Television has also likely linked the name Kiefer Sutherland with "Jack Bauer" for the foreseeable future. Sutherland had played supporting roles in films, but after "24" he became an international star. A film version, said to be in the works, would bring him back to theaters as a star for his television role.
Alec Baldwin rose from TV ("Knots Landing") to film but returned for a career boost with "30 Rock."
Dempsey, for one, said he wants to continue making feature films. He said his future depends on the outcome of the writers strike and that he intends to honor his contractual obligations to the network. But he said, "I enjoy the process of making a movie. . . . I like the fact that there's a beginning, a middle and an end."
The current crop of leading men has kicked around Hollywood long enough without jackpot rewards to view the specter of big-screen success with some ambivalence.
"I was never into the big, super movie-star guys," Hamm said. "I appreciated what they did. But I was more drawn to Jeff Bridges and the guys who were two or three down on the call sheet but got to do really cool movies. I loved 'The Big Lebowski.' "
Still, at 36, he said, "It's nice to be invited to the big kids' table."
Donovan, 39, a theater actor who's also done film ("Hitch," "Believe in Me"), said he likes the freedom that comes with making enough money to pay the rent and make his own career choices but still being able to go shopping without being swamped by paparazzi. When he landed the role in Eastwood's film, he said, he smiled from ear to ear for a day. "Then terror set in. I thought, 'Oh my God, I have to act with Ms. Jolie, Mr. Malkovich and Mr. Eastwood.' "
Donovan knows his everyday looks won't land him on People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive List. (Dempsey was runner-up after Matt Damon this year.) While agents see him as a leading man, he sees himself more as a character actor, along the lines of Jimmy Stewart.
Of course, as casting directors point out, what makes an actor a leading man is often simply a matter of taste. Keli Lee, ABC's executive vice president of casting, said Dempsey had made three pilots for ABC and was on creator Shonda Rhimes' radar from the start. "Shonda envisioned that that character should be her perfect man," and Dempsey fit the bill.
Building Mr. Perfect
But there's consensus about some aspects of the leading-man type: By definition, he is someone women want to date and men want to hang out with, Jenkins said. It's an intangible and variable mix of qualities that, depending on whom you talk to, include: smart, sexy, funny, charming, charismatic, interesting, tough, irreverent, confident, comfortable, cuddly, strong, likable, trustworthy, suave, debonair, secure, manly, deep and mature.
"What makes an actor appealing is that they're somebody you'd like to spend time with, no matter who you are," Jenkins said. And, once solidified in the right kind of role, the appeal tends to be universal over time and continents, she said. Clooney, Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks are all popular abroad.
Historically, audiences have wanted to believe that a leading man is also being more or less himself in the various parts he plays. Thomson said Gary Cooper once offered this advice to a screenwriter struggling to devise a script in which Cooper would star: "I've found if you just make me the hero, it usually works out."
When a star pops as a leading man, it's often because the role matches his own personality.
"Burn Notice" creator Matt Nix said some of Donovan's earlier roles didn't click because they were one- dimensional and didn't showcase Donovan's innate mix of humor and intensity. "He's too good to be bad and too bad to be good," Nix said.
Fortunately for older actors, the zeitgeist has shifted slightly to accommodate an appreciation of adults, offering actors a chance to bring their own experience to more complex and flawed characters.
Hamm said when he first came to California, it was during the " 'Dawson's Creek' era," when most parts were for teens. "I was 25 but looked much older. I couldn't get arrested," he said. "Eventually, I caught up with my own age," he said.
Chandler said at this point, he feels like a leading man. "Usually leading men have a certain sense of themselves. They know who they are." Now a husband and father of two, he said, "I have a good idea of who I am."
His performance as Coach Taylor comes from a part of himself he's never been able to use before, he said. "I've never had a role quite like this -- a father, a husband, a leader of these kids." Many of the moral decisions the coach faces are similar to those he's starting to experience in his real life, he said. "I get to stretch my real world within this other world."