“Some actors can sing – and some shouldn’t,” journalist Luchina Fischer once summarised. The actor-to-musician, musician-to-actor cliché has drawn plenty of groans over the decades. And such work in both Hollywood and the charts tend to divide opinion.
But while musicians including Madonna, Justin Timberlake and Mariah Carey have seen success breaking into Hollywood as actors, lesser known are the music careers of a few world-famous actors. We’re taking a look at these major Hollywood stars’ forays into pop, reggae, rock and beyond.
20. Keanu Reeves
Famed for being one of Hollywood’s shyest heartthrobs, Keanu Reeves has shown discomfort with movie stardom. Since he rose to fame in Youngblood (1986) and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), and later revived his career with The Matrix, Reeves has criticised the industry, once commenting: “I have other interests, but none as all-consuming as this godawful job.”
Among these other interests is a passion for music. From 1991 to 2002, Reeves played the bass guitar in his own alt-rock and grunge band, Dogstar. This band released two albums entitled Our Little Visionary (1996) and Happy Ending (2000), and it toured the USA and Asia in 1995. Keanu Reeves and Dogstar even opened for David Bowie at his 1995 Hollywood Palladium show.
19. Idris Elba
You know him as Stringer Bell from The Wire and the hero of Luther. He has starred in both the DC and Marvel cinematic universes. But Idris Elba, who was born and raised in Hackney, London, also goes by the name of DJ Big Driis, with an extensive music career to boot.
Over the decades, Elba has performed professionally as a singer, rapper, producer and disc jockey. He co-produced and featured on Jay-Z’s album American Gangster (2007), and has also collaborated with Madonna and Paul McCartney. His best-known EP, High Class Problems Vol. 1, earned him a Billboard Music Award nomination in 2010. Elba’s only album, Murdah Loves John, came out in 2015.
18. Billy Bob Thornton
A man of many talents, Billy Bob Thornton became famous for writing, directing, and starring in the drama Sling Blade (1996). Since then, he’s starred in movies including Armageddon (1998), A Simple Plan (1998) and Monster’s Ball (2001), but most of his critical acclaim comes from his TV roles. Nominated for three Golden Globes and an Emmy, Thornton recently starred in the Amazon Original series Goliath (2016).
But lesser-known is his role as the vocalist for blues rock band The Boxmasters. Thornton created this band after playing in various groups since middle school and working as a roadie. The band toured the USA in 2008 and has released 12 albums to date. Meanwhile, Thornton found time to release four solo albums between 2001 and 2007. This Hollywood star is also a talented drummer.
17. Russell Crowe
The New Zealand-born Russell Ira Crowe shot to fame with his lead role in the epic historical movie Gladiator (2000), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. As well as his performances in The Insider (1999) and A Beautiful Mind (2001), Crowe received a lot of attention for starring as Javert in Les Misérables in 2012. Many criticised his casting in this musical movie and lambasted his singing performances.
However, the famously hot-tempered Crowe didn’t rise to the bait over these criticisms. He’s had a solid singing career of his own, performing since the 1980s in various rock bands. He has toured with the groups Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts and The Ordinary Fear of God, and in 2017 his new band, Indoor Garden Party, released an album called The Musical.
16. Johnny Depp
An 80s teen idol from 21 Jump Street, Johnny Depp later became best-known for playing strange and uncanny characters, from Edward Scissorhands and Captain Jack Sparrow to Willy Wonka. A favourite of director Tim Burton and Disney, Depp became the world’s highest-paid actor in 2016.
But long before Johnny Depp became a Hollywood star, he was a professional guitarist. He has worked with Oasis, Iggy Pop and Marilyn Manson over the decades, and he played guitar on the soundtracks of his movies Chocolat and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. In 2015, he helped to create a rock supergroup named Hollywood Vampires. Depp has collaborated closely with the Yardbird guitarist Jeff Beck, and the duo have promised to release more music together in the near future.
15. Gary Sinise
Winner of an Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony Award, Gary Sinise has often played serious, authoritative roles. You’ll spot him in Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 and The Green Mile. Sinise has also worked widely in philanthropic projects, promoting care for disabled US veterans and receiving the Outstanding Civilian Service Award in 2013.
Nevertheless, this star has also made time for a music career. He is a skilled jazz bass guitar player in his spare time. Named after his Forrest Gump character, Sinise’s group The Lt Dan Band was founded in 2004 and performs at US military bases around the world. The group has played in over 400 concerts.
