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1. Amy Adams, Smallville (2001)
Even the best actors have to start somewhere. Before the advent of television, movie stars would get their big breaks in bit parts on the big screen or in the chorus of some Broadway show or another. But since the tube has invaded America’s living rooms, most actors get some of their earliest work in guest roles on popular TV shows. Name nearly any Oscar contender—including almost all of this year’s nominees—and chances are good there’s some weird TV guest part on his or her résumé. Take, for instance, four-time supporting actress nominee—and current competitor for that prize for The Master—Amy Adams. Sure, everybody knows she played Tara’s cousin in that one Buffy episode, but fewer know that she guested on Smallville as, of all things, an overweight high-school girl (complete with terrible fat suit) who comes across some bad Kryptonite, rapidly loses weight, then has to keep consuming, lest she waste away to nothing. Adams would probably rather forget about playing the weird intersection between vampire and hummingbird, but that’s why the Internet invented YouTube.
2. Tom Hanks, Happy Days (1982)
Thirty years and numerous dramatic roles later (five of which earned him nods from the Academy), it’s easy to forget that Tom Hanks is also a gifted comedic performer. During his TV days, his timing and commitment could salvage the broadest of Bosom Buddies plots; an appearance on the 10th season Happy Days episode “A Little Case Of Revenge” demonstrates that if he hadn’t become the Jimmy Stewart of his generation, he could have very well been its Jerry Lewis. In an attempt to right perceived childhood slights done to him by one Arthur Fonzarelli, Hanks’ Dwayne Twitchell uses his black-belt martial-arts skills to systematically destroy the strangely flimsy furnishings of Arnold’s Drive-In—an establishment that, at that point in the show’s run, was co-owned by the rapidly maturing Fonzie. But even a Mozart-loving version of The Fonz is still too cool to actually put up his dukes against Dwayne, which causes Hanks to do a dance of physical-comedy devastation across Arnold’s. Maybe if he added some moves like that to his Oscar-nominated turn in Big, Philadelphia wouldn’t have been the first film to net Hanks an Academy Award.
3. Christopher Walken, Hawaii Five-O (1970)
Christopher Walken—who made his TV debut when he was 10 years old, under the name “Ronnie Walken,” in a recurring role on the short-lived series The Wonderful John Acton—appeared on Hawaii Five-O as a navy sailor being grilled by McGarrett (Jack Lord). Unlike a lot of then-unknown actors picking up a paycheck on a job they never imagined anyone would still be looking at 40 years later, Walken, who would win an Oscar for his work in The Deer Hunter, really puts his stamp on the material. He gives an intense, deeply felt Method performance as a troubled man threatening to come apart at the seams, and the contrast between him and Lord is hilarious: They’re not just acting in different styles; they’re barely on the same planet.
4. Jeff Bridges, Sea Hunt (1958)
As the son of Hollywood legend Lloyd Bridges, Jeff Bridges had a readymade path into acting. He got his start playing various young lads in Sea Hunt, in which his father starred as intrepid scuba diver and freelance hero Mike Nelson. The 9-year-old Bridges’ appearance as Jimmy in the 1958 episode “The Birthday Present” offers a good illustration of just how much the show had to stretch to keep coming up with adventures requiring Nelson’s scuba skills: In a gloriously nonsensical bit of plotting the show doesn’t even attempt to justify, Jimmy somehow manages to lose his new bicycle at the bottom of the sea, and Mike’s recovery of the bike soon gets him beaten up by local gangsters. There’s little in the young Bridges’ performance to suggest this blandly competent child actor would blossom into one of Hollywood’s most beloved thespians—although the knowledge that he’s Lloyd Bridges’ real-life son makes it slightly easier to handle the fact that Mike Nelson wears a disturbingly diaper-like swimsuit in their scenes together. But just 13 years later, Bridges would earn his first Oscar nomination for The Last Picture Show, finally winning one a half-century after “The Birthday Present” for Crazy Heart.
