Comedians Who Are Great Dramatic Actors

– By Cecily Knobler, Live from Hollywood –

DEAD POETS SOCIETY, Robin Williams, 1989

Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams, 1989

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robinThe term “sad clown” is often bandied about, somewhat annoyingly. But is there something to the idea of comedians making the best dramatic actors? I think so, and I believe it’s mainly because comics are the best observers of the human condition. They can pick up on the slightest nuance and turn it on its head. As a “comedian,” I can say many of us are also lacking in Serotonin delivery, so being asked to play “dark” isn’t much of a stretch.

Does this theory prove true for all comedians? Of course not! Jerry Seinfeld isn’t an especially good actor, nor is Chevy Chase. But read on to find out a handful of those who are:


I was never a huge fan of Robin’s manic, frenetic improvising on stage (yes, Robin, that scarf can also be used as a whip). But once he crossed over into dramatic roles, it was clear there was something incredibly special about his talent. Incidentally, I have friends who knew him well and claim he was one of the kindest, gentlest souls on Earth. Many say he was physically sick near the end and while that may have been true, his sensitive nature and dissatisfaction with himself may have been part of his demise. We’ll probably never really know why Robin left us so early, but what we do know is that his star shone brightly.

His roles in The Fisher King, Dead Poet’s Society, Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo and more sometimes garnered him Oscars and proved that some of the silliest-seeming people can go the deepest. His performances were always profound, even in his less than well-written roles, like Patch Adams.


One of my all time favorite comics, Albert’s style is clever and dry. He never had problems with self-deprecation, and even in his funniest self-written roles (Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life) he showed us that funny could be smart.

Recently, he’s taken on even darker roles (Drive, A Most Violent Year), and the edge he shows as a writer/comedian elevates his believability as a strange, scary guy in these heavier parts.




Whoopi doesn’t often take on serious roles anymore, but her first feature ever snagged her an Oscar nomination for the rawness of her performance. Of course that was for the Spielberg-directed The Color Purple, where Whoopi’s rendition of Celie was beautifully heartbreaking. Even when she takes on “funny” roles in dramatic movies (such as Ghost), she brings such realness to the character that it’s easy to forget she was once a comedian.




 ZachZach is one of the best, brilliantly absurd comedians of modern times. He brings ridiculousness to the highest level, but the thing is, you always believe him. Even when he’s bumbling around in The Hangover movies, he delivers his over-the-top dialogue with such subtle realism that you almost forget his silliness

But he’s also taken his fine acting to another level with roles in the Oscar winning Birdman (Zach was genius in this and deserved a nomination), It’s Kind of a Funny Story (where he plays a patient in a psychiatric ward) and the recent TV show on FX, Baskets (where he plays the ultimate, literal “sad clown” of the same name.)

I also want to note that comedian Louie Anderson’s performance as Zach’s mother was amazing. Both Galifinakis and Anderson should receive Emmy nominations for their portrayals and I firmly believe Anderson should win one!

Cecily Knobler is a writer, stand-up comedian and film reviewer for over 15 FM radio markets in the U.S. and Canada. Her new book Five Thousand Three Hundred Miles is available now on Amazon.

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Follow Cecily Knobler on Twitter @Cecilysaysstuff and Q-Avenue @QuincyAvenue

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