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‘The Tonight Show’ Starring…Not a Movie Star

February 13, 2014

Besides hosting The Tonight Show, what do Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon have in common? A failed movie career.

Jay Leno

Collison CourseLeno was one of the most popular stand-up comedians in America in the 1970s and ’80s, eventually earning a spot as one of Johnny Carson’s permanent substitutes for when the longtime Tonight Show host took one of his many vacations or contractually obligated days off. Leno took over The Tonight Show for good when Carson retired in 1992. That was a lucky break for Leno—outside of The Tonight Show and standup, his side career as a film actor was dead in the water. Leno had earned brief appearances in two late ‘70s films, American Hot Wax and Americathon. But in 1989, during his high profile run as Carson’s permanent guest host, he starred in a Beverly Hills Cop knockoff called Collision Course. A buddy cop movie, Leno played the obnoxious and impulsive cop; Pat Morita played his by-the-book partner. The movie bombed at the box office.

Jimmy Fallon

Fallon was a breakout star at Saturday Night Live during his 1998 to 2004 stint at the sketch comedy show. Industry pundits expected Fallon to be a big movie star. But the first two movies in which he had a starring role were critical and commercial disappointments. The first: Taxi (2004), an action comedy and a remake of a French film. The second: Fever Pitch (2005), a sports comedy and remake of a British film. By 2009, Fallon was playing supporting roles in indie films. That’s when Conan O’Brien vacated Late Night for The Tonight Show in 2009, and executive producer Lorne Michaels asked Fallon to host—he’d publicly stated several times that Fallon was his first choice. With a movie career stalled, Fallon took the gig. Five years after hosting Late Night, he moves up to The Tonight Show this month.

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