It’s hard to notice every single character who wanders into the frame of a movie you’re watching. But if you were paying attention – real close attention – to the, let’s be honest, less successful movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s (mostly), then chances are you noticed these famous faces. For the rest of us who remember only the best tidbits of these movies, it means we missed it.
That nurse who appeared for two minutes in a film? Well, she became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for best lead actress. Oh, and that random guy who got killed in a slasher movie? Yeah, well, he became the “Sexiest Man Alive.” From Jennifer Lawrence to George Clooney to Julia Roberts, these are the first movie roles that these A-list actors managed to snag. These movies are more often than not pretty bad. But hey, every actor needs to start somewhere, right?
George Clooney: Grizzly II: The Concert (1983)
The dreamy Ocean’s Eleven star didn’t have the most promising start. Grizzly II was a sequel to the 1976 movie about a huge, man-eating bear. The movie, which also happens to feature a young Charlie Sheen, was never released – which explains why you’ve never heard of it. Clooney was given a nameless role.
The part he played involved camping out with his lover before being mauled by the bear. Yeah, what a scene to start your film career with. If you want to know what Clooney’s released-film debut was, it was in 1987’s Return to Horror High. What is it about horror films and early acting roles?
Fun Fact: Grizzly II: The Concert got a mention during the 46th Annual American Film Institute Life Achievement Award that Clooney received.
Julia Roberts: Satisfaction (1988)
Julia Roberts has been a movie star ever since she was cast in Mystic Pizza. But before that, she scored a handful of roles where she wasn’t even near the biggest name on the cast. Her first film was technically Firehouse, but it wasn’t credited. Her first credited movie role was as Daryle in Satisfaction, which starred Justine Bateman and Liam Neeson.
Roberts and Bateman are part of a girl rock group who are trying to make a name for themselves. Neeson visited Roberts when she was filming her next movie, Mystic Pizza, as the pair allegedly had a personal relationship during the shooting of Satisfaction.
Fun Fact: This movie’s title was changed to Girls of Summer after Roberts became a movie star. Why? Because the name Satisfaction was deemed too sexual a movie title.
Johnny Depp: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Poor guy. Johnny Depp’s movie debut and first role ever, as Glen, had him mutilated by Freddy Krueger in his bed –while he was wearing a belly shirt. Apparently, one of the main reasons he was chosen for this role was because director Wes Craven’s daughter thought he was “dreamy.” Go figure.
Craven, however, said that Depp wasn’t very confident about his performance and that he needed some re-assurance while filming. Thankfully, Depp evolved into better roles. But let’s face it – they’re not any less strange.
Fun Fact: There is a sign that Glen is about to die as he lies in bed, listening to the radio. The broadcaster announces: “It’s midnight, and you’re listening to station KRGR.” KRGR is “Krueger” without the vowels.
Diane Keaton: Lovers and Other Strangers (1970)
After a start in theater and getting nominated for a Tony Award for Play It Again, Sam, Diane Keaton made her film debut in the 1970’s Lovers and Other Strangers. Following that role, she had guest roles on the TV series Love, American Style, Night Gallery, and Mannix. When Keaton was in-between films, she appeared in a series of deodorant commercials.
The talented actress clearly made an impact on Hollywood big wigs, considering the fact that she won the role of Kay Adams in The Godfather two years later. With that role, Keaton basically cemented her place on the coveted A-list.
Fun Fact: Sylvester Stallone was an extra in Lovers and Other Strangers.
Matt Damon: Mystic Pizza (1988)
We already mentioned Mystic Pizza, but this time it’s not about Julie Roberts. It was actually Matt Damon’s first movie. Before he became synonymous with Jason Bourne or Will Hunting, Damon was Steamer, the younger brother who wasn’t as refined as his wealthy family. Damon’s “aw shucks” expression only proves that he has improved with age and acting experience.
The movie was given good reviews, actually, but only later did it earn a cult following. The movie’s tagline was: “Mystic Pizza is like its namesake food: it’s cheesy, topped with romance, and rises to the occasion.”
