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IMAGE: Wilson
IFC Films
Rainn Wilson is so well-known as Dwight on "The Office" that it might be hard for moviegoers to accept him as someone else, such as a superhero in "Super."
TODAY contributor
updated 3/30/2011 4:03:08 PM ET 2011-03-30T20:03:08

Rainn Wilson has three Emmy nominations to prove how convincing he is as pompous paper salesman Dwight Schrute on "The Office." But is he so good that he’ll never work again?

Wilson would not be the first actor to ride an indelible second banana role on a long-running sitcom to stardom, only to see the offers dry up because it's tough to imagine them doing anything else. David Ogden Stiers was nominated for two Emmys for "M*A*S*H*" but has done mostly voiceover work since then. "Friends"' David Schwimmer is another former Emmy nominee who has done the bulk of his subsequent work in cartoons. And, although Michael Richards won three Emmys as Jerry's klutzy neighbor Kramer on "Seinfeld," his career is so invisible he could soon turn up on milk cartons. (Of course, racial comments Richards made in a nightclub act didn’t help his career longevity.)

Video: Watch the 'Super' trailer (on this page)

Wilson's giving a new role a go in "Super," opening in a few cities April 1 and in much of the country April 8. Wilson plays Frank D’Arbo, a short-order cook who is deserted by his wife (Liv Tyler). To win her back, he dons a superhero costume and becomes the Crimson Bolt, fighting crime with a sidekick (Ellen Page).

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Wracked by grief and acting out violently, the character is an underdog like Dwight, but that's about all they have in common. Wilson’s characterization of D'Arbo is both more serious than his “Office” fans might expect and much more poignant.

Story: 'Office' producer: Will Ferrell not joining cast

The actor’s efforts to diversify will be helped by that fact that Wilson is also widely known for at least one other character: Arthur Martin, the creepy mortuary apprentice in “Six Feet Under.” As threatening as Dwight Schrute can be, he never approaches the levels of menace and oddballery Wilson regularly hit on “Six Feet Under,” a role that likely brought him to the attention of many Hollywood casting directors.

Even before “Six Feet Under,” director Joe Dowling knew Wilson could play a variety of roles. They've worked together several times in the last 20 years, including a Broadway comedy, "London Assurance," an Off-Broadway production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and the drama, "Philadelphia, Here I Come" at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater, where Dowling is the artistic director.

Since being cast on “The Office,” Wilson has often acknowledged his fear of being typecast. So he has worked hard to make sure audiences have opportunities to see him doing other things, appearing in a dozen movies since the show’s 2005 premiere. Those roles have ranged from a brief "Juno" bit as a hipster who refers to Juno as "home skillet" to the head-banging lead in “The Rocker” to what he called a "lascivious professor" in "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."

Dowling says Wilson is wise to showcase his breadth as a performer.

"I think he's one of the most remarkable actors we have," says Dowling. "He has immense charm and great language skills. He can play comedy, as you see on TV. He plays that character brilliantly, and that character is absolutely nothing like Rainn. He's a vitally intelligent, curious and inventive man.”

Slideshow: April movies (on this page)

In fact, Dowling has invited Wilson to return to the Guthrie several times (he envisions him in Sam Shepard's "True West," as the buffoonish Malvolio in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" or as the evil title character in "Richard III"). Scheduling hasn't permitted that, but Dowling says, "With (Wilson's) classical training and background, I would be very surprised if he doesn't get masses of offers straightaway after he leaves the program."

If Wilson — who has a master's degree in fine arts from New York University — opts for a return to the stage, he'll be following in the footsteps of another actor who shook off his second banana character by shifting from television to theater. David Hyde Pierce was best known for his stage work before he picked up four Emmy awards as Niles on "Frasier" and he has mostly performed on stage since the show ended, winning a Tony for "Curtains."

Performing in a different medium might be the easiest way for Wilson to dodge Dwight, since, unlike TV sitcom fans, theater audiences are more used to seeing actors shape-shift from role to role.

TV buff Allison Sutton, for instance, says she'll have a hard time ever seeing Wilson as anything but Dwight Schrute.

"My friend and I still call each other ‘home skillet’ because of 'Juno,'" says Sutton, 21, an art history student at Northern Illinois University. "And I'm excited to see him in 'Super' because that role looks different enough. But, in all honesty, I do think he'll be associated with Dwight forever. He's just too good."

Robert Sanders, who says Dwight is "by far, my favorite TV character ever," disagrees. He thinks Wilson has the acting chops to do lots of other things, such as wielding a butcher knife in his own horror movie franchise.

"I think he could be believable in any type of role, but I think he'd be great as a really smart, really deliciously evil serial killer guy," says Sanders, 25, of College Station, Texas. "He can be very intense and very persuasive. And his voice is unique — it doesn't sound like anyone else's. The Dwight dialect is so unusual you can tell he has a lot of control of his voice."

That’s the sort of vocal control that led Dowling to cast Wilson as an Irishman in “Philadelphia, Here I Come” and a dissolute Brit in “London Assurance.”

Like any actor, Wilson is liable to be limited by his age and appearance — he’s never going to get the romantic comedy leads that Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper play. But Dowling says Wilson has the acting chops to impress audiences who are willing to give him a chance.

According to Dowling, “If the question is whether he can play other sorts of characters, the answer is that he has been and will be again, for a long time to come."

