Actors often have to work a long time before hitting it big. And that’s assuming they hit it big at all. Sometimes, they can’t get steady film work and turn to TV. Still other times, they’re drawn to TV. But before they gain major roles on high-quality TV shows, they’re bound to have a lot of little-known work under their belt. Here are some examples from several of my favorite shows:
Known as: Wu, Deadwood
Early Role: A talking fish on The Simpsons
Young’s IMDb page lists him as “Fish” from the “30 Minutes Over Tokyo” episode of The Simpsons. The family is stuck working in the Osaka Seafood Concern, ripping open fish, when a magical talking fish implores Bart, “Spare my life, and I will grant you three…” just before Bart rips it open. That voice was provided by Wu.
Known as: Jewel, Deadwood
Early Role: Jewell, Facts of Life
Jewell is noteworthy enough as the first actor with cerebral palsy to appear in a TV series. She ultimately reprised the role of a character with cerebral palsy on Deadwood while taking on a whole lot of abuse from Al Swearingen.
W. Earl Brown
Known as: Dan Dority, Deadwood
Early Role: Warren, There’s Something About Mary (1998)
This is the one that inspired the whole list last week when my friend Marty pointed it out. Brown eventually became Swearingen’s second in command on Deadwood, but not before playing Warren, Mary’s mentally challenged brother.
Vincent Pastore, Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico
Known as: Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, Christopher Moltisanti, and Paulie “Walnuts” Gaultieri, The Sopranos
Early Role: Goodfellas (1990)
It’s impossible to watch Scorsese’s epic gangster film without noticing many, many cast members of The Sopranos. Lorraine Bracco is the obvious one, and that’s why I left her out. Pastore (Bonpensiero) appears very briefly early in the film, rolling a cart through a restaurant. Sirico played Tony Stacks, also early in the film. And Imperioli was forever immortalized as Spider, the kid who got shot in the foot by Joe Pesci’s character. It’s worth noting that Imperioli also appeared in Malcolm X and several other early Spike Lee films.
Known as: Junior Soprano, The Sopranos
Early Role: Johnny Ola, The Godfather: Part II (1974)
If you’re like me, then you’ve seen the second Godfather film many times. And you’ve probably never put two and two together. Johnny Ola, Hyman Roth’s muscle, was played by the guy who would become Tony Soprano’s meddlesome, doddering old Uncle Junior. Once you see it, you will never unsee it.
Known as: Debora Morgan, Dexter
Early Role: Lisa, White Chicks (2004)
You can certainly be forgiven for not recognizing this one. Because if you’re like the overwhelming majority of the rest of the world, you didn’t see White Chicks. I know I didn’t.
Known as: Gus Fring, Breaking Bad
Early Role: Buggin’ Out, Do the Right Thing (1989)
It blew my mind when I first realized this, because I had only known him as Gus, the nefarious Chicken Man. He plays such a cold, ruthless, calculating character that I never would’ve figured out that he was Buggin’ Out.
Known as: Skyler White, Breaking Bad
Early Role: Amy, Seinfeld
She took her turn on Seinfeld as- what else?- one of Jerry’s girlfriends. George believes that he caught her kissing Jerry’s cousin, although the information is suspect because he wasn’t wearing his glasses at the time.
Known as: Mike the Cleaner, Breaking Bad
Early Role: Gunderson, Airplane! (1980)
Again, this can easily be forgiven because the movie is so old, and Banks has gotten much older. But there he is in all his glory as the flight controller.
Known as: Hank Schrader, Breaking Bad
Early Role: Tony, Total Recall (1990)
If you don’t recall the character “Tony” from Total Recall, he was the guy with a horrifying wrinkly vagina on his face. COOOOHAAAAGEN!! DEES PEOPLE NEED AYUH!
Known as: Mags Bennett, Justified
Early Role: “Plump Ogallala Tart” (Buffalo Heifer), Lonesome Dove (1989)
When the gang rolls into Ogallala, Nebraska, they enter a brothel where they’re greeted by several prostitutes. One of them is Margo Martindale, and she’s listed in the credits only as “plump Ogallala tart”. Bonus points if you also recognize Mags/Martindale as the Dexter character with the deadly affinity for key lime pie.
Known as: Jimmy McNulty, The Wire
Early Role: Jerus Jannick, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
This one makes me laugh more than all of the others combined. Poor McNulty, the Irish American bloodhound drug cop from the gritty Baltimore streets, had to play a throwaway character in the crappiest Star Wars movie. Good for him as an actor, finding better work. Much, much, much, much better work.
Known as: Joan Holloway, Mad Men
Early Role: Saffron, Firefly
I don’t think I needed to include this one because there are enough sci-fi nerds floating around out there that the info is reasonably well-known. Truthfully, I included this one solely for an excuse to use a picture of Christina Hendricks/Joan Holloway, or as she’s known amongst a few friends of mine, Boobasaurus Rex.
Known as: Mayor Royce, The Wire
Early Role: Roy Hanson, Gremlins (1984)
Turman was perfect as the conflicted and corrupt mayor of Baltimore on The Wire. But before that, a long time before that, he played the science teacher in Gremlins.