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Image: Carell
Merie Weismiller  /  Paramount Pictures
In "Dinner for Schmucks," Steve Carell, right, plays a socially awkward man who makes dioramas featuring taxidermied mice. The shadow of bumbling Michael Scott from "The Office" falls over almost all of Carell's roles, but that's not really a bad thing.
TODAY contributor
updated 7/22/2010 1:08:28 PM ET 2010-07-22T17:08:28

As Michael Scott, the inept boss of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch on “The Office,” Steve Carell has perfected the art of clueless corporate management.

It’s an iconic role that has made Carell richer as a performer, and rich, period. He earns $300,000 per episode, and recently notched his fourth consecutive Emmy nod for lead actor in a comedy. But it’s time for Carell to prepare his exit interview. He recently announced he’s leaving the acclaimed sitcom at the end of the upcoming seventh season to focus on his booming movie career.

The actor, fresh off the spring success “Date Night” with Tina Fey, just scored another with his voice work in “Despicable Me.” On July 30, he re-teams with his "40-Year-Old Virgin" co-star Paul Rudd for the comedy “Dinner for Schmucks.” But when he finally clocks out of “The Office,” will Carell be able to leave Michael Scott behind?

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Despite his movie success, few actors are as closely identified with a character as Carell is with his bumbling TV alter ego. Part of the connection comes from the fact that Michael Scott’s idiosyncrasies and awkward arrogance inform so many of Carell’s roles.

In “Despicable Me,” he voices a hapless villain, Gru, who can’t get his minions to respect him. In “Dinner for Schmucks,” he plays the off-kilter nerd who’s the target for a mean-spirited dinner invitation that inspires the film's title.

From “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” through “Get Smart” and “Evan Almighty,” a definite pattern emerges in terms of recurring character traits for Carell's roles. Bumbling, hapless, desperately seeking acceptance are all part of Carell’s onscreen oeuvre.

“He excels at playing the awkward, hapless hero. You’re not always sure if you’re supposed to like him, but you end up liking him anyway,” said Entertainment Weekly senior writer Dave Karger.

“That’s Steve Carell’s particular skill, is that he can make these oftentimes annoying characters, appealing at the same time. Not everybody can do that.”

Maureen Ryan, television critic for the Chicago Tribune, agrees. “There's usually a core of sweetness or kindness to his characters,” Ryan said. “They may be ignorant or socially awkward, but they're not evil. I think that core of niceness is what makes him so relatable and what makes his characters so similar.”

Actor can still draw on Michael Scott character
So if Michael Scott represents a character type that fits right into Carell’s acting wheelhouse, is that really a problem?

Robert Downey Jr.'s manic style is instantly recognizable, whether he’s “Iron Man” or “Sherlock Holmes.” Will Smith may jump between action, dramas and comedies, but his charismatic style is never far behind. Same for Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and just about any other top star you can think of. Every actor plays to his or her particular strengths.

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“There is nothing wrong with Carell drawing on [Michael Scott], if appropriate to the role,” said Dr. Paul Levinson, Fordham University’s professor of television and media.

“Never have I felt while watching a Steve Carell movie ... that I’m watching an episode of ('The Office'),” said Entertainment Weekly's Karger, who thinks the actor has displayed quite a range inside his comedy comfort zone. “He’s actually kind of versatile. It’s very difficult to go from character comedian to leading man convincingly. And he’s carried romantic comedies, like 'Date Night.'"

In fact, Carell has quietly become perhaps Hollywood’s most bankable comedy star outside of Adam Sandler. Going back to “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Carell has logged nine straight hits, including voicework in “Over the Hedge” and “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!”

Evil characters without soft sides may be tough
Can Carell pull off what Steve Martin and Bill Murray have done, which is get audiences to buy a funny guy in a serious role? It's not that easy.

“I don't know if I could see Carell as a straight-up villain or as a crafty, duplicitous character,” Ryan said. “... I'd like to see him stretch [beyond his comfort zone], because he's a really good actor. Could he have a career like Bill Murray's? Why not?”

“He’s shown shades of drama with things like “Little Miss Sunshine,” and did it really well, but that was basically a comedy, too," Ryan said. "Will he make a movie like Bill Murray in “The Razor’s Edge?” And if so, will it be better received than that film was? That’s the unknown.”

Karger says Carell’s box-office appeal affords him the freedom to try different things, if he wanted to. “He’s one of the few actors who can bring a mainstream audience to a more thoughtful, almost arty kind of film, like “Dan in Real Life.””

As for his decision to finally leave “The Office,” the only surprise is that it took this long for him to finally call it quits. Most TV actors can’t wait to escape the episodic grind once the movie studios start calling. Carell has always seemed to enjoy the comforting familiarity of the Dunder Mifflin set.

Ryan, who has covered “The Office” frequently for her Tribune blog ‘The Watcher’, thinks Carell is leaving the show at the perfect time.

“The show still has its moments but it's not exactly must-see anymore,” she said. “It's always best to leave people wanting more, and not overstay your welcome, as ‘The Office’ may do without him.”

