10 Surprising First Performances

March 13, 2015

No part is too small; after all, everyone has to start somewhere. Here are some examples of the roles in which some of Hollywood’s finest managed to get their proverbial foot in the door.

Before George Clooney graduated from high school, he carried a barrel in the background on the 1978 mini-series Centennial. Yes, he was an extra. Knowing how famous he is today, you’d think his talent and charisma would have soon been recognized by industry professionals. But it wasn’t till Clooney was in his thirties that he was cast in his breakthrough role as Dr. Doug Ross on the medical drama ER.

Elijah Wood modeled and appeared in local commercials when he was just starting out. In support of his career, his family moved to Los Angeles. This led to his first break, landing a part in Paula Abdul’s “Forever Your Girl” video when he was just eight years old.

Johnny Depp played in a garage band that was successful enough to open for the Talking Heads and the B-52s, but struggled to make ends meet for years. He found extra work in a few films, which lead to his first legitimate-but-gory role in Nightmare on Elm Street.

Owen Wilson co-wrote a short film version of Bottle Rocket. His writing partner was his friend Wes Anderson; they sent if to a family friend, screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, who sent it to producer Polly Platt, who in turn gave it to James L. Brooks, who famously gave them a five-million dollar budget for the film. While the film only pulled in one-million dollars, Wilson and Wes have continued to work together since then.

At the age of 12, Ben Affleck starred in the PBS educational series The Voyage of Mimi. Thousands of American middle school students have been required to watch the series in school, and do classwork based on the research and expeditions featured on the show.

Tom Hanks‘ moved to New York in 1979, where he landed his first role in the low-budget slasher film He Knows You’re Alone. It was a small supporting role, and the film was reviewed as having “innumerable technical flaws.” But Hanks soon landed a starring role in a TV movie Mazes and Monsters.

Matthew McConaughey appeared in TV commercials, and his first speaking role was for an Austin, Texas newspaper. He had a couple of cameos in Unsolved Mysteries. His film debut in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused in which he played a burnout forever searching for his high school glory put him on the map.

Action star Jean Claude Van Damme‘s first credit role was a brief appearance in the film Monaco Forever. His character is listed on the credits as “Gay Karate Man.”

Jack Black was in a commercial for the video game Pitfall at the age of 13.

Among Morgan Freeman‘s first roles was playing the part of “Easy Reader” on the children’s show The Electric Company. He used his deep, distinctive voice to teach kids grammatical rules.

For the most part, greatness has humble beginnings. And it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not so much where you begin, but where you’re going. If you have a vision for your career, think about it every day until it becomes real; crystalize it, burnish it, and honor it with your work. These are not empty platitudes, but living, breathing action words to bring about success. But only if you see it that way.

What was your first legitimate role in the entertainment industry? What did you learn? Was it humbling, or was it inspiring–or both? Please share!