Which Movie Stars Did You First Discover on Television Shows?

Which movie stars did you know first as television performers? What was your reaction when you first saw them in a movie?

Jessica Fletcher is a...What?!

Yours truly knew Angela Lansbury first as Jessica Fletcher, the genteel, New England novelist who solves mysteries on the TV show "Murder, She Wrote" (1984-1996). She goes about her day being cordial to everyone, even unsuspecting murderers, until finally she brings in the police and wraps up the crime in a calm, soothing voice.
"Oh, hello! I've just caught a few lobsters for lunch, typed the final draft of what is sure to be another award-winning novel and put an enemy spy behind bars, all while being beautifully dressed. How was your day? "

However, the first of her films that I saw was The Harvey Girls (1945) in which Ms. Lansbury plays a scantily-clad,  Old West dance hall girl who will do anything to keep her man from Judy Garland, even a "cat fight" in a brothel!
Jessica Fletcher?! Nooo! 

Some Things Should Never Change

Barbara Stanwyck is the beautiful, gutsy, silver-haired matriarch on the TV western "Big Valley" (1965-1969). Then Ball of Fire (1941) came on one day and I saw her as a completely other person - a beautiful, gutsy brunette who makes Gary Cooper sweat. Then, we rented Double Indemnity (1944) and she is the beautiful, gutsy blonde who makes trouble for Fred MacMurray.

Joking aside, I was totally blown away by the actress.  It's no surprise that Ms. Stanwyck is wonderful in any medium.

The Penguin Has a Heart
I didn't know the name of the actor who plays the criminal called "Penguin" in the live action, comic book show "Batman" (1966-1968). He was just this weird guy in top hat and tails who wants to take over the world.

Then a Ginger Rogers film came on the telly called Tom, Dick and Harry (1941), and -What do you know?-The Penguin is playing Harry, the nicest and most unambitious guy on the block. His little speech about loving mankind, or whatever, made my eyes water. I have since come to appreciate Burgess Meredith. What a dedicated performer.

Catwoman Gets Married
The "Batman" series is a star-studded affair. Catwoman (Julie Newmar) is the feline villain who has the hots for our caped crusader and, like the Penguin, wants to rule the world.  Couldn't help but notice the same actress plays innocent, bride-to-be Dorcas in one of my favorite movies of all-time, the backwoods musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).

This means that I never quite trust Dorcas. I cannot shake the feeling that she's plotting to take over the family ranch.

Technicolor Tessie
Finally, there's Lucille Ball. (You knew that was coming, didn't you?) The zany redhead who plays a wife desperate to be in show business in "I Love Lucy" (1951-1957) had a movie career before that.

"Technicolor Tessie" is one of her big screen nicknames because her luscious hair, milky skin and ravishing eyes are so arresting in color. You don't really notice any of that in her black and white TV show, which helps the humor.

Best Foot Forward (1943) was one of the first of this star's movies that I screened. In it, Ms. Ball plays an elegant MGM movie star named -What else?- Lucille Ball. This character is a light parody of her public persona. For the humor in this film to work, the pre-"I Love Lucy" audience must have known Ms. Ball for her glamor. It is always slightly strange to see her as the straight man in a comedy instead of the instigator of hilarity.

Best Foot Forward (1943)

There is a ton of information about how Ms. Ball transitioned into TV from movies as a family project with her husband Desi Arnaz. I highly recommend Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz because they quote Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osbourne a lot. Osbourne worked with the Desilu Workshop under the supervision of Ms. Ball. The young contract player became a confidante and escort for her now and then when her husband wasn't available.


Those are a few of the movies stars that I first discovered on the small screen.

What about you? What reactions did you have? Was there a significant difference in the characters they play on TV versus the ones they play in movies? Leave a comment below.


  1. In It takes a thief, I've discovered two actors: Robert Wagner and Fred Astaire. I already knew that Astaire was a dancer, but it was curious to see him as Bob's father. And it wasn't until later that I finally watched youg Bob in Titanic (1953) and Waht price glory (1952).

  2. I'm not sure if Barbara Stanwyck became my favourite actress because I liked Victoria Barkley or I liked Victoria Barkley because Barbara Stanwyck was my favourite actress. I was about 10-years-old when I first saw "The Big Valley" and had yet to discover the depth of Miss Stanwyck's illustrious career.

  3. For me it was Robert Young. Sometimes my mother would watch re-runs of the old "Marcus Welby, MD" show and I thought Robert Young had only ever been good ol' Marcus. I was really surprised to discover he had quite a distinguished film career before the show.

    Great question and great post!

  4. Quite a few for me, starting with Barbara Bel Geddes, even though she wasn't a major movie star. The mother-in-law from "Bewitched", of course, turned out to be wonderful character actress Agnes Moorehead.

    And then there was Perry Mason killing his wife in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window". And Perry got together with Col. Potter from MASH to kill George Raft's brother in "Red Light".

  5. This was a fun topic for a post! I was surprised as a kid to discover that Admiral Nelson on the TV series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEAS was a film actor. I subsequently had fun seeking out Richard Basehart movies.

  6. Lê,
    I have yet to see Wagner's and Astaire's "To Catch a Thief" series. I've never seen Astaire on TV except an awkward interview with Dick Cavett. I'd imagine it was a fascinating series, though.

    Caftan Woman,
    You and me both. :) Stanwyck can do it all.

    Silver Screenings,
    Thanks for bringing the Welby show to my recollection! I had totally forgotten about it. I wonder if it's on DVD...

    Ted S.,
    On Agnes Moorehead--- I can never decide if she's creepy in her movies because I saw her on "Bewitched" first or if that's just a vibe she gives off. I enjoyed her in that Erroll Flynn movie, The Adventures of Captain Fabian. Again she plays a weird little character... and it works!

    Ha! I thought the same thing - that it's Perry Mason killing his wife in REAR WINDOW. It really takes me out of the film. :)

    People often think it's a step down for a movie actor to go to TV. But - as you've just said, in a way- TV is a great jumping off point for some of us to explore what else the actor has done.

    Thanks, everyone, for dropping by.

    -- JAVA

  7. I watched a ton of tv in the '70s & '80s before I discovered classic movies so I could add a bunch more including Fred MacMurray from My Three Sons, Jane Wyman from Falcon Crest, and MacDonald Carey from Days of Our Lives. But the most fun surprise had to be seeing a 19-year-old Angela Lansbury in Gaslight after first knowing her from Murder She Wrote! I had no idea she started so young. Thanks for the fun post!

  8. Ginny, I knew Fred MacMurray first from Disney movies and I saw commercials for My Three Sons on Nick at Nite.

    Thus, I thought he only played softies.

    Then we watched Double Indemnity where he's involved with murder and insurance fraud and using tough, noir, gangster talk, like saying "Baby" in every sentence.

    I laughed like crazy! I just could not take him seriously as a murderer. So TV, etc. spoiled his earlier career for me.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    -- JAVA


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"Java's Journey: A really fun, informative well-written blog that explores all of the things - and I mean all - I love about classic films."-- Flick Chick of A Person In The Dark Email: java-rush@hotmail.com


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