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Texas Stars Twinkle on the Small Screen

Television used to be where actors were put out to pasture; for these Texas Film Hall of Fame honorees, it's tall cotton

By Melanie Haupt, March 1, 2013, Screens

Let's not call it a referendum. Let's just call it a compelling coincidence that of the four actors being honored at this year's Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards, all four of them are currently working, or have most recently worked, in television. Make no mistake: This is not some snotty observation meant to impugn the state of the careers of Robin Wright, Stephen Tobolowsky, Annette O'Toole, and Henry Thomas. Rather, it is meant in the interest of providing further support for those who argue that television has become fertile ground for truly breathtaking narrative and performances.

At Thursday's event, hosted by the Austin Film Society as a fundraiser for its educational and artistic programs, master of ceremonies Dana Wheeler-Nicholson (herself a veteran of the beloved, locally filmed series Friday Night Lights) will oversee the induction of a group of actors who have worked with everyone from Steven Spielberg to Bill Murray to Brad Pitt, and who have devoted the current chapters of their careers to the small screen, helping to forge new ground in the genre.

San Antonio-born Henry Thomas first shot onto the cultural consciousness as the precocious, foul-mouthed Elliott in E.T. Since then, he has co-starred in blockbuster (and Oscar-nominated) films like Legends of the Fall and Gangs of New York; this year, he starred in the adaptation of Jack Kerouac's Big Sur as Zen Buddhist poet Phillip Whalen, and he has recently signed on to star in the new ABC pilot, Betrayal, developed by ER showrunner David Zabel.

Red-headed Houstonian Annette O'Toole has devoted a major portion of her career to television, most recently as Clark Kent's mother, Martha, on the CW's Smallville. O'Toole's husband, Michael McKean (who first made his name in the role of Lenny on Laverne & Shirley), will present her award, a particularly romantic arrangement given the couple's long history of professional collaboration, from co-writing songs for A Mighty Wind to co-starring as paramours on Smallville.

Stephen "Ned Ryerson" Tobolowsky, born in Dallas and an alumnus of SMU, has more than 200 film appearances to his credit, but his television resumé is nearly as long, with roles in everything from Desperate Housewives to Deadwood to Will & Grace. His most recent roles include crooked FBI agent Jerry Barkley in FX's incredibly addictive Elmore Leonard-inspired series Justified (where he is reunited with Deadwood co-star Timothy Olyphant) and Stu Beggs on HBO's Californication. Tobolowsky, who recently appeared at the Texas Book Festival to promote his new book, The Dangerous Animals Club, may forever be lumped in with the "Hey, It's That Guy!" class of character actors, but he belongs to that other elite group brave enough to venture into cable dramas where the boundaries are nebulous, which makes for a more exciting cultural product.

Which brings us to Robin Wright, who co-stars on the Netflix exclusive series House of Cards as Claire Underwood, the icy, origami-crane-folding, nonprofit head moonlighting as Lady Macbeth. The series, a political drama co-starring Kevin Spacey as a scheming Southern Democrat bent on seeking revenge on those who passed him over for Secretary of State, represents a new frontier for television. Is the boutique, online subscription-only television series the wave of the future? Series like House of Cards, the first season of which was released in its entirety on Feb. 1, will certainly change the way we consume television, and the fact that bona fide movie stars like Wright and Spacey have signed on recommend its legitimacy. Rob "Meathead" Reiner, who started out in television himself in 1959, will present Wright with her award, a sweetly nostalgic gesture on the heels of the 25th anniversary of The Princess Bride, which Reiner directed and which starred Wright as Buttercup – her breakthrough role after several years on the soap opera Santa Barbara.

For years, Texas – and particularly Austin – has been fertile ground for both local and Hollywood filmmakers, and television was not far behind. These days, you can't drive around town without seeing those telltale yellow base camp signs indicating nearby filming, nor can you shop at Whole Foods without running into a movie star perusing the kombucha options. That actors as experienced and respected as the ones being honored by the Austin Film Society embrace television as wholeheartedly as they do should serve as both inspiration and motivation for the film industry to keep upping its creative game. Both industries – and Austin – can only stand to benefit from the competition.


The Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards ceremony takes place Thursday, March 7, at Austin Studios. Select tickets are still available for the awards show, as well as the afterparty; see www.austinfilm.org for details.

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