Huge Actors You Didn’t Know Started Out In Completely Embarrassing Movies
Ah, the dream life of the actor: living in mansions, driving luxury sports cars, getting decked out in wardrobes full of the most expensive clothes you didn’t even have to pay for – and, of course, taking only the best roles in only the most prestigious movies.
Of course, we call this ‘living the dream’ for a reason: it’s pretty far removed from reality. Some actors make it all the way to the top of their game (regardless of whether they stay there that long), but very few of them manage to do so without appearing in the odd embarrassing movie along the way.
Take the following stars, and the less-than auspicious roles that first brought them into the limelight…
Steve McQueen in The Blob
Thanks to such movies as The Great Escape, Bullitt and The Getaway, the late, great Steve McQueen has long been synonymous with cool.
However, like many a jobbing actor, the American screen legend didn’t make it to the top overnight, and spent much of his early career in the 1950s in TV bit parts.
McQueen didn’t land a movie role, in fact, until 1958’s gooey creature feature The Blob, in which he plays a teenager trying to save his town from the man-eating jelly that has just burst forth from a fallen meteorite.
While often revered as a genre classic, in truth The Blob is a pretty dull and silly B-movie, which wouldn’t be very memorable were it not for the theme song, and the fact that McQueen is in it.
It doesn’t help matters that McQueen, aged 28 at the time, is clearly far too old for his role as a high schooler.
Michelle Pfeiffer in The Hollywood Knights
The 80s were good to Michelle Pfeiffer, as such films as Scarface, The Witches of Eastwick and Married to the Mob made her one of the most in-demand leading ladies of the time.
However, as a film debutante at the start of the decade, the young actress only had so many options available.
So it was that Pfeiffer’s first movie role was in 1980’s The Hollywood Knights, a largely forgotten frat boy comedy in the vein of Porky’s and Animal House.
The Hollywood Knights offers the standard melange of gross-out humour and gratuitous nudity, although happily in her supporting role Pfeiffer comes out with her dignity mostly intact.
Pfeiffer’s first leading role came two years later in Grease 2, after which the actress made a point of setting her sights a little higher.
Clint Eastwood in Revenge of the Creature
As both an actor and a two-time Oscar-winning director, few film industry figures have enjoyed so long and illustrious a career as Clint Eastwood.
However, long before he was known the world over as a big screen gunslinger, Eastwood got his first film role alongside an iconic movie monster – and you can see on his face how thrilled he was to be there…
1955’s Revenge of the Creature was the first sequel to Universal’s 3D horror hit The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and sees the mysterious humanoid amphibian brought back to a Florida aquarium for study.
A 24-year-old Eastwood has a small comic relief role as an assistant scientist named Jennings who has lost a lab rat, which he eventually locates in his coat pocket.
Later that year, Eastwood would reunite with Revenge of the Creature director Jack Arnold for a minor role in another creature feature, Tarantula.
Hilary Swank in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
As the only two-time Best Actress Oscar winner of the past 20 years – first for Boys Don’t Cry in 2000, second for Million Dollar Baby in 2005 – Hilary Swank may be the most acclaimed actress of her generation.
But we’ll be honest in saying that we would never have seen it coming based on where her acting career began.
Swank got her first role aged 18 in 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the teen horror comedy primarily remembered for being nowhere near as good as the TV series it inspired five years later.
Boasting mannerisms as garish as her hair and wardrobe, Swank portrayed Kimberly Hannah, bubble-headed cohort of Kristy Swanson’s cheerleader-turned-monster hunter.
Nor was Swank the only future Oscar winner to make an early appearance in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Ben Affleck also briefly pops up in the film as a basketball player.
Jeremy Renner in National Lampoon’s Senior Trip
Years before his Oscar nomination for The Hurt Locker and his worldwide fame as one of Marvel’s Avengers, Jeremy Renner made his beginnings in a regrettable teen comedy.
The actor got his first credit aged 24 in 1995 flop National Lampoon’s Senior Trip.
Looking every inch the grunge-era cliche, Renner starred as ‘Dags,’ one of those dim-witted bad boys that always appears in these kind of high school comedies.
Despite the once-prestigious ‘National Lampoon’s’ prefix, Senior Trip’s low-rent humour failed to curry favour with critics or audiences, and it sank without a trace.
Renner would continue to slog it out in bit parts and straight-to-video movies until his career finally started taking off after 2002’s Dahmer.
Margot Robbie in Vigilante
Since her breakthrough role in The Wolf of Wall Street, Australian actress Margot Robbie would seem to be living the classic Hollywood Cinderella story.
