The TV stars who get lost in translation

Jon Hamm sparkles in Mad Men but falls flat on the big screen. He's not the only one to fail at the cinema, says Ben Walsh
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The Independent Culture

Jon Hamm's brooding, frequently frowning Don Draper is mesmerising in Mad Men. But transfer the chiselled smoothy to the big screen and the spell is broken. In The Town (just released on DVD) the 39-year-old plays a dogged FBI man, and while he in no way embarrasses himself, he doesn't sparkle either. Similarly, in Scott Derrickson's execrable The Day the Earth Stood Still remake Hamm is underused and underwritten; the same goes for the forthcoming Allen Ginsberg drama Howl. He seems stripped of his allure, his air of menace, in these roles. Poor scripts don't help, either – a criticism you could never level at Mad Men.

It is still early days, of course, but Hamm is in peril of following a host of small-screen mega-stars who couldn't transport their charisma to the big screen. The square-jawed Ted Danson, for example, was a TV colossus as bartender lothario Sam Malone in Cheers, but his movie career was an unrelenting disappointment, with a wall of shame that included Just Between Friends, A Fine Mess (indeed), Cousins, Dad, Three Men and a Little Lady and the truly horrible sperm-donor comedy Made in America, which was pretty much the final nail in his coffin. The talented comic went back to TV, finding some success with Becker and excelling (as himself) in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Kelsey Grammer, Danson's old chum on Cheers, was another TV deity, expertly leading the cast as radio shrink Dr Crane in the award-winning Frasier. Could this gifted comedian translate his timing and talent to the big screen? Could he heck. His short-lived film career included the woeful submarine caper Down Periscope, the baffling The Real Howard Spitz and the deeply unpleasant thriller 15 Minutes. Apart from some voice-over work on animations such as Toy Story 2 (he voiced Stinky Pete), Grammer hasn't really recovered.

The endlessly repeated Friends is another series that has garnered little film joy for its leads. Jennifer Aniston manages to churn out a steady stream of facile romantic comedies, but the men have fared poorly. David Schwimmer's finest moment was the droll comedy The Pallbearer. However, he's also been involved with the stinkers Big Nothing, Kissing a Fool and the unforgivable Breast Men. Matt Le Blanc's film career, for the sake of his dignity, isn't worth touching upon; and although Matthew Perry has tried valiantly to transfer his deadpan, smug schtick to films, he has consistently failed: witness Three to Tango, The Whole Nine Yards and (the appropriately titled) Numb.

Dawson's Creek's trio of heart-throbs – Joshua Jackson, James Van Der Beek and Kerr Smith – also spectacularly failed to shine in films: witness The Skulls, Varsity Blues and Desert Vampires. However, there is one rather lovely exception from the Creek. You would never have guessed that Michelle Williams, who played whiny Jen, would be the breakout film star (Katie Holmes and Jackson were the obvious choices), with a string of great movie performances: Wendy and Lucy, The Station Agent, Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine. Perhaps the stars of triumphant TV shows can never divorce themselves (in the eyes of the public) from their seminal roles; think of Peter Falk (Colombo), Richard Chambelain (Dr Kildare), James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), Dominic West (The Wire), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The exception is George Clooney, ER's Doug, though he must wince at the memory ot Batman & Robin and The Peacemaker.

Film stars, by contrast, are throwing themselves indecently at TV shows and reviving their flagging careers as a result. Everyone likes Alec Baldwin since he stole every scene in Tina Fey's 30 Rock, Glenn Close is chewing the scenery with relish in Damages, and Laura Linney is winning plaudits for The Big C. So if Hamm's fledgling film career flounders (and two of his films in the works – fantasy thriller Sucker Punch and light comedy Bridesmaids – don't look promising), he can probably bag one more big TV role. As Draper once said: "If you don't like the conversation, change it."

'Howl' is released on Friday