Fun Fact: Damon’s long-time collaborator and friend Ben Affleck also auditioned for the movie.
Sam Elliott: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Elliott began his long and successful career as a character actor with his appearance, voice, and attitude being well-suited to Westerns. Sam Elliott’s first film role, uncredited, was in The Way West in 1967. But his first credited film role was in 1969, in the beloved Western flick Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as “Card Player #2.”
Also, in 1969, he earned his first TV credit as Dan Kenyon in Judd for the Defense.
Fun Fact: Elliott married Katharine Ross in 1984. The actress starred in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but the two had no scenes together. The two met for the second time in 1978 when they both starred in The Legacy. The two married and have been together ever since.
Halle Berry: Jungle Fever (1991)
Halle Berry’s first-ever role was in the failed spinoff of Who’s the Boss? Called Living Dolls, but her first film was in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. It’s a story about an interracial couple in the ‘90s in New York. Berry plays a drug addict named Vivian, or “Viv,” who was Gator Purify’s (Samuel L. Jackson) girlfriend.
Serious Fact: Spike Lee dedicated the film to Yusuf Hawkins, who was killed in 1989 in Bensonhurst, New York, because he was thought to have been involved with a white girl in the neighborhood. The truth is he was only there to buy a used car. According to The New York Daily News, “the attack had more to do with race than romance.”
Matthew McConaughey: My Boyfriend’s Back (1993)
Many people think the stoner comedy Dazed and Confused was McConaughey’s first role. While it was the first time he was recognized as a “somebody,” it wasn’t actually his debut movie role. Technically, his first-ever film role was in Chicano Chariots, a short film from 1992. But his official debut film role came the next year when he was given the part of “Guy #2” in My Boyfriend’s Back.
The romantic zombie dark comedy tells the story of a teenage boy who returns from the dead as a zombie to meet the girl he’s in love with for a date. The film, unsurprisingly, received negative reviews.
Fun Fact: This was the first film role for Matthew Fox, too. And Renée Zellweger, who was also cast, had only one scene that was eventually cut from the film.
Kurt Russell: It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963)
The loveable Kurt Russell made his film debut with an uncredited role in Elvis Presley’s It Happened at the World’s Fair in 1963. Mike (Presley) and Danny (Gary Lockwood) are hitchhikers who get picked up by an apple farmer. They end up in Seattle, Washington, where the 1962 World’s Fair is going on.
Mike falls for an attractive nurse who resists his advances, so he gives a quarter to a boy (Russell) to kick him in the shin. Russell’s next film was in 1965 in Guns of Diablo, a Western in which he plays a 14-year-old boy.
Fun Fact: While officially uncredited for the role, on Wikipedia, Russell is credited as “Shin Kicker.”
Leonardo DiCaprio: Critters 3 (1991)
DiCaprio’s first-ever role was in 1991 when he played an uncredited role in an episode of Roseanne. His film debut came the same year when he played the stepson of an evil landlord in the low-budget horror film that went straight to video: Critters 3. It was a role that DiCaprio himself described as “your average, no-depth, standard kid with blond hair.”
In fact, the A-lister prefers not to remember his role in the movie, which he described as “possibly one of the worst films of all time. I guess it was a good example to look back and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Later that same year, he won a recurring role on the sitcom Growing Pains as Luke Brower, a homeless boy taken in by the Seaver family.
Geena Davis: Tootsie (1982)
Everyone remembers Tootsie as Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-nominated role and Jessica Lange’s Oscar-winning performance. But not as many people reference the film as being Geena Davis’ debut film. Davis played April, who makes a revealing entrance as Hoffman’s dressing-room partner.
Fun Fact: In a 2014 interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Davis said that since it was her first movie and she was very inexperienced, Hoffman acted as her mentor. One piece of advice he gave her was to not sleep with her future co-stars. His words were: “It’s a bad idea. So here’s what to say. When they hit on you, say, ‘I would love to,’ be very flattering, ‘but I’m afraid it would ruin the (on-screen) sexual tension between us.'” Davis admitted that she later used Hoffman’s advice when Jack Nicholson hit on her, and his response was: “Oh my god, where’d you get THAT? What a line. Oh, man!”