14. Steve Martin
Five-time Grammy winner Stephen Martin is one of America’s most beloved comedians. He kickstarted his showbusiness career by writing for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and soon became a movie star with Three Amigos (1986), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). Lately he has won further critical acclaim for starring in the Hulu series Only Murders in the Building.
But Martin has also had a lifelong passion for the banjo. He includes this unusual instrument in many of his live performances and has toured with several bluegrass stars including Earl Scruggs. He won a Grammy for the album The Crow in 2009. What’s more, Martin has penned the lyrics to two Broadway musicals: Bright Star (2016) and Meteor Shower (2017).
13. Eddie Murphy
Like Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy is a celebrated American comedian who won fame on Saturday Night Live. A popular stand-up comedian, Murphy found his feet in Hollywood with the Beverly Hills Cops series in 1984 and has become one of the US’s highest-paid actors.
But Murphy’s lesser-known love is singing. In the 80s and 90s, he released five studio albums entitled Eddie Murphy, Comedian, How Could It Be, So Happy and Love’s Alright. Murphy has experimented with soul, funk and motown over the course of his musical career.
12. Kevin Bacon
Kevin Bacon is one star with an incredible variety of roles to his name. He’s best known for starring in Footloose (1984) and Apollo 13 (1995) and his showed his comedic chops with National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). But he has no qualms on taking far more troubling and dark roles, having starred as sinister figures in Sleepers (1996) and The Woodsman (2004).
Bacon also showed a totally different talent in 1995, when he created the folk rock band The Bacon Brothers with his sibling Michael, a prolific and Emmy Award-winning TV soundtrack composer. Together, Kevin and Michael have released seven studio albums and have completed many tours of Europe and North America.
11. William Shatner
Unmistakeable as Captain James T Kirk of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek, William Shatner hails from Canada and truly threw himself into this beloved franchise. He featured in every episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, all but one episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, and seven Star Trek movies – and he even penned a novel series called TekWar that received a TV adaptation.
But this sci-fi legend is also an accomplished recording artist. His first album, The Transformed Man, came out in 1968 and featured spoken-word covers of songs of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Rocket Man. He has since released a live double album, the indie-rock album Has Been (2004) and the space-themed rock album Seeking Major Tom (2011).
10. Paul Bettany
Paul Bettany is as famous for his voice as his face. He voiced the artificial intelligence system J.A.R.V.I.S. in seven Marvel movies. He won early fame for starring in A Knight’s Tale and A Beautiful Mind. More recently, this English actor has received an Emmy nomination for his lead role in WandaVision (2021) and reprised the role of J.A.R.V.I.S. for the Disney+ series What If…? (2021).
But before he became a celebrity, Paul Bettany was a struggling street musician, busking on the guitar. “I do find myself thinking about how fortunate I am all the time,” he has since commented. “I was a street performer; if I didn’t make money, I would go to bed hungry. Looking at the world right now, we will be judged on how we treat the needy.”
9. Bruce Willis
The world-famous Bruce Willis began his career in off-Broadway shows in the 70s, before he became the star of Moonlighting (1985) and the Die Hard franchise (1988). His blockbusters (from Pulp Fiction to The Sixth Sense) are countless – but in recent years, he’s turned to lower-budget direct-to-video productions, He announced his retirement early in 2021 due to the medical condition aphasia.
As early as 1987, Willis was dreaming of making his mark on the music industry. His debut album The Return of Bruno was a blues work that met with a mixed reception; he followed it with only one more album, If It Don’t Kill You, It Just Makes You Stronger (1989) This later work was a more eclectic R&B mix.
8. Jeff Bridges
From early childhood, there was little doubt that Jeff Bridges would end up in show business. Born in Los Angeles in 1949, he is the son of the acting couple Lloyd Bridges and Dorothy Bridges. As a child, he starred alongside his brother Beau and his father in the TV show Sea Hunt. Bridges ended up having a seven-decade movie and TV career, starring in The Fisher King (1991) The Big Lebowski (1998) and Crazy Heart (2009).
But in a 2010 interview, Jeff Bridges reflected that his love of music had long struggled alongside his acting career. “I guess I had a hard time choosing: was I an actor or a musician, or could I be both?” he noted. He is a pianist, guitarist and singer, and he signed a contract with Blue Note Records in 2011. His album Sleeping Tapes (2015) donated all proceeds to his charity No Kid Hungry.
