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But Seriously: 18 Comedians Who Went Dramatic for Oscar

From Mary Tyler Moore to Mo’Nique, comics who grabbed a chance at gold

Robin Williams, Mo'Nique and Tom Hanks

Robin Williams, Mo'Nique and Tom Hanks

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Dying is easy; comedy is hard, the saying goes. And when it comes to the art of funny business, the Oscars are a particularly tough nut to crack. It’s not unheard of for a comedian to grab recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — and in a few rare cases, an actual award — by making people laugh. But usually, when an actor who the public primarily associates with hilarity wants to contend for the gold, the best bet is to switch gears and go serious. Who knows whether there was a lot of chatter about nominating Steve Carell for his turn in The 40-Year-Old Virgin back in 2005, or for giving Michael Keaton some back-to-back Oscar back slaps for Night Shift in 1982 and Mr. Mom in 1983. But this year, the two men are vying for the Best Actor honor — by respectively playing a psychotic in a prosthetic nose (Foxcatcher) and an actor on the verge of a nervous breakdown (Birdman), both dramatic turns.

The Academy Awards have a long history of finding a place for comedians at the table if they’re willing to turn that smile upside down, and for folks like Robin Williams and Mo’Nique, it’s paid off handsomely. Here are 18 comedians who nabbed Oscar nominations (and occasionally a statuette as well) by dialing down the funny. Some were comic actors who had dabbled in screen seriousness before; others were dipping their toe in dramatic waters for the first time. All of them got within spitting distance of the “and the winner is” envelope by leaving the yuks at home.

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Mary Tyler Moore, ‘Ordinary People’ (1980)

Moore first made a name for herself in the 1960s on The Dick Van Dyke Show — playing Laura Petrie and breaking the glass ceiling regarding the wearing of capri pants on TV. She became an even bigger part of television history as the star of her own sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, one of the first shows to reflect the Women's Movement of the 1970s. But you would certainly never expect her closed-off WASP of a mother in Robert Redford's 1980 directorial debut, Ordinary People, to exclaim "Oh, Rob!" or throw her hat in the air. This tragedy about an affluent family trying to recover from the death of a child won four Oscars, including Best Director for Redford and Best Picture; Moore's serious-as-a-heart-attack performance garnered her a Best Actress nomination, though she lost to Sissy Spacek (for Coal Miner's Daughter).

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Whoopi Goldberg, ‘The Color Purple’ (1985)

Long before she was one of the quartet of talking heads on The View, Goldberg was doing one-woman stand-up shows in which she channeled a dope fiend named Fontaine and a little black girl who wears a white skirt on her head because she desperately wants "long blond hair." It was during The Spook Show's tenure on Broadway (directed by fellow EGOT winner Mike Nichols) that she caught Steven Spielberg's attention when he was casting his adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple about the tumultuous lives of African-American women in the 1930s. Goldberg's first acting gig, which paired her with Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey, earned the comedian her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She'd wouldn't win an Oscar, however, until 1991 — for Best Supporting Actress (playing a comic rile, ironically) for her campy medium in Ghost. She's currently one of only 12 people to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award.

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Dan Aykroyd, ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ (1989)

As one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live, Aykroyd helped shape the tone of the long-running late-night sketch comedy show thanks to his hilariously spot-on impersonations (Julia Child, anyone?) and popular recurring characters from the Coneheads patriarch to the Blues Brothers. With a career filled with such humorous blockbusters as Trading Places and Ghostbusters, his dramatic turn as the caretaker son in 1989's Driving Miss Daisy was a marked change of pace. Although he lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Denzel Washington in Glory, the movie itself won Best Picture and three other awards. 

