For the majority of actors, bit roles that lead to nothing are not only common – they’re the cliché. Indeed, most famous actors started out with roles so laughably bad that they cringe at the thought of sharing them with others today. How about Clint Eastwood’s first inglorious appearances on the screen?
But a lucky few land an early role that’s the result of a perfect storm of the right time, the right place and their particular skill set; and magic happens. A star is born, or an indelible performance is captured, and a beautiful film that will live through the ages is made.
These ten actors, now household names, got swept up in movie magic well before they ever saw their names in light. The following are some of the best films ever made, and were either responsible for, or introduced us to, these now A-List Actors.
10. Susan Sarandon – The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1974)
Susan Sarandon has graced the big screen, the small screen, and the theater for 4 decades. Filling the world with memorable performances as varied as Louise Sawyer in Thelma & Louise (1991) to Annie Savoy in Bull Durham (1988). However, before she blew up she was in a small cult film…
Before Tommy Wiseau’s disasterpiece hit the world, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1974) was THE cult film. The film itself is a kitsch musical that started as a stage show, about cross-dressing aliens who like show tunes.
It features Tim Curry in a corset, Meat Loaf as a leather clad biker, and Susan Sarandon as the guileless newlywed Janet Weiss. Her starring role in this film is one of its most memorable aspects, including some steamy scenes involving the title character.
The film itself is more than just cross-dressing aliens and show tunes about warping time; it is an experience, with fans still today going to a theater to watch a midnight showing and engaging in the rituals around it. It genuinely must be seen to be believed. But Sarandon has said that, by now, she’s a little sick of talking about it.
9. Jack Nicholson – Easy Rider (1969)
Jack Nicholson is an elder statesmen of cinema. Having filled roles as varied as hapless and cynical P.I. Jake Gittes in Chinatown (1974) , psycho killer Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980), free spirit imprisoned Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and, more recently, Boston mob boss Frank Costello in The Departed (2006).
Easy Rider (1969) is one of the most important films of late 60’s cinema. A neutral perspective on the decline and fall of the age of aquarius, through the eyes of two legitimate free spirits Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper, also the director), it analyzes honestly, and sometimes uncomfortably the prelude to chaos and the cross-roads America existed in the late 60’s.
Jack Nicholson’s role is minor with no more than thirty minutes of screen time. He plays wandering former alcoholic George, who joins the two wanderers through the great American Highways. He had been in films prior, but this performance bright, yet tinged with sadness, elevated his career substantially and paved the way for his 70’s stardom and beyond.
8. Jodie Foster – Taxi Driver (1976)
Jodie Foster has had one of the most storied, grounded, and infamous stints in Hollywood of all time. From her classic roles such as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs (1991), to her less than stellar roles such as her Kyle Pratt in Flight Plan (2005) (we all make mistakes), she brings gravity and strength and honesty to each of her characters. This film did much to boost that.
One of Martin Scorsese’s first and most famous projects. Scorsese turns his lens to a post-nam America, scarred and broken, looking for hope and change in the future, seeing nothing but scars and pain. This is personified by a young Robert De Niro as the titular Taxi Driver Travis Bickle. A deranged and scarred veteran, Travis Bickle is one of the earliest examples of a villain as protagonist, operating on morally questionable territory to save the downtrodden.
In this case, the downtrodden is Foster’s twelve year old prostitute Iris, a role so heartbreakingly convincing in its darkness and utter cynicism that one flinches and understands her plight despite the youth of her character. Her performance not only brought her to a wide audience, but infamously led to the shooting of Ronald Reagan in 1980 when an obsessed fan John Hinkley tried to do what Bickle tries to do in the film (assassinate a politician) to impress Foster herself. Fame can be a double edged sword.
7. Brad Pitt – Thelma & Louise (1991)
Brad Pitt is known for – aside from his acting ability and his now famous producing skills – being one of the sexiest men alive. His acting resume has covered diverse and colorful territory with various levels of success, from Interview with a Vampire to World War Z. And this early film did not bring him instant success, but it certainly opened the door for his future.
Thelma & Louise (1991) starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as the title characters. A 90’s version of Easy Rider tinged with messages of female empowerment (WOO) and touches of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), this is a classic slice of american film that shows the power of love in the face of complete hopelessness.
It is Brad Pitt’s first major Hollywood film role, having done a number of tv films and small projects before, his role as petty thief J.D., and in particular a certain steamy bedroom scene, nudged the door to future success.
6. Anne Hathaway – Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Anne Hathaway, while a reasonably new presence in the cinematic world, already has one of the most varied and grandiose portfolio of performances under her belt. From the blockbuster roles in Interstellar (2014) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) to her more intimate 15 minutes as Fantine in Les Miserables (2012), to her everywoman role in the Devil Wears Prada (2006)she inspires love (and mystifyingly) hate in equal measure.
