The 15 Most Notable Actors Who Delved Into Sci-Fi

By  · Published on June 4th, 2010

I won’t mince words. Science Fiction hasn’t always been the most well-respected genre. Even in what’s considered its Golden Era, productions were limited by budget, by concepts, and by acting talent. Even with last year’s resurgence, it’s still the genre of the nerd.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – in fact it’s something to be celebrated – but it’s no secret that mainstream appeal has never been the easiest thing for science fiction to achieve.

The point is that while there have been some fantastic explorations into science fiction by accomplished filmmakers, the genre has had to fight tooth, nail, and bionic claw to get recognition in the higher circles of the art form. This, of course, is a tragedy (which happens to be a genre that hasn’t had to fight for recognition in the higher circles or the art form).

There have been actors that get their start with science fiction, there are terrible actors that are relegated to the B-movie world for life, and then there are actors who are already roundly recognized as stars and artistic masters who decide to take a walk on the wild side of sci-fi.

In honor of Oscar-winner Adrien Brody diving face first into Splice, this list might just be the best of that last group.

The rules are simple, the actor has to have been successful before delving into science fiction territory. After all, it would be too easy to talk about huge icons today in smaller roles of yesterday.

Bonus points for major award nominations, wins, and bank-ability. Double plus points for loving the genre so much they married it.

15. Sean Connery, Zardoz

Street Cred: Made 27 films prior, and was incredibly well known for playing Bond, James Bond

The Pitch: As we all know, the best sci-fi is usually post-apocalyptic, anti-penis, and Irish. Imagine for a moment that you’ve spent a decade playing an iconic spy. You want to take your career to the next level, maybe in a different direction. What do you do? Sign on for the first movie that puts you in a red diaper-bandoleer.

14. Kirk Douglas, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Street Cred: Made 20 films prior, earning him an Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe nomination, and a Golden Apple…for Most Cooperative Actor

The Pitch: Riding high on being the most cooperative talent in Hollywood, Douglas was drawn deep into the ocean by rumors of a sea monster. It’s fair to say that he wasn’t quite as big a star as he’d become, but he was already wildly popular, especially with an octopus wrapped around him.

13. John Hurt, Alien

Street Cred: Made 20 films prior, earning him a BAFTA nomination, Golden Globe nomination, Oscar nomination, and he’d earn one more of each before appearing in 1984 in 1984

The Pitch: It’s fair to say that most people remember John Hurt with either a caged rat or a multi-limbed alien on his face. By 1979, Hurt had grown to become a well-respected actor with Midnight Express and built a steady career. He extended that career far beyond the 70s, but he was never as great as when he had weird shit threatening to eat his jaw off or using his stomach as a uterus.

12. Sam Rockwell, Moon

Street Cred: Made 46 films prior, earning 2 SAG nominations, a win at Sundance for Choke, and attaining indie superstardom

The Pitch: If you think about it, it makes sense. After being imprisoned with Michael Clarke Duncan and playing a sex addict, what better tonic for the soul than to be completely alone on the far side of the subject of a Pink Floyd album?

11. Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove

Street Cred: Made 28 films prior, earning a nomination for an Oscar, as well as multiple BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations

The Pitch: Sellers built a strong film presence, but was on fire after The Pink Panther, and as opposed to becoming a superhero (like you would today), he chose to play a panicked British office, a troubled president, and a mad German scientist in one of the best science fiction satires of all time.

10. Claude Rains, The Lost World

Street Cred: Made 51 films prior, including several iconic roles, earning him 4 Oscar nominations

The Pitch: Rains had already hit the peak of his career in Casablanca two decades before heading to the center of the earth, but his career was still going strong. To be fair, it’s tough for an appearance in one of the best movies of all time not to be considered your peak. Still, it’s unclear why he chose at the twilight of his acting profession to do back-to-back sci fi flicks, but we’re B-movie style, campily glad that he did.

