20 August 2022

Ethel, Is That Henry Fonda?

Okay, I know that's an odd title. Here's a bit of backstory, before I get to the main topic.

Ideas for SleuthSayers columns can come in unexpected ways. A few days ago I finished a sort of noir short story about a dumb guy and his smart girlfriend on the run from the mob, and--since I write stories like a chainsmoker, lighting up a new one as soon as the old one's done--I was about to start writing another tale, this one about two rednecks searching for hidden treasure on one of the islands off the Mississippi Coast. But I also found myself thinking about the writing itself, thinking about how much fun it always is for me to type THE END on one story and then forget about it and write a totally different story after that--maybe even one in a different genre. That's what keeps all this from getting boring. And while these thoughts were zinging around in my mind, my wife called to me and told me to check the Facebook page of one of our daughters-in-law because some new pictures had just been posted of three of our seven grandchildren. So I did.

Hang on, I'm getting there.

As ordered, I hopped over to Facebook and took a look at the photos of our (fantastic, if I do say so myself) grandkids, and as I was about to go back to my Word program and my new story, I happened to see another Facebook post. This one said something like "Did you know the actor who played Wilson in Cast Away was the same one in the volleyball scene in Top Gun?"

I gotta tell you, I liked that. I'm easily entertained anyway, and I thought that was cute. And since I had a SleuthSayers post coming up that I hadn't even started on, it got me thinking about something else. I'm a card-carrying movie addict, and I've always suspected that movie and TV actors, like writers, enjoy trying different kinds of projects--different characters, different genres, etc. Unless they're actors committed to a series, I doubt they want to play the same roles, or even the same kinds of roles, over and over again. (Even Wilson.)

Anyhow, all that is what led to this column, and to this question:

Who are some actors who have played extremely different roles in different movies, roles so against type that you almost didn't know who they were?

Remember Charlize Theron in Monster? Or Sean Connery in The Untouchables? It was hard to believe he was James Bond. And did Indiana Jones once pilot the Millennium Falcon? Surely not--but those two guys sure look alike. And how many of us who saw Kathy Bates in Fried Green Tomatoes were goggle-eyed at her performance in Misery? The more I thought about this, the more movies and roles I came up with. Was I honestly supposed to believe Richard Harris in Camelot and Richard Harris in Unforgiven were the same man? How could that nice Air Force captain who Dreamed of Jeannie become a devil like J.R. Ewing? Had Robin Wright in House of Cards really been Forrest Gump's girlfriend, and the Princess Bride?? How had Rocky morphed into Rambo? I could easily imagine Joe Moviegoer sitting in a theater in Bugtussle, Oklahoma, watching the villain in Once Upon a Time in the West murder an entire family, suddenly elbowing his wife and saying, "Look, I think that's Henry Fonda!"

So here, without further ado, is a list of fifty actors who--in my opinion--played shockingly different characters, sometimes polar opposites, in different productions, and the movies/TV shows featuring those characters:

Lee Marvin -- The Dirty Dozen and Cat Ballou

Donald Sutherland -- M*A*S*H and The Hunger Games

Jane Fonda -- Nine to Five and Barbarella

Denzel Washington -- Remember the Titans and Training Day

Jeff Bridges -- The Last Picture Show and The Big Lebowski

Sally Field -- The Flying Nun and Norma Rae

Leonardo DiCaprio -- Titanic and The Revenant

Sigourney Weaver -- Alien and Galaxy Quest 

Kurt Russell -- Overboard and Escape from New York

Burt Reynolds -- Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance

George Clooney -- ER and O Brother Where Art Thou?

Meryl Streep -- Mama Mia! and The Devil Wears Prada

Woody Harrelson -- Cheers and Zombieland

Jeff Daniels -- The Newsroom and Dumb & Dumber

Richard Crenna -- The Real McCoys and Wait Until Dark

John Travolta -- Grease and Pulp Fiction

Lou Diamond Phillips -- La Bamba and Longmire

Bryce Dallas Howard -- The Village and Jurassic World

Keanu Reeves -- The Matrix and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Elizabeth Taylor -- Giant and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Tom Hanks -- Splash and Saving Private Ryan

Fred MacMurray -- My Three Sons and Double Indemnity

Dennis Weaver -- Gunsmoke and Duel

Jack Palance -- Shane and City Slickers

Sandra Bullock -- The Blind Side and Miss Congeniality

Daniel Day Lewis -- Lincoln and The Last of the Mohicans

Robert Shaw -- From Russia with Love and Jaws

Lloyd Bridges -- Sea Hunt and Airplane!

