It was a challenging idea. To compile a list of the actors, singers, comics and other show biz glitterati whose fame and fortunateness most outweighs any actual talent they may actually have. And I'm not talking about the latest one-hit-pop-lip-syncher or reality-show-evil-but-hunky-poser but those who have built long, enduring careers out of nearly non-existent abilities.
I started out with some non-scientific Web polling, which revealed that every star in show biz is considered overrated by somebody.
So I toiled over a way to quantify the imbalance between success and talent, using the stars' estimated net worth and income (and in the process saw that Forbes.com had done its own poll of overrateds, topped by Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise), People and Us Weekly covers, Google search results (with special attention to searches with the celebrity's name and the word "sucks"), and good vs. bad reviews.
After all that, the rankings came out to a statistical tie among 37 non-deserving celebrities, so I threw darts blindfolded at a wall covered with all their pictures and the winners/losers follow, in order of how close the darts came to their left eye (I was going to target the nose, but that would've automatically made Jamie Farr number one).
And now, not exactly the top 10, but not exactly the bottom 10 either:
10. Ben Affleck
Note: I have tried to keep a rule that anyone on this list has to have been famous for at least 10 years, but Affleck has stuffed 15 years of spectacular mediocrity into seven.
Promising Start Abandoned: Co-wrote “Good Will Hunting” in which he played best friend to real-life friend and co-author Matt Damon (who did most of the dramatic heavy lifting). His lack of writing credits since is not a good sign.
Other not-so-good-signs: He’s a favorite of director Kevin Smith, who is at his best when working with low-budgets and low-standards (proven when Smith and Affleck attempted “Jersey Girl”). His only recent semi-success was playing a superhero.
Overshadowings: His romance and broken engagement with was the talk of Hollywood, apparently solely because headline writers could abbreviate both of them as “Bennifer.” Their costarring turn in “Gigli” led to the film being ranked as one of the worst pictures so far this century.
Meanwhile, millions of Americans mistakenly believe the duck in the insurance commercials is screaming out his name.
9. Keanu Reeves
An Excellent Start: As the second member of the dazed duet in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," Keanu faced the challenge of building a career beyond slackertude most heinous. But whether he was doing Shakespeare, Siddhartha or Stoker's Dracula, always seemed seconds away from an outburst of "Dude!"
The Matrix Crashes: He seemed especially ill-suited to wear the long black coat in the cyber-stylistic "Matrix", and after the movie series itself jumped the track halfway through the second installment, he was symbolically stripped of that long black coat and left hanging out in a loud Hawaiian shirt. Dude, indeed.
8. Ozzy Osbourne
When Dinosaur Rock Ruled the Earth: After fiercely competing for the title "King of Shock Rock" by biting the heads off small animals years after Alice Cooper took up golf, Ozzy set an underachieving standard for heavy metal music that few have gone to the trouble of exceeding.
The Woman Behind the Man: But his wife Sharon is an evil genius at career management, so long after he should have been nothing more than poster boy for Things That Kill Brain Cells, she took advantage of MTV's insatiable thirst for bad programming and pioneered the "Celebrity Reality Show" (a section of show biz wilderness better left unexplored).
Bubbling Under: With mother Sharon's guidance, Kelly Osbourne could make this list within the next 10 years.
7. Snoop Dogg
Big Break: He stole his name from a beloved comic strip character and didn't get sued.
Gangsta Yawn: His style stood out from other rappers just for its lack of energy, assumed to be drug-related, making him a poster boy for "Chronics" the way Keanu Reeves is for "Stoners". In his first hit record, he even needed his chorus to remind him what his name was.
Bigger Break: An arrest as accomplice to murder earned him street cred just as "Gangsta Rap" was getting trendy.
Dogg Days: By the time he wrote a song for "Dr. Dolittle 2", his street cred had pretty much evaporated, replaced by a self-parody carved into stone by playing Huggy Bear in the "Starsky and Hutch" movie.
6. Lorne Michaels
Institutionalized: Bestowed with the stewardship of "Saturday Night Live", one of television's most unique forums for creativity (or at least it was in 1976), he has kept the show on auto-pilot for more than two decades, until the only way to get noticed by the entertainment media was by outing a musical guest as a lip-syncher.
The Comic Discovery Channel: SNL's reputation for discovering comic talent is mostly myth. Its two greatest discoveries, part of the show's original cast, were John Belushi and Gilda Radner, both deceased. Which leaves us with Dan Aykroyd, currently playing second banana in a Tim Allen Christmas movie. For every Eddie Murphy (now best known as a cartoon donkey), there was a Joe Piscopo and a Charles Rocket. Incubating two or three comedy legends per decade is just not enough.