5. Ryan Gosling, Are You Afraid Of The Dark (1995)
Just a few years out from his unnerving Mormon talent show dance routines, Ryan Gosling appeared on an episode of Are You Afraid Of The Dark, the ’90s Nickelodeon gem about a bunch of middle-school-age nerds telling Goosebumps-style ghost stories in the woods. The first time viewers see the boy who would grow up to earn a 2007 Oscar nomination for Half Nelson and eventually fuel the fantasies of millions, he’s wearing a purple button-down and an incredulous expression, shoveling a piece of shrimp into his face. As the douchey older brother of a kid with the biggest funeral obsession this side of Harold And Maude, Gosling gets to lock his younger sibling in a hearse while smirking and wiggling his eyebrows, seeming more like a hammy Wayne Arnold than dreamy leading man. The episode also features Gilbert Gottfried, though, tragically, he and Gosling enjoy only a few fleeting moments of onscreen time together.
6. Michelle Williams, Baywatch (1993)
No matter how many Oscars Michelle Williams is nominated for (three times so far for Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine, and My Week With Marilyn), to a select few she’ll forever be Dawson’s Creek’s Jen Lindley. But her first TV role was setting the heart of young Hobie Buchannon ablaze. The scion of lifeguarding legend Mitch, Hobie (Jeremy Jackson, who later creepily insinuated Williams was his “secret rendezvous girlfriend“) only talks to a bikini-clad teenage Williams at the encouragement of his father. She’s won over, giving Hobie a coveted invite to her party because she likes that he always has sand in shoes. It’s hardly a performance that would make anyone peg her as a future A-lister, but if they gave out awards for Bikini Teens Running On A Beach, she would at least get a nomination.
8. Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer, The Weird Al Show (1997)
It’s a two-for-one pre-Oscar-buzz special, when two of 2012’s best supporting actress nominees, Bridesmaids’ Melissa McCarthy and The Help’s Octavia Spencer—who would win the award—turn up (alongside someone who looks and sounds an awful lot like The Room’s Tommy Wiseau) in this 1997 “Ask Al” segment from Weird Al Yankovic’s short-lived, unsurprisingly strange sort-of children’s show. While it’s tempting to claim that each actress displayed the glimmer of future greatness in the very brief questions they ask, the fact that neither woman’s IMDB page makes reference to the gig suggests that setting up Weird Al’s gags was just one more of the myriad jobs hustling young character actresses throw themselves into on the way (hopefully) up.
9. Joaquin Phoenix, Superboy (1989)
The syndicated late-’80s TV version of Superboy is such a distant memory that it’s almost surprising such a show existed at all, never mind that Joaquin Phoenix (a three-time Oscar nominee for Gladiator, Walk The Line, and The Master) had a big guest-starring role in the first-season episode “Little Hercules.” Sorry—make that Leaf Phoenix, since young Joaquin was still going by the hippie name he gave himself as a kid to fit in with his unusually monikered family. Fame was right around the corner for Phoenix: He’d already been in SpaceCamp, and Parenthood would come out months later. But on Superboy, he’s just the “freak of the week,” a computer genius who almost self-destructs a Navy submarine to impress a girl he likes. Early in the episode, he somewhat creepily fantasizes about being Superboy and melting high-school bullies with his heat vision. With great power comes great responsibility, kid.
10. Christoph Waltz, The All New Alexei Sayle Show (1995)
Christoph Waltz burst onto the English-language film scene in 2009, with his astounding turn as the urbane and charming but slightly unhinged villain of Inglourious Basterds, Hans Landa. His performance was the centerpiece of that film and won him an Oscar, both for his charming malevolence and his fascinating portrayal of a historically accurate Nazi ideal. But not many know that his turn on largely unknown English sketch-comedy show The All New Alexei Sayle Show served as a dry run for Landa. It’s all there: the accent, the charm, the malevolence, the violent insanity. It just happens to be in the role of “Weak Moustache,” the villainous antagonist to “The League Of Hirsute Gentlemen.”
