Overnight successes are an anomaly; they hardly ever happen. We know that, but it’s still surprising – and a fun bonus – when you catch a big-name actor in a minor role in an old movie.
With that in mind, I roamed around one of my favorite Websites, Internet Movie Database (imdb.com, and yes, I realize this is two movie articles in a row) digging up some early roles.
I started with one of America’s most iconic actors, John Wayne, who is said to have played leading roles in 142 films, but he had to start somewhere.
His first 13 movies, he wasn’t listed on the film credits, but records show him as Extra in five of them, including Flood Extra in 1928’s “Noah’s Ark.”
In his very first movie, “Brown of Harvard,” John Wayne performed as Yale Football Player.
Oh, before we move on, here’s something I found interesting. According to IMDb (as is everything here), Wayne was married three times, divorcing the first two and eventually separating from the third. I noticed his second marriage came only 23 days after his Christmas Day 1945 divorce from Josephine Alicia Saenz.
I thought that was quick but then noticed he divorced Esperanza Baur and then married Pilar Wayne the same day.
One of the biggest names out there today is Harrison Ford and most of us recognize his big break in “American Graffiti,” which set him up for super stardom as Han Solo in the original “Star Wars.”
Seven years before “Graffiti,” he played Bellhop Pager in “Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round.” Surely, we all remember that.
Greta Garbo played a queen in “Queen Christina” and a countess in “Conquest,” but her first feature-length role was that of Maid in “En lyckoriddare.”
Jack Nicholson has been nominated 12 times for an Academy Award, but his first role, at the age of 19, was Musician’s Son in the television series “Matinee Theatre.”
Ingrid Bergman might always have Paris, not to mention three Oscars, but will those ever stack up to her role as Girl Waiting in Line in “Landskamp”?
You know him for his toughness in “Raging Bull,” for his wisdom and insight in “The Intern” and for a bit of craziness in the Focker movies, but before them all Robert De Niro was Client at the Diner in “Three Rooms in Manhattan.”
Daniel Day-Lewis is known to be selective in his role choices and is far from prolific, having only five movies this century, but he is the only male with three best actor Oscars. It is safe to say he did not win any global awards as Child Vandal in “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
I best remember Susan Hayward for her powerful, Oscar-winning role as a condemned murderer in “I Want to Live!” rather than that of Starlet at Table in “Hollywood Hotel,” but at least she was a starlet in her first role.
Sidney Poitier, the first African-American to win the Best Actor Oscar (“Lilies of the Field”), got his start as Night Club Extra in “Sepia Cinderella.”
Back to current day with a guy who turns out movies almost as often as he’s featured on supermarket tabloids – OK, maybe not that often. Brad Pitt has filled a broad range of roles, but Guy at Beach with Drink in “Hunk” doesn’t sound like a big stretch.
Barbara Billingsley is best known for her television work, though she had a classic performance as Jive Lady in “Airplane!” But did you know her first role was in a short film? Yes, indeed, she was Blonde with Hives in “So You Think You’re Allergic.”
We first got to know Robin Williams as an Orkian on Earth and then watched as he grew from his comedic beginnings into deeper roles. The very beginning, though, was as both Lawyer and as Man with Tooth Ache in “Can I Do It ‘Till I Need Glasses?”
Does Woody Harrelson qualify as a “big-name actor”? He does have a couple of Oscar nominations and he’s certainly done a lot, beginning with his part as an Extra in “Harper Valley P.T.A.”
A star by any measure, Morgan Freeman started out playing Man on Street in “The Pawnbroker.”
I really enjoy Helen Mirren, even if she had nothing more than her appearances as Victoria in “RED” and “RED 2.” Such as playing Advert Woman in “Herostratus.”
And then there’s Michael Caine, another British actor of immense talent, beginning with the role of Sailor in “Panic in the Parlor.”
We all remember Sally Field began her acting career as Gidget and then became the Flying Nun … right? Not quite. She had one role prior, that of Beatnik Girl in Lineup in “Moon Pilot.”
Sean Penn usually brings tons of conversation to the table because of his, shall we say, outspoken personal life. He carries that zest into his work, providing outstanding performances such as his two Academy Award winning roles in “Mystic River” and “Milk.” His first roles were on the small screen, though, playing Kid in two different episodes of “Little House on the Prairie.”
Glenn Close has six Oscar nominations ranging from “The Big Chill” to “Fatal Attraction,” not to mention the role of Neighbor in an episode of the TV series “Great Performances.”
Robert Duvall’s acting career has spanned 60 years, the most recent in this fall’s “In Dubious Battle.” Somewhat dubious, apparently, was his first role, which is listed as MP in “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” though IMDb says it as unconfirmed.
OK, that’s enough; the lesson is obvious.