Long before Bette Midler sang her way through "Beaches" or Sigourney Weaver blasted monsters in "Aliens," they and their peers were paying their dues in tiny screen roles. True, there is the occasional star who began his or her film career on top, such as Warren Beatty and Kathleen Turner, but most actors have had to claw their way up.
There's nothing wrong with starting at the bottom. In fact, most of us have done just that. The difference here is that an actor's beginnings are a matter of public record, something we can dig up and closely examine. The actor's first screen smile, kiss and sometimes appearance in the buff are often available for the price of a video rental.
It is with this in mind that we'd like to stroll through the pasts of a handful of today's top stars, recalling roles so unique you'll never forget them.
To begin, let's look at Tom Cruise, Hollywood's current box-office king. Sure, he looked great in his early role in "Days of Thunder," yet just a decade ago he was merely another teen-ager searching for work. The next time you're desperate for something to watch (and we do mean desperate), rent the abominable "Endless Love," starring Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt. You'll be able to glimpse a pudgy, boyish Mr. Cruise in his feature debut, appearing ever so briefly as Mr. Hewitt's best friend.
On the action front, there can be no denying that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the reigning giant. When thinking back, most fans believe that Mr. Schwarzenegger's career began with the action opus "Conan the Barbarian."
You have to go back even further than the 1976 Bob Rafelson comedy "Stay Hungry" to a seldom-seen European adventure titled "Hercules in New York." Although Mr. Schwarzenegger did earn the title role in his feature debut, he discovered that the film's producers were troubled by his Austrian accent. Subsequently, when you rent the movie, you'll find that Arnie has been dubbed with a voice that is decidedly more American.
Jack Nicholson also found himself in a starring role in his film debut, yet unlike pal Warren Beatty, who turned up in the top movies of his day, Mr. Nicholson appeared in a Grade-Z quickie that was shown in drive-ins. The truly awful Roger Corman-produced "Cry Baby Killer" was shot in a matter of days and stars Mr. Nicholson as a deranged juvenile delinquent. It's interesting to note that even back then he was typecast as a lunatic.
Although Michael J. Fox often claims that 1984's "Teen Wolf" was his film debut, he seldom (if ever) acknowledges that he was a featured actor in the 1980 Walt Disney comedy "Midnight Madness." This idiotic comedy, which served as Disney's first stroll into PG-rated material, focused on a group of college students involved in a scavenger hunt. Mr. Fox appears as David a Pepper" Naughton's younger, chubby, computer geek brother.
Harrison Ford is certainly one of the wealthier actors working today (thanks to his profit-sharing roles in the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" series), yet 20 years ago, he worked as a carpenter. You'll have to look fast to catch him in his first screen role, a 1966 James Coburn crime drama titled "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round."
Richard Dreyfuss first turned heads in George Lucas' 1973 nostalgic comedy "American Graffiti," appearing as a high school senior obsessed with a beautiful blond. But Mr. Dreyfuss' true screen debut was in a film that made another top-rated actor, Dustin Hoffman, into a star. That film was "The Graduate," and if you look carefully, you'll spot Mr. Dreyfuss as Mr. Hoffman's buddy in a Berkeley rooming house.
Two-time Oscar nominee Sigourney Weaver has the distinction of having Woody Allen's Oscar-winning "Annie Hall" as her first film. However, if you're looking for her to turn up as an ex-wife or even in a speaking role, you'll be sorely disappointed. Instead, even if you look very closely at the end, you still won't be able to distinguish her as Mr. Allen's date standing outside a movie theater showing "The Sorrow and the Pity" (the camera is too far away). Indeed, the only way you can identify Ms. Weaver is by reading her name in the credits.
Multiple Oscar nominee Robert Duvall has always been known as an actor capable of disappearing into a role. As perfect evidence of this fact, you need look no further than his first film, the classic "To Kill a Mockingbird." Interestingly enough, Mr. Duvall plays a pivotal role in the movie, yet you must look hard for him if you're watching the film. The part? He's the mysterious Boo Radley.
Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa skyrocketed him to stardom in 1967. Yet, only six years before the actor/writer/director won an Oscar for best screenplay, Mr. Stallone was debuting his well-known pecs in a soft-core porno film titled "A Party at Kitty and Stud's," which was later renamed "The Italian Stallion."
Many people believe that film editors cut out actor Kevin Costner's film debut in "The Big Chill" (his part as the pal who commits suicide was omitted from the final screen version). However, Mr. Costner had already appeared in a movie some nine years earlier, starring in that beach-party epic "Sizzle Beach U.S.A." Pay close attention and you'll spot Mr. Costner as one of the many kids catching a tan.
Leading comic actor Tom Hanks has come a long way from his starring role in TV's "Bosom Buddies," even earning an Oscar nomination two years ago as the boy who became "Big." Still, his film debut was nothing to crow about: The actor appeared as a slice-and-dice victim in "He Knows You're Alone."
On the opposite side of the coin, Jeff Goldblum has the distinction of first appearing as a rapist in "Death Wish." He's the street punk whose actions cause Charles Bronson to turn into a gun-wielding vigilante.
And yet, as poorly as these men fared in their screen debuts, it seems some actresses have done even worse. For example, both Nancy Allen and Sissy Spacek had the dubious honor of appearing as prostitutes in their screen debuts -- Ms. Allen appearing in the terrific "The Last Detail," while Ms. Spacek showed up in the crime melodrama "Prime Cut."
And while Rebecca De Mornay's claim to fame came as Tom Cruise's hooker lover in "Risky Business," her first screen appearance came a year earlier as a girl who asks for waffles in the Francis Ford Coppola musical "One From the Heart."
Rachel Ward's first screen appearance came as a young woman brutalized by a psychotic killer in "Night School," while Darryl Hannah shows up as a teen-ager terrorized by Amy Irving's telekinetic powers in "The Fury."
If you look carefully at the rock and soul documentary "The Show," you'll spot a decidedly unsexy Teri Garr as a go-go dancer.
To most, Bette Midler made her screen debut in "The Rose," the drama based in part on the life of Janis Joplin. However, if you watch the 1966 drama "Hawaii," you can spot Ms. Midler as a passenger on the Hawaii-bound ship.
Meanwhile, Michelle Pfeiffer scored her film debut in a truly dreadful 1980 drama titled "Falling in Love Again," in which she appeared as a younger version of actress Susannah York.
Inevitably, one must wonder what the lesson is here. You'll find it's an easy one to remember: Quite simply, if you're going to appear in a movie and your role is an embarrassing one, you better make certain that you never become a star, or somebody will dig it up later.
+ Los Angeles Times Syndicate