When Is It Time to Ditch the Small Screen for the Big?

Is there a right time for a TV star to abandon the small screen for the big one?

January 8, 2009, 1:06 AM

March 18, 2008 — -- She was in the movie of the summer, she's one of the most desired women in the world, she was the picture of old-Hollywood glamour at the Oscars.

So, why is she still on the small screen?

With "Knocked Up" and "27 Dresses" under her belt, as well as an Emmy award and a Golden Globe nomination, Katherine Heigl looks like she's outgrown her "Grey's Anatomy" scrubs.

While Heigl's representative denied that she's looking to jump from the show before her contract expires, it seems logical that the 29-year-old actress will eventually pull a George Clooney — leaving "ER" launched his Oscar-winning film career — and ditch the doctor drama to focus on big screen projects.

"When the TV series has peaked after a few seasons, as Katherine's has, the time may be good to try that move over to movies," said Bob Berney, president of independent film studio Picturehouse. "[Film is] still the gold standard. There's still that Academy Award possibility, there's still a snobbery with film."

"Television actors, although I'm sure they're happy to be on television, who wouldn't want to be in a movie?" said New York-based casting director Bernard Telsey, who cast "Dan in Real Life," "Across the Universe," and the upcoming "Sex and the City" movie.

Heigl's "Grey's" gig is far from shabby — she reportedly commands $200,000 per episode — but she stands to make much more from movies. Her salary for "Knocked Up" was a modest $300,000; that role raised her profile so much that little more than six months after the unplanned pregnancy hit came out, she banked $6 million for "27 Dresses."

Industry insiders said Heigl's benefiting from the fact that it's easier than ever for small screen stars to blow up on the big screen. While TV was once looked down on as the ugly stepsister of the glamorous film biz, in the past 10 years, thanks to critically acclaimed dramas such as "The Sopranos" and "The West Wing," they've practically become equals.

"There's so much good TV now," Telsey said. "It doesn't have that stigma in the Hollywood film community. It's not like the director's saying, 'Oh, I don't want a TV star, because that's something so much smaller and I'm doing an art film, I want to make the star, I want my own.' Now they're stealing people from everywhere."

Many film greats were poached from TV: Tom Hanks broke out in "Bosom Buddies," Jim Carrey fueled his comedy career with "In Living Color," Bill Murray, Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy all got their start on "Saturday Night Live."

But for every actor who went from Channel 7 to $7 million a movie, there's another who may be best known for late-night cable reruns. In 1994, David Caruso ditched the "NYPD Blue" role that put him on the map to focus on a film career. Two big-screen flops later, he came back to TV in the legal drama "Michael Hayes," only to disappear when the show was canned after one season. He returned to the role of TV cop in 2002 on "CSI: Miami."

Mischa Barton's most memorable moment since taking off from "The O.C." was getting a DUI arrest in December. And when was the last time ex-"SNL" cast mates Norm MacDonald or Tim Meadows made you laugh?

So, to ensure she ends up a legend like George Clooney — and not a rerun relic like his "ER" co-star Sherry Stringfield, who ditched the show in 1996 to pursue a film career and came back when that proved fruitless — Heigl's moves will have to be more precise than Dr. Izzie Stevens' slits of the scalpel.

"If you're on TV, you do a movie when you're not working on the show," Hollywood agent Marc Bass said. "You have to get away from the TV persona, though. Otherwise, you're just doing the same thing over and over again. People have to see that you have the ability to do something different.

"It's all about making choices," Bass continued. "It's all about the material — the right script, the right cast. All those have to line up or I say, 'Don't do it. Don't do a movie just to do a movie.' Think about it — almost every TV actor has done some movie or the other, but most of them are crap."

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