It happens a lot. You’re flipping around TV, coming across old episodes of a classic TV show and a face shows up in a scene. It strikes as familiar at first before it sinks in that this really is someone known today as a huge star in an early role. It can occur with movies but television makes it common to see famous faces when they were nobodies. In some cases, it’s part of the main cast like Denzel Washington on St. Elsewhere or George Clooney on The Facts of Life. Yet actresses can be the same way, some bigger than others. Amy Adams appeared on Smallville, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis were each on Baywatch and you can’t count the number of famous actresses who showed up on Law & Order. But some are more notable as they are the actresses who have reached the height of success in Hollywood by winning an Oscar yet their past credits can include some TV appearances mostly forgotten.
Some can be more notable due to how often they appeared on TV. Before her rise to fame in films, Viola Davis made slews of TV appearances on dozens of series and it’s thus common to see her when you channel scroll through an episode of Law & Order or CSI. Some ladies held off on television for a while such as Charlize Theron who didn’t appear on Arrested Development until after her Oscar win. Some used it for their future fame (Jennifer Hudson) while others can be downright ignored until their big-screen fame hit. It’s interesting to look back at these parts and how even the biggest fans of these actresses can miss these credits. Slews of examples abound but here are some of the biggest. Fifteen Oscar-winning actresses in TV roles that are amazingly forgotten today and showcase the early work of ladies who ended up ruling on Hollywood’s biggest night.
15. Kate Winslet On Get Back
The idea of Kate Winslet as the teen daughter on a sitcom is almost too much to believe but it’s true. The actress is known for her astounding talent as well as her willingness to bear all in practically every other movie she’s been in. From quirky dramas to the epic blockbuster Titanic, Winslet has shown herself off well. An episode of Extras had her playing herself and complaining about not having an Oscar but it finally came with her turn in The Reader. Before all of that, however, Winslet was a cast member of Get Back, a 1992-93 British comedy. Ray Winstone played a formerly wealthy shop owner who loses his money in the recession of early-90s England and has to move the family into a crummy flat. Winslet played one of his teen daughters who wasn’t adjusting well to not being able to shop and go to parties who clashed with her parents trying to get work. It was a brief role as the show was canceled after a handful of episodes. But it was the early break in her career that Winslet would use to forge a fantastic resume.
14. Catherine Zeta-Jones On The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles
While it didn’t become the mega-hit show ABC hoped for, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was still a unique series. It played on the idea of showing the life the young adventurer had before the movies and how he was getting into trouble as a kid. The series bounced around history with Indy shown from a kid to a teenager and then a young man and often meeting future famous historical figures in his adventures. In “Palestine, October 1917,” Indy reunites with his old friend T.E. Lawrence when the latter suggests Indy go undercover in Gaza where the British are planning to attack some German outposts. To get inside, Indy meets up with Maya, a young lady played by Catherine Zeta-Jones.
While she had starred in a British comedy (and bared all in her film debut in 1001 Nights), Zeta-Jones was a real unknown in Hollywood and so it was striking when, to distract some soldiers for Indy, she goes into a fantastic belly dance routine in a bar. Zeta-Jones bounced around for a while before The Mask of Zorro made her an instant star. It pushed her career and those dancing moves bore fruit when she won an Oscar for Chicago. Known for hot and sultry roles, Zeta-Jones showed in this early turn how easily she could sway viewers in any part.
13. Halle Berry In Living Dolls
When Halle Berry began her CBS sci-fi series Extant in 2014, it was made out to be a big deal. Berry had risen from just “eye candy” roles in various films to serious acclaim as an actress, including Storm in the X-Men movies. She made history by becoming the first African-American to win the Oscar for Best Actress and famed for her tearful speech. While she had her share of flops (Catwoman), it was still a big deal for an actress of her standing to come to TV.
However, this wasn’t really Berry’s first time on television. In 1989, Berry (who had actually been living in a homeless shelter) was cast in the ABC comedy Living Dolls. A spin-off of the hit Who’s the Boss?, the series starred Leah Remini as a tough Brooklyn gal who’s pulled into a modelling agency. It had a “backdoor pilot” where quirky model Emily was played by Vivica A. Fox but when it was made into a series, Berry was cast instead. She did her best with it but the show was a critical flop and canceled after just 12 episodes. As it happened, Spike Lee had caught an episode and so cast Berry in Jungle Fever, her breakout role. Fascinating how a failed sitcom helped push one of the hottest ladies in Hollywood.
