Hollywood has always been a fickle industry. A rising star today might be a has-been tomorrow, and to make it as a big star takes a lot of hard work. Sometimes the actors we love and recognize had to toil away for years taking small roles before they were recognized in their biggest films and became A-Listers.
But sometimes, stardom comes in a rush, all at once. In many cases, a real legend is born only after the untimely death of a star, which makes them seem to have been more than they were. There are so many young actors whose lives were pinched out after only a short time in Hollywood – and some who work so hard at making a name for themselves that they carefully pick and choose just a few movies throughout their career.
Everyone on this list has appeared in fewer than 30 movies – and some of them far less than that. Prepare to be shocked as you realize that some of our greatest movie icons starred in only a handful of films throughout their career, particularly when you take out the minor and cameo roles to discover only the movies in which they took a starring position. Some careers were cut short by death; some are the result of painstaking selection ensuring that only the very best movie roles are taken. What all of these stars have in common is their huge fame, which is not always relative to how many movies they have appeared in throughout their careers.
10. Charlie Chaplin
As one of the most prolific and celebrated stars of the silent era, and one of the most famous comedic actors of all time, you would have to expect a long list of films under Charlie Chaplin’s name. In fact, he has been credited in over 80 pieces of work. But here’s the catch – for the majority of his career, he worked only in shorts. It was only towards the end that he began to work in full feature-length films, when he was less prolific and would leave as much as ten years between releases. As a result, he is actually only credited in 11 films.
9. Sacha Baron Cohen
He is the creator of many beloved and hilarious characters. Sacha Baron Cohen first became well-known as Ali G, then became Borat and later Brüno. His latest character was Admiral General Aladeen, and he has also peppered his film career with more serious roles in which he plays merely a scripted part. So how many hundreds of films has he accrued? Well… 13. This low number can be attributed in part to the length of time he takes to film some of his roles: Borat famously saw him creating a documentary from real life reactions to his ridiculous character, and led to plenty of lawsuits. He is still working, however, with at least two new films set to be added to the line-up soon, including a new character in The Brothers Grimsby.
8. Steve McQueen
Was anyone ever as cool as Steve McQueen? Sadly, this action hero died at the age of 50 from mesothelioma, but before that he was a huge star who graced the silver screen as a cowboy, a racing driver, a soldier, and more. He was destined for stardom thanks to his own determination – his first major role was in The Magnificent Seven, where he upstaged leading man Yul Brynner by ensuring that he was always doing something in the background of each shot. Their rivalry became intense, but it was this passion that made McQueen an icon. With only 27 credited film appearances to his name, and some of those being minor roles, it’s even more impressive that he is so strongly imprinted on our collective consciousness.
7. Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger’s story is perhaps one of the most tragic of his generation. He was a heartthrob who struggled with his “pretty boy” image to win more serious roles, turning the tide with edgier choices like Ned Kelly and then blowing everyone away as a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain. Sadly, he became reliant on prescription drugs to help him sleep after playing the psychotic Joker in The Dark Knight and died of an overdose in his hotel room at just 29 years old. He had just 18 credited film roles. His last film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, had to be completed with several other actors taking over the role for the remaining part of the script.
6. River Phoenix
His untimely death was over 20 years ago, but River Phoenix’ good looks, charm, bad-boy-magnetism, and childhood film career have kept him as an icon fresh in our minds. His brother Joaquin continues to be a successful actor, and it’s not hard to imagine that River would still be working too if he had not overdosed on a cocktail of drugs at the age of 23. Although he started acting at the age of 10, he was credited in just 14 roles, through which we can chart his growth from boy to troubled teen to even more troubled adult. His breakout film, Stand By Me, is especially poignant as it charts a group of boys reacting to their first exposure to the idea of death.
5. Bruce Lee
The master of martial arts films, Bruce Lee has long been a by-word for the kung fu genre that first blossomed in the 1960s and 70s. He was actually a child actor too, and so with this knowledge, you may expect that he appeared in a huge amount of films. The reality is far from that idea: he only had 24 credits to his name, just 5 of which were the martial arts films for which he became so famous. The opportunities only came after The Green Hornet television series saw success in 1966, and by 1973, he had died of a cerebral edema. He was just 32 years old.
4. Grace Kelly
She stands for exactly what her name says: a timeless grace and elegance which has echoed through the ages. It is tough to pick out a Hollywood leading lady who has been quite so revered and beautiful as Grace Kelly, but her career was clipped when she chose to become the Princess of Monaco rather than carry on working. 26 years after her 11th and final film, High Society, she died in a car crash in the countryside that had made her fall in love with her prince. She made three iconic films with Alfred Hitchcock: To Catch A Thief, Dial M For Murder, and Rear Window.
3. Marilyn Monroe
She is immortalized as the platinum blonde starlet whose life was tragically ended by her own hands. Marilyn Monroe has become a symbol of an era, personifying the 1950s with her iconic look. But her life was a very confused and short one: she had a hard time remembering her lines, suffered from depression, and was described as very difficult to work with. Although she filmed regularly in her early career, it was not until 8 small parts had gone by that she became more of a star in 1951. She appeared in just 29 films overall, filming the 30th at the time of her death, and of these only a handful were starring roles in big movies. She is best remembered in Some Like It Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and The Seven Year Itch.
2. Brandon Lee
Brandon Lee was the ill-fated son of Bruce Lee, and it seemed only fitting that he would follow in the footsteps of his father to become a successful actor. He studied martial arts to take similar roles and looked set to carry on his legacy. At the age of 28, and just a few weeks before he was due to be married, a prop gun accidentally fired a real bullet into his lower spine and killed him on set of The Crow. His life was even briefer than that of his father, and with just five films in total to his name – the fifth of which he never saw released – his career was cut short too.
1. James Dean
He is the iconic bad boy, the star who lived fast and died young. He is the real-life rebel without a cause, a young man from Indiana who received high praise for his work on the stage. This translated quickly into a Hollywood career, and he was snapped up to appear in three films within a short space of time. While he took on some uncredited roles as an extra, it was East of Eden in which he first became known to the general public, with the movie being released in 1954. Sadly, this was the only one of his films that he would live to see. He died in a car crash in California in 1955, before the release of Rebel Without A Cause and Giant. He made just three movies as a credited cast member.