By Stacy Jenel Smith
When "Miracle on 34th Street" actor Edmund Gwenn lay on his death bed, he was asked by director George Seaton whether dying was tough."Yes," he famously replied. "But not as tough as doing comedy."
Quite a few serious dramatic actors have crossed over to the funny side with success. Robert De Niro and the late Marlon Brando each had fun spoofing their "Godfather" role to great effect, for example.
Unfortunately, we've also experienced the uncomfortable feeling of watching many a good dramatic actor try - in vain - to be funny.
Historically speaking, Hollywood's funniest film comics have a spectacular record of success when they stop aiming at people's funny bones and shoot for their hearts and minds - even if only once in awhile.
Robin Williams did just that playing mentor to Matt Damon in "Good Will Hunting" and won a 1998 Oscar for it. The Juilliard alumnus has made serious roles a part of his repertoire.
The Great One, Jackie Gleason, was one of the icons of TV comedy -- and was stunning as pool player Minnesota Fats competing against Paul Newman in "The Hustler." He got an Oscar nomination out of the part as well.
Whoopi Goldberg won her first Oscar nomination for a serious part - Celie in Steven Spielberg's 1985 film adaptation of Alice Walker's "The Color Purple." In 1990, her portrayal of the patient housekeeper in the racial drama "The Long Walk Home" won her great critical acclaim, though it was her more comic turn as a reluctant medium in "Ghost" that gave her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1991.
Sally Field and Mary Tyler Moore, both known as TV funny women, electrified audiences with serious roles - Sally with her Academy Award-winning performances in "Norma Rae" and "Places in the Heart," and Mary with her Oscar-nominated "Ordinary People" performance, among others.
Red Buttons put aside his comic shtick in "Sayonara" with Brando - and won an Academy Award for his work in the film about 1950s American G.I.s who married Japanese women.
The late John Ritter, whose great talent for serious drama was sometimes overshadowed by his prodigious comedic gifts, gave a tremendous performance as a closeted gay man who was a small town clerk in Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade."
The list goes on and on - and on. Jim Carrey proved his dramatic chops early in his career, playing an alcoholic in denial in the telepic "Doing Time on Maple Drive."
Mike Myers was effectively hedonistic as Steve Rubell in "54."
Dick Van Dyke, who added to his long list of accolades with an Emmy nomination for playing an alcoholic in the TV movie, "The Morning After," has observed that if you take just about any serious situation, and look at it from a different perspective, it can be funny. In fact, the more serious - the funnier.
His one-time show partner and fellow TV Hall of Famer Carol Burnett, who's scored with serious roles also, philosophized that "Comedy is tragedy plus time."
Comedy actors must have an understanding of the human condition and be able to convey it through character, as do their dramatic counterparts - and on top of that, they must have the instincts for timing and delivery that make something funny.
Which of the current hot young comics will wind up showing us they have great abilities in straight drama? Time will tell, but soon we will be able to judge Will Ferrell's portrayal of an aspiring rocker in the drama "Winter Passing," due in the fall.