Trump Envy: NBC is now promoting an in which comedians audition for a role on SNL, with Lorne Michaels the ultimate judge. We may be seeing the making of the next Rob Schneider.
5. Whoopi Goldberg
Promising Start Unkept: Blessed with a first starring role in the Alice Walker written, Steven Spielberg directed "The Color Purple", Whoopi went directly to the forgettable "Jumping Jack Flash", "Burglar" and "Fatal Beauty". In contrast, co-star Oprah Winfrey went directly to her talk show.
Free Range: While portraying a wide variety of roles from heroic black women to gender-and-color-blind oddballs, her acting style is always moments away from the next wisecrack. Co-hosting the charitable "Comic Relief" shows, she was always third banana behind Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. And her willingness to try anything and everything has made her more ubiquitous than the Technicolor logo, but strangely, less colorful. Somebody should tell her that there's a difference between being the epicenter of show business and being center square on "Hollywood Squares".
Current Bad News: Ticket sales for the revival of her one-woman show are not doing well, as audiences realize that her act is mostly Lily Tomlin with more swearing.
4. Tony Danza
Taxi Squad on a Dream Team: In "Taxi", he was in the same room as Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito, Andy Kaufman and Christopher Lloyd. His second sitcom, "Who's the Boss?" showed no residue left from the room full o' talent.
The "What the...?" Factor: Almost everything he's done since has been surprising, or just strange, from doing the voice of the baby in "Baby Talk," to hosting the Miss America Pageant, to sitting in the same room as George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon and Ossie Davis in a TV version of "12 Angry Men."
Current gig: In the temporary holding bin for B-list celebrities trying to avoid demotion to C-list: hosting a daytime talk show.
Materialistic Girl: She's credited as "the first female pop star with complete control over her image"; in other words, nobody exploited her, she did it herself. Madonna's practice of constantly redefining herself has kept her one step ahead of serious scrutiny. And "Vogue" was one of the worst attempted dance crazes of the 20th Century.
Legacy: She was the first performer NOT to be harmed by the discovery of an old sex movie, and a pioneer in concert lip-synching (no wonder she kissed Britney Spears; they both needed to do something with their mouths). A whole second generation of "pop tarts" following in her footsteps prove that it wasn't that hard to do in the first place.
Collateral Damage: Her marriage with Sean Penn set his acting career back several years.
2. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Big Break: As the biggest and freakiest in a documentary on freakishly big body-builders.
The Big Build-Down: Facing the challenge of becoming an Action Star with a muscle-bound physique that hampered stunts other than lifting heavy things and squeezing heads until they burst, it took more than a decade for him to find a niche as the stoic ancient warrior from the age before shirts in "Conan the Barbarian". The robotically non-human "Terminator" was his dream role. As he began to let himself go and shrunk to near-normal size, it was his skill of choosing material more than any actual performing ability that built his career, but at times it seemed to take just one bomb ("Last Action Hero" specifically) to bring him crashing down.
The Soul of a Politician: It should be noted that the best actors-turned-politicians weren't very good actors. (I have a great deal of respect for Gopher from The Love Boat's record as a congressman) And even as he makes highly dramatic speeches, Arnold's voice maintains the dull monotone that was mistaken for deadpan humor in movies like "Twins" and "Kindergarten Cop".
1. William Shatner
As Seen on TV: Many actors have extended their careers as mediocre TV drama leads by making fun of themselves (like David Hasselhoff, Patrick Macnee, and especially Leslie Nielsen), but Shatner never really had to try.
Most Shameless Performances: "Twilight Zone's" "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" was perfect for an over-actor like Shatner (and his performance made the fact that nobody believed his character's ravings more understandable). In "Star Trek," many people thought his over-the-top-and-then-some style was just a counterpoint to Leonard Nimoy's intentionally unemotional alien. The fools.
Career Arc: He hitched his wagon to "Star Trek" and coasted his way into icon status, but still had time for the unfortunately titled "T.J.Hooker," and the now-unfortunately titled "Rescue 911," where his narration tried to build suspense when everybody knew every story would have a happy ending. Shatner was way too perfectly cast as "The Chairman" in the American version of "Iron Chef", as well as his current role as a pompous windbag in a David E. Kelley legal dramedy. And the critical acceptance of his new album, compared to the universal derision of his singing attempts in the '60s, definitively confirms that pop music has gone to hell.
These are not the best of the best nor the worst of the worst, but those for whom a combination of hard work, street smarts and dumb luck have made actual talent almost totally unnecessary.
Many more, from Jennifer Lopez to Larry the Cable Guy, stand in the wings, ambivalently hoping to survive the business of show long enough to join this exclusive club.
We wish them well, but, mostly, we wish they were better.
is the online alias of a writer from Southern California.