11. James Cromwell, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1990)
Before James Cromwell was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Babe, he’d racked up an impressive slate of guest spots, from The Rockford Files to Knight Rider. But his most memorable TV appearance comes in season three of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as the smarmy Prime Minister Nayrok of Angosia III. The Enterprise visits Angosia III to review the planet’s application for membership in the United Federation of Planets. But when a genetically engineered super-soldier escapes from a local penal colony, the Enterprise’s crew finds that Nayrok and his minions are hiding a whole slew of misdeeds. Cromwell would go on to larger roles in the Star Trek universe (most notably as Zefram Cochran in Star Trek: First Contact), but Nayrok, replete with a gray jumpsuit and creepy mustache, is archetypal in the show’s gallery of evil space bureaucrats.
12. Jennifer Lawrence, Monk (2006)
America’s favorite female star of the moment, Jennifer Lawrence appears to be the heavy favorite to win this year’s trophy for Best Actress for her work in Silver Linings Playbook. But long before she began a film career that’s already netted her two Oscar nominations, she wandered the TV program guide in search of a loving home. She found it for a time on The Bill Engvall Show, but before even that, she guest-starred on Monk as a high-school student. Was she the homecoming queen? The head of the cheer squad? No, the young Lawrence can be seen in this clip dancing around in a giant cougar costume. How do we know it’s the same woman who would one day grace magazine covers? When she takes off the giant cougar head and reveals her distinctive face for about five seconds.
13. James Woods, The Rockford Files (1974)
During his grand tour of TV detective shows in the mid-’70s (before breaking into film with 1979’s The Onion Field and getting an Oscar nomination for 1986’s Salvador), Woods guested on the first episode of the James Garner series The Rockford Files, playing a slightly fey rich kid accused of murdering his parents. Rockford’s heavies were generally tongue-in-cheek (more neurotic than evil), giving Woods the chance to do a kind of low-stakes James Bond villain, albeit with a snarling Doberman instead of a pussycat. It’s a lucky role for an aspiring star: Woods is onscreen for only a few minutes of “The Kirkoff Case,” but his character is talked about in almost every other scene. Plus, one of the last shots of the episode is a close-up of a newspaper with his face on the front page. You practically have to kill someone to get that kind of publicity.
14. Jodie Foster, Ironside (1972)
Starting out when she was 3 years old, Jodie Foster logged a lot of TV work before her breakout movie roles in Taxi Driver and Bugsy Malone, including voice work on Saturday-morning cartoons such as The Addams Family (in which she played the little boy, Pugsly) and The Amazing Chan And The Chan Clan, as well as taking over the Tatum O’Neal role in a short-lived TV version of Paper Moon. She guested on the Raymond Burr vehicle Ironside at a point in the show’s history when the writers were so burned out and bored that they must have been pitching script ideas on a dare. Foster plays a little girl who has become morbidly upset because she believes she killed a man using witchcraft; concerned, her parents call in Ironside, who, like Gamera, is a friend to all children. Foster’s remarkably early mastery of her craft stands out in an episode that surrounds her with the clock-punching series regulars, a stunt cameo by Rod Serling as the bearded owner of an occult head shop, and an actor who plays a “retarded” man by practically skipping down a corridor of the police building.
15. Hugh Jackman and Anna Kendrick, Viva Laughlin (2007)
CBS’ 2007 remake of the British miniseries Blackpool remains its most spectacular recent failure, an utterly misconceived murder mystery in which a casino owner and company randomly burst into off-key renditions of classic rock standards. Still, the show holds the bizarre, almost certainly unique distinction of featuring a guest appearance from a different future Oscar nominee in every single episode—which, admittedly, is considerably easier to achieve when the show only lasts two episodes. Series producer and current Best Actor hopeful Hugh Jackman brought some star power to the première as rival casino owner Nicky Fontana, while the second episode featured a brief appearance from future Up In The Air nominee Anna Kendrick in her final pre-Twilight role. Playing the friend of the main character’s daughter, Kendrick is simply there to drop some quick exposition about a party and wear what was probably intended to be skimpy underwear but, like most things on Viva Laughlin, lands considerably wide of the mark. Since almost all trace of Viva Laughlin, including Kendrick’s cameo, has been wiped from the Internet, watch this surreally awful cover of “Sympathy For The Devil” from Wolverine himself instead. It really must be seen to be believed.