7. Kevin Costner
He won hearts in the movies Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989), and has won two Academy Awards for his performance in Dances with Wolves (1990). Kevin Costner is best known as a sports movie actor, having starred in 11 examples of this genre.
But despite his stardom, it took a push from his wife Christine for Costner to try out a music career. His band Kevin Costner & Modern West went on tour in 2007 and 2009, but a freak thunderstorm accident caused the stage to collapse in their Camrose, Alberta performance. Costner later auctioned off a signed guitar and a date night to raise funds for the family of the single casualty of that incident.
6. Juliette Lewis
Juliette Lake Lewis was a teen heartthrob in the early 90s, but she didn’t rely on mainstream movies for long to make her name in cinema. Instead, she favoured quirky roles in darker, independent films, and is known for her arthouse works. This star of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Natural Born Killers chose to leave Hollywood for a spell in the 00s, instead turning to music.
Lewis created the rock band Juliette and the Licks in 2003. The group released the popular singles You’re Speaking My Language and Hot Kiss and toured North America and Europe extensively. The group disbanded in 2009 but then reunited in 2015 for a brand new tour. “At our peak we were known for our insane chemistry and energy onstage,” Lewis commented at the time.
5. Corey Feldman
The California-born Corey Feldman started out as a child star in the 80s. After starring in Gremlins (1984), The Goonies (1985) and Stand by Me (1986), Feldman began a famous cinematic partnership with Corey Haim – and the pair became known as The Two Coreys. Feldman, however, struggled with alcohol and drug addiction behind the scenes, and has since spoken out about child abuse in the movie industry.
After struggling to maintain his early popularity beyond his teenage fame, Feldman released the albums Love Left, Still Searching for Soul and Former Child Actor in the 90s and 00s. When his friend Michael Jackson died in 2009, Feldman and his rock band Truth Movement dedicated a Los Angeles hospital concert to him. Feldman also created the music group Corey’s Angels, comprised of Playboy Mansion models who wanted to become singers.
4. Philip Michael Thomas
Philip Michael Thomas is famed for starring in Miami Vice in the 80s – but he has a long-time dream of branching out into other fields of showbusiness. In fact, Thomas coined the term EGOT – referring to stars who win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Sadly, Thomas has never achieved this longed-for honour. In fact, he has never been nominated for any of these awards.
But his lack of Academy recognition hasn’t stopped him from pursuing music. He released two poorly-received reggae albums, Living the Book of My Life and Somebody, at the height of his 80s fame. Thomas also produced music for the videos of Jamaican fitness instructor Sandi Morais in 2001 and 2006.
3. Scott Baio
Scott Baio became a household name for starring in the sitcoms Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi as the aspiring young musician Chachi Arcola. Baio also starred as the lead character in 1976’s Bugsy Malone, and he played Jack Stewart in Diagnosis: Murder in the 90s.
Like his character, Scott Baio decided to launch a musical career in the 80s – and his self-titled pop album of 1982 reached the Billboard music charts, remaining there for four weeks. He followed this with the less successful 1983 album The Boys Are Out Tonight, which is his most recent to date.
2. Alyssa Milano
She was the child star of Who’s The Boss? and a fan favourite in Melrose Place and Charmed. As a prominent figure on TV, she was even the inspiration for the appearance of Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989). But Alyssa Milano had a music career that was little-known in Europe and the USA – but hugely popular in Japan.
The Japanese record label Pony Canyon signed a five-album deal with Milano while she was still on Who’s The Boss? Her subsequent pop albums went platinum in Japan but her music career was short-lived, as she remained reticent about the US market, commenting: “I’m not interested in crossing over. I’d much rather have it released where it’s appreciated than laughed at.”
1. David Hasselhoff
This Baltimore-born star rose to fame in the TV show The Young and the Restless, and he later starred in Knight Rider and Baywatch, earning himself the Guinness World Record for being TV’s most-viewed man.
Not content with being one of the most recognisable TV personalities of all time, Hasselhoff has also made his name as a rock star. His music career spans five decades, as he has released 14 studio albums as well as the hits If I Could Only Say Goodbye and Looking for Freedom. Hasselhoff has also shown off his musical talents in Broadway productions of Jekyll & Hyde, Chicago and The Producers.