Isn’t it strange watching celebrities in movies made before they got famous? Think of young Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape—who could’ve predicted he’d one day freeze to death in the ocean and enchant preteens around the world? Though his role was respectable, few other now-leading men have been as fortunate. Most of their entries into movies are probably as cringe-worthy for them as middle school yearbook photos are for us. But while the evidence of our journey toward adulthood is hidden in basements and attics, thanks to the wonders of the Internet (namely, IMDB), these celebrities’ rise to stardom is ours for the knowing—and ridiculing.
1. Johnny Depp, Nightmare on Elm Street
Before he became a superstar and the hottest pirate in history, Depp was a victim of Freddy Krueger, the infamous murderer with razor blades for fingers. Perhaps he inspired Depp’s slightly more famous role as Edward Scissorhands.
2. Benicio del Toro, Big Top Pee Wee
In 1988, del Toro played Duke the Dog-Faced Boy—a role that changed nobody’s life, did nothing for him as an actor, and made him look even more creepy—in the sequel to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
3. Jamie Foxx, Toys
I know I’ve seen this movie, but it was years ago and chances are I blocked it out for a reason. Unfortunately, that means I don’t recall Foxx’s riveting turn as “Baker,” but he probably prefers it that way.
4. George Clooney, Return to Horror High
He’ll always be Booker from Roseanne to me, but even before that mullet-happy role, he played Oliver in a horror movie about a serial killer on the loose at a high school. Maureen McCormick—that’s Marsha, Marsha, Marsha for those not in the know—had a part in this stinker as well.
5. Vin Diesel, Awakenings
Before he was driving fast and furiously and scaring people with his menacing stare and super-shiny dome, Diesel played a hospital orderly in Awakenings, that one movie with a vegetable-like Robert DeNiro.
6. Jake Gyllenhaal, City Slickers
He played Billy Crystal’s son in this 1991 cowboy comedy. Great movie, but it was definitely shot in the throws of Gyllenhaal’s puberty years. If being a star results in filmed evidence of my emergence into adolescence screened around the world, I’ll gladly revel in anonymity.
7. Matt Damon, Mystic Pizza
The 1988 movie that put Julia Roberts on the radar also featured a one-line part by Matt Damon. The line was, “Mom, do you want my green stuff?” Incidentally, IMDB also claims he’s watching a baseball game in 1989’s Field of Dreams, but that’s unconfirmed.
8. Jack Nicholson, The Cry Baby Killer
He played Jimmy Wallace, a teenager who thinks he’s killed two people. Doing a terrible horror movie must be a prerequisite for becoming a leading man in Hollywood.
9. Jean Claude Van Damme, Monaco Forever
The movie’s about a jewel thief staging a heist in Monaco and coming across problems along the way. I’m not sure what role Van Damme or his rippling biceps play, but IMDB calls his character, “Gay Karate Man.” ’Nough said.
10. Morgan Freeman, Who Says I Can’t Ride a Rainbow!
If Van Damme wins the award for best character name, Freeman nabs the best movie title award. You don’t even have to see the movie; just imagine Freeman’s deep voice demanding to know who’s denying him a rainbow ride. That’s entertainment aplenty.
Seeing the humble origins of these actors and knowing what mega-watt celebs they are now just proves how far hard work and determination can take you. It also proves that even the smallest parts in movies shouldn’t be discounted, since they could contribute to something bigger in the future. If anything, they at least helped cover rent.
Updated September 17, 2010