Chris Hewitt is the movie critic for the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Watch the 'Super' trailer

Photos: April movies

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  1. 'Source Code'

    Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga

    Director: Duncan Jones

    Scheduled release date: April 1

    Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is part of a government experiment called the "Source Code," which allows him to cross over into another man's identity in the last 8 minutes of his life. Repeatedly transported to a train that's about to be bombed, he must find the bomber and save Chicago. (Summit Entertainment) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 'Insidious'

    Stars: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and Ty Simpkins

    Director: James Wan

    Scheduled release date: April 1

    In "Insidious," a family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose son in a realm called The Further. Horror fans are excited because the creators of "Saw" and "Paranormal Activity" are involved. Supposedly quite scary for a PG-13 offering. (FilmDistrict) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'Super'

    Stars: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page and Liv Tyler

    Director: James Gunn

    Scheduled release date: April 1

    The hero in "Super" is really not that super. When his wife falls under the influence of a drug dealer, an everyday guy (Rainn Wilson) transforms himself into Crimson Bolt, a hero with the best intentions, though he lacks for heroic skills. (IFC Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 'Hop'

    Stars: Russell Brand, James Marsden and Elizabeth Perkins

    Director: Tim Hill

    Scheduled release date: April 1

    In "Hop," a mix of animation and live action, a mouthy young Easter Bunny (voice of Russell Brand) is accidentally hit by a car, and it's up to the offending driver to save Easter. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 'Born to Be Wild'

    Stars: Birute Galdikas, Daphne Sheldrick and Morgan Freeman

    Director: David Lickley

    Scheduled release date: April 8

    The 3-D documentary "Born to be Wild" documents orphaned orangutans and elephants and the extraordinary people who rescue and raise them -- saving endangered species one life at a time. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 'Arthur'

    Stars: Russell Brand, Helen Mirren and Jennifer Garner

    Director: Jason Winer

    Scheduled release date: April 8

    Yes, "Arthur" is a remake of the 1981 Dudley Moore film. Now Russell Brand plays the drunken playboy who could lose his inheritance over loving the wrong woman. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 'Hanna'

    Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana

    Director: Joe Wright

    Scheduled release date: April 8

    "Hanna," a 16-year-old who was raised by her father to be the perfect assassin, is dispatched on a mission across Europe, tracked by a ruthless intelligence agent (Cate Blanchett) and her operatives. (Focus Features) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 'Your Highness'

    Stars: Natalie Portman, Danny McBride, Zooey Deschanel and James Franco

    Director: David Gordon Green

    Scheduled release date: April 8

    A stoner medieval comedy? "Your Highness" focuses on a lazy prince and his brother, who must go on a quest to save their father's kingdom. Oscar-winner Natalie Portman also stars as a love interest. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'Scream 4'

    Stars: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette

    Director: Wes Cravenbr>
    Scheduled release date: April 15

    Are you ready for "Screen 4"? The Ghostface Killer returns for another go-round, despite the fact that the series was supposed to only be a trilogy. Courteney Cox, estranged husband David Arquette, and Neve Campbell all return from the previous movies. (Dimension Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Rio'

    Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway and George Lopez

    Director: Carlos Saldanha

    Scheduled release date: April 15

    In the animated 3-D "Rio," a rare macaw leaves his home in a Minnesota bookstore to meet a female macaw in Rio de Janeiro. Along the way, he must fight off poachers and his own fear of flying. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 'Soul Surfer'

    Stars: AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt

    Director: Sean McNamara

    Scheduled release date: April 15

    "Soul Surfer" tells the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a hardcore surfer who lost her left arm in a shark attack when she was just 13. She fought her way back and resumed surfing once again. (FilmDistrict) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 'Apollo 18'

    Stars: None, really.

    Director: Gonzalo López-Gallego

    Scheduled release date: April 22

    Why haven't we returned to the moon? According to "Apollo 18," lunar aliens discovered the crew of a space mission and began to kill them off one by one. Yeah, that'd do it. (The Weinstein Co.) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. 'Born to Be A Star'

    Stars: Nick Swardson, Don Johnson and Christina Ricci

    Director: Tom Brady

    Scheduled release date: April 22

    In "Born to be a Star," Bucky Larson (Swardson) discovers that his demure parents have a secret -- they were porn stars in the 1970s. He's inspired to leave the Midwest for Hollywood in an attempt to follow in their footsteps. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. 'Haywire'

    Stars: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender

    Director: Steven Soderbergh

    Scheduled release date: April 22

    In "Haywire," a black ops super soldier seeks payback after she is betrayed and set up during a mission. Star Gina Carano was discovered by director Steven Soderbergh on the mixed-martial-arts circuit. () Back to slideshow navigation
  15. 'Water for Elephants'

    Stars: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz

    Director: Francis Lawrence

    Scheduled release date: April 22

    "Twilight" heartthrob Pattinson stars in "Water for Elephants," a circus tale set in the 1930s. He plays a young vet student who joins the circus after the death of his parents and discovers its dark side. (David James / 20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. 'Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family'

    Stars: Tyler Perry, Loretta Devine and Bow Wow

    Director: Tyler Perry

    Scheduled release date: April 22

    "Madea's Big Happy Family' is filmmaker Tyler Perry's 11th film. He's back in drag as Madea, who goes to the aid of a niece in need. (Lionsgate) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 'Fast Five'

    Stars: Paul Walker, Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson

    Director: Justin Lin

    Scheduled release date: April 29

    You thought the "Fast and Furious" franchise had been parked? Not even. "Fast Five" is the fifth film in the series, and Diesel and Walker return once again. They're on the wrong side of the law, but they sure know how to drive. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. 'Prom'

    Stars: Aimee Teegarden, Nicholas Braun and Christine Elise

    Director: Joe Nussbaum

    Scheduled release date: April 29

    In Disney's "Prom," teenagers, well, go to the prom. What else? Stories of different couples intersect as they get ready for the big day. (Disney Enterprises) Back to slideshow navigation
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Discuss: Beyond Dwight

Can Rainn Wilson make moviegoers forget his memorable role as Dwight on "The Office," or will he forever be associated with the Dunder-Mifflin paper salesman?

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