16. Richard Dreyfuss, Bewitched (1966)
In her review of Richard Dreyfuss’ 1980 trifle The Competition, legendary critic Pauline Kael wrote that the then-33-year-old actor had “acquired enough bad acting habits for another kind of competition.” But a 1966 Bewitched episode suggests that the two-time Oscar nominee was a bad-habit-collecting child prodigy. In it, the 19-year-old Dreyfuss plays a twerpy teenaged wizard out to steal the affections of his former babysitter, Elizabeth Montgomery’s semi-reformed witch Samantha, by materializing randomly throughout her house and turning himself into a dog. The performance exhibits Dreyfuss’ signature motor-mouthed, ingratiating wheedling, but his adolescent chipmunk tone puts viewers solidly in hapless hubby Dick York’s corner when he finally tries to take a poke at the future Oscar winner (for The Goodbye Girl), despite Dreyfuss still being disguised as a much less-punchable hound.
17. Michelle Pfeiffer, Fantasy Island (1978)
Pfeiffer, who would later be Oscar-nominated three times, made two brief visits to Mr. Roarke’s domain, one in 1978, when she was just 20 years old, and the other three years later, before her first starring role in Grease 2. “The Island Of Lost Women” stars Robert Morse, still closer to J. Pierepont Finch than Bert Cooper, as a man who wants to take his vacation in a remote, exotic location full of beautiful women. No way that could go badly! Before it does, he has the chance to be gazed at worshipfully by Pfeiffer, whose job is to use what little screen time she has to convey that he’s quite a catch. She really gives it her all.
18. James Caan, Get Smart (1969)
Even as far back as 1969, James Caan had already established himself as a dramatic actor rather than a comedian, but when Don Adams asked him to appear on Get Smart as a broad, swashbuckling-style character named Rupert of Rathskeller, the actor couldn’t resist. He could, however, use what limited clout he had at the time to make a unique request in regards to his billing. While Caan remains officially unlisted in the credits, there is an acknowledgement that Rupert of Rathskeller is “played by himself.” Despite this decision, Adams and Caan remained friends, with Caan providing a tribute of sorts to his earlier role by playing the president of the United States in the 2008 film version of Get Smart.
19. Melanie Griffith, Starsky And Hutch (1978)
While Melanie Griffith is often thought of as the baby-voiced wife of Antonio Banderas, the multiple-Razzie-award-winner’s talent as an actress was once recognized by the Academy for her role in the 1988 Best Picture nominee Working Girl. Just over a decade before that, though, she was the baby-voiced piece of girl candy that buddy cops Starsky and Hutch traded meat-headed barbs over in a season three episode of the iconic series. As the pretty younger sister of friend with a debt problem, Griffith giggles like a champ, drops off a few Gs at an illegal gambling den, and allows both men to paw at her indiscriminately. Although she isn’t getting much film work these days, Griffith seems to have quietly returned to her small-screen roots, lending her vocal talent to the animated series Robot Chicken and appearing in series like Nip/Tuck, Hot In Cleveland, Raising Hope, and, um, Viva Laughlin.
20. Tommy Lee Jones, Charlie’s Angels (1976)
Tommy Lee Jones made his motion-picture debut as Hank Simpson in 1970’s Love Story, based on the novel by his Harvard classmate Erich Segal (who later acknowledged the character Oliver Barrett features a considerable amount of TLJ DNA), and spent the next several years flitting among film, theater, and television, eventually winning an Oscar for The Fugitive. Setting aside his work in such TV movies as The Amazing Howard Hughes and The Executioner’s Song, however, his most notable small-screen appearance occurred during the two-hour pilot for Charlie’s Angels. As the pickup-truck-driving Aram Kolegian, Jones spends more time tooling around with his trusty dog and following hunches than he does interacting with the Angels, whom he literally swerves to avoid on two separate occasions. He ends up saving their asses after receiving a mysterious phone call suggesting that he look after them. When Jones asks without irony, “You know a guy named Charlie?” the ladies respond with giddy giggling while he offers the blankest expression possible, as if silently wondering “What the hell’s so goddamned funny?”
