13 Famous Actors Who Debuted in Iconic Movies

By  · Published on September 6th, 2012

13 Famous Actors Who Debuted in Iconic Movies

by David Christopher Bell

Acting is like anything in that success doesn’t come quickly. It’s why we can go back and watch old clips of Brad Pitt whoring for Pringles or Tina Fey talking about the interest rate at Mutual Savings Bank. You have to start somewhere, right?

Same goes for motion pictures – for most actors, your first role is going to be some mediocre piece like Return To Horror High or Revenge Of The Creature – but every once in a while an actor or actress starts off at a high point.

Here are such high points, awesome first films that you’d be proud to be a part of even if you never did another film ever again.

13. Jeff Goldblum in Death Wish

$2.17 for beer and spray paint? A guy could have himself a fun time with five bucks in the 70s. The best part is the frozen chicken… no doubt about it – when they toss that thing around awkwardly only to end on Goldblum just sticking it back in the freezer and stumbling off like a child… just warms my heart. Too bad they’re criminals.

Also, once you see Jeff Goldblum flicking his tongue like a snake at you it’s really hard to see anything else ever again. It’s like looking at the sun and having that black dot in your retinas from then on, only in this case that dot is wearing a crown beanie and leather jacket.

It should be noted that he was credited as “Freak #1” for this part, which happens to be my old college nickname.

12. Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm St.

It’s a good first role. He got some lines, a good amount of screen time, and eaten by a bed while wearing a belly shirt. Overall solid role.

Seriously – it would be an honor to be one of the first victims of Freddy Krueger, especially such a memorable one at that. Depp really could have hung it up right here if he wanted to, but luckily he kept on going to become one of the most talented and famous actors of his time.

One thing though… as far as on-screen deaths go, he never really topped this, did he? It’s kind of sad… but as far as that specific measure goes, it really seems like he peaked early.

11. Frances McDormand in Blood Simple

So weird. Everything about this film came together in such a random way; it’s hard to get over. Frances McDormand, who later went on to marry Joel Coen, was at the time living in a house in the Bronx with both of The Coen Brothers, Holly Hunter (who would later appear in Raising Arizona), and The Evil Dead director Sam Raimi (who gave Joel Coen his first gig as an editor).

What a weird house. She had already been a roommate with Hunter when they attended Yale, but lord knows how she found herself with the rest of the group.

Anyway, good for her because now she can’t go a moment without being nominated for something or other, which is expected when you’re friggin’ awesome.

10. Kevin Bacon in Animal House

Oh, what a glorious moment.

What do you suppose went through his head when he was asked to strip down to his whites and assume the position while surrounded by set of crewmembers, professional actors, and God? No doubt he was just hoping that it was worth it. Good for him that it was worth it, and this film is now a party classic.

Also – little did he know that this wouldn’t even be the weirdest naked scene he’d be doing in his career. Ever see Hollow Man? That was some awkward invisibility.

9. Jason Statham in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

Statham is truly living out the American dream in that he’s British and knows Karate. The man started out as an athlete, only to be discovered as a model for French Connection, only to be discovered a second goddamn time as an actor for Guy Richie’s first film. After this one and Snatch, he basically exploded into Hollywood with a series of spin kicks and incredulous British retorts. Now he’s blowing up planes with Stallone like he’s been doing it for 30 years or something. What the hell?

Statham just kind of baldly stumbled from one piece of fame to the next and the worst part is that you can’t not love him for it. He’s just that charming.

8. Tommy Lee Jones in Love Story

Never really thought TLJ’s first film would be that of a jackass dorm roommate, but he sure plays it well. He even has a few lines and an honest to god giggle moment, not to mention a scene where he smokes cigarettes like one bad mofo. Pretty nifty, “Tom Lee Jones”.

Bonus Fact: This movie, which takes place at Harvard, was based on a book by author Erich Segal. Erich Segal based his main character off of two guys he met while on sabbatical there: Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones.

No, yeah. That Al Gore. Jones and Gore lived across from each other in the dorm, and apparently knew Segal. Segal then wrote a book with a character based on Jones, and Jones got a role in the movie based on that book. That’s what we call a small world.

7. Elijah Wood in Back To The Future II

He still pretty much looks like that now, doesn’t he?

What an awesome first movie to be in at his age. If that were the only thing he’d ever done, he’d still be getting laid for it.

Wood has had good luck from the start, as his first ever anything was a Paula Abdul music video directed by David Fincher – from there he kept going role after role until he was clawing at Mickey Rourke in Harry Potter glasses. But before all that he was dissin’ Michael J. Fox on the Universal back lot wearing a bright green cap with an upturned brim and gold suspenders like some kind of early 80s rap artist.

