Before we start, let me preface this by saying I intentionally omitted sketch comedy shows from this list. In my mind, sketch shows like Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show and The Sid Caesar Show are supposed to be launchpads for budding talent. We could have a separate list for this category to cover the many great sketch shows throughout television history that launched careers. But that’s not what we’re covering in this list.
I’m focusing strictly on films television and music that, intentionally or not, were incubators of talent and unforeseen future success long before any of those who were involved were A-listers. Perhaps it was pure coincidence, but I’d like to think these projects are what got them noticed and kickstarted their massive success.
School Ties (1992)
Put it this way: Matt Damon was a supporting actor in this Brendan Fraser vehicle. I think we know how he’s done since then. School Ties, a 1960s boarding school period piece, featured a slew of young, male actors who would go onto bigger things. While it’s easy to forget, Fraser’s star hadn’t risen yet, prior to this movie. He would go onto become a 90s actions movie star in the Mummy flicks as well as play a major role in the 2004 Academy Award winning film, Crash.
Who else was in School Ties? Chris O’Donnell, Ben Affleck and Zeljko Ivanek, to name a few. Ivanek certainly didn’t rise to the level of movie stardom like Affleck and O’Donnell, but this film was really the starting point of a long and ongoing career for Zeljko as the wormy guy you hate in virtually every TV show created. And it all started in School Ties.
As for Affleck and O’Donnell, think about this: they would go on to play Batman and Robin in separate franchises of the DC Comics characters. Who saw that coming???
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
This classic is somehow forgotten in the pantheon of 80s high school movies; probably because it’s not a John Hughes film. Nevertheless, Fast Times may be the best of that era, of that genre. It’s not a stretch to say it launched the careers of Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold and Jennifer Jason Leigh. But start poking around the supporting cast and you stumble across a couple of Oscar winners: Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage, along with Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards and Taylor Negron.
Lest we forget its writer, Cameron Crowe. This was his maiden voyage. And oh yeah, you might’ve heard about a certain scene involving Phoebe Cates and a red bikini.
American Graffiti (1973)
The cast, at the time, boasted a few working actors and maybe one or two known commodities. Sure, everyone knew Ronny Howard (yes, that’s how he was billed) as Opie on the Andy Griffith Show, but this was one of his first “grown-up” roles. I think we know how it turned out for him.
And oh yeah, who co-wrote and directed American Graffiti? George Lucas. His next film was Star Wars. Gotta wonder if he even gets to make that movie if American Graffiti isn’t a hit.
N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton (1988 Ruthless Records)
Twenty-seven years ago almost to the day, this groundbreaking hip hop album was released. It is not hyperbole to suggest it changed everything. When N.W.A. burst on the national scene in 1988, they were “gangsta rap.” They were real-life street kids who turned their experiences into a monster-selling album. They were dangerous. And people couldn’t get enough of them.
Without N.W.A., there is no hip hop scene like we see today. True, N.W.A. wasn’t the first hardcore rap act to break out, but they busted down the door and everyone followed behind them.
Beyond the music industry influence, look at where founding members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are today. One is a successful actor and film producer and the other is an executive with Apple and is widely regarded as one of the best music producers in the business. Nobody saw any of that coming the first time they heard Straight Outta Compton.
As a hip hop act, N.W.A. was short-lived; splintering apart and eventually breaking up in 1991. There were public feuds in the intervening years (which largely came to a halt when founding member Eazy-E died in 1995), but N.W.A. as an act were pretty much done. Their collective time as a group was brief, compared to other influential music artists, but there’s no denying Straight Outta Compton is the birth mother of Cube’s and Dre’s careers as well as an entire genre of music.
Mean Streets (1973)
Alternate title: When Marty met Bobby. Unlike other projects mentioned here, Mean Streets does not boast a plethora of young actors and actresses who broke out after this film’s release. But Mean Streets is pivotal because it was the first time a budding young director named Martin Scorsese worked with an actor by the name of Robert DeNiro. Truly, the rest is history.
Scorsese and DeNiro have combined for some of the greatest American films of the 20th century, and it all started with Mean Streets. What came next?
Taxi Driver. Raging Bull. Goodfellas. Cape Fear. Casino.
It is not an overstatement to call Scorsese the greatest living American filmmaker and DeNiro the greatest living American actor. Their résumés—both collective and individual—speak to that. But their greatness is not defined solely within their work. They, too, have elevated the careers of many other actors and filmmakers over the years. Undoubtedly, Joe Pesci, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sharon Stone, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco and many, many more have benefited from working with Scorsese and/or DeNiro. And the flashpoint for it all was Mean Streets. Oh yeah, do you know who else was in that movie? A guy named Harvey Keitel. I wonder if he ever went on to do anything substantial.
Freaks and Geeks (1999 – 2000)
Initially, I was going to say Knocked Up was the launchpad, but it wasn’t. Before Judd Apatow and co. went on to massive careers after that 2007 comedy movie, there was Freaks and Geeks; a canceled-too-soon TV show that gave birth to many successful Hollywood careers. Apatow wrote and directed several episodes. We know the rest of his story. But what about the cast? Jason Segal, James Franco and Seth Rogan all have become Hollywood A-listers. Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, Samm Levine, Busy Phillips and Martin Starr all have found steady work on a slew of highly successful television shows.
No matter how well everyone continues to do, Freaks and Geeks fans still feel cheated out of what could’ve been a great series.