21. Robert Redford, Naked City (1961)
The 1948 movie Naked City is best remembered for its vivid, documentary-style cinematography and New York locations, and for the line, “There are 8 million stories in the naked city.” The TV series is best remembered for that line, and for the crazy conga line of New York actors who appeared as guest bad guys; “Each week,” Richard Blackburn writes in The Catalog Of Cool, “some whacked-out ‘method’ thespian played a gone villain to bug Lieutenant Paul Burke.” That number included Robert Redford. In his turn at bat, the future founder of the Sundance Film Festival and Oscar winner for his direction of Ordinary People plays the leader of a mismatched group of fascist nutjobs who are trying to make a point about society by running around the city carving up winos.
22. John Hawkes, Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1998)
John Hawkes is of the “Hey, it’s that guy!” persuasion, more so than many of the future nominees on this list. He popped up on shows like The X-Files and 24 before playing Sol Star in Deadwood, not to mention his 2010 Oscar-nominated performance as terrifying meth addict Teardrop in rural noir Winter’s Bone. But Hawkes’ role as janitor George in Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s second-season episode “I Only Have Eyes for You” points to the sweetness and menace Hawkes would embody in future roles. In the episode, a lovelorn poltergeist is haunting Sunnydale, forcing bystanders to act out a murder between a teen boy and his teacher. George gets possessed and shoots a Sunnydale teacher, while reenacting the poltergeist’s tragic past.
23. Felicity Huffman, The X-Files (1993)
Lots of great actors plied their trade on the spooky sci-fi show The X-Files, but few got their big breaks there. Instead, the series acted as a kind of Old Home Week for great character actors, who would come in for a week to play a disgusting monster, then head off for more weird little parts. The exception to this is the young Felicity Huffman, who turns up as a scientist working in an arctic research lab in the seminal bottle episode “Ice.” A fairly brazen ripoff of The Thing, “Ice” sets Mulder and Scully up in a remote lab with Huffman and a handful of other players, then lets them bump each other off via some sort of violence-inducing alien worm. It all sounds silly, but the players sell it, making it one of the series’ best episodes. The promise Huffman showed here paid off in 2006, when she received a nomination for Transamerica.
24. Paul Newman, You Are There (1953)
A cross between a dramatic anthology series and the fabled use of television as an “educational tool,” You Are There started out as a radio show and ran on TV from 1953 to 1957, with Walter Cronkite introducing scripted re-enactments of historic events. As with other shows from that period that were basically series of televised plays, a lot of up-and-coming talent passed through the studio, but Paul Newman’s appearances—in which he played, respectively, Brutus and Plato—are especially notable for having been directed by Sidney Lumet, almost 30 years before Lumet guided Newman to an Academy Award nomination for The Verdict. They also gave Newman a chance to practice wearing a toga, which would come in handy when he made his movie debut in the infamous The Silver Chalice.
25. Helen Hunt, Ark II/The Bionic Woman (1976/1978)
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Helen Hunt turned up on numerous TV shows, playing daughter to Murray Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Show and earning series-regular roles on Amy Prentiss, Swiss Family Robinson, The Fitzpatricks, and It Takes Two. In the realm of one-off appearances, however, Hunt pulled a pair of sci-fi efforts that would haunt any actress, Oscar-winning or not. In the post-apocalyptic Saturday morning series Ark II, Hunt played Diana, a young girl who’s convinced that an artificial intelligence known as Omega is the savior of her people, while on The Bionic Woman, she turned in a memorable performance as an alien princess on the run from a few less-savory members of her race.