Brokeback Mountain (2005) is both famed and infamous for its honest portrayal by Ang Lee of a homosexual relationship and the ensuing deterioration of the lives of the two gentlemen that comes with being themselves and hiding it. It notoriously won best director for Ang Lee but lost Best Picture to Crash (2005)
In 2005, Anne Hathaway was on the cusp of her big break. Until that point, her short career had been notable only for kids’ movie series The Princess Diaries, and in 2006 she would have a breakout role in The Devil Wears Prada. But the year before that, she portrayed Lureen, the wife of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist. She played it memorably and with honesty and gravity, a far cry from her role in the Princess Diaries.
5. Johnny Depp – Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Johnny Depp‘s reputation ebbs and flows in ways almost as weird as the characters he is generally type cast into today. From pop pirate Jack Sparrow, to his honest and earnest portrayal of the ultimate bad filmmaker Ed Wood, he knows how to emphasize the eccentric parts of his roles. Whether you like him or not, he’s certainly a box-office draw but Depp wasn’t always a headliner.
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is one of the most iconic slasher films ever made. Sure Friday the 13th was one of the first, and perhaps Jason on the whole is better known, but Freddy Krueger is known as one of the most terrifying movie monsters in genre history. He doesn’t live in reality, he lives in dreams, where anything is possible.
Depp’s character in this film is just a teenage boy. In his debut role, he plays it straight, bringing a certain mature terror to his character – and his death is one of the most spectacular and famous slasher deaths in film history, giving bucket of blood a whole new meaning.
4. Marilyn Monroe – All About Eve (1950)
If gentlemen really do prefer blondes, then Marilyn Monroe is the ultimate sex symbol. Sultry, classically beautiful, all about that bass, she has stood the test of time as a lasting icon in America’s pop history.
Although more often remembered for her figure, her film career was varied and consistent, from playing it up as a ditz in All About Eve, to a more calculating femme fatale – in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – to just pure innocence in Some Like it Hot. Beautiful, and talented.
All About Eve is one of the most famous films about acting ever. The movie features Bette Davis as an actress on the out and Anne Baxter as the machiavellian Eve Harrington. They play out a power struggle that highlights the cyclical and disposable nature of fame. Ranked number 16 on the AFI’s Top 100 Best American Films of all time, this film is required viewing for any serious film buff.
All About Eve also happens to be one of Marilyn Monroe’s earliest film roles, playing the foolish Miss Caswell. Like Anne Baxter’s Eve, she’s another up and comer; her role wasn’t significant, but the exposure it created for Miss Monroe certainly was.
3. Harrison Ford – American Graffiti (1976)
Han Solo and Indiana Jones. With a career like that, this actor needs no introduction.
American Graffiti is American Pie for a more wholesome generation. Set over the course of one evening before a group of friends moves on to college, it is the epitome of coming of age film. The timeless story deals with the terror of getting older and the loss of friendship, and innocence.
Ford‘s role in the film is rather limited as Bob Falfa, an arrogant man about town. But sometimes it isn’t the role that sets up a future star – it’s the opportunity it creates. In this case the director was a perfect unknown; George Lucas.
Lucas and Ford became acquainted when Ford’s career was at a low point, and Lucas needed some carpentry. They became fast friends and, after casting him in this tiny role at the end of the film, Lucas decided that Ford might be a great fit for a little film he was making – Star Wars. The rest is film history.
2. Meryl Streep – The Deer Hunter (1973)
Meryl Streep is arguably the greatest actress who has ever lived. With an eye-watering volume of academy award nominations, international recognition, and the ability to seamlessly assume just about any role she chooses, she has earned her place in the pantheon of greatness.
The Deer Hunter (1973) is Michael Cimino’s first film and is considered a deeply divisive film. The movie studies the chaos of the Vietnam War on an extraordinarily personal scale, along with the damage and emotional degradations of war. Christopher Walken, and the scenes of Russian Roulette that feature prominently throughout the latter half of the film, make this a classic. But its reputation was later damaged by Cimino’s widely panned Heaven’s Gate (1987).
Still, one indisputably great thing came from this movie: Meryl Streep. At the time of filming, she was a relative unknown. Playing Linda in the film, originally her role was negligible, but Cimino gave her leeway to write her own lines. Her portrayal not only thrust her into the national spotlight but garnered Streep her first academy award nomination.
1. Al Pacino – The Godfather (1972)
Al Pacino is legendary. A man and a myth, he has reached the highest echelons of cinematic glory with films like Scarface and Dog Day Afternoon. This man’s storied career has spanned some of the greatest films in history, but it was his first major role that really made movie history.
The Godfather (1972) is frequently ranked as one of the best films ever made, if not the single best. This epic saga of the changing tides of organized crime has enthralled and captured the imaginations of just about everyone who has seen it for generations. Simply put, it’s extraordinary.
And it was Al Pacino‘s first major role. Pacino’s portrayal of relative innocent Michael and the progressive destruction of his soul in service of his family and his “family” is subtle and masterful. He moves from a veteran, hopeful for a life free of the complications of gang life, to fully accepting his role as leader and his descent into moral corruption. This is the ultimate example of luck, skill, and history creating a legend.
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