• Jeff Daniels has had an exceptional and versatile career spanning dramas, comedies, and more with consistently great performances.
  • His role in “Pleasantville” showcased his talent for both comedy and drama, leading to bigger roles in the future.
  • From “The Martian” to “Gettysburg” to “Dumb and Dumber,” Daniels proves he can excel in a wide range of roles and genres.

Jeff Daniels has had a long and colorful career having appeared in almost 90 seperate projects for television and film. Daniels began acting on TV back in 1980, when he landed a small role in Hawaii Five-0 for a single episode. He proceeded to appear in a few more small part roles on TV, but quickly landed the roles that would launch his career. The 1983 film Terms of Endearment helped to take him from bit actor to leading man, and showcased his talents for both comedy and drama.

In the years that followed, Daniels would move on to bigger and more prolific roles, where he would star alongside other giants in the industry, including Jim Carrey, Keanu Reeves, Bruce Willis, and Jack Nicholson. Daniels is also an actor who has spent time working in multiple different realms, with a focus on different comedy projects, dramas, and between stage and screen performances. All combined, Daniels has proven he is a reliable and exceptional talent who delivers consistently great performances, whatever the job.

10 Pleasantville

jeff daniels as Bill Johnson in Pleasantville

While Daniels is not the lead in the 1998 film, Pleasantville, he plays a significant role in the supporting cast. The film follows two kids who are transported into the world of a popular 1950s TV show where everything is seemingly perfect. However, when they arrive, the world begins to change, and the townspeople have conflicted feelings about it. Daniels plays Bill Johnson, the owner of a local malt shop in Pleasantville.

Daniels delivers a compelling performance as a man going through a crisis as he discovers the boring, repetitive nature of his world. However, with some help from the two kids that appeared in town, he manages to find and pursue his dreams, and explore a romance he never had the confidence to pursue. Daniels plays both comedy and drama in this film, showcasing his impressive talents across genres.


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9 Gettysburg

Jeff Daniels as Colonel Chamberlain in Gettysburg

A few years prior, in 1993, Daniels tackled a very different role in terms of tone. Daniels plays Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the Union forces during the American Civil War. The movie features a talented ensemble cast, including Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, Stephen Lang, and Sam Elliott. Gettysburg is a story about two sides and the decisive battle that would determine the future of America.

Daniels role as a leader within the Union group made him a central figure in the movie, and presented plenty of opportunities to show off his incredible talent. It is a great film, and Daniels shines through to stand out in an impressive cast. However, Daniels talents have also been manifested to an even higher standard and degree in some of his later projects, as he started to come into his own in dramatic roles with TV shows and miniseries that afforded him more time to develop his characters.

8 The Looming Tower

Jeff Daniels pointing his finger in The Looming Tower

In 2018, Daniels was cast as the leading man in The Looming Tower, a series based on the real life feuds between the FBI and CIA in tracking down Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization, al-Qaeda. Daniels plays Chief John O’Neill who leads the New York FBI division known as I-49. While he believes there is an imminent threat facing the US, and particularly New York, he faces opposition from other government divisions, namely the CIA, as he attempts to gather together the necessary intel.

This kind of role is exactly where Daniels really shines, embodying an intelligent and powerful figure who is often the voice of reason, which is a total contrast to some of his other roles. Perhaps this very contrast is part of what makes him so well suited to seeing both sides of this type of role and becoming a knowledgeable, put-together man of the law, or some important political figure. Daniels delivers a career-defining performance, which is only overshadowed by some of his other outstanding performances in equally well received, or larger projects.


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7 The Martian

Jeff Daniels in The Martian

The Martian was a major blockbuster movie directed by Ridley Scott and released in 2015. The movie was nominated for seven Oscars after it was released, and is easily one of the most praised and respected films that Daniels has ever had the opportunity to appear in. While much of the film follows Mat Damon’s character on Mars, Daniels plays a prominent role as Teddy Sanders, the director of NASA.

Daniels has several scenes where he has the opportunity to deliver powerful dialogue and actively contribute to the film. Teddy is a conscious man, who is actively working long days and nights to keep his team in space safe. While some of his choices may be controversial, Daniels helps to create a character who makes these choices organically and follows his gut. Daniels loses himself in the role, and its easier to view him as simply being Teddy Sanders because of these immersive performance.