However, as she’s still young (29 at the time of writing), it wasn’t so long ago that Robbie made her movie debut in what was far from an A-list production.
The actress’s first role was in the little-seen 2008 Aussie action movie Vigilante.
Shot on a microscopic budget, the film casts Robbie as a young wife who is raped and murdered, sending her bereaved widower on a vengeful killing spree; and when we say young wife, we mean it, as Robbie was only 18 years old at the time.
Robbie made another film with Vigilante writer-director Aash Aaron, called ICU, the following year, before moving onto bigger things on TV’s Neighbours.
Arnold Schwarzenegger in Hercules in New York
Even though he’s been one of the most famous actors in the world for the last four decades, Arnold Schwarzenegger always was a very unlikely candidate for movie stardom.
With a surname that was hard to pronounce and an Austrian accent which was hard to decipher (for English-speaking audiences at least), pretty much all the Austrian Oak had going for him to start out with was his physique.
And so it was that, having made his name as a bodybuilding champion, Arnie made his film debut at 22 in 1969’s Hercules in New York.
As if the low budget, dim-witted production was not enough of an indignity already, the actor also found himself renamed Arnold Strong in the credits, while his dialogue was dubbed over by another actor.
It would be another seven years until Schwarzenegger finally got his big break proper in Stay Hungry, for which he won a Golden Globe. Then the 80s came along, and action hero status beckoned.
Courteney Cox in Masters of the Universe
Prior to her casting in TV’s Friends, Courtney Cox found fame as the girl Bruce Springsteen invites up on stage in his video for Dancing in the Dark.
Not too shabby for a career starter – although given the film role that Dancing in the Dark led to, Cox may count herself lucky for having an acting career at all.
After several TV roles, the actress landed her first big screen role in the 1987 movie adaptation of popular kids cartoon and toy line Masters of the Universe, which cast Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella as sworn enemies He-Man and Skeletor.
Many fans of the property were annoyed to see the low budget film took place almost entirely on Earth, with much of the spotlight given to Cox’s anxious teen Julie and her boyfriend Kevin (future Star Trek: Voyager actor Robert Duncan McNeill).
The film flopped hard, but Cox managed to bounce back – and as we’ll soon see, she isn’t the only Friends star with a less-than-stellar debut film to their name.
George Clooney in Grizzly II: The Concert
Few future superstars have had quite such a slow and arduous rise through the ranks as George Clooney.
Before finally hitting the big time in 1994 as Dr Ross in TV’s ER, Clooney spent well over a decade getting by in bit parts and B-movies.
Clooney’s first movie role was in 1983 horror movie Grizzly II: The Concert… and if you didn’t know there’d even been a Grizzly 1, you’re not alone.
Just to share the embarrassment, Grizzly II also gave Charlie Sheen his acting debut, as well as featuring an early role for Laura Dern.
Not that any of them should be too embarrassed, however, as thanks to some nefarious goings-on behind the scenes, Grizzly II was never officially released, the only available copies now being shoddy bootlegs.
Charlize Theron in Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest
As her career progressed, Charlize Theron would defy the usual ‘model-turned-actress’ stigma to become one of the most acclaimed movie stars of her generation.
Like so many others, the first acting work Theron was able to find was a small role in a horror movie, in her case the third instalment in the long-running film series inspired by Stephen King’s Children of the Corn.
So small was the 20-year old Theron’s role, she neither received a character name nor screen credit for her turn as a cult member in Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest.
Urban Harvest gave a debut film role to another notable performer: Nicholas Brendon, who would be cast in TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer the year following Urban Harvest’s release.
Theron followed this inauspicious debut with a small role in 1996 thriller 2 Days in the Valley, which significantly raised her profile.
Tom Hanks in He Knows You’re Alone
By the end of the 80s, Tom Hanks would have one Best Actor Oscar nomination to his name thanks to Big; not too long after that he’d have two consecutive wins for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump.
Way back at the start of the 80s, however, Hanks landed his debut film role in low budget 1980 horror He Knows You’re Alone.
This was but one of the many slasher movies produced around that time, cashing in on the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween two years earlier.
Hanks takes a supporting role in the film as a psychology student named Elliot – but, surprisingly given the genre, the character makes it to the end of the movie alive.
It seems the actor’s innate likeability was in evidence early on, as reportedly his character was originally going to be murdered, but the filmmakers found Hanks so endearing they changed their minds.
Sandra Bullock in Hangmen
After hitting the big time in Demolition Man and Speed, Sandra Bullock quickly climbed the ladder to become one of the best-loved stars of the 90s.