Brad Pitt: The Dark Side of the Sun (1988)
No, Brad Pitt’s first movie wasn’t in Thelma and Louise, as many people mistakenly believe. The truth is that he landed a few uncredited roles in 1987: a “waiter” in Charlie Sheen’s No Man’s Land, “guy at beach with drink” in the film Hunk, “black-tie party guest” in No Way Out, and “party-goer/preppy guy at fight” in Less Than Zero.
But his first credited role was as Rick in the American-Yugoslavian drama called The Dark Side of the Sun. Pitt’s character Rick has a rare skin disease that doesn’t allow him to be exposed to any kind of light, especially the sun. If you’re curious, you can find the full movie is on YouTube.
Meryl Streep: Julia (1977)
Believe it or not, the one and only Meryl Streep wasn’t always the queen of acting. Before she became the actress to earn the most Oscar nominations, she played a minor role in Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. It’s about a playwright named Lillian (Fonda) and her friend Julia (Redgrave), who asks her to smuggle funds into Germany during WWII.
Fun Fact: In the beginning, director Fred Zinnemann considered casting Streep in the title role. But, considering the fact that she was almost completely unknown as an actress (at that point, she was in one play and had yet to appear in a film), Zinnemann decided to cast Redgrave instead.
Sean Connery: Lilacs in the Spring (1954)
Herbert Wilcox’s Lilacs in the Spring is a British musical film that starred Anna Neagle and Errol Flynn. In the United States, however, the film was released as Let’s Make Up. It was also the feature film debut of then-unknown, now-adored Sean Connery. He was, of course, an extra in the film. It’s hard to believe now, but Connery had a rough start.
Although he was able to secure several roles as extras, he was still struggling to make ends meet at the time. He was forced to take on a part-time job as a babysitter, working for journalist Peter Noble and his actress wife Marianne, making a nice 10 shillings a night (which equals to 12 cents).
Macaulay Culkin: Rocket Gibraltar (1988)
Sure, Macaulay Culkin will forever be known as the boy from Home Alone. But that classic movie wasn’t his debut film. Culkin started acting at age four. He started out in a stage production of Bach Babies and appeared in roles on stage, TV and in films throughout the ‘80s. Technically, his first movie role was in a TV movie called The Midnight Hour in 1985.
His big-screen debut, however, came in 1988 when he portrayed the character of Cy Blue Black in the drama Rocket Gibraltar. Before reaching superstardom in 1990 with Home Alone, he was Billy Livingstone in See You in the Morning in 1989 and Miles Russell in (my favorite ‘80s comedy) Uncle Buck in 1989.
Salma Hayek: Mi Vida Loca (1993)
Before making it big in Hollywood, then-23-year-old Hayek landed the title role in Teresa in 1989, a telenovela that made her a star in Mexico. She moved to Los Angeles in 1991, but with limited fluency in English and having dyslexia, it wasn’t so easy starting out. Her official film debut was in the 1993 film Mi Vida Loca as Gata, followed by her role as Donna in Roadracers in 1994.
Her big break came in 1995 when Robert Rodriguez gave Hayek a starring role with Antonio Banderas in Desperado. She followed that role with a brief part as a vampire queen in Tarantino’s From Dusk till Dawn, where she used her sex appeal to perform an erotic table-top snake dance. You probably remember it…
Amy Adams: Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)
The film features a memorable cast, with Kirsten Dunst, Kirstie Alley, Brittany Murphy, Denise Richards, Allison Janney, and Ellen Barkin. It was also Amy Adams’ debut film role. She played Leslie Miller, a kind yet boring, sexy beauty-pageant contestant. Adams steals every scene and proves that she can be quite the cheerleader.