Faye Dunaway -- Bonnie and Clyde and Oklahoma Crude

Gregory Peck -- To Kill a Mockingbird and The Boys from Brazil

Frances McDormand -- Fargo and Raising Arizona

Jack Nicholson -- Easy Rider and Chinatown

Scarlett Johansson -- Ghost World and Black Widow

Robert Duvall -- Lonesome Dove and Apocalypse Now

Christian Bale -- Batman Begins and Vice

Michael Douglas -- The American President and Romancing the Stone

Kathleen Turner -- Peggy Sue Got Married and Body Heat

Marlon Brando -- A Streetcar Named Desire and The Godfather

Kevin Costner -- Field of Dreams and 3000 Miles to Graceland

Glenn Close -- The Natural and Fatal Attraction

Eddie Murphy -- Beverly Hills Cop and The Nutty Professor

Kelly McGillis -- Top Gun and Witness

Bruce Willis -- Moonlighting and Sin City

Laura Linney -- The Truman Show and Ozark

Russell Crowe -- Gladiator and L.A. Confidential

Elijah Wood -- Lord of the Rings and Pawn Shop Chronicles

William Holden -- The World of Suzie Wong and The Wild Bunch

Emily Blunt -- Mary Poppins Returns and Edge of Tomorrow

Robin Williams -- Mork & Mindy and Dead Poets Society 

Dustin Hoffman -- The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy (and Tootsie, for that matter)

These are some that first came to mind; there are many, many more. Please feel free to add to the list in the comments section. (I love this stuff.)

By the way . . . if you haven't seen Galaxy Quest, believe me, you should. It's streaming now on Amazon Prime.

See you again in two weeks.


  1. Tor Johnson in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO IN THE FOREGN LEGION. Some people may not notice the subtle differences but I assure they are there. That, or I'm having one of my spells again.

    1. Hi Jerry -- No, I think you're spellfree. I'm just surprised to hear those two movies mentioned. I actually saw A&C in the FL one night not long ago. Those are always fun.

      I wonder how many folks these days have seen an Abbott and Costello movie--but I hear Plan 9 mentioned in a lot in movie conversations, usually because it's one people love to hate!

      Thanks for stopping in at SleuthSayers!

    2. We love watching "A & C Meet Frankenstein" where Glenn Strange can barely keep a straight face when Lou mistakes him for a chair and sits on him!

    3. I remember Meet Frankenstein. Those guys are funny--I suspect my kids have never seen an A & C movie, and probably have no idea who they are.

  2. Great idea for a post! One of my own favorites is Humphrey Bogart in In A Lonely Place—just because it's against type in so many ways compared to other movies. Not that he didn't go dark in other films, but that one...

    1. Hey Art! That one IS against type, for him. I think I've seen all of the Bodie movies, and I think you'll agree that he plays the same kinda guy in most of them (not that I don't like it).

  3. Funny thing, for no good reason I was trying yesterday to remember all the Henry Fonda movies I had seen, and I remembered that one. I also remember as a kid watching My Three Sons and Follow Me Boys (an unmemorable boy scout movie) and later being shocked at seeing Fred M in Double Indemnity and The Caine Mutiny. And as for Galaxy Quest, it is the quintessential example of a movie where you briefly outline the plot and people roll their eyes, but if you can convince them to watch it, they thank you. (Another is The Princess Bride.)

    1. Rob, I'd forgotten about The Caine Mutiny.

      As for Galaxy Quest, I've been trying to spread the word about it ever since I saw it, and EVERYbody I've told about thought it'd be stupid, and wound up loving it. Every single person. And yes, all of them thanked me. You're right, same thing usually happens with The Princess Bride.

  4. A riff on this theme is one of my favorite bits of film trivia. Glenda Jackson played it straight (pun, perhaps, intended) as the unfortunate wife of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in the bio-pic "The Music Lovers," a character she had previously parodied in the movie "Women in Love." When I was in college a neighborhood movie theater used to show the two films (both directed by Ken Russell) as a double feature.