Back when she was on the first rung of that ladder, Bullock made her film debut in largely forgotten 1987 movie Hangmen.
A low budget spy thriller, the film cast 23-year-old Bullock as a hapless young woman who finds herself abducted by corrupt CIA agents.
As with a lot of Bullock’s earliest films, Hangmen was re-released to VHS and DVD in the 90s to capitalise on her subsequent success.
Although they wound up putting her face on the cover, Bullock is barely in the film, and doesn’t even make an appearance in the original trailer.
Jason Momoa in Johnson Family Vacation
Considering that Jason Momoa made his acting debut in TV’s Baywatch, the man knows all about cringe-worthy beginnings.
However, the future Aquaman’s big screen career didn’t get off to any less embarrassing a start thanks to 2004’s Johnson Family Vacation.
Cedric the Entertainer headlines the film as the patriarch of the Johnson family, Nate, who drags his unwilling brood on a cross-country road trip.
Momoa cameos as a casino employee instructed to dupe the family with a bogus tour of a Native American village.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the statuesque actor is served up primarily as eye candy to flirt with Mr Johnson’s daughter.
Cate Blanchett in Kaboria
As we’ve seen, cheesy B-movies tend to be a common starting point for future stars – but Cate Blanchett has never been one for taking the obvious route.
The Australian actress and future Oscar winner surprisingly made her screen debut in Kaboria, an Egyptian boxing movie released in 1990.
Blanchett was in her late teens and was backpacking through Egypt at the time, when she met a casting director for the film.
In need of a little money, Blanchett happily took a minor role as a cheerleader – an experience she later decried as “so embarrassing.”
The actress never saw the film but wryly remarked in 2014, “I’m sure it was a masterpiece.”
Tom Cruise in Endless Love
We doubt any readers need to be reminded just how kind the 80s were to a certain up-and-coming actor named Tom Cruise.
After he landed the lead role in 1986 blockbuster Top Gun, there was no holding Cruise back, and even to this day he shows little sign of slowing down.
Not that you’d necessarily expect that success, especially based on Cruise’s first film appearance aged 19 in 1981’s romantic drama Endless Love.
Given a small supporting role as soccer player Billy, Cruise has little do but somewhat overplay his largely thankless scenes.
Not that the film’s lead actors Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt came out of Endless Love looking much better; years later, the film is only really remembered because of Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s theme song.
Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun
The 1990s were kind to Jennifer Aniston – this was the decade that saw her attain international stardom in TV sitcom Friends, which retains its immense fanbase to this day.
However, prior to this Aniston got her big break in 1993’s Leprechaun, a cheesy schlock horror movie featuring a monstrous variation on the traditionally cute character from Irish folklore.
The movie launched a Leprechaun series which has to date reached eight instalments: the most recent, 2018’s Leprechaun Returns, centred on the daughter of Aniston’s character (though Aniston herself did not return).
Unsurprisingly, Aniston has a love-hate relationship with the movie, admitting it was “a big deal” for her at the time, although she can’t bear to watch it now.
The actress recalls once watching Leprechaun on TV “for s**ts and giggles” with her then-boyfriend Justin Theroux: “I tried to get that remote out of his hand and there was just no having it. He was like, ‘No, no, no, no, this is happening.’”
Jean-Claude Van Damme in Breakin’
By the end of the 80s, Belgian martial arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme was pretty close to the top of the action movie game, thanks to leading roles in beat-’em-up hits like Bloodsport, Cyborg, and Kickboxer.
Earlier in the decade it was a different story, though, and like anyone else in the movies Van Damme started out with no experience, looking to find any work he could get.
JCVD made his first notable appearance as an extra in 1984’s Breakin’ (AKA Breakdance: The Movie), standing in the background in a street dance scene.
While he has no dialogue, it’s hard not to notice Van Damme in the scene as he busts out some cringe-worthy moves whilst clad in an unflattering black unitard.
Bad dancing in a black unitard became a bit of a Van Damme signature, as he would later have a similarly cringe-inducing scene in his 1989 movie Kickboxer.
Mila Kunis in American Psycho 2
Today, we know her as the voice of Family Guy’s Meg, and the star of such hit movies as Black Swan, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Ted.
In her earlier days, though, Mila Kunis graduated from child actress to leading lady with 2002’s American Psycho II.
Originally entitled The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, the psychological thriller is a sequel in name only to 2000’s American Psycho, and wasn’t even given that title until immediately before production began.
Kunis has long since disowned the film, saying she regrets making it and admitting she was glad it went direct to DVD.
