It’s hard to start out. That’s true in any field. When you’re young and inexperienced, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes and there’s going to be a lot of rejection before you finally make your way. That’s especially true in Hollywood, one of the most unforgiving places to try to rise through the ranks. Of course, most people who aim for stardom don’t make it. Hey, the world needs waiters too. But there are a few who eventually break out. For them, the years of struggle and rejection is all worth it.
This is a list of the stars whose careers got off to a bumpy start, who had to overcome adversity and who had to ignore painful rejection before finally getting their big breaks. Many of them came tantalizingly close to stardom early, and then had to wait years for another chance. Others slogged through forgettable and regrettable roles, repeatedly just missing their opportunity for stardom. Until, of course, it finally came.
This list is dedicated to anyone who was ever fired. Each person on this list took a shot and had to start all over again. Most of us live far from Hollywood, but it’s nice to remember that a person can suffer personal humiliation and still bounce back. A person can, say, be fired from a lowly fast food job on their first day and still one day end up being one of the most powerful entertainers in the world.
OK, Madonna‘s story isn’t exactly one of early Hollywood rejection, but it’s too good not to tell. After dropping out of college, the future material girl took a job at Dunkin’ Donuts in Times Square – as good a place as any to start an empire that would eventually span music, movies and fashion. The problem: she only lasted one day. Madonna (that’s the name that was likely on her Dunkin’ Donuts name tag – “Madonna” is the singer’s real first name) was fired after she squirted a jelly doughnut on a customer. Luckily, it didn’t end there. By 1983, her fortunes had changed. Her self-titled debut album was released, including the hits “Lucky Star,” “Borderline” and “Holiday.”
11. Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Julia Louis-Dreyfus made the big time with her role on Seinfeld, one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. Since then, she has continued to work consistently and has starred in two well-respected comedies since the highly publicized end to “the show about nothing” – The New Adventures of Old Christine and Veep (If you’re counting, that’s two well-respected comedies more than the other stars of Seinfeld have combined). Still Louis-Dreyfus had her rough times. After a lackluster stint on Saturday Night Live early in her career, it took her a few years and at least one failed pilot before she found her way back to a hit show.
10. Julie Andrews
Famed star Julie Andrews, maybe best known in recent years as the queen in The Princess Diaries movies, started her career on the stage, making a name for herself in the original production of the musical My Fair Lady. However, when the show was turned into a Hollywood movie, Andrews was snubbed for her role as Eliza Doolittle. It went to Audrey Hepburn, who was a bigger star at the time (but whose singing voice had to be dubbed). Andrews got her revenge almost immediately. Instead of the role in My Fair Lady, she was cast in the Disney production of Mary Poppins. It was her first film role and it earned her an Oscar for best actress. My Fair Lady won best picture that year, but Hepburn wasn’t even nominated.
9. Amy Adams
Amy Adams thought she was off to a hot start in Hollywood. After paying her dues in a string of mostly forgettable roles, she was cast in Steven Spielberg‘s Catch Me If You Can alongside Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie came out and she expected her life to change. Unfortunately, nothing really happened. She spent the next several years in mostly forgettable roles (a standout performance in 2005’s Junebug notwithstanding). Five years later, she finally broke into the big time with her whimsical turn in the upbeat fractured fairytale Enchanted. From there, she has become one of the top actresses in Hollywood, with highly respected performances in movies like Doubt, The Fighter, The Master and American Hustle.
8. Lady Gaga
Stefani Germanotta didn’t make it as an actress. She appeared in high school productions and attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her career peaked with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in one episode on The Sopranos. Germanotta soon focused on her musical career, eventually settling on a new larger-than-life personal, complete with a new name: Lady Gaga. This was her ticket to success. In early 2009, “Just Dance,” the lead single from her debut album, reached the top of the Billboard chart, and Gaga’s position as a superstar was secured.
7. Kerry Washington
Kerry Washington moved onto the A-list with her role as powerhouse political fixer Olivia Pope on the hit TV series Scandal. But before getting cast in the Shonda Rhimes show, Washington had trouble getting going. Prior to Scandal, the actress appeared in two other pilots. The good news: the shows were picked up. The bad news: in both cases, Washington was fired before more episodes were made. Both times, her role was recast. It all worked out in the end, though. Besides Scandal, she has appeared in movies like Ray and Django Unchained.