26. Emma Thompson, The Young Ones (1984)
Before raking in Oscar nominations during the ’90s, acknowledged formidable person Emma Thompson wore lots of funny hats as vice president of the Cambridge Footlights and cast member of the long-forgotten BBC sketch show Alfresco, before appearing with her Alfresco co-formidables Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, and Ben Elton on this hilarious 1984 episode of groundbreaking, anarchic series The Young Ones. As the cheerily vapid Miss Money-Sterling, a University Challenge team member from the impossibly posh “Footlights College Oxbridge,” Thompson (dripping in tiaras, diamonds, and champagne) only has one good line, ringing in incongruously to chirp, “I’ve got a Porsche!” But she gamely skewers her alma mater’s reputation as bastion of the sort of stuck-up killjoys who only go in for prestigious, Oscar-winning costume dramas as opposed to scurrilously scruffy TV satire where a quartet of toffs get blown up by a punk with a potato-masher grenade.
27. Brad Pitt, 21 Jump Street (1988)
While Fox’s “undercover cops in high school” show is primarily remembered as the launching pad for Johnny Depp, he wasn’t the only sex-symbol-turned-Oscar-heavyweight to do some early work on the show. Brad Pitt shows up in a second-season episode in which Depp’s Tom Hanson struggles with guilt when a troubled youth inadvertently caught in the police’s latest sting operation subsequently commits suicide. The episode is one of 21 Jump Street’s occasional efforts to grapple with serious social issues affecting real teenagers, with Pitt on hand as one of the dead teenager’s friends. While there’s plenty of vintage ’80s silliness on display, Pitt makes the most of his small part, displaying the barely suppressed contempt for authority and flair for off-kilter line readings and reaction shots that he later brought to some of his best-regarded performances, particularly Fight Club and his first Oscar-nominated turn in 12 Monkeys.
28. George Clooney, Throb (1986)
Sure, he might be the Academy’s darling now, but George Clooney famously took years to break through, making his way through failed series after failed series before landing ER in 1994. Yet the future Oscar winner also took on his share of weird guest spots, popping up on everything from Roseanne to The Golden Girls to Murder, She Wrote as he honed his craft and tried to get somebody—anybody—to cast him as a heartthrob doctor in the most popular drama series of the ’90s. Perhaps the most fascinating credit on his résumé, though, is as someone named “Rollo Moldonado” in an episode of something called Throb. Sadly, it’s not as salacious as it sounds. Throb was a sitcom about a record label, and “Rollo” was one of the hangers-on for an episode, complete with slicked-back hair and zoot suit.
29. Kevin Spacey, Crime Story (1987)
In the second-season première of period cop opera Crime Story, set in Las Vegas in the early ’60s, future two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey plays a mob-busting United States senator nakedly modeled on Robert Kennedy, who gets involved with a blonde sex-kitten movie queen (Jenny Wright), nakedly modeled on you-know-who. Months later, Spacey would begin his career-making story arc on Wiseguy, in which he played to the camera like a violin virtuoso working a Stradivarius, but here, he was still learning to act onscreen, and the results are not the subtlest work of his career, which is saying something. It would take a week just to wring all the clam chowder out of his Boston accent.
30. William Hurt, Kojak (1977)
A shaggy, bookish-looking William Hurt plays a law student working as a parking-garage attendant who stumbles across some valuable information in a two-part episode of Kojak. After lecturing Kojak on the niceties of the law, he arranges to meet some murderous thugs in an out-of-the-way place so they can give him money in exchange for what he knows, and he comes to a predictable end. This was Hurt’s first time acting on camera, an appropriate debut given how much time he’s spent playing guys who learn the hard way that they’re not as smart as they thought they were.
31. Albert Brooks, The Odd Couple (1970)
It seems like the acting career of Albert Brooks has been full of roles that are awkward, curmudgeonly, or, in many cases, a little of both. But there was a time when Brooks—nominated for an Oscar for Broadcast News in 1988—played someone who was hip and happenin’. During the first season of The Odd Couple, he was in a couple of episodes as Rudy, the son of the owner of the ad agency photographer Felix Unger (Tony Randall) did work for. He was young, he was now, and he was always prodding Felix to do work that reflected the mod times of 1970. In one episode, he insists Felix use Oscar (Jack Klugman) as a model because the ruddy face of Felix’s roomie is real and not fake. Brooks was only 23 when he played Rudy, but even then, he had a maturity beyond his years, and had already gotten his condescending voice down pat.