Presumably, Kunis just doesn’t want the world knowing she once massaged William Shatner’s shoulders.
Patrick Swayze in Skatetown USA
The late, great Patrick Swayze was one of the most beloved stars of the 80s and early 90s thanks primarily to Dirty Dancing, although roles in Red Dawn, Road House, Point Break and Ghost didn’t hurt.
Swayze’s first role, however, was in 1979’s Skatetown USA, one of a slew of low budget movies made around the time to capitalise on the roller disco craze.
Swayze stars in the film as the wonderfully-named Ace Johnson, a top skater caught up in a rivalry with another skater for the title of king of the rink.
According to Swayze’s widow Lisa Niemi, the actor was good-humoured about the role despite having no illusions as to the film’s quality.
Skatetown USA’s top-billed actor Scott Baio, however, says, “I have blocked that movie from my memory, it was so bad.”
Angelina Jolie in Cyborg 2
She may be Hollywood royalty as the daughter of Jon Voight, but Angelina Jolie still had to pay her dues to break through in the movies.
Years before she found worldwide fame and Oscar glory in Girl, Interrupted, Jolie landed her first leading role in 1993’s Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow, opposite Elias Koteas (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).
A weird sci-fi thriller with virtually no connection to the 1989 Van Damme movie it’s supposedly a sequel to, Cyborg 2 casts the then-unknown actress as a half-woman/half-machine designed to explode when she has sex.
Yes, it’s that kind of movie – and, were it not for the fact that it stars an 18-year old Jolie and features the future Lara Croft in a sex scene, it’s doubtful the film would be remembered at all.
As for Jolie’s own assessment of Cyborg 2, the actress says: “after I saw it, I went home and got sick.”
Sylvester Stallone in The Party at Kitty and Stud’s
Sylvester Stallone had been struggling to climb the Hollywood ladder for years before he finally reached the top with 1976’s Rocky.
Not long after that, some fairly humiliating moments from his past came back to haunt him – one of them in the form of 1970’s The Party at Kitty and Stud’s.
The film’s rights-holders wasted no time re-releasing the softcore sex film in the wake of Rocky, renaming it The Italian Stallion to cash in further, and spreading rumours that the film was in fact hardcore (it wasn’t).
Stallone and his people did all they could to suppress the film, but the actor seems to have made peace with that particular genie being out of the bottle long ago.
Stallone admits he took the film out of sheer desperation, and made a measly $200 from the two days it took to film.
Sharon Stone in King Solomon’s Mines
1992’s Basic Instinct would make Sharon Stone one of the most talked-about – and highest-paid – actresses around in the early 90s.
However, things weren’t quite so rosy for future Oscar nominee Stone a mere seven years earlier.
1985 Cannon Films production King Solomon’s Mines cast Stone opposite Richard Chamberlain in a cheap and corny rip-off of the Indiana Jones movies.
In a sad-but-funny twist, it turns out the actress landed the role quite by accident, after producer Menahem Golan requested ‘the Stone woman.’
Golan actually meant Kathleen Turner, star of Romancing the Stone – and he didn’t realise his mistake until King Solomon’s Mines was already in production.
Leonardo DiCaprio in Critters 3
Once Leonardo DiCaprio appeared opposite Johnny Depp in 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, he would quickly become one of the hottest young stars in the business.
Romeo + Juliet and box office mega-hit Titanic would follow soon after… but we all have to start somewhere.
In 1991, DiCaprio landed his first movie role in Critters 3, surely the weakest instalment in the low-rent little monster movie series.
The direct to video sequel casts DiCaprio as Josh, a youngster whose apartment building comes under attack by the carnivorous miniature aliens of the title.
While many of the actor’s subsequent works have been met with critical acclaim, this one currently sits on a big fat 0% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes (although that score is only based on 7 reviews).
Nicole Kidman in BMX Bandits
After 1989’s Dead Calm put her on Hollywood’s radar and 1990’s Days of Thunder brought her international recognition, Nicole Kidman became one of the most celebrated actresses of the 90s.
And it all began with 1983’s BMX Bandits, a low budget Australian kids movie which gave a 16-year-old Kidman her first leading role.
Directed by ‘Ozploitation’ maestro Brian Trenchard-Smith (responsible for such trashy delights as The Man From Hong Kong, Turkey Shoot and Dead End Drive-In), the film centres on a trio of BMX-mad teens who inadvertently cross paths with a criminal gang.
BMX Bandits is loaded with cheesy dialogue, eye-straining fashion statements and ridiculous BMX stunts – and as such, it’s actually a hugely entertaining film, but undeniably cringe-inducing.