6. Eric Stoltz
Eric Stoltz has had a solid Hollywood career. He has appeared in movies like Mask, Some Kind of Wonderful and Pulp Fiction. But he missed out on one iconic role. Stoltz was originally cast as Marty McFly in the classic Back To The Future. He filmed a large segment of his part, but director Robert Zemeckis didn’t feel he was working. Stoltz was fired and the role was recast with Michael J. Fox, who was his first choice for the role, but originally couldn’t do it due to his commitments to the TV show Family Ties. Producers worked out the schedule with his series filming and Fox was able to step into the role – one of the most famous of his career, and one that spawned two money-making sequels. But Stoltz still made the final cut of the movie. At least his hand does. In one scene, where McFly punches his adversary Biff, the filmmakers didn’t bother to reshoot Biff’s face getting socked – it’s Stoltz’s fist that briefly flies through the frame.
5. Lisa Kudrow
Though Lisa Kudrow would eventually become one of the stars of Friends, and thus one of the most successful sitcom actresses of all-time, it was actually her second shot at fame. She was almost the star of another hit show. Kudrow was in the running to be one of the leads in Frazier, a spin-off of Cheers that would eventually become a well-loved comedy in its own right. She was initially cast as Roz, the producer of the title character’s radio show. Producers knew she wasn’t quite right for the part when they hired her, but they thought she was so funny, that it wouldn’t matter. By the third rehearsal, though, they had changed their minds. They decided to recast the part and Peri Gilpin, who was the runner up when they originally chose Kudrow, was given the role. It all worked out in the end, however, as Kudrow was cast in Friends the following year.
4. Matthew Perry
Lisa Kudrow wasn’t the only cast member of Friends who had to pay their dues before getting their big break. In fact, it’s a bit of theme for that famous cast: Courteney Cox had a recurring role in Family Ties, Jennifer Aniston was on the ill-fated TV version of Ferris Bueller and David Schwimmer had short stints on shows like The Wonder Years. The king of this, though, was Matthew Perry. Before Friends, Perry was continually cast in failed pilots and short-lived series. It started when he was still in his teens, when he was cast in the lead of Second Chance, which only lasted 21 episodes and went through a complete conceptual rehaul mid-way through. He landed a role on the popular show Growing Pains, only to have his character killed off after 3 episodes. He had a lead role on the 1990 Valerie Bertinelli sitcom Sydney (cancelled after 13 episodes), then in the 1993 sitcom Home Free (again cancelled after 13 episodes). In fact, he almost didn’t get the audition for Friends because he had already committed to another pilot, a show about baggage handlers in the future. Eventually though, he was able to secure the role of Chandler Bing, and the rest was TV history.
3. Jerry Seinfeld
In the late 1970s, Jerry Seinfeld was still a largely unknown stand-up comic. He was given a big break – a recurring role on the popular sitcom Benson. After three episodes, the character was cut. That happens on TV all the time. But someone forgot to tell Seinfeld. When he arrived at rehearsal, there was no script for him. “Hey, where’s my script?” he asked, only then to have the tough news broken to him. Seinfeld would eventually come to appreciate being fired. He later said that it made him dedicate himself to stand-up, as he said “because I can control that.” Of course, Seinfeld’s greatest success would eventually come on TV anyway, as the title character of one of the most popular sitcoms of all time.
2. Jon Hamm
Before he became the lead character in Mad Men, one of the most highly praised TV dramas of all time, Jon Hamm had trouble getting work. Like many aspiring actors, Hamm was working as a waiter and going to auditions. He would get close to big movie roles, but would eventually lose out. The string of rejection got him close to quitting the business and going back to teaching, a career that he had flirted with when he was younger. Hamm had set a deadline for himself: he would quit acting if he wasn’t making a living at it by the time he turned 30. Just before his 30th birthday, he started filming We Were Soldiers, a major production starring Mel Gibson. He was making enough to quit waiting tables and push on with his acting dream. He still had some dues to pay, and spent the next few years just below the radar. Eventually however, he would land the role as Don Draper on Mad Men, which ran for seven seasons and made him a star.
1. Harrison Ford
By any measure, Harrison Ford is one of the most successful actors of the last 40 years, anchoring two iconic franchises in Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and making memorable appearances in countless other movies. But he had trouble getting started. Early in his career, he was under contract to a studio at $150 a week and a talent scout told him that he would never make it in Hollywood. More than a decade later, after Ford had become one of the most recognizable actors on the planet, the same exec spotted the star having lunch. He had the waiter deliver a card that read “I missed my bet.” Ford looked up but couldn’t figure out which of the people at the table was the guy who had doubted his talent 15 years earlier.