his wacky comedies. This movie was a turning point in his career, however, and showed his ability to direct more serious works which delved deeper into the pool of human emotions. Sure, Alvy Singer is like every other neurotic Woody Allen character, but the quality of the film helps elevate him to a different level of emotional complexity. No wonder the role earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 1977.

Favorite Scene: Alvy is called into the room of Duane Hall (Christopher Walken), Annie’s brother, for a conversation. As Alvy looks on uncomfortably. Duane proceeds to tell him about his fantasies involving swerving head-on into oncoming traffic. Shortly thereafter, Alvy ends up in a car being driven by Duane, and the look of terror and suspicion on his face is priceless.

7. Actor: Eric Bana

Eric BanaRole: Chopper Read

Film: Chopper

Why It’s Great: Playing Australian criminal legend Mark “Chopper” Read, Bana beefs up and takes on a larger-than-life persona to match that of his subject. After all, Read was a man known for murder, thievery, and even having portions of his own ears cut off. But somehow, Read manages to seem civil and likable no matter what atrocity he’s committing. It’s this casual detachment to violence, along with Bana’s impressive portrayal, which elevates Chopper to the realm of a truly great film.

Favorite Scene: Betrayed by his best friend, Chopper is stabbed during a walk in prison. His reaction is more stunned amazement than pain, and he asks his pal, “What’s the matter with you.” After being stabbed several more times, he hugs his betrayer and forgives him, meanwhile bleeding out all over the floor.

8. Actor: Peter Sellers

Peter SellersRole: Capt. Lionel Mandrake/Dr. Strangelove/President Merkin Muffley

Film: Dr. Strangelove

Why It’s Great: Comedic genius Peter Sellers plays three characters in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war comedy: the proper British officer Lionel Mandrake, the ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove, and a harried President of the United States named Merkin Muffley. Each role is memorable in its own way, which is quite an accomplishment considering the film’s many noteworthy characters.

Favorite Scene: Having been rescued from the clutches of mad U.S. General Jack D. Ripper, British exchange officer Group Captain Lionel Mandrake attempts to call the White House and give them the recall codes for the bomber group dispatched to Russia. But he must first reason with the suspicious Colonel “Bat” Guano, an Army paratrooper convinced that Mandrake is some manner of “prevert.” To top things off, the base communications are down, forcing the increasingly frustrated Brit to attempt a call on a nearby pay phone (an effort made even more difficult by a lack of pocket change).

9. Actor: Billy Connolly

Role: John Brown

Film: Mrs. Brown

Why It’s Great: Scottish comic Billy Connolly managed to surprise critics and audiences alike with his nuanced portrayal of John Brown, a Scottish servant responsible for helping Queen Victoria resume her public duties following the death of her consort, Prince Albert. Fiercely devoted to the Queen, Brown takes a firm hand with those around her, earning many enemies among the household staff and royal family. But there’s never any doubt as to his loyalty, and the very title “Mrs. Brown” hinted at what many of the time believed to be an improper (and perhaps sexual) relationship between the servant and monarch.

Favorite Scene: Anything where Connolly and Judi Dench share the screen. Their chemistry is electric (well, as electric as it can be for two AARP candidates), and you’ll never doubt the sincerity of their relationship. Perhaps the finest moment comes when Brown attempts to convince her to return to her public duties, and the Queen sees this as a betrayal. When he refers to her as “woman” (which was common for Brown), the Queen takes exception, thus dramatically altering the course of their relationship.

10. Actor: Whoopi Goldberg

Whoopi GoldbergRole: Celie Harris Johnson

Film: The Color Purple

Why It’s Great: You’d be hard-pressed to find a more repressed and yet uplifting character than Celie Harris Johnson. Raped by her stepfather and husband, mistreated by those around her, and lacking in both beauty and book smarts, Celie still manages to overcome the obstacles in her life and find true happiness. Whoopi has demonstrated her comedic talents for years, but it’s a shame she never had more opportunities to stretch her dramatic muscles.

Favorite Scene: Celie finally finds the courage to stand up to her abusive husband, Albert (Danny Glover), informing him that she’ll be leaving him for good. In a moment of empowerment, she proceeds to tell off Albert and his father before grabbing a knife and holding it to her husband’s throat for emphasis. As she rides away, she exclaims, “I’m poor, black, I may even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here! I’m here!”