If nothing else, Kidman’s baby face and curly ginger hair in the film are pretty far removed from the sleek Hollywood glamourpuss she would morph into later.
David Hasselhoff in Revenge of the Cheerleaders
Whether it’s for Knight Rider, Baywatch or his big-in-Germany pop music, every child of the 80s knows the name of The Hoff.
Years before all that, however, it was a 1976 low budget sex comedy that gave David Hasselhoff his first movie role.
Revenge of the Cheerleaders centres on the naughty adventures of a high school cheerleading squad, who battle to save the day when they uncover a shady business scheme is threatening their school.
The film (which in some territories bears the alternate title Caught With Their Pants Down) casts the Hoff as a high school basketball player named… er… Boner. Yes, really.
While it’s about as salacious as it sounds, the cast spend a surprising amount of time fully clothed performing choreographed dance routines – not that the Hoff comes out of those looking much better.
Meg Ryan in Amityville 3-D
While she seems to be semi-retired from acting these days, Meg Ryan was for many years one of the best-loved movie stars around.
Alas, like so many before her (and doubtless many more yet to come), Ryan got her first major role in a sub-par horror movie, in this case 1983’s Amityville 3D.
Ryan co-stars as a friend of Susan Baxter (Lori Loughlin, later of TV’s Full House), the daughter of the latest unfortunate family to movie into the most haunted house in America.
The third film in the long-running Amityville Horror franchise was one among a slew of films made during a short-lived revival of old school 3-D (most of them being third instalments: Jaws 3-D, Friday the 13th Part 3).
Even without the badly dated effects, it’s doubtful that Ryan or anyone else involved considers the film a particular career highlight.
Kevin Costner in Malibu Hot Summer
Kevin Costner is another movie star who was at the top of his game by the early 90s, particularly once he both directed and played the lead in the multi-Oscar winner Dances With Wolves.
However, barely a decade before that acclaimed 1990 hit, Costner made his first baby steps into the film industry with Malibu Hot Summer.
Alternatively known as Sizzle Beach USA, it’s nothing more than your standard, corny, low budget sex comedy under any title.
The film centres on a trio of lusty young women sharing a beach house for the summer, while Costner’s character works at a stud farm. Need we say more?
Though shot in the late 70s, the film was unseen until the mid-80s; unsurprisingly, its belated release was intended to cash in on the actor’s newfound fame.
Emilia Clarke in Triassic Attack
Thanks to Game of Thrones, Emilia Clarke has enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom – but it wasn’t so long ago she was just another newbie looking for a break.
So it was that the future Mother of Dragons nabbed her first film role in a mother of a turkey: the 2010 creature feature Triassic Attack.
The SyFy production centres on a small American town besieged by the skeletons of dinosaurs which have been magically brought back to life.
While Clarke may have later shared the screen with near photo-realistic dragons, no one’s in any danger of mistaking this film’s CGI creations for the real thing.
It can’t be all bad though, as Clarke went straight from Triassic Attack to playing Daenerys Targaryen, her only previous credits having been a short film and an episode of TV’s Doctors.
Jack Nicholson in The Cry Baby Killer
In the minds of most of us, the legend of Jack Nicholson began with his supporting turn in the groundbreaking 1969 classic Easy Rider.
However, Nicholson had been in the cinematic trenches for over a decade by that point, having built his career on B-movies, frequently collaborating with the king of low budget exploitation, Roger Corman.
Indeed, it was Corman as producer who gave Nicholson his very first movie role, as the lead in 1958’s ultra-cheap juvenile delinquent movie, The Cry Baby Killer.
As well as being Nicholson’s debut, the film also has the distinction of being the only film Corman made at the time which didn’t earn its money back at the box office.
Thought lost for decades, The Cry Baby Killer finally resurfaced in 2006 – not that we’d necessarily been missing out on much.
Helen Mirren in Herostratus
Betraying the conventional wisdom that actresses invariably get less work as they age, Helen Mirren has been an acclaimed star of stage and screen for over 50 years.
However, considering she’s now an Oscar-winning Dame of the British Empire, Mirren’s first film appearance is a bit of an eye-opener.
The actress’s screen debut was in Herostratus, a bizarre art house film that’s very much a product of the late 60s ‘swinging’ London.
Dressed up in a revealing showgirl outfit, a young Mirren performs a heavily voyeuristic sketch which, in an unexpected twist, turns out to be a rubber gloves commercial.
Still, as alarming as this might seem to modern eyes, Mirren has never expressed any embarrassment over the film, instead pointing out its satirical intent.