12. Angelina Jolie On True Women
As the daughter of Oscar-winner Jon Voight, it was inevitable that Angelina Jolie would get into acting. Her debut was in Cyborg 2, a flop notable for the first time Jolie bared her body on camera but Hackers got her more attention. In 1997, Jolie starred in the CBS mini-series True Women, based on a popular novel. It told the story of two pairs of sisters as they adjust to frontier life moving from Texas to the South during the Civil War.
The part of Georgina was first played by Rachel Leigh Cook but as the story progressed, Jolie took on the role. She did well in the part, showing Georgina wanting a higher-class life but drawn into helping soldiers during the War and fighting for women’s rights. It showed the drive and intensity that would help Jolie in her career. A year later, she got her breakout role in Gia and then her Oscar-winning turn in Girl Interrupted. While she’s been notable for her wild behavior off screen and her unique look, Jolie has shifted to a great actress and director who does major charity work.
11. Hilary Swank On Camp Wilder
It’s rare that you can call being fired the best thing to happen to your career but Hilary Swank can attest it’s true. She made her acting debut in a small part in the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie and then the flop The Next Karate Kid. Before that, one of her earliest credits was on the 1992 ABC TGIF comedy Camp Wilder. The quirky comedy focused on a young woman who opened her home up to teens to talk about issues with Swank playing a classmate of the woman’s teen daughter. The show was also notable for being an early role for Jared Leto.
In 1998, Swank was hired for a role on the long-running hit Beverly Hills 90210 as a single mom, promised the part would be a big one. Instead, she was written out after just a season and Swank was so demoralized she considered quitting acting. Needing a job, she auditioned for the role of Teena Brandon, the real-life woman killed for acting like a boy. Boys Don’t Cry was a hit with critics, making Swank a star and winning her the Oscar. She’s kept up a good career since with a second Oscar for Million Dollar Baby and showing how a career break comes when you least expect it.
10. Anne Hathaway In Get Real
Gary Marshall had made Julia Roberts an instant star with Pretty Woman in 1990. A decade later, he repeated the feat when he directed the Disney comedy The Princess Diaries. For the role of Mia, the geek who discovers she’s actually royalty, Marshall wanted a relative unknown, someone audiences didn’t have preconceived notions about. He settled on Anne Hathaway, whose only credit before this had been Get Real, a short-lived Fox comedy. It focused on a young family where characters would often talk to the camera to share their thoughts and feelings.
The show was notable for featuring a few other future famous names like Jessie Eisenberg and January Jones but Hathaway’s nice charm won Marshall over. Diaries made her an instant star and she showed her daring in 2005 by doffing it on screen for more adult roles like Havoc. Since then, Hathaway has balanced blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises with winning an Oscar for Les Miserables and her sexy presence showed how well Marshall chose for this role.
9. Brie Larson On Raising Dad
Despite being only 27, Brie Larson has been a steady worker in Hollywood for years. She got her start doing sketches for The Tonight Show and various minor roles in other shows. In 2001, she was cast on Raising Dad, a WB sitcom with Bob Saget as the single father of two girls. Larson played the younger daughter with Kat Dennings as her older sister, the two trying to help their dad with his own issues.
The show was axed after just one season with Larson doing various other credits, including a Disney Channel movie. She got a bigger break on the Showtime comedy United States of Tara as a teenager dealing with her mother having multiple personalities. After a few indie movies, Larson finally hit the big time with her acclaimed turn as the mother of a captive boy in Room which earned her just about every Best Actress award around, including the Oscar. Larson is now moving to blockbusters with Kong: Skull Island and taking on the role of Captain Marvel. Yet if you can track it down, you can see her an adorable little girl but still bursting with talent.
