Stephen Arnell

The TV shows starring Hollywood royalty

The TV shows starring Hollywood royalty
Reese Witherspoon, Big Little Lies (Shutterstock)
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Ageing screen siren Norma Desmond’s lament that 'it's the pictures that got small' in Billy Wilder’s classic black comedy doesn’t appear to apply to the Hollywood stars of today, who only a decade or so ago saw acting on TV as the sign of a career in box office free fall.

The warning signs were there for all to see; when oldsters Charlton Heston and Barbara Stanwyck starred in the 1980s Dynasty spin-off The Colbys, no-one imagined they were doing it for anything other than pecuniary reasons.

More recently there has been a rash of US actors appearing in British shows, although admittedly not quite the stature of Chuck and Babs.

Christopher Walken rocked up recently in Stephen Merchant’s misfire Outlaws (BBC1), Rob Lowe graced our screens as a fish-out-of-water US cop in Lincolnshire-set Wild Bill (ITV), Don ‘Crockett’ Johnson was in Sky’s Sick Note and Lorraine Bracco of Sopranos and Goodfellas fame co-starred in Tim Renko’s well received comedy Jerk (BBC3).

The late Rutger Hauer & Frasier’s Kelsey Grammar appeared in Dave's hospital sitcom Porters, which was strange to say the least, whilst Andy Samberg, Taylor Lautner and Andie MacDowell each had one-season starring roles in Cuckoo (BBC3).

Heather Graham (Boogie Nights) was the co-star of Sky’s Stephen Mangan polygamy comedy Bliss (2018) which no-one seems to recall, perhaps thankfully.

Carl Weathers’ (Rocky, Predator) decision to take a supporting part in then-BBC3 controller Danny Cohen’s appalling action-comedy Phoo Action was certainly a head-scratcher, as the money surely couldn’t have been that good.

Since the advent of the streamers, the old prejudices about TV (low budgets, tight schedules, inferior perks) have diminished in the minds of older Hollywood stars as they’ve noticed the money and time lavished on higher profile shows.

Here is my selection of TV drama series starring ‘Old School’ motion picture stars that are worth checking out:

Hunters (2020) Amazon Prime

There was noticeable consternation when it was announced that Al Pacino had taken the part of Nazi Hunter Meyer Offerman in this Marathon Man/Boys from Brazil-influenced thriller set in 1977 New York. Understandably people wondered why a Jewish actor wasn’t cast. Watch the series and you will discover why; Pacino is in bombastic mode, but there is a reason for this.

A strong cast also includes Lena Olin, Saul Rubinek, Carol Kane, Judd Hirsch, Dylan Baker and Keir Dullea (Dave Bowman from 2001). 

Yellowstone (2018-) Amazon Buy

The prospect of a contemporary western series about the owner of the largest ranch in the US starring Kevin Costner as patriarch John Dutton may be an underwhelming concept, but co-creator Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Sicario) gives the show grit.

Costner is always comfortable in the saddle and has matured into a great screen presence (small or otherwise) that has made Yellowstone a hit show in the US, season 4 debuting this month with a whopping 15 million viewers – even more impressive since this excludes streaming. It was popular enough for the surprise announcement of the prequel Yellowstone: 1883 – debuting this December

Big Little Lies (2017-19)

Meryl Streep joined the cast for season two of Big Little Lies, a mini-series based on the Liane Moriarty novel which proved so popular that a second run was ordered, even though originally conceived as a one-off.

Streep plays Mary Louise Wright, mother of abusive Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), justifiably knocked off by a group of women named the "Monterey Five".

If you have seen Streep as Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw in Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004) you know what to expect.

Homecoming (2018-19) Amazon Prime

Julia Roberts starred in the first season of the psychological thriller based on the Gimlet Media podcast of the same name. Rather than take the expected Morning Show style route, Roberts opted for a complex story of memory-wiping drugs at a PTSD veteran’s facility. Reviews for Roberts’ performance as caseworker Heidi Bergman garnered rave reviews, with US Today’s Kelly Lawler claiming that Roberts 'fills up the small screen with as much magnetism as she ever did on the big one.'

The People v. O.J. Simpson (2016) Netflix, Amazon Buy

John Travolta joined Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story repertory company to essay the role of Robert Shapiro, one of OJ Simpson’s defence ‘Dream Team’ in the former American football star’s trial for the murder of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and friend Ron Goldman.

The screenplay for the series was based on lawyer/author/CNN commentator Jeffrey Toobin's book The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson (1997).  Toobin made the news last year due to his onanistic activities during a staff Zoom call at the New Yorker magazine.

Travolta received a mixed reception; Variety’s Brian Lowry called him 'overly mannered.'

Westworld (2016) Amazon Buy

Anthony Hopkins proved that TV wasn’t a step down for him, delivering a masterly performance as Dr Robert Ford, manipulative co-creator of the dystopian theme park in HBO’s re-imaging of the Michael Crichton movie of the same name.

