It is often said of show business that everyone has to start somewhere. But more accurately, nearly everyone in any line of work has to start somewhere, and that somewhere isn’t always pretty. For two examples, NFL football players start out tossing a pigskin around their backyards as children, and military generals generally begin their careers as young junior officers getting howled at for not ironing shirts properly.
Moving back to the original point however, show business has so many small opportunities for young performers, but so few get noticed. Some get big parts in small films or little-known television shows, while others get small parts in bigger productions, but when all is said and done, no two rises to fame are quite alike, and of course there are those who start out in the adult entertainment business, and that is a whole different ball game, pun intended. Some of these opportunities are the kind of start that young performers dream of, while others are taken because the rent has to be paid. Either way no matter how small the role, everything is a chance to get noticed and launch a career. Here are some interesting early roles of some of today’s major film and television actors.
15. Meryl Streep – Julia and The Deadliest Season
One of the greatest actresses in the history of the performing arts, Meryl Streep performed on stage and won a Tony Award before getting her screen debut. She worked on two on-screen projects in 1977, her first year in film. The Deadliest Season is a television movie about a hockey player who kills a competitor during a game and the controversy and manslaughter charge that results.
Julia entailed her first actual film role and is a drama flick about repression and rebellion in Nazi Germany. Streep played Anne Marie, a small role, but the movie was a success and it was great in terms of getting her name out there.
14. Jeff Bridges – The Company She Keeps – Himself
Jeff Bridges is one of those actors who is often left off the lists of greatest in the business, but deserves to be there. He comes from one of the most historically well known acting families in the U.S. and has built an amazing career that started when he was just over a year old. This film was a drama about a female convict and featured Bridges’ mother Dorothy, in a small part. Her two sons, Jeff and his brother Beau, were in her scene and it is each of their first on screen role.
13. Liam Neeson – Pilgrim’s Progress – Jesus Christ
Before he was beating the crap out of European gang members or making scrap metal out of droids as a Jedi, the Irish tough guy worked a few labor jobs in his early life, before hitting the big screen. He was a forklift and truck driver for some time, but got into theatrical acting in Belfast in his early 20s. In 1977, Liam Neeson found his first work on screen, playing the Evangelist and the son of God in Pilgrim’s Progress; a movie based on a religious story from the 1600s.
12. Sandra Bullock – Hangmen – Lisa
One of the most beloved and cherished film stars of our time is Sandra Bullock. She’s beautiful, at age fifty but looking nowhere near it, and can play just about any role as needed. Her resume includes comedy, heart warming drama, such as The Blind Side and thrillers; most recently Gravity.
Back in the late 80s she earned her first on screen role in the assassination thriller Hangmen. It was a small role, that of Lisa, the girlfriend of another supporting character who is kidnapped by government agents. The part may not have been the most glamorous, but it got her noticed and within a couple of years she was getting bigger roles, leading up to her hilariously awesome performance with Sylvester Stallone in 1993’s Demolition Man.
11. Peter Dinklage – Living in Oblivion – Tito
Long before he became Tyrion Lannister, Peter Dinklage had a tough time breaking into the acting world. His story has been told as the consummate professional with an iron will who disliked taking roles usually reserved for people with dwarfism. He has stated time and time again that his stature, 4’5, should not be the butt of jokes, and that discrimination against people with forms of dwarfism are among the last accepted prejudices in the world.
Back in 1995’s Living in Oblivion, he played an actor with dwarfism named Tito, whose main character trait was a temper and fury over the fact that he could only find work in cliche roles for people with his condition.
10. Denzel Washington – Death Wish – Mugger
This 1974 film featured Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, a ruthless vigilante; driven to action after his wife and daughter were murdered and sexually assaulted during a home invasion. In one scene, Kersey, while walking through the street on a hunt for lawbreakers, spots three thugs wailing on a victim. He approaches, and when threatened by the punks, shoots all three.
The first to get shot is a young Denzel Washington, long before he would star in The Hurricane, Training Day or Remember the Titans. This role was his first on screen and it went uncredited.
9. Laurence Fishburne – Apocalypse Now – Mr. Clean
While Laurence Fishburne is now best known for being Morpheus in The Matrix series and Ray Langston in CSI (following the retirement of Gil Grissom), back in the mid 1970’s he had played a key role in Cornbread, Earl and Me, a coming of age film about the shooting of a young, African-American basketball star.
