The major film debuts of movie stars (2024)

Everybody has to start somewhere. That’s certainly true for actors, who all have their first roles. Sometimes it’s a pretty notable one that becomes a part of film lore. Other times, TV stars transition into becoming film actors, so people already knew them when they made their debuts. Many times, though, actors who are big names now got starts in small roles. You didn’t know them then, but you certainly know them now. Here are some of the first film roles of some of today’s stars.

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Jeff Goldblum

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Goldblum is a quirky, engrossing actor, but he can bring the menace if he wants. Sure, these days he’s the weirdo on talk shows or playing jazz piano, but he was a terror in his first film. “Death Wish” is a dark, disturbing revenge film, and Goldblum plays a member of the violent gang that sparks Charles Bronson into action. Watch Goldblum in action, and you’ll never look at him the same way.

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Matt Damon

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“Mystic Pizza” is the movie that made Julia Roberts a star. (We’ll get back to her later.) It was more than that, though. It was also the first movie for Damon. A few years would pass until he got his first significant role in “School Ties,” and then of course in 1997, “Good Will Hunting” happened.

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Tom Hanks

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Hanks is the nicest man in Hollywood, right? He’s almost always playing a hero. The dude played Sully! Would you believe that in his film debut he played a killer in a slasher movie? Yes, in 1980 Hanks played the villain in “He Knows You’re Alone.” He then got his gig on “Bosom Buddies,” and the next time he was in a film he made “Splash” and his good-guy status was established.

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Tom Cruise

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We’re moving from one superstar named Tom to another. The movie “Endless Love” is remembered for two things: One, the title song by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, which became a No. 1 hit; and two, it being Cruise's film debut. He had a small role as “Billy.” Interestingly, the male lead, Martin Hewitt, also made his debut in “Endless Love.” His career went in a different direction than Cruise’s.

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Nicole Kidman

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In 1983, Kidman starred in the goofy crime comedy “BMX Bandits” in her native Australia. No really, she’s the lead of a movie called “BMX Bandits,” and she rides a bike and everything. However, literally one week earlier another movie, “Bush Christmas,” came out in Australia. That’s technically Kidman’s first role, but “BMX Bandits” is just so much more fun to talk about.

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Brad Pitt

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Pitt probably felt a little like Cliff Booth in 1987. He appeared in four films but in small uncredited roles. Technically his first film was “Hunk,” a cheesy comedy where he plays “guy at beach with drink.” His first role where he was actually credited is in the film “The Dark Side of the Sun,” which came out the next year.

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Susan Sarandon

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Most of these actors had small roles in their debuts. Sarandon was the female lead in “Joe.” The movie is a dark ‘70s drama about a guy who falls in with Peter Boyle’s Joe, an unhinged man with a violent hatred of hippies. Unfortunately for the man, his daughter, Melissa, is a bit of a hippy, and she happens to be played by Sarandon.

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George Clooney

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The early days of Clooney’s career have been well discussed at this point. Clooney would pop up in TV show after TV show, and he has some, shall we say, interesting films on his resume as well. You probably know that he appeared in “Return of the Killer Tomatoes,” but before that he was in another horror sequel, “Return to Horror High.”

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Kevin Costner

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Apparently Costner has always had an affinity for baseball movies. Before “Field of Dreams” or “Bull Durham” there was “Chasing Dreams,” a movie about a teenager who discovers a talent for baseball. However, it’s not Costner in that lead role. Instead, he plays the older brother.

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Benicio Del Toro

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Maybe you’ve heard this one before, but it’s still a good story. After all, how often does somebody get to have a first role like “Duke, the Dog-Faced Boy?” Not only that, but it was in a Pee-wee Herman movie. Del Toro made his debut in “Big Top Pee-wee,” the sequel to “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”

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Arnold Schwarzenegger

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Sometimes, you are hired for your look as opposed to your acting talent. Schwarzenegger has been a massive mound of muscles for years, which is how he ended up playing Hercules in the 1969 film “Hercules in New York.” He was a total unknown and in fact was billed as “Arnold Strong.” On top of that, his voice was dubbed due to the thickness of his accent. It would be another eight years before he even appeared in “Pumping Iron,” let along begin his acting career in earnest.

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Chris Pine

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In 2001, Anne Hathaway made her film debut in “The Princess Diaries.” However, she had already starred in the FOX sitcom “Get Real” at that point, so some people may have recognized her. Pine had only a couple of guest spots, on shows like “CSI: Miami,” when he played the love interest for Hathaway in “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.”