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GOOD WILL HUNTING, Robin Williams, 1997

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Robin Williams, ‘Dead Poets Society’ (1989) and ‘Good Will Hunting’ (1998)

Williams cut his teeth doing improvisational stand-up in the mid-1970s before Mork & Mindy catapulted the comedian into mega-stardom. But this Julliard graduate had been trying to establish himself as a dramatic actor early on in his screen career, trading off roles in films like Popeye (1980) and Club Paradise (1986) with serious turns in The World According to Garp (1982) and a cable-TV adaptation of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1986). Though he nabbed his first Oscar nomination for doing a variation on his motor-mouthed act with Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987, Williams would earn his next three at-bats by curbing his rat-a-tat-tat schtick. His inspirational teacher in Dead Poets Society was the real indicator that he was an Oscar-caliber actor, and if you can still see traces of his comic side in The Fisher King (1991), his performance as a father-figure therapist in Good Will Hunting proved that he was capable of genuine subtlety and dramatic depth. After collecting his Best Supporting Actor trophy for that movie, Williams would make numerous appearances on the Oscars, but that would be his only win.

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PHILADELPHIA, Tom Hanks, 1993

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Tom Hanks, ‘Philadelphia’ (1993)

You may not find a better comedy-to-A-list-drama crossover story than Hanks — this is, after all, the man who went from dressing in drag on the sitcom Bosom Buddies to racking up five Oscar nominations and two wins. When launched his post-Buddies film career, he was being positioned as both a comic leading man (Splash, The Money Pit) and/or a potential gonzo, gross-out-movie star (Bachelor Party). The whimsical 1988 coming-of-age story Big may have earned him his first Best Actor nod, but  no one expected what came next: his gut-wrenchingly dramatic turn in Philadelphia, about a closeted lawyer with AIDS. It was the first big budget, mainstream movie to tackle the issue, a risky move for Hanks in an era when people still had an irrational fear of the virus. But it paid off: He was rewarded with a Best Actor trophy. He won again the following year for Forrest Gump, and earned nominations for Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Castaway (2000).

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Woody Harrelson, ‘The People vs Larry Flynt’ (1996)

A virtually unknown Harrelson made a name for himself overnight when he joined the hit show Cheers during its fourth season as a goofball bartender named Woody. After eight seasons on the sitcom, he made the switch to movies, starring as a street hustler in the sports comedy White Men Can't Jump (1992). His uncomfortably intense portrayal of one half of a serial-killing couple in 1994's Natural Born Killers, however, suggested he was capable of doing more than playing amiable doofuses. Then came The People vs. Larry Flynt (1997), in which he channeled the outspoken porn mogul and First-Amendment poster boy, and earned his first Oscar nomination. There would be a 13-year gap before he was nominated again, for Best Supporting Actor for the war drama The Messenger, signifying a major career resurgence for the actor.

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Greg Kinnear, ‘As Good as It Gets’ (1997)

Kinnear cut his teeth in the early 1990s skewering daytime talk shows as the original host of E!'s Talk Soup (now just The Soup) before taking over the NBC late-night talk show Later in 1994. His movie credits included roles in Sabrina and Dear God, in which he played characters that trafficked in the same sort of smarmy charm that Kinnear had honed on the small-screen. Then came As Good as It Gets, in which he was cast as Jack Nicholson's tormented gay neighbor — and suddenly, the actor didn't seem like such a one-trick pony anymore. His nomination in 1998 for Best Supporting Actor may not have yielded him the gold (he was up against Robin Williams for Good Will Hunting) but it did establish Kinnear as someone who could handle juicier roles.

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Will Smith, ‘Ali’ (2001)

Smith took the scenic route to the Oscars: He initially caught the public's eye as one-half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince before starring on the hit 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. His first big movie role took him down a different path, though, when he shed his goofy teen image to play a gay con artist in Six Degrees of Separation (1993), which made Hollywood sit up and take notice. After going the action-comedy blockbuster route for a while (Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men in Black), Smith physical transformed himself to play legendary boxer Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s biopic Ali. It earned him his first Best Actor nomination; his second came in 2007 for another drama, The Pursuit of Happyness, about a salesman who winds up homeless while caring for his son.