Guys, we really need to get on this BTTF style soon – 2015 is right around the corner. Would it hurt to start wearing our pants inside out?

Of course not! Read on!

6. Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween

Being the spawn of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, did she even have an option here? How could two such talented people not fire out yet another talented actor? And of course she’d be doing horror; what else would the daughter of Janet Leigh do? It just makes good sense.

That’s actually what landed her this role, which John Carpenter originally had another actress in mind for. He saw who her mother was and went with it, which turned out to be the right idea.

Curtis was paid $8,000 for the job, which is exactly 375 times less than what she made for her ten minute appearance in Halloween: Resurrection.

5. Josh Brolin in The Goonies

So here is something weird. After this film, Brolin would go on to be cast in a second film called Thrashin’. What’s weird is that he was cast only after the director had been brutally forced by producers to drop the actor cast before him, Johnny Depp, who was fresh out of Elm St. at that point.

After Brolin did that film, he went on to audition for a TV show and became neck-and-neck for the part with the actor who would later beat him out. That show was 21 Jump Street, and that actor was once again Johnny Depp. Luckily all of this business just made them friends and not sworn enemies or anything like that, but that had to have been awkward.

No matter – he was a Goonie, so it really didn’t matter what he did from there on anyway. Being a Goonie is like being President, afterward you can just relax because you’ve made the cut.

4. Natalie Portman in Leon: The Professional

It’s weird how celebrities tend to grow up together from the start. One of Natalie Portman’s first gigs was side-by-side with a young Britney Spears as an understudy for a role in an off Broadway production. Such randomness.

After that she was in a short film called Developing about a near-pubescent girl who had a mother with cancer that was surprising not aired on Lifetime. Finally, she landed a role as an assassin’s apprentice in Leon, earning one of the most badass roles a little girl could hope for. Seriously now, most actresses her age would have been lucky to play an orphan or quirky romantic comedy daughter or something… at best she’d be an innocent hostage. Natalie Portman got to shoot guns and smoke cigarettes.

3. Alan Rickman in Die Hard

While Rickman had a swarm of TV movies and mini-series, it was the Hans Gruber we all know and love that introduced him to the big screen. What an opening this guy had! When the first role you get ends with Bruce Willis tossing you out of a skyscraper, there’s really no need for a second. That’s life satisfaction right there.

I heard a cute story somewhere that Rickman found the scene in Harry Potter where Dumbledore gets sent into his fatal fall delightfully familiar at the time of shooting, which is something only he could possibly find nostalgic.

I’ve also heard that Patrick Stewart is going to be in the newest Die Hard film, which has nothing to do with Rickman but is rather just something really awesome that everybody should be excited about. That said – if they really wanted to wow us, they should bring back the Gruber family for the new one. Let’s see a pissed off cousin or something!

2. James Earl Jones in Dr. Strangelove

Yeah, that’s him.

As Jones himself puts it, at the time he ‘didn’t know anything about film acting’ and just spewed off the few lines he had… when he remembered them. Turns out that was an issue, something that Kubrick actually got angry with him about on the set. Yep – Mufasa was once a little nervous noob like everyone else. It’s weird to imagine isn’t it?

Both before and after this role, Jones primarily made appearances in various TV shows, stopping occasionally to play small roles in films. This went on for another six years before his first starring role in The Great White Hope. Seven years after that and his voice became the official voice of space evil in Star Wars.

1. Robert Duvall in To Kill A Mockingbird

Had a bit of an internal debate about this, as it seems that there’s an unconfirmed bit-part credit for Duvall before this film. I finally decided that it didn’t matter; this role is just too excellent to omit. Not terribly surprising though; Duvall has stuck his face in pretty much everything that’s good, and has continued to for the last 50 years – why wouldn’t his first role be anything less than iconic?

What I like about it is that it wasn’t an accident by any means. Duvall had already conquered both the stage and television before being given this part through a referral by screenwriter Horton Foote. It wasn’t some quirky coincidence or overnight discovery – the man worked to get where he was and had the talent to do it.

So while researching this I came to realize that certain films I thought were an actor’s first actually weren’t. For example, Laurence Fishburne appeared in a few small roles before lying about his age to be in Apocalypse Now, and Jack Nicholson’s first role wasn’t the original Little Shop Of Horrors. This seems like a subject that could potentially have a great deal of misinformation surrounding it, and because of that I’m really interested to know what roles I did miss from this list – so have at it nerds!

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