Michael Avila is a writer in New York.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: 'Dinner for Schmucks': July 30

Photos: Steve Carell

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  1. Friends without benefits

    Steve Carell teams up with Keira Knightley to find his high school sweetheart before the world comes to an end in 2012's "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World." (Focus Features) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red-carpet pose

    Carell poses on the red carpet at the premiere of "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" in June 2012 in L.A. (John Shearer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Hitting the keynote

    In a 2012 keynote speech at Princeton University's class day, Carell spoke to the graduates about their future. As he recalled on TODAY, "I told them in essence, 'You are young, and because of that you are wrong.'" (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Good night and good luck

    Carell said good-bye to "The Office" in 2011 when his characte, Michael Scott, relocated to Colorado to help his fiancee care for her ailing parents. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Stupid is as stupid does

    "Crazy, Stupid, Love." from 2011 gave Carell a chance to shine as a dramatic and comedic lead whose wife, played by Julianne Moore, cheats on him with a co-worker, played by Kevin Bacon. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Dorky dinner

    In "Dinner for Schmucks," Carell, left, with co-star Jemaine Clement, plays an IRS employee whose hobby is building dioramas featuring taxidermied mice. That helps make him the perfect guest for a dinner where the goal is to show up with the biggest idiot. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Daddy supervillain

    Carell provided the vaguely Eastern European-tinged voice of supervillain Gru in 2010's 3-D adventure, "Despicable Me." His battle to steal the moon and triumph over a villain nemesis gets waylaid by three orphan girls who want him to adopt them. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Out on the town

    Two comedy stars combined when Carell starred with Tina Fey in 2010's "Date Night," playing suburban parents who try to spice up their life and stumble into trouble. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Comedy couple

    Carell and wife Nancy arrive at the Emmys in 2009. She had a recurring role on "The Office" as Carell's character's realtor and short-time girlfriend, had a cameo in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and appeared with him in "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" in 2012. The couple have two children, Annie and Johnny. (Frazer Harrison / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. An 'Office' anniversary

    Rainn Wilson, Carell and other members of the cast of "The Office" celebrated the show's 100th episode with a giant cake in April 2009. Carell announced in 2010 that he was leaving the show after one more season. (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Playing it Smart

    Carell starred as spy Maxwell Smart in 2008's "Get Smart," the big-screen film based on the popular 1960s spy parody series. The film resurrected many of the film's gags, including the famous shoe phone. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Reality bites

    Carell starred in the title role in 2007's "Dan in Real Life," about an advice columnist who could use some advice himself. (Touchstone Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Staying afloat

    "Evan Almighty" is the 2007 sequel to "Bruce Almighty," giving Carell the starring role Jim Carrey played in the first film. Carell's character believes the Lord is telling him to build an ark a la Noah, and perseveres even though others tell him he is crazy. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Hooray for Ricky

    Carell, center, didn't win an Emmy at the 2007 awards, but he joined Jon Stewart, left, and Stephen Colbert in an exuberant celebration when actual lead comedy actor winner Ricky Gervais wasn't there to accept his award. Gervais, who plays Carell's role on the British version of "The Office," won for his portrayal of Andy Millman on "Extras." (John Shearer / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Hamming it up

    Carell provided the voice of Hammy the hyperactive squirrel in 2006's "Over the Hedge." When the DVD was released that fall, Hammy had his own short film on the disc. (DreamWorks Animation) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Golden boy

    Carell won a Golden Globe award for his role as bumbling boss Michael Scott in NBC's "The Office" in 2006. The starring TV role allowed Carell to branch out into a successful movie career. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Sunshine day

    Carell also starred in the quirky 2006 film "Little Miss Sunshine," about a family traveling to a children's beauty pageant in a VW Microbus. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Hitting the wall

    Will Ferrell, left, and John C. Reilly, in character from their film, "Talladega Nights," put the squeeze on Carell while presenting him with an award at the 2006 MTV Movie Awards. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Lordy, Lordy, life at 40

    Carell's breakout hit was 2005's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," which the actor co-wrote. He plays Andy Stitzer, a simple man who works at an electronics store. When his co-workers find out he's a virgin, they vow to help him lose his virginity, and trouble ensues. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Stay classy, San Diego

    Will Ferrell's Ron Burgundy, right, earned most of the attention in 2004's "Anchorman," but Carell also played a memorable part, as Brick Tamland, a dim weatherman with a dark side. Asked whether he would hold a celebrity golf tournament again, he replied "No, too many people died last year." (DreamWorks Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. World's best boss

    Carell's blustering Michael Scott, manager of Dunder Mifflin Paper in Scranton, Pa., was one of television's most memorable bosses. He looked the part, but once he opened hismouth, it was evident he was in over his head. Or, as he put it, "I guess the atmosphere that I've tried to create here is that I'm a friend first and a boss second, and probably an entertainer third." Carell played Scott from 2005-2011. (Justin Lubin / NBC via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. When news breaks, we fix it

    Carell was a correspondent on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" from 1999-2004. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Early days

    Carell, center back row, was a member of the famed Second City comedy troupe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Carell also taught improv classes at Second City, and later married one of his students, Nancy Walls, who was a member of the "Saturday Night Live" cast from 1995-1996. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
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Discuss: Will you always think of Steve Carell as Michael Scott?

He's a talented actor -- does it matter that he's so associated with one character? And could you ever take him seriously as a villain?

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