6 Dumb And Dumber

Dumb and Dumber To

Winding back to 1994, and another massive shift in tone, Daniels had another huge hit on his hands when he played Harry in Dumb and Dumber. Daniels may have found his niche in playing serious roles full of drama and intrigue, but when he has a chance to cut loose, he jumps in with both feet. Starring alongside the comedy legend Jim Carrey, Daniels and Carrey have remarkable chemistry and their flow together is outstanding.

Dumb and Dumber is a comedy movie about two men who may not have 100 IQ points between them, and due to their complete lack of common sense, they get into wacky and hilarious situations. Harry is actually the smart one, but Daniels still does a fantastic job at cutting down on his own intelligence and wit in exchange for some slapstick humor and over-the-top jokes. Despite the nonsensical nature of the movie, it displays a great degree of talent on Daniels’ behalf due to this type of role clearly being just one side to the range he can deliver.


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5 Speed

Jeff Daniels as Harry in Speed

Speed also came out in 1994, but this high intensity action thriller was another complete shift for Daniels as he played the brave and heroic police officer, Harry Temple. The movie is best known for Keanu Reeves shifting his career toward more action-based roles, but Daniels role as his partner in the force was also hugely important in the context of the film.

While Jack (Reeves) gets trapped in a speeding bus rigged with explosives, his partner, Harry (Daniels) must race around the city in an effort to find the criminal responsible. Harry is intelligent, brave, and consistently provides a reassuring and supportive voice to his partner, until the moment when he is caught in another explosion and killed. Daniels does a fantastic job in a more action forward role, and proves once again that he is nothing if not a versatile actor.

4 Something Wild

Melanie Griffith's arm around Jeff Daniels' neck in Something Wild

Several years earlier, in 1986, Daniels starred opposite Melanie Griffiths in Something Wild. A comedy thriller film about Charles Driggs, a dull office worker whose life is turned on its head when he meets the mysterious and wild Lulu, who later reveals her real name is actually Audrey. Daniels plays Driggs, and while he is initially taken on a joyride and essentially kidnapped by this woman (Griffiths), he eventually finds they have a genuine conneciton.

As the film progresses, the events that play out become increasingly wacky and potentially dangerous. However, Daniels does a phenomonal job appearing as a plain and boring office worker, who transitions through the course of the movie to become more wild and free like his new captor and love interest. His chemistry with Griffiths is brilliant, and the changes in his character throughout the film make this one of his best performances.


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3 Godless

Jeff Daniels in Godless Netflix

From playing the unwilling accomplice, to appearing as a downright wicked cowboy without a heart, Daniels also played Frank Griffin in the miniseries, Godless. The story follows a group of rough outlaws in the Wild West in the 1880s. Daniels plays the primary antagonist, a leader of a local gang of rowdy cowboys, on the hunt for his former accomplice who has chosen to leave their way of life behind him.

Once again, Daniels showcases his depth of range and his ability to play a powerful figure who commands attention and steals the scenes whenever he appears. While Daniels often plays roles that are adjacent to being villainous, or morally questionable, Griffin is an out-and-out convict. His ability to embody such an intimidating and imposing character is in direct opposition to his more laid-back comedy roles, and a shift from his more political or dramatic roles, but Daniels nails it.

2 The Squid And The Whale

Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale

The Squid and the Whale is one of the most touching and emotional films of Daniels’ career, and despite the small independent production, it is one of his best performances. Daniels plays Bernard Berkman, a struggling writer who is undergoing a complicated divorce from his wife. While his wife’s career begins to take off, Bernard struggles to make any positive moves, and so his life starts to fall apart.

In the middle of his separation, Bernard and his wife agree to share custody of the kids, but things become more tense and vitriolic than before. Daniels once again proves how incredible his talent is as he puts on an incredible performance as a struggling man in the midst of a crisis. With everything in his life falling apart, Daniels delivers a remarkable performance that is a highlight of his career.

1 The Newsroom

Jeff Daniels behind his desk in The Newsroom

Finally, Daniels best performance of all time also comes from one of his best defined characters in The Newsroom. The political drama series ran for three seasons from 2012 to 2014, and had a total of 25 episodes. Daniels was at the heart of the series as Will McAvoy, the anchor and editor of a popular news broadcast that is popular for his moderate Republican views and honest opinions.

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