The film has gained new fans over time as a cult classic. In fact, in 2011, Allison Janney said that she gets approached by more fans of this movie than of her Emmy-winning role on The West Wing.
Fun Fact: Both Adams and Dunst went on to play girlfriends of superheroes. Adams played Lois Lane in both Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. Dunst played Mary Jane Watson in the Spider-Man franchise with Toby McGuire.
Viola Davis: The Substance of Fire (1996)
Now we know Viola Davis as a serious actress and Oscar Winner, but in 1996 she was known as “Nurse” in the movie The Substance of Fire – her film debut. The movie, starring Tony Goldwyn and Sarah Jessica Parker, sees Davis’ character for only a few minutes. Her role: handing a vial of blood to Timothy Hutton.
According to TV Insider, Davis stated that she did one day’s work and was given a paycheck of $518 for her small role. It was no Annalise Keating or Aibileen Clark, but it was, nonetheless, a humble start for the first Black woman to ever win an Emmy for Best Lead Actress.
Tom Hanks: He Knows You’re Alone (1980)
Before Tom Hanks turned into one of the most established actors, and even before he became a constant Meg Ryan love interest, he played Elliot, a psychology student, in He Knows You’re Alone. The 1980 film has Hanks meeting the female lead of this slasher movie while jogging through a forest.
Fun Fact: Hanks later described the absurdity of the carnival scenes, noting how ridiculous it all was to depict the rides as something “enjoyed” by patrons in the freezing temperatures that they were filming in. In the original script, Elliot (his character) was supposed to fall victim to the murderer. But, he was so charismatic on-screen that the writers ultimately decided not to film his murder. You see? He’s just too lovable to kill onscreen – even back then.
Margot Robbie: Vigilante (2008)
Margot Robbie has been acting in films since 2008 when she starred in the film Vigilante. Robbie was given the part of Cassandra in the low-budget Australian film. Her character’s sexual assault sparks her fiancé to become a master of combat and fight crime. Then, after Robbie impressed director Aash Aaron with her performance in an audition, she won the lead (without an agent) in I.C.U.
I.C.U was a 2009 Australian thriller film that was shot in 2007. While it was filmed before her film debut in 2008, it’s considered to be her second film role. I.C.U. tells the story of three bored people who are targeted by a serial killer, after having filmed and spied on their neighbors.
Sandra Bullock: Hangmen (1987)
Chances are, when you think of early Sandra Bullock roles, you think of Speed with Keanu Reeves, right? Well, before the action flick came out in 1994, Bullock already had 10 movies under her belt. Her first-ever film was called Hangmen, which came out in 1987. After this film, Bullock received early attention for her supporting role in the action film Demolition Man in 1993.
Her breakthrough, of course, came in the thriller Speed. The ‘90s were good to her, as she established herself with leading roles in romantic comedies like While You Were Sleeping (1995), Hope Floats (1998), and thrillers like The Net (1995) and A Time to Kill (1996).
Fun Fact: Bullock was featured on the cover of the film’s later video releases as the headline star, which was only done to capitalize on her later stardom.
Denzel Washington: Carbon Copy (1981)
Denzel Washington is known for playing dramatic, action-based roles like in Man on Fire and Philadelphia. So this role will seem way out of his professional ballpark. He appeared in 1981’s Carbon Copy, a comedy about a white business executive who learns that he has a black teenage son.
Washington was 27 years old at the time. The film trailer is actually refreshing because it gives us a look at Washington in a much less intense role.
Fun Fact: Washington received an “introducing” credit, and his first line in the commercially released film is: “Yaaa! Ya! This is cool.”
Kevin Bacon: Animal House (1978)
Now, it might be hard to associate Kevin Bacon with a snobby character like Chip Diller, the Omega pledge, and ROTC cadet who basically gets trampled on during the homecoming parade. His memorable line was, “All is well!” That scene became an internet meme, which has been used to mock the tendency of stubborn people to refuse to accept the facts.
