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Actors Who Were In The Right Place At The Right Time

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