9. Bruce Willis, 12 Monkeys

Street Cred: Made 24 films prior, and was massively well-known for the Die Hard films

The Pitch: In a varied career, Willis was both a bad ass and the guy your mother loved in Look Who’s Talking (and in “Moonlighting”). Then, he went sci-fi with one of the strangest directors around. The film also featured Brad Pitt, who would go on to build one of the largest careers on the planet. If the time travel wasn’t proof enough, look to Willis having long hair as a sign that it’s great sci-fi.

8. Mel Gibson, Signs

Street Cred: Made 46 films prior, earning him 2 non-acting Oscars, and garnering him status as a mega-star

The Pitch: To be fair, Gibson got his start in sci-fi with Mad Max. However, it would be years until he returned to the genre with the full force of his career. All it took was M. Night Shyamalan telling him that aliens named Sugartits were invading. And, yes, you can thank me for not making a joke about The Passion of the Christ being science fiction.

7. Tom Cruise, Vanilla Sky

Street Cred: Made 24 films prior, earning him 3 oscar nominations, and status as one of the highest paid actors

The Pitch: Somewhere after sliding into the living room in his underwear and jumping on the couch like a crazy person, Cruise decided to hitch his fate with Cameron Crowe and enter the world of sci-fi. That world involved him hooking up sexually with both Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz.

6. Nicole Kidman, Stepford Wives

Street Cred: Made 29 films prior, earning her an Oscar win, and another Oscar nomination

The Pitch: When you’re designing the perfect woman, there’s a decent chance that she’d look like Nicole Kidman, and it’s possible that she’d have the kind of career she’s had. She became an overnight success and used that fame to build one of the best screen presences of the 80s and 90s. Then, in 2004, she joined the remake movement and the science fiction world by fighting against robot Christopher Walken.

5. Denzel Washington, Virtuosity

Street Cred: Made 17 films prior, earning him 2 Oscar nominations, 1 Oscar win, and the same number of Golden Glob nominations and wins

The Pitch: Denzel went sci-fi crazy at one point and become a go-to figure in the genre, but before all that, he trained with a massive computer system infused with all the great traits a serial killer could hope for. He’d end up with another Oscar win, and 3 more nominations, but strangely – he’d never be nominated for his further sci-fi work.

4. Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes

Street Cred: Made 32 films prior, including roles in Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, earning him an Oscar win

The Pitch: Heston was a massive star when he joined for Planet of the Apes, and he’d go on to continue shining for what seemed like 13 more sequels. He had been in epics, dramas, and noir potboilers, but his first foray into science fiction is one of the most legendary. Especially the ending. Hint: It’s people.

3. Jodie Foster, Contact

Street Cred: Made 32 films prior, earning her 4 Oscar nominations, 2 Oscar wins, and worldwide fame

The Pitch: Foster got a head start since she was a child star, but she wisely refused to have a drug addiction, sex tape, or join the cast of “Baywatch,” and that decision ended up garnering her artistic respect and box office rewards. It took her a long time to get to science fiction, but as soon as she did, she found aliens. Feel foolish yet, SETI?

2. Dustin Hoffman, Outbreak

Street Cred: Made 24 films prior, earning him 6 Oscar noms, 2 Oscar wins, and 3 BAFTA wins

The Pitch: As it turns out, 1995 was a strange year for major actors turning to sci-fi, and Hoffman was no different. He had already built a stellar career, was loved by millions, and could go to Vegas any time he wanted to count cards at the black jack table. But then a virus hit the country like a wild fire, and he headed the call to duty. Unfortunately, he later headed the call to the Wonder Emporium, proving that even the best talents make mistakes.

1. Jack Nicholson, Mars Attacks

Street Cred: Made 56 films prior, earning him 10 Oscar nominations, 2 Oscar wins, 5 BAFTA nominations, 3 BAFTA wins, and status as film legend

The Pitch: There’s just no one bigger. Nicholson had done everything by the time Tim Burton convinced him to appear in his 1950s-style alien flick which launched the career of Crypto from the video game “Destroy All Humans!” He was such an incredible presence at the box office and at Lakers games, that it seemed absurd for him to be in such a strange role, but he did it, and he gave it his all, and Burton went right back to making movies essentially in black and white.

Who is your favorite notable actor that discovered science fiction?

Related Topics:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.