People who reached fame and fortune through their singing have crossed over into movies since the first days of the talkies, with Al Jolson, and a couple of years later, Rudy Vallee. By the time the Boomer Generation hit the scene in 1946, there were several singing sensations gracing the silver screen. Boomers were too young to know and enjoy them, of course, but since their parents saw them, and the burgeoning TV industry used older movies to help fill a 12- to18-hour broadcast day, these types of movies became ingrained in the minds of boomers from the time they became “talkies” themselves.
The Early Years
Bing Crosby was a hit on the radio as far back as the 1920s, and appeared in his first movie in 1930. By the 1940s, he was making movies boomers will remember, like the Road pictures, with Bob Hope. He went on to star in dozens of pictures, most notably for boomers, Holiday Inn (1944; later retitled White Christmas). His portrayal of a priest in Going My Way (1944) earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor. He continued getting credited roles into the 1960s, and his movies were broadcast throughout the boomer years.
The Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. all had singing careers when they started appearing together in movies. They also had movie careers separately, especially Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
Frank Sinatra appeared in his first movie in 1941. By 1944, his acting chops were being recognized when he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in From Here to Eternity, opposite Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. Fellow singer Donna Reed was also in the film.
Dean Martin had, quite possibly, the most diverse movie career of any singer. He appeared in about a dozen Westerns, before moving to other dramatic roles, and then most notably, to comedy. Among the ones best remembered by boomers will be Rio Bravo (1959) with John Wayne; The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) also with John Wayne; and 5 Card Stud (1968) with Robert Mitchum. Mister Boomer best recalls Dean Martin in the movies through his 007 spy spoof series, in which he was government counter-agent Matt Helm in four movies (1966-69). Hilarious kitsch.
Doris Day, another singer who made it big before the boomer years, began her movie career just at the beginning of the Boomer Generation in 1948. Boomers will probably best recall her movies The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the Hitchcock film co-starring with Jimmy Stewart; and Pillow Talk (1959), the most famous of her romance comedies, co-starring with Rock Hudson.
Harry Belafonte became a household name with his first hit, The Banana Boat Song (Day-O) in 1953. That same year he appeared in Bright Road, along with Dorothy Dandridge, then Carmen Jones (1954), Otto Preminger’s musical film. His next big role was in Islands In the Sun (1957). His film career continued into the 1990s.
Elvis Presley was perhaps the first real boomer-age singer turned movie star. His manager, Colonel Parker, had him signed to make 33 movies with MGM. His performances in some of the early ones were considered by critics to show him to be a promising actor. Such films as Love Me Tender (1956) and Jailhouse Rock (1957) made him a box office star. Critics were not so kind to most of his other movies, but Mister B was always partial to Viva Las Vegas (1964).
Frankie Avalon had his first hit song in 1959. His first movie appearance came in 1957, but his big acting break came in 1960 in The Guns of Timberland. John Wayne saw him in it and had him cast in The Alamo that same year. However, his dramatic roles were supplanted by being cast in the beach movies with Annette Funicello from1963 to 1965. By the end of the ’60s, his film career was pretty much over. He tried to revive it with a Back To The Beach reunion with Annette Funicello in 1987, but the formula no longer worked.
Bobby Darin began his music career writing songs for Connie Francis. In 1958, he recorded Splish Splash, and followed it with Dream Lover (1959), then Mack the Knife (1959). By then his name recognition hit the roof. His first major acting role was in Come September (1961), a comedy with Rock Hudson and Gina Lolobrigida. His portrayal of a shell-shocked soldier in Captain Newman, M.D. (1963) saw him nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Barbra Streisand burst onto the music scene in 1962. Her first film was a movie rendition of the Broadway hit, Funny Girl (1968). It earned her a Best Actress Academy Award. In 1973, she appeared opposite Robert Redford in The Way We Were, and alongside fellow singer Kris Kristofferson in A Star Is Born (1974).
David Bowie, a boomer himself — being born in 1947 — had his first musical hit, Space Oddity, in 1969, after seven years of failing with various bands. He had been a stage actor as a child, and later performed as a mime. He studied acting and dance during his music career beginnings. His first big movie role came in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). He continued to appear in various film roles throughout the ’70s and ’80s, but included a run in London theater in the starring role of The Elephant Man (1977). Other most notable films for boomers will probably be Labyrinth (1986) and his role as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were massive musical stars from the early 1960s and into the ’70s, both as a duo and solo artists. Both had roles in rather famous Boomer Era movies as well. Simon had a memorable role as music producer Tony Lacey in Annie Hall (1970) and starred in One-Trick Pony (1980), a film he wrote, co-starring with Blair Brown. He continues to appear in films from time to time.
Art Garfunkel also began his movie career while he and Simon were still recording hits. His first big movie role was in Catch-22 (1970) and he followed it with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Carnal Knowledge (1971). He still appears in film from time to time, mostly in cameo roles or in TV episodes and movies made for TV.
The Later Years
There were several Boomer Era musical stars who had thriving musical careers during the boomer years, but didn’t cross over to the big screen until after the end of the Boomer Era. Among them:
Mick Jagger, who appeared in Ned Kelly (1970) and The Man from Elysian Fields (2002).
Keith Richards was in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
John Denver appeared in Oh, God! (1977).
Michael Jackson starred in The Wiz (1978).
James Taylor appeared in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
Dolly Parton began her movie career in 9 to 5 (1980). She was nominated in the Academy Award category of Best Actress in a Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical) for her role in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) and continues to appear in films and television movies.
Tina Turner appeared in several movies, the most notable being Roger Daltry’s Tommy (1975), and her most memorable role in Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome (1985)
Cher was a fixture on the radio in the 1960s and TV from the late ’60s to the ’70s, but her first big movie role didn’t happen until Robert Altman’s, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean (1982). Then she followed it with a role in Silkwood (1983) along with Meryl Streep. She has appeared in many box office and critically acclaimed hits since, including Mask (1985) which saw her nominated for an Academy Award. Two years later she won an Academy Award for her role in Moonstruck (1987) opposite Nicholas Cage. Other films boomers will recall include The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Mermaids (1990) and Burlesque (2010).
What Mister Boomer is struck by is not that so many singing stars of the boomer years had or have movie careers, but how many of them have had successful movie careers, winning Golden Globe and Academy Awards for their acting. It’s impossible for Mister B to pick a favorite, especially since so many of them performed both comedy and drama with equal aplomb.
Do you have a favorite music star turned actor, boomers?