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21 Movie Stars You Probably Didn’t Know Were TV Stars Before The Big Screen

My only hobby now is asking “what’s she from” while watching TV and movies. It’s all I have, for I am old. Old enough, in fact, to remember that the most famous movie stars in the world started on TV shows. Do you know how grueling that is? They had to actually perform in front of live studio audiences. Not on closed sets or cool locations that are shut down for the day so the actors don’t have to interact with any of the “poors.”

Sure, acting isn’t the same as “real” work the way bricklaying or blogging is. But, still, I respect these actors and actresses for paying their dues. They did the work. They memorized lines written by troll people who are doomed to write quips in the background for the rest of their lives. You know, my dream job.

In case you didn’t know, TV was a thing that used to be on. That’s it. You turned it on the way you turned on a faucet. Whatever came out was what you watched. You saw the tail end of a sitcom, then another one started right away. You spend hours with the cast of Cheers without knowing what the future held for their movie careers.

Here are famous actors who you didn’t realize got their start in TV:


1. Alec Baldwin started on a soap opera.

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Before 30 Rock, even before Beetlejuice, Alec Baldwin was on a soap opera called Knots Landing. The show aired on prime time and was a spin-off of Dallas. It followed the lives of couples who lived on a cul-de-sac. Interesting stuff. 

2. Pierce Brasnon was Remington Steele long before he was Bond.

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Pierce brought us the classiest Bond, and there was already buzz about him playing the role after his first big break on Remington Steele. The show was about a conman and thief who takes up the role of a made-up front for a female-founded detective agency. It sounds more complicated than it is. What a show!

3. John Travolta was on Welcome Back, Kotter.

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Travolta played Vinnie Barbarino on this 70s sitcom. It’s like a parody of a name. Was it a great show? I don’t know. But Garry Shandling wrote an episode, so there were great jokes on it. Travolta was later in Grease and Face/Off and maybe some other movies. I wouldn’t know.

4. Bruce Willis famously made the jump from Moonlighting to Die Hard and got a big paycheck for it.

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Bruce Willis was paid an unbelievable (at the time) sum of $5 million to jump from Moonlighting to Die Hard. Fun fact: contractually, the studio had to offer the role of John McClane to Frank Sinatra who played the character in an earlier movie. Luckily, for all of us, he said no.

5. The Secret World of Alex Mack on Nickelodeon introduced us to Jessica Alba.

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If you weren’t a child of the 90s, you probably missed this children’s show about a girl who could become the form and texture of mercury to hide from people or sneak under doorways. Whenever she reformed into her human body, she found herself to be nude. This was a big deal to me, an 8-year-old boy. What I failed to notice was Jessica Alba had a three-episode arc as a love interest of one of the guys on the show. I completely forgot.

6. George Clooney was in ER.

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George Clooney is a mega-famous actor. He probably turns down 10 projects a day. But before he was Ocean’s 11, he played a big role in Michael Crichton’s ER. Yes, I said Michael Crichton, the author of dinosaur books. He made this show based on his own experiences in the medical profession. People at it up. Thanks, in part, to this handsome man.

7. Long before Titanic, a young Leonardo DiCaprio showed up on Growing Pains.

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Leonardo DiCarpio was like any other child actor, but with better hair than most. The child actor caught a big break in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and never looked back. He turned down the lead in Boogie Nights to do Titanic, which was probably the better choice, though we could have gotten Leo in weirder roles earlier!

8. Johnny Depp was the star of 21 Jump Street.

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This man’s boyish appearance helped him book the role of a detective who goes undercover in a high school. It’s like Never Been Kissed but cool. Johnny Depp later went on to stardom and is possibly one of the weirdest people in showbiz.

9. Michelle Williams was the new girl in town on Dawson’s Creek.

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Before she took the lead roles in cool independent films, Michelle Williams was the girl next door who replaced the other girl next door which created all kinds of drama on Dawson’s Creek. The show was about the travails of high school kids in a small town.

10. Halle Berry started in a spin-off of ‘Who’s The Boss?’ called ‘Living Dolls.’

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The first African-American woman to win an Oscar (I can’t believe that’s true), Halle Berry got her start in a 1989 TV show about modeling. She later went on to make great movies and also Catwoman.

11. Robin Williams, a man who seemed to be from another planet, played an alien on Mork & Mindy.

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Robin Williams, the genie, the teacher, the therapist, the movie dad who Millennials feel actually raised them, got his big break as Mork the alien on a strange sitcom. One of the most energetic live performers ever, the people who saw him do stand-up knew it was only a matter of time before he was world-famous. Letterman saw him for the first time and thought, “Oh, I’m not funny. That guy’s funny.”

12. Shia LaBeouf was a Disney kid.

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As all child actors do, Shia turned out normal and well-adjusted. Sorry, wait. No. He was a super funny kid on the Disney Channel show Even Stevens, and he grew up into an insane actor who wore a bag over his head that said “I’m not famous anymore” after he was accused of stealing a whole movie from a cartoonist without paying or crediting the artist.