8. Jennifer Lawrence On Monk
It is remarkable to see just how fast Jennifer Lawrence went from an unknown to one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Her talent had been showcased in her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone but she also played the blockbuster game with X-Men First Class. It was The Hunger Games that launched Lawrence to massive fame and an A-list star. She followed that by becoming one of the youngest Best Actress Oscar winners ever.
It’s known to many that Lawrence’s first regular role in Hollywood was as Lauren Pearson on The Bill Engvall Show, a TBS sitcom where she played the teenage daughter of the title character. It’s funny to look back at her in such a cookie-cutter role but even then showed the great talent and beauty that would make her a winner.
Before that, Lawrence’s first acting role was on Monk. The popular USA show focused on a quirky obsessive-compulsive detective solving crimes. In “Mr. Monk and the Big Game,” Monk investigates a murder connected to the local high school girls’ basketball team and poses as their coach. Lawrence thought she was going to be playing one of the players but it turned out she was actually the mascot in a giant cougar costume. She tackles Monk in the outfit and is briefly shown without the cougar head to tell someone the score. Conan O’Brian showed the clip when Lawrence was a guest and she helplessly giggled to see just what sort of low-level role served as the start to her career.
7. Marisa Tomei On A Different World
The Cosby Show was one of the biggest hits on NBC in the mid-1980s and a spin-off was inevitable. Lisa Bonet had been a star as daughter Denise and so A Different World had her attending Hillman College, a black university. The first season focused on her handling the various college issues and her various friends. These included Marisa Tomei as Maggie, an Army brat and journalism major with a ditzy humor who provided comic relief with her antics. The second season had the show retooled as Bonet became pregnant and Cosby put his foot down over having her character be an unwed single mom. Bonet left the show and the series now focused on the various African-American characters, meaning Maggie was written out as transferring to a new school.
Tomei would bounce around in various roles before latching onto the part of Mona Lisa Vito in the comedy My Cousin Vinny. In one of the biggest Oscar upsets ever, Tomei won Best Supporting Actress for the role and seemed as stunned as anyone else. Tomei would transition to a good indie actress, including another Oscar nom for her clothes-doffing role in The Wrestler and is about to play a younger version of Aunt May in the new Spider-Man movies. Even some of Tomei’s biggest fans can forget this one as the first season of World seems a totally different show than the rest of the series.
6. Emma Stone On In Search Of The New Partridge Family
By 2004, the reality TV show bug had taken hold with singing competition shows all the rage. VH1 decided to jump onto the bandwagon with a unique two-fer. They conceived a reboot of The Partridge Family, the classic show about a family of musicians touring the country. To get the right cast, they first held a competition show to see who was right for the roles. The show’s original star, Shirley Jones, was one of the judges and the role of eldest daughter Laurie was going to be a big one.
Soon, one starlet broke out from the pack named Emily Stone, impressing with her good voice and stage presence. She landed the part but after all the hoopla, the actual Partridge series ended up just producing an unsold pilot. Stone did see her presence raised and decided to try out the first name of Riley for appearances on shows like Medium. In 2007, she finally settled on a new name: Emma Stone. This was the one she used for her role in Superbad which boosted her to huge attention. After stealing scenes in The House Bunny and Zombieland, Stone finally hit the big time with the comedy hit Easy A. This launched her amazing career that would culminate in winning the Best Actress Oscar for La La Land. That she won for a musical seems a classic case of “coming full circle” as it was a music show that launched Stone’s very fun career.
5. Sandra Bullock On Working Girl
Sandra Bullock is a fun lady, incredibly beautiful but a down-to-earth charm and humor that have served her well in Hollywood. She’d be the first to crack about her poor early resume with her acting debut as a super-powered lady in a Six-Million Dollar Man/Bionic Woman reunion film. But even Bullock’s biggest fans may be surprised to learn that she once had her own sitcom. Working Girl was loosely based on the 1988 Melanie Griffith movie with Bullock as Tess, a secretary at a major publishing firm. The pilot has her revealing she had created the role of a reporter to get ahead and soon is a junior executive, clashing with her bitchy boss (a pre-Deep Space Nine Nana Visitor).
