Jeff Daniels in ‘The Newsroom’/Image © Melissa Moseley/HBO
On July 14, HBO’s high-profile series “The Newsroom” returns for its second season. Like creator Aaron Sorkin’s previous shows (“Sports Night,” “The West Wing,” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”), the ensemble drama takes us behind the scenes of another cultural institution: cable news. Anchored by Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), “News Night,” on the fictional Atlantis Cable News channel, aims to drag journalism back from a focus on ratings to real reporting. As written by Sorkin, the prickly Will is the Hollywood ideal of a conservative — a moderate Republican, guided by truth, not partisanship — but Daniels, a consistently underrated actor, makes the character more human and less soapbox. While the show has gotten mixed reviews, critics have routinely praised Daniels’s performance, earning him Golden Globe and Screen Actor Guild nominations in the process.
Shockingly, this is one of the few times in his long career that Daniels has received major award recognition. Since his film debut in Milos Forman’s “Ragtime” (1981), he has quietly put together an interesting body of work in a variety of genres, roles linked by his fundamental integrity and likeability as an actor. Regardless of the production, Daniels offers a reliably quality, always appealing performance.
Here are five must-see Jeff Daniels roles.
The love interest: Tom Baxter and Gil Shepherd, “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985)
In Woody Allen’s homage to Depression-era cinema, a movie character steps off the screen to meet a downtrodden waitress (Mia Farrow) in the audience. Their romance is complicated by the arrival of the actor who plays the character. In Golden Globe-nominated dual roles, Daniels puts his inherent likeability to good effect as both the sweetly naïve Tom and the shallow, ambitious Gil.
See also: Flap Horton, “Terms of Endearment” (1983); Bill Johnson, “Pleasantville” (1998)
The historical figure: Joseph Chamberlain, “Gettysburg” (1993) and “Gods & Generals” (2003)
Based on novels by Michael Shaara and his son Jeff, this movie and prequel featured Daniels as a major Civil War figure, a decorated Union officer known for his leadership at Gettysburg. In a large ensemble cast, Daniels stands out with his understated performance, best seen in a stirring speech recruiting deserters to the Union cause.
See also: Sig Mickelson, “Good Night, & Good Luck” (2005); Alvin Dewey, “Infamous” (2006); Prof. David Kirk, “Howl” (2010)
The sidekick: Harry Dunne, “Dumb & Dumber” (1994)
The Farrelly brothers’ directorial debut paired Daniels with Jim Carrey in a road trip/buddy comedy about two idiot best friends. As dog groomer Harry (with a van that looks like a shaggy dog), Daniels and his cheerful goofiness make a good foil for Carrey’s manic Lloyd. Apparently, both actors have signed up for an in-the-works sequel.
See also: Harry Temple, “Speed” (1994)
The family man: Thomas Alden, “Fly Away Home” (1996)
Inspired by the real-life adventures of artist Bill Lishman, this family movie is about a girl and her father who help geese migrate south with the help of light aircraft. Daniels plays Thomas Alden, eccentric inventor and artist father of Amy (Anna Paquin), who bonds with the daughter he hasn’t seen since birth over her determination to help the geese.
See also: Roger Dearly, “101 Dalmatians” (1996); the Preacher, “Because of Winn-Dixie” (2005)
The complex elder: Bernard Berkman, “The Squid & the Whale” (2005)
Noah Baumbach’s autobiographical comedy about a family affected by divorce gave Daniels, nominated for Golden Globe and Independent Spirit awards, his most acclaimed role yet. Cast against type, he plays a self-absorbed failing novelist and professor wounded by the increasing success of his writer wife (Laura Linney). (P.S. We don’t recommend watching this back to back with “Fly Away Home,” as there’s a very different Anna Paquin here.)
See also: Rep. George Fergus, “State of Play” (2009); Will McAvoy, “The Newsroom” (2012); Abe, “Looper” (2012)
Jeff Daniels: underrated? Feel free to discuss that and your favorite of his roles below.