[What Went Wrong? is a regular Monday segment in which we examine an artist — an actor, director, musician, etc. — and try to pinpoint the exact moment in which their once-promising career went off the rails.]
Topher Grace was the face of That 70’s Show, a late-90’s sitcom that arrived at the height of the Clinton years — a time when the economy was booming, the concept of 9/11 was still unthinkable, and nostalgia was at its utmost bankable, sharks jumped and unjumped alike be damned.
Grace was widely perceived as the cast member most likely to break out of That 70’s Show and emerge a movie star, the bashful everyman who could capably anchor many a romantic comedy, receive a reliable amount of backlash due to his lack of range, and cash in several paychecks thanks to his lack of range. The fact that he never displayed anything beyond the suburban forlornness of his everyday-kid Eric Forman character never crossed our minds. He was the closest we had to a sure thing, and hell, he was practically a guarantee amongst a cast filled with his flavor-of-the-week co-stars Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher.
As expected, Grace was the first main cast member to leave That 70’s Show, departing before the show’s eighth and final season. We all saw this coming. His natural charisma carried the decent sitcom (which regularly but barely overcame its heinous, overblown laugh track), and Topher, intent on Hollywood stardom, began his path of taking whatever Paul Rudd roles Paul Rudd didn’t feel like taking.
It worked reasonably well In Good Company, a competent romantic comedy starring Dennis Quaid and Scarlett Johansson alongside Grace, in which Grace played a wunderkid busisnessman taking over Quaid’s firm and subsequently falling in love with his daughter. It was a sweet, simple film, and a similar one followed that year — Win a Date With Tad Hamilton. Like Good Company, it received a mixed critical response, neither project elevating Grace’s career status beyond what was projected when he left his sitcom. Christian Science Monitor’s David Sterritt inadvertently summed up both the film and Grace’s career film career to that point by claiming it “isn’t as funny as it wants to be, but it has a sheer pleasantness” to it.
Grace later emerged in 2007, in the third installment of Sam Raimi’s acclaimed Spider-Man saga. Portraying main antagonist Eddie Brock, a Daily Bugle photographer who would serve as the doppleganger to Tobey McGuire’s Peter Parker, Grace was faced with the unenviable tasks of defying fans’ expectations of the character (Brock was originally much bulkier and less Topher Grace-y than Grace), and carving a distinct voice in a film that had one too many antagonists as it was. Grace was far from bad in the film—if anything, his Tophering of the Venom character made him more entertaining than the black and white villain the comics presented. But while Spidey 3 went on to become the 25th highest grossing film of all-time, it did nothing to elevate Topher’s status as a movie-star. If there was ever a time that Topher wanted to retreat back to That 70’s Show, it was probably then—but it was too late, as the show that made Topher Grace a household name amongst households that recognized the name Topher Grace had ended, without him, a year prior.
Every single one of his co-stars went on to better careers than him. Even that foreign guy who dated someone for a time and did the Yo’ Mama show on MTV. Seriously.
Topher Grace is a strange subject to tackle for the first What Went Wrong feature, because it’s legitimately difficult to pinpoint the exact spot where something went wrong. It just did, so immediately and so irreversibly and, to this point, so tragically. It’s not like he was making notably poor decisions. He started by taking roles that suited his particular understated skill set — In Good Company and Tad Hamilton –– and when he was presented a role in a surefire blockbuster, as he was in Spider-Man 3, he gave us the most Topher Grace role that Topher Grace has ever Topher Graced. Unfortunately, Spider-Man fans and casual movie audiences alike apparently didn’t want the actor who was inherently supposed to out-McGuire Tobey McGuire, in a process otherwise known as Topher Gracing, to be Topher Grace.
When promos for Take Me Home Tonight began airing on TV in 2011, it was clear that something was amiss. Topher Grace was the star of a major motion picture? After four years of hearing nothing from his camp since Spider-Man 3? Nevermind that a hackneyed, stoner comedy named after an Eddie Money song was exactly the type of vehicle Grace would have starred in circa 2011. It betrayed my theory that Venom was never supposed to jump into that explosion at the end of Spider-Man 3, and Sam Raimi’s proposed plans for a Spider-Man 4 were nixed only because they had accidentally killed Topher Grace in a moment of fiercely passionate Topher Grace character commitment. But of course, after a bit of research, it was revealed that Take Me Home was shot in 2007, only to be shelved by the studio for four years. My Venom theory survives to this day.
Still, it’s not clear if Topher Grace is dead… yet. His career most certainly is. But the man inside the Tad Hamilton suit may be gracing us still, his intents guarded, his delivery reliably self-knowing and faintly sarcastic in nature.
The guy who played Eric Forman’s best friend on That 70’s Show has a new, shitty sitcom on TBS. We can only hope that Topher Grace is not Andy Kaufmaning us, and will come back with his own shitty TBS sitcom in the years to come. If not, at least those of us insane enough to suggest Laura Prepon’s career would outlast Topher Grace’s will have something to smile at when we visit Topher Grace’s Topher Grave.
So Where Did It Go Wrong?: Probably Spider-Man 3, in the sad case where an actor’s career went to shit because a casting department’s judgment overshadowed a decent performance and made him completely unmarketable. Agreeing to do a film called Win a Date With Tad Hamilton and expecting a success probably didn’t help though.