    1. Dale, that's a GREAT piece of trivia. Interesting!!

  5. Really anyone with an especially long career and any range will have played disparate roles.
    For your list, I'd put Lee Marvin singing in Paint Your Wagon as an opposite to Dirty Dozen. The same for Christian Bale- singing and dancing in Newsies vs. Batman, and Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls vs. The Godfather. Whenever some of these actors get asked to sing, who don't usually sing, it can produce wildly different performances. Others just have serious talent, like:
    Hugh Jackman- Wolverine and Kate & Leopold, or in Oklahoma on Broadway
    Jodie Foster: The Accused, Silence of the Lambs, Maverick
    Katherine Hepburn: Bringing up Baby and Look Who's Coming To Dinner

    1. Ha! Yes, Paint Your Wagon (in which he growled rather than sang, by the way) is a bigger departure for Lee Marvin than either of the movies I mentioned. I absolutely forgot abut PTW. (A different role for Eastwood, too, for that matter.)

      Thanks for the observations!!

  6. John, you didn't even mention the two Tom Hanks won Oscars for: Forrest Gump and Philadelphia. And the one Russell Crowe got it for and the one he should have gotten it for: Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. And how about some more women? Glenda Jackson in Sunday Bloody Sunday and Elizabeth Is Missing if you count TV movies and even better if you count theater, King Lear? Angela Lansbury in National Velvet and Death on the Nile? Julia Ormond in Legends of the Fall and The Gold Digger (another TV movie).

    1. I was waiting for you to mention that, Liz. And I like all your examples, by the way. (I did almost mention Angela Lansbury in Death on the Nile and Blue Hawaii.) Lots of good examples fell by the wayside while I was doing this ultra-highly scientific compiling of information.

  7. Miranda Richardson in Enchanted April and Blackadder. Polly Walker in Enchanted April and Rome. You CAN'T disqualify TV. All the actors do both these days.

    1. Ha! More good ones, Elizabeth--especially Polly Walker. And yep, almost every actor does or has done both.

      Thanks as always!

  8. Guy Pearce in Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Jack Irish. Good one, huh?

    1. WHOA! That is probably the best example I've heard or seen. Good one for sure! Also, compare Priscilla with LA Confidential . . .

  9. Elizabeth Dearborn20 August, 2022 12:52

    Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars & Gran Torino.
    Robert Duvall in Argentine Tango & Secondhand Lions.
    Will Smith in Focus & Concussion.
    Cate Blanchett in The Aviator & Bandits.

    1. I like all of these, Elizabeth. (Where were you when I was trying to come up with my list . . . ?)

  10. Nigel Hawthorne in The Barchester Chronicles & Mapp and Lucia
    Jimmy Stewart in After The Thin Man & every other role of his life
    Tom Hulce in Animal House & Amadeus

    1. How right you are, Eve, about J Stewart. And about Hulce also. Hard to imagine two more different roles for him.

  11. Oh, and I LOVE Galaxy Quest!

    1. I swear, Eve, I honestly think everybody loves that movie. They had a real winner when they made that one. (I need to go watch it yet again . . .)

  12. Oh, and one more: Cloris Leachman in The Last Picture Show & Young Frankenstein

    1. HA! Yep, Cloris was great in both, but how very different. As I said before, this kind of thing is so much fun!

  13. Two actors known best (at least to me) from television: First, Edward Winter, the noxious Col. Flagg on tv's "MASH." I didn't realize that was him in the first season of "Soap" (which we've been re-watching) or in a fine episode of "Trapper John M.D." ("If You Can't Stand the Heat.") Another actor who has gone unrecognized by me in various roles is Michael McKean, easily recognizable as Lenny on "Laverne and Shirley," but I didn't recognize him in "Spinal Tap" or as the young, drunken Perry White on an early episode of Smallvile." Great column as always! Great Caeser's Ghost!

    1. Forgot to mention: Winter plays the philandering Congressman in "Soap."

    2. Jeff, I loved Col. Flagg. As for Michael McKean, I saw him again not long ago in Clue. (Mr. Green?)

  14. Ah, Edward Winter. The newspaper show Lou Grant was on during the same era as MASH and I remember an episode in which Winter played a business executive who the reporters were investigating over some mysterious shenanigans. If you knew him as Colonel Flagg you were primed for him to be up to no good, so it was a shock when it turned out his motives were perfectly decent. Clever bit of casting.

    1. Rob, I could never watch him in anything else after MASH without waiting for him to smirk and squint and act like a jerk. I worked with a couple of guys like Flagg in the AIr Force, and always wanted to punch 'em in the nose. As you said, clever casting.


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