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Bill Murray, ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003)

Murray began his comedy career with Chicago's Second City improv troupe before joining Saturday Night Live in 1977 for its second season, replacing Chevy Chase. He soon moved on to movies, starring in such comedies as Meatballs (1979), Caddyshack (1980) and Stripes (1981). His first dramatic role was in the 1984 adaptation of the novel The Razor's Edge, which was overshadowed by the crushing success of Ghostbusters that same year. Over the next decade, he earned critical praise for starring in such nuanced comedies as Groundhog Day, Ed Wood and Rushmore, culminating with a Best Actor nod for playing a hardened, over-the-hill actor killing time at a Tokyo hotel in Lost in Translation. While he lost to Sean Penn in Mystic River, the one-two punch of Murray's work with Wes Anderson and his eye-opening turn in this Sofia Coppola-directed tale is considered the beginning of a new era for the actor.

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Jamie Foxx, ‘Ray’ (2004)

Foxx was a prolific stand-up before joining the influential Wayans brothers-helmed sketch comedy show In Living Color in 1991. He then starred in his own self-titled sitcom and ventured into film with such comedies as The Great White Hype (1996) and Booty Call (1997). In 1999, he landed his first dramatic role in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday as an arrogant quarterback. Five years later, he became only the second actor in Oscar history to be nominated twice in the same year (the other being his Sunday co-star Al Pacino) – for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a taxi driver-turned-hostage in the Tom Cruise thriller Collateral, and for Best Actor for impressively portraying singer Ray Charles in the biopic Ray. He walked away the winner in the latter category.

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Eddie Murphy, ‘Dreamgirls’ (2006)

Murphy was just another dynamic young stand-up when he was asked to join the cast of a then-floundering Saturday Night Live, where he riffed on well-known characters including The Little Rascals' Buckwheat and a jaded-by-showbiz Gumby. He then struck big-screen gold — first in the Eighties with R-rated blockbusters such as 48 Hrs, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop, and later  with kids' fare like Dr. Dolittle (1998) and Daddy Day Care (2003). Murphy then re-emerged in 2006 with a more serious role in Dreamgirls, in which he plays an anguished R&B singer who falls from grace. It earned him a slot in the Best Supporting Actor category, but speculation ran rampant that he lost because of the poorly received slapstick comedy Norbit that was released right before the telecast.

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PRECIOUS, (aka PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE, aka PUSH: BASED ON THE NOVEL BY SAPPHIRE), Mo'Nique, 2009. ©Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection

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Mo’Nique, ‘Precious’ (2009)

Like many comedian-turned-Oscar nominees, Mo'Nique started as a stand-up comic and used her club work to get a foot in the small-screen door, earning a recurring role on the sitcom Moesha in 1999 and starring in its spin-off, The Parkers. Later, she lent her outrageous persona to films like Soul Plane (2004) and Phat Girlz (2006), and hosted such reality shows as Mo'Nique's Fat Chance and Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School. Considering those credentials, her gritty portrayal of an abusive mother in Precious surprised a lot people, establishing her as a legitimate dramatic actress almost overnight. She walked away with the Best Supporting Actress trophy – one of only seven African-American women to ever win an Oscar in an acting category.

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Jonah Hill, ‘Moneyball’ (2011)

You may remember first seeing Hill demonstrate some serious comic chops as an angry eBay customer arguing with Catherine Keener in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). After establishing his comic credentials with his scene-stealing work in Knocked Up and his breakout role in crass teen comedy Superbad (both 2007), Hill became one of the go-to guys in Judd Apatow’s repertory company. He then hit an unexpected home run in 2011 with his first dramatic role: Moneyball, which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nod for his performance as a numbers-crunching sidekick. His next appearance in the category came in 2014, this time for playing a Leonardo DiCaprio's sidekick in the Martin Scorsese-directed biographical dark comedy The Wolf of Wall Street.

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