Even at this young age, Bullock shows the quirky charm and humor that would serve her well but the show only lasted eight episodes before NBC pulled the plug. Bullock would keep plugging away before landing the role in Speed that made her an instant star. She’s since balanced everything from romantic comedies to winning Best Actress for The Blind Side, not to mention a messy divorce. Yet this showed how comedy was always Bullock’s forte and the start of a major career.
4. Emma Thompson On The Young Ones
When one thinks of Emma Thompson, they think of class. With her lovely looks, great talent and crisp British accent, Thompson exudes British charm. She’s shown that in roles like Henry V, Sense and Sensibility, Love Actually and her Oscar-winning turn in Howard’s End. She has a good humor but mostly, Thompson still showcases an air of British elite. This makes it funnier that one of her earliest roles was on one of the raunchiest comedies to ever air on British television.
The Young Ones focused on a quartet of roommates whose behavior ranged from criminal to downright sociopaths. Anarchic and offbeat in its humor, the show ushered in a wild new wave of comedy for the 1980s. In one episode, the gang goes on a TV show to face off against a snotty upper-class school. Thompson is one of the opposing contestants, decked out like a beauty queen in dress, shawl and tiara. She’s in good company as her teammates include a then-unknown Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, all three doing great playing obnoxious twits. It ends with psychotic Vyvyan dropping a grenade on the pack to win the game. It’s hysterical seeing a woman who always comes off charming on screen acting on such a show and that Thompson can be much funnier than she lets on.
3. Meryl Streep On Secret Service
Even the most honored performer in Academy history has to start somewhere. Contrary to belief, Meryl Streep was not instantly collecting Oscar nominations when she began her career but actually had to struggle a bit with various minor roles. Among them was Secret Service, a filmed version of a Broadway play made for PBS’ Great Performances series. John Lithgow played a Union spy posing as a Confederate to get some information with Streep as a young singer he romances for the job.
While the dialogue was stilted and low-level production values, Streep still looks amazing in the part. She shows real talent, a good accent and even a nice song. Later that year, Streep got her movie debut in Julia and the next year, attention for The Deer Hunter. Her turn in Kramer vs Kramer made her a true star, winning Streep her first of three Oscars and an additional seventeen nominations. When one watches the video of this role, you can see the amazing talent Streep always had and no wonder it launched such an iconic career.
2. Marion Cotillard On Highlander
Based on the cult movie, Highlander was a big hit, focusing on Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod, a 400-year-old Immortal who got into sword duels with other Immortals. In the first season episode “Nowhere to Run,” Duncan and girlfriend Tessa are visiting a wealthy man in France. As usual, Duncan has bad timing as the man’s son recently assaulted Lori, a young woman who’s the adoptive daughter of an Immortal soldier. Believing the family will just buy their way out of this, the Immortal decides to get justice his way by attacking the manor with some mercenaries and Duncan has to stop the bloodshed.
The producers had gone to an actress they had used in a previous episode in a flashback of a young woman giving birth in the 1700s. This turned out to be the first acting role of none other than Marion Cotillard. The actress would spend the next decade pushing herself in her native France before gaining massive attention playing Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. Her acclaimed turn won Cotillard the Oscar and made her an international star. Yet her debut was on a cult show that few even realized birthed such a major star.
1. Helen Hunt On Swiss Family Robinson
Helen Hunt likes to joke about her early TV appearance as an alien girl on The Bionic Woman and has a good humor about it. However, her earlier TV role was even more obscure. Swiss Family Robinson came from infamous producer Irwin Allen, a surprisingly faithful version of the popular story of a family shipwrecked on an island. Hunt played a young girl who was the only survivor of her family from the shipwreck and taken in by the Robinsons as one of their own. They would work to survive the elements, aided by a former pirate who’d been living on the island for years.
It only lasted one season before being canceled with Hunt doing work in various small TV shows and movies. She finally got her bigger break in the comedy Mad About You which won her four Emmys. Hunt also scored a box office hit with Twister and her turn as a sardonic waitress in As Good As It Gets won her the Best Actress Oscar. While she doesn’t act as much these days, Hunt can still wow such as her turn in The Sessions that bared her body and earned her another Oscar nod. From a young age, Hunt turned in a career that can still impress in both body and talent today.