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Mark Wahlberg

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Wahlberg could have easily ended up a punchline. After all, he rose to fame as an underwear model and the frontman of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Who would have thought that he would turn out to be a talented actor? However, he didn’t jump right into film stardom. His first appearance in a movie was in a small role in the forgotten Danny DeVito comedy “Renaissance Man.”

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Leonardo DiCaprio

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We all know Johnny Depp’s first role was in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” He’s not the only matinee idol to start in a horror movie. Although, DiCaprio doesn’t have quite the same cache in his role. Leo appeared in “Critters 3” as Josh. Granted, that was a direct-to-video movie, so if you don’t want to include that then we move to his small role in “Poison Ivy.”

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Melissa McCarthy

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There are quite a few names in Doug Liman’s “Go” who have gone on to bigger or better things: Katie Holmes, Timothy Olyphant, Jane Krakowski and, of course, McCarthy. Years before her breakthrough role in “Bridesmaids” that turned her into a star, McCarthy had a small role in “Go.” This was before she even appeared in “Gilmore Girls.”

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Chris Pratt

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“Strangers With Candy” is a cultishly adored TV show that aired on Comedy Central. It was created by the brilliant comedy minds of Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello and some guy named Stephen Colbert. Eventually a movie was made out of the show, though it did largely flop, even by cult standards. Hey, at least it featured a future star in Pratt in the role of “Brason.”

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Channing Tatum

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Remember in “21 Jump Street” when there were all the jokes about Tatum looking way too old to be a teenager in high school? Well maybe that was coming from his own personal experience. Tatum made his movie debut as a member of the basketball team in 2005’s “Coach Carter.” He was 25 at the time.

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Elizabeth Banks

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Technically “Elizabeth Banks” made her film debut in “Wet Hot American Summer.” That’s because it was the first role in which she was credited by that name. Before that, she was Elizabeth Maresal Mitchell in “Shaft” and technically made her debut in a small independent film called “Surrender Dorothy” where she was billed as Elizabeth Casey.

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Will Smith

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Smith was already a star when he made his film debut thanks to his music career and “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” However, do you know what his first movie was? This is largely an unknown bit of trivia. Nope, it wasn’t “Bad Boys.” It wasn’t even “Six Degrees of Separation.” Instead, it was the 1992 ensemble film “Where the Day Takes You.” The drama had quite the cast, including Sean Astin, Dermot Mulroney, Ricki Lake and Christian Slater among others.

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Jack Black

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Tim Robbins wrote, directed and starred in “Bob Roberts,” a political satire about a conniving striver who takes on the guise of being a folksy country singer to try and score points with the general public. Think “A Face in the Crowd,” but more heavy handed. Roberts has some big fans, of course, and a young Black plays one who will do what it takes to support Bob.

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Denzel Washington

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Washington rose to fame on the medical drama “St. Elsewhere,” but his film debut actually came before he threw on the white coat and stethoscope. He actually co-stars in 1981’s “Carbon Copy,” in which he plays George Segal’s son. Yes, Segal is white, and that’s sort of the point of the movie. It’s a little weird and heavy handed, but at least somebody recognized that Washington had future stardom in his veins.

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Ryan Reynolds

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Oh, Canada. Reynolds got his start in his native land long before “Deadpool” or even before he hung out with a guy and a girl at a pizza place. After a few episodes on a Canadian TV show called “Fifteen,” he made his debut in the 1993 Canadian flick “Ordinary Magic.” His first time outside the realm of the Great White North wouldn’t come until 1997 when he had a role in the forgotten comedy “The Alarmist.”

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Sandra Bullock

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“Love Potion No. 9” was the first time Bullock made an impact, and of course “Speed” made her a star. However, her first film came way back in 1987. She played Lisa Edwards in a thriller called “Hangmen” that did not make much of an impact. The movie also features Jake LaMotta, the boxer played by Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull,” in an acting role.

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Julia Roberts

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You might think that Roberts made her debut in “Mystic Pizza.” Not quite! Slightly earlier in 1988, Roberts technically made her first appearance in “Satisfaction.” Justine Bateman starred as the leader of an all-woman rock band, and Roberts played the bass player.

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Jennifer Lawrence

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In 2010, Lawrence got a ton of attention and critical love for her starring turn in “Winter’s Bone.” It was a clear indication of a future star. This was not her first movie, though. Although, you probably didn’t see her small role in “Garden Party” in 2008. You also probably didn’t see her as the daughter on “The Bill Engvall Show,” which aired for 30 episodes around the same time.

Chris Morgan is a sports and pop culture writer and the author of the booksThe Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000andThe Ash Heap of History. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisXMorgan.

The major film debuts of movie stars (2024)
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