32. Jeremy Renner, Angel (2000)
Two-time nominee Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker, The Town) went many years before achieving stardom in his late 30s, and ABC surely kicks itself for cancelling The Unusuals, which featured a prominent starring role for Renner, just before everything exploded for him. Before that series, Renner bounced around one-shot guest-star roles on several TV shows, most prominently on Angel, where he played Penn in the first season’s “Somnambulist.” It’s one of those early episodes of the series where everything’s excessively hardboiled, and it sees Angel (David Boreanaz) and detective buddy Kate Lockley (Elisabeth Röhm) tracking a vampire serial killer who, Angel realizes, is someone he created in his evil past. Renner brings his own creepy energy to the role, perhaps a tryout for his filmic turn as Jeffrey Dahmer a couple years later.
33. Hilary Swank, Beverly Hills, 90210 (1997-98)
Though Hilary Swank had many credits to her name before her breakout, Oscar-winning turn in Boys Don’t Cry, the oddest blip on her résumé is her stint as a young single mother on the eighth season of Fox’s fading Beverly Hills, 90210. It isn’t unheard of for a legitimate Oscar contender to have teen-drama roots, but the bizarre thing here is how truly wretched Swank is in the role. Saddled with an unlikeable character tasked to romance serial story-killer Steve Sanders (Ian Ziering), Swank’s two-year contract was ended early by the producers after only 16 episodes of saccharine banality. This is a classic example of failure being the conduit to success, however, as she landed her Boys Don’t Cry role just three months after being fired—a role she couldn’t have taken had she still been under contract with 90210.
34. Vera Farmiga/Abigail Breslin/Viola Davis/Rooney Mara, Law & Order/Law & Order: SVU
The Law & Order franchise is a well-known AAA affiliate of Hollywood, with future stars and rehabilitating known quantities passing through. Long before she and George Clooney exuded the sexiness of wisdom in Up In The Air, Vera Farmiga was the frazzled daughter of a convicted murderer, sporting very straight bangs and no alibi. Future Little Miss Sunshine nominee Abigail Breslin had the honor of being kidnapped by Lea Thompson in a 2004 SVU episode, only to see Thompson then represented by future nominee Viola Davis. Most infamously, before shaving off her eyebrows for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara was brutally assaulted by two overweight teens in a 2006 SVU episode. Mara later called the experience “so awful” and “so stupid.” When America, which loves its stories of humble beginnings and lurid sexual crime equally, responded poorly, Mara said she was taken out of context and that SVU’s plots emulate life, declaring, “Humanity is ridiculous.”
35-plus. Too numerous to count, The Twilight Zone
One of the pleasures of an old anthology series is seeing so many stars at the beginning of their careers. Sadly, this never seems to help sell a new anthology series to viewers. The Twilight Zone cast some 15 future Oscar acting nominees in speaking roles, almost all of them men. (Series creator Rod Serling was not known for developing three-dimensional female characters.) Some got extravagant, shouting roles, such as Hoosiers nominee Dennis Hopper as an American neo-Nazi in the heavy-handed “He’s Alive.” Others got more sympathetic, Oscar-baitish characters, such as Tender Mercies winner Robert Duvall as a shy mama’s boy obsessed with the figures in a dollhouse in “Miniature.” And a few were just lucky enough to be cast in an especially well-remembered episode—most notably The Last Picture Show winner Cloris Leachman as the terrified mother of omnipotent bad seed Anthony Fremont in “It’s A Good Life.” The most auspicious guest shot may have been The Sting nominee Robert Redford as a wounded policeman taken in by a suspicious old woman in “Nothing In The Dark.” Redford’s task is basically to look gorgeous; in The Twilight Zone Companion, Marc Scott Zicree writes that he “performs with all the emotion of a male mannequin—which he strongly resembles.” But the episode foreshadows Redford’s image as a matinee idol “to die for,” and it’s easy to see why it would get the attention of casting directors.