In a sane world, Timothy Olyphant would sit atop the proverbial A-list.
The 47-year-old actor made his fame on both “Deadwood” and “Justified,” two of the better shows of the last 15 years. Yet the industry just can’t make him a movie star. Not the kind who “opens” movies and sees their name atop a movie’s title on the poster.
Handsome and with a dry charisma Clint Eastwood milked for decades, Olyphant seems like a natural screen icon. Yet the only movie roles he gets these days are small and inconsequential. Did you blink and miss him in “This Is Where I Leave You”? Or his supporting turn in the critically savaged “Mother’s Day,” in theaters now?
Part of the problem can be pinned to Olyphant himself. The best A-listers are very careful about the projects they choose. Arnold Schwarzenegger was smart enough to pick elite directors just as his film career caught fire. So when he went from sci-fi (James Cameron, “The Terminator”) to comedy (Ivan Reitman, “Twins”) he was in very good hands.
Olyphant’s biggest starring role to date came in “Hitman,” the forgettable 2007 feature that spawned an equally bland sequel/reboot last year. He also got meatier-sized roles in “The Crazies” and “Catch and Release,” more films with modest commercial returns.
So he retreated to TV and starred in FX’s outstanding “Justified.” If screenwriters couldn’t write a role worthy of him, plenty of TV scribes were more than happy to step in. His Raylan Givens will be remembered as one of TV’s most complicated heroes.
The actor’s career is a good encapsulation of the current TV vs. Movies debate.
Years ago, breakout TV stars couldn’t wait to leave the small screen for the movies. Think about Bruce Willis, who shot to fame via “Moonlighting.” He jumped to big-screen projects like “Die Hard” as fast as his bloodied bare feet could carry him.
Now, movie stars often lunge at TV roles that offer more creative challenges … and far superior writing.
Olyphant isn’t alone in deserving a major movie career that never caught fire. Think about Martin Short, the ridiculously talented funnyman from “SCTV.” He got some leading roles starting in the late 1980s. “Inner Space.” “Three Amigos.” “Three Fugitives.” “Pure Luck.” None were worthy of his comic chops. Audiences reacted in kind.
Soon, Hollywood pursued other actors to open their big-screen comedies. To be fair, “Clifford” hardly helped his cause. Short has been working ever since, stealing a scene here, writing a funny memoir there.
Olyphant will do the former when given the chance. And, in time, he’ll probably find another killer TV character to call his own. The movies had their chance.
Christian Toto is a freelance writer and editor of HollywoodInToto.com.