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"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."
The casting opposite of Tom Hanks Syndrome. With this trope, a successful actor with a history of dramatic roles plays against type and stars in a comedy, playing it for laughs and generally acting silly. And it works. Unlike Tom Hanks Syndrome, the change will rarely be permanent: the actor will still dip into serious roles, and may even bounce back and forth from comedy to drama like a rubber ball. But sometimes, the actor finds a new niche (and a new career) as a comedic performer.
Named after actor Leslie Nielsen, who, after a long career in the fifties, sixties, and seventies as a dramatic lead, turned to comedy in the 80s and thereby rejuvenated his career to the point that, these days, more people know him for his work in Airplane! and Police Squad! than they do for any of his prior dramatic or romantic roles.
Often related to The Comically Serious. See also Playing Against Type. Note that this trope is not about serious performers who have done comedic work here and there. It is about people who once were well known for serious work, and now are primarily doing comedy.
- As noted in the description, the Trope Namer is, of course, the late, great Leslie Nielsen of Airplane! and Police Squad! fame. Prior to Airplane!, Nielsen had a long dramatic career that spanned television and film. He often played military commanders and police detectives, with the occasional medieval king or Roman senator thrown in for good measure. Offers of leading roles had pretty much petered out by the 1980s. And then came his appearance in Airplane!. The ironic thing is that, in Airplane!, he's perfectly deadpan and not personally all that funny at all when compared to the other performances. The same goes for The Naked Gun movies. His ability to act completely serious about ridiculous things was his major strength as a comedic actor.
- The interesting thing is that in Nielsen's case it was at least semi-intentional. He recognized that he was getting to the age wherein he'd almost inevitably end up typecast as people's grandfathers, an idea that did not appeal to him, and he thought that the chance to start doing comedic roles instead would help him avoid this. It's also worth noting that off-screen, he was a notorious jokester with a particular fondness for fart gags; he joked in 1996 that "Let 'er Rip!" would be on his gravestone. He did not forget the punchline.
- Like Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges ended his career better known for his roles in Airplane!, the Hot Shots movies and other comedy films than for his earlier dramatic work.
- Appropriately enough, Bridges wrapped up his career in a role that neatly summed up his craft. As "Colonel Branson" in the comedy-drama Meeting Daddy, he is an old Southern patriarch who is undeniably funny and pleasant enough to be around, but way past his prime and clearly suffering a slow death (as the actor himself was doing during filming).
- Meryl Streep. She got sick and tired of constantly doing dreary serious films, and got a part in She Devil, showing her comedic chops. Since then, she's had meaty comedic roles.
- At the beginning of his career, Jack Black had a long list of go-nowhere dramatic parts and extra appearances. Then he started doing comedy...
- A possible transitional role came when he played Billy Norris in Mars Attacks (Film) Billy's untimely death in that movie is Black Comedy played to the hilt, but then we're reminded that Billy was a human being when we see his grieving family. Then again, we see his family mourning while frantically changing the channel with his father shouting "It didn't happen."
- Believe it or not, Jim Carrey sort of qualifies. While he did appear in a short-lived sitcom in The Eighties and had an ongoing stand-up career, most of his early film roles were serious rather than comic (i.e., the alcoholic son in Doing Time on Maple Drive).
- Charlie Sheen: First known for roles in Wall Street and Platoon... and then landed the role of Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn in Major League. Hot Shots, Spin City, the Scary Movie franchise and Two and A Half Men would all follow.
- George Clooney. These days, two out of three of his movies are comedies.
- This is more of a round-trip - remember, in The Eighties he had a recurring role on Roseanne and starred in two seasons of The Facts of Life. And Batman and Robin was technically a comedy.
- He was in two television series with the same setting and phonetic title... quasi-procedural drama ER and the much earlier situation comedy E/R.
- And one of his first roles: Return of the Killer Tomatoes.
- Christopher Walken won an Academy Award for a dramatic role (1978's The Deer Hunter), but nowadays seems to do more comedies and gimmicky comedic cameos more often than not. He's even got his own Best of Saturday Night Live collection, despite never being an official cast member.
- Alec Baldwin has seldom been seen near dramatic works lately. Heck, he's even doing comedy commercials...
- Robert Downey, Jr. started out doing comedies (and he was a member of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players), then went into dramatic work before falling victim to a drug problem. He relaunched his career with a comedy buddy movie (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), and now seems to switch between being a comedy star and being an Action Hero.
- John Lithgow was known for his dramatic villains before 3rd Rock from the Sun.
- Lithgow pretty much played anything: A transsexual in The World According To Garp, a scientist/father figure in The Manhattan Project, a minister in Footloose, and comedic villains in Buckaroo Banzai and Santa Claus: The Movie.
- He breathed new life into Dexter in the fourth season, after two seasons of misery, with his awesome performance as a serial killer.
- And it wasn't the first time he'd played a serial killer, he was also the title character in Raising Cain.
- And, of course, a deadpan deconstruction of an unintentionally funny Newt Gingrich press release on The Colbert Report.
- Most people don't even know Peter Sellers ever appeared in dramatic roles, but he did. None of them were very successful, or paid the bills. When he received acclaim for his comedic work, he simply stopped doing serious roles.
- William Shatner is best known for the overly dramatic Captain Kirk, as well as his intense performances in several The Twilight Zone episodes and other serious roles. These days, however, he has made a name for himself as a loveable comedic actor, through things like the iconic Priceline commercials, Boston Legal, and most recently Shit My Dad Says.
- Joanna Lumley was famous for playing dramatic roles until she played the outrageous Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. She commented that her fan mail went from retired colonels telling her she was the perfect English Rose to drag queens asking her where she got her clothes.
- John C. Reilly was mostly known for serious roles before he got mixed up with Will Ferrell (Talladega Nights and Step Brothers) and Judd Apatow (Walk Hard). He had a recurring character on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and now has his own spin-off called Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule.
- Kitty Carlisle made her career as an operetta soprano (she was the female romantic lead in A Night at the Opera), but lasted longest as a panelist on the Game Show To Tell the Truth.
- Jamie Lee Curtis first established herself as a horror movie scream queen, playing the Final Girl in films like Halloween, Prom Night, Terror Train and Roadgames. Ever since Trading Places, however, she's been best known for comedies like A Fish Called Wanda, Fierce Creatures, Freaky Friday and True Lies (which, while a Schwarzenegger action vehicle, also had strong comedic overtones).
- Ellen Page originally feared being typecast as the psychopath from Hard Candy before she broke out playing Juno.
- Gene Wilder said that before starring in The Producers, he considered himself a dramatic actor.
- His one film role before this was a terrified hostage in Bonnie and Clyde.
- Vince Vaughn had this happen to him. He had mostly serious roles before starring in the raunchy college comedy Old School with Will Ferrell. Afterwards, he achieved box office success with similar roles in Dodgeball and Wedding Crashers.