The next year, he lied about his age (he was just fourteen in 1976) and earned the part of Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller. The skinny, sunglasses wearing teenager dancing on the back of the patrol boat to the tune of Satisfaction is a young Laurence (credited as “Larry”) Fishburne.
8. Sylvester Stallone – The Party at Kitty and Stud’s – Stud
The Party at Kitty and Stud’s was a softcore adult film that was made back in 1970. It featured a plot about as poor as any of the genre, but more importantly, the main man in the film was none other than the mumbling boxer (or PTSD suffering Vietnam veteran) Sly Stallone.
After Rocky was released years later, the folks who produced The Party re-released the film under the name Italian Stallion. Sly was paid $200.00 for his role in the film, which is just over $1,200 in 2015 dollars. Not terrible for two days work.
7. Jim Carrey – The Sex and Violence Family Hour
Very early on in Carrey’s career, he worked as a stand up comedian, but his brand of slapstick, energetic humor was raw and undeveloped in the early 1980s. He bombed and obviously doubted himself as a performer. He stuck with it however, and gradually perfected his act and routines, earning himself a following in Toronto, Canada, before adding screen acting to his resume.
His first role was an hour and a half long film which was set up essentially like an episode of Saturday Night Live. Carrey and other little known performers created and acted out sexual themed skits that were as ridiculous as anything that has ever been produced. He would go on to get work in thirteen other productions before starring in 1994’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
6. James Earl Jones – Dr. Strangelove – Lt. Zogg
The man known as the voice of Darth Vader served in the military during his youth, but always maintained theater as a passion during those years. After he left the armed forces, he worked for small theatrical productions before being cast in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, one of the most brilliant examples of political satire ever produced.
In the movie, he played Lt. Zogg; a bombardier on the B-52 bomber. A small part, but it was one of the greatest movies of its time.
5. Nicolas Cage – Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Depending on your views on acting, Nicolas Cage is one of those polarizing figures who is either one of the greatest or a complete hack. Roger Ebert has praised his work, calling him a performer who is unafraid of taking risks and pursuing unusual and unfamiliar projects. Of course, many among the great unwashed masses like to just say “what an overacting loser”, while spilling popcorn down the front of their shirts, but other actors have also commented that Cage is one of the most original and daring talents in the business.
Looking back to his start in acting, he first starred in a TV comedy called Best of Times before getting a small part in the classic teen flick Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He played Brad’s unnamed friend in the film, and was credited as Nicolas Coppola. If you recognize that last name, his uncle is Francis Ford Coppola, one of the greatest directors in the history of film.
4. Jason Statham – Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – Bacon
While he is one of the most renowned action stars today, between the Crank movies, The Transporter series, The Expendables trilogy and of course his appearances in the recent Fast and Furious films, Jason Statham didn’t start acting until age 31. His early life was spent practicing martial arts and working odd jobs, but primarily as a street vendor.
He worked as a male model, but achieved his first work in acting from Guy Ritchie, who cast him as street salesman “Bacon”, in the 1998 crime classic Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He was noticed for his on-screen intensity, along with his physique and tough look, setting him apart from other “pretty boy” actors.
3. Jennifer Aniston – Leprechaun – Tory
Today, Jennifer Aniston is one of the most renowned and respected actresses in the entertainment business. She has starred in one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, along with a pile of successful movies. All of this while remaining staggeringly beautiful.
But, before she was on Friends and the big screen, she was a struggling young performer trying to make a name for herself, and her first major role was in 1993’s Leprechaun. While many remember the movie fondly today (as a cult classic) it was viewed as garbage back when it was released, given that it was intended as a horror/comedy but wasn’t funny or scary, just ridiculous.
2. Johnny Depp – Platoon – Lerner
In 1984, Johnny Depp was cast as the lead role in A Nightmare on Elm Street. He would not appear on the big screen again until 1986, when he landed a small role in the Vietnam War picture Platoon, one of Oliver Stone’s all time greatest films. His role was originally that of a somewhat important character but many of his scenes were edited out. All we were left with from Depp were a couple of sentences and him being loaded into a medical chopper screaming.
He played Lerner in the film, a young American soldier who served as the platoon’s Vietnamese translator.
1. Clint Eastwood – Revenge of the Creature – Lab Technician
Much like many who have achieved great success in Hollywood, Clint Eastwood’s early attempts at acting were not well-received. He was criticized for his voice, speaking manner and the squint that would go on to be two of his main features for much of his career.
In 1955 he got his first acting job, in the film Revenge of the Creature; the sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. In that film, he had a very short dialogue with the main character and was not seen again, the part was uncredited.