In fact, Westworld was infinitely better than Hopkins’ movie choices over recent years such as the routine thrillers Blackway (2015), Solace (2015), Misconduct (2016), Collide (2016), and The Virtuoso (2021).

Luck (2011) Amazon Buy

Dustin Hoffman was one of the first out of the gate (sic) to test the waters of big-budget TV drama in the David Milch/Michael Mann crime drama set in the world of horse-racing.

After a long stretch inside, crime boss Ace Bernstein (Hoffman) is out for revenge on those who fitted him up.

With news of the death of three horses during production, the series was cancelled whilst season two was being filmed.

Hoffman achieved critical approval for a restrained performance; fellow movie star Nick Nolte played veteran trainer Walter Smith.

Nolte has ventured further into TV with roles in Gracepoint (2014), Graves (2016-17), The Mandalorian (2019) and Paradise Lost (2020).

Feud (2017) Disney+, Amazon Buy

A scenery-chewing delight for aficionados of camp in another Ryan Murphy mini-series, as Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon take on the roles of screen rivals Joan Crawford and Bette Davis during and after the production of Robert Aldrich’s OTT thrillodrama What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).

The late Olivia de Havilland sued FX Networks and Ryan Murphy Productions over her portrayal (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in the show; the case was speedily thrown out.

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/mar/26/olivia-de-havilland-feud-lawsuit-thrown-out-first-amendment

Perpetual Grace, LTD (2019) Starzplay, Amazon Buy

Perpetual Grace LTD only lasted one season and consequently passed people by, but it is definitely worth sampling.

Primarily for the performance of Sir Ben Kingsley (or as Maggie Smith calls him, ‘Sir King Bensley’) as charismatic Mid-West Pastor Byron Brown, who could be the craftier clerical US cousin of Don Logan from Sexy Beast (2000).

True Detective (2014) Amazon Buy

Matthew McConaughey’s career renaissance was solidified by his fine turn as Detective Rust Cohle in the first season of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective (HBO), generally accorded the best of the three standalone series.

The supernatural, philosophical, and literary layers of the storyline made the season something different from routine serial-killer series. A shame then, that the following two series dropped the ball.

McConaughey has yet to return to the world of TV drama.

MotherFatherSon (2019) BBC iPlayer, Amazon Buy

The BBC was no doubt cock-a-hoop when they secured the services of Richard Gere for the overwrought Succession without-the-laughs drama MotherFatherSon.

Audience figures declined from 4.5m for the first episode to just 2.1 for the final show, which gave BBC Drama commissioners a case of the cold sweats considering the likely series budget.

As the first TV role for Gere since an episode of Kojak back in 1976, the experience did not appear a happy one for the Office & A Gentleman star: 'It was doing four indie movies back-to-back but playing the same character. It’s too long. I don’t think I’ll do it again.'

Catch 22 (2019) All4, Amazon Buy

Former ER star George Clooney returned to TV for Hulu’s adaptation of Joseph Heller’s absurdist anti-war novel.

Famously difficult to translate to the screen, the mini-series was regarded by most as a better stab at the material than Mike Nichols’s overstuffed 1970 movie.

Clooney executive produced Catch 22 and directed two episodes, presumably casting himself in the relatively minor part of disagreeable over-promoted Lieutenant General Scheisskopf (sh*thead in German).

The Loudest Voice (2019) Amazon Buy

Fat suit time for Russell Crowe, playing deceased Fox News boss Roger Ailes in this Showtime mini-series.

It’s not too churlish to note that Crowe has gained weight over the years, but he wisely eschewed the method approach to further bulk up for the role.

Although the production gained average reviews, Crowe was singled out for approbation, winning a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Limited Series or Television Film.

What/If (2019) Netflix

Renée Zellweger tends to keep herself under the radar, with less frequent roles than previously, but 2019 was something of a comeback year for the actress.

As well as winning the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance as Judy Garland in Almeida director Rupert Goold’s biopic Judy, she took the plunge into TV drama with the Netflix mini-series What/If.

It would be fair to say that the show did not enjoy similar success as Judy, but many relished her gleefully OTT performance as twisted venture capitalist Anne Montgomery.

Departure (2019-) My5 (S1), Sky Witness (S2)

The late Christopher Plummer filmed his scenes for season 2 of this Canadian airline thriller from home during lockdown in the weeks before his fatal fall.

The show has recently debuted on Sky Witness. Plummer’s final role will be in another Canadian production, the animated feature comedy Heroes of the Golden Masks.

Nine Perfect Strangers

And let us not forget Nicole Kidman who has fully embraced the small screen in Nine Perfect Strangers, The Undoing, Big Little Lies and Top of the Lake.