Fun Fact: Since this was Kevin Bacon’s first-ever role, when he went to the film’s premiere, he wasn’t even allowed to sit with the rest of the cast. Why? Because the theater’s ushers didn’t believe he was in it! He had to sit in the back of the cinema with everyone else. Regardless, he considers it his favorite film.
Jennifer Lawrence: Garden Party (2008)
Before she became one of the biggest stars on the planet, Jennifer Lawrence got her start in guest roles on a couple of popular TV shows, like Monk and Cold Case. Then, she made her film debut in 2008 in Garden Party. In the film, she plays Tiff, the main character’s friend who finds herself in more than one struggle.
It was the beginning of her Indie career. After Garden Party, Lawrence appeared in The Burning Plain (also in 2008). Her breakthrough role, however, came in 2010 small-scale drama called Winter’s Bone. She played a poor teenager in the Ozark Mountains who has to take care of her mentally ill mother and siblings while looking for her missing father.
Ryan Gosling: Frankenstein and Me (1996)
Ryan Gosling is as cute as ever in his film debut in Frankenstein and Me in 1996, starring Burt Reynolds. Gosling got the supporting role of Kenny, the lead character’s friend, who just wants to bring Frankenstein to life. While this was his first movie, Gosling wasn’t a stranger to the camera.
At 12 years old, Gosling auditioned for a revival of Disney Channel’s The Mickey Mouse Club in 1993. He landed a two-year contract as a “Mouseketeer” and thus moved to Florida. It turns out that he only seldom appeared on-screen since the other children were considered more talented. Still, the A-lister described the gig as the greatest two years of his life.
Tom Cruise: Endless Love (1981)
Before Tom Cruise became… well, Tom Cruise, he had a minor but pivotal role in Endless Love. At the age of 18, with the blessing of his mom and stepdad, Cruise moved to New York City to pursue acting. After working as a busboy, he went to Los Angeles to try out for TV roles. He signed with CAA and started acting in films.
He started out with Endless Love, playing the part of Billy, a buddy of the main character who gives Cruise an idea that later goes awry. He followed that with a major supporting role as a military student in Taps later that same year. Two years later, Cruise starred in The Outsiders and Risky Business. The rest is history…
Will Smith: Where the Day Takes You (1992)
Will Smith had been the beloved Fresh Prince for a year before he made his film debut in Where the Day Takes You. In the movie, Smith plays Manny, one of a bunch of teenage runaways in Los Angeles. Sean Astin, Ricki Lake, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Dermot Mulroney are also in the film.
Smith had a rough start. He was spending his rap money (as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince) a little too freely in the late ‘80s and underpaid his income taxes. The IRS assessed a $2.8 million tax debt against him and took many of his possessions. He was struggling in 1990 when NBC signed him to a contract and built The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air around him. It was after that first year that Smith began his acting career.
Emma Stone: Superbad (2007)
The actress who just never seems to age nailed her comedic brand from the very beginning. Emma Stone’s film debut happened to be her breakout role as Jules in Judd Apatow’s Superbad. She’s the one who didn’t notice Jonah Hill’s antics in home economics class.
After this film, Stone quickly added some popular titles to her resume: Zombieland, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and The House Bunny. By 2010, with Easy A, she was already an A-lister.
Fun Fact: Jonah Hill and Emma Stone also worked together on Maniac in 2018, as Owen Milgrim and Annie Landsberg. Unlike Superbad, Maniac was one heck of a serious and strange movie to be in.
Edward Norton: Primal Fear (1996)
Edward Norton was lucky enough to start his successful film career with a bang, having landed the role of Aaron Stampler, the stuttering altar boy accused of killing a beloved archbishop. Although it was his first role, he clearly stole Richard Gere and Laura Linney’s thunder. He even earned an Oscar nomination.
Fun Fact: Norton was among 2,100 actors who auditioned for the role. Casting that role was such a challenge that Richard Gere almost left the project. That is until Norton came in. Another fun fact: the movie’s ending ran over six pages, and the writers realized it was simply too long. Gere and Norton began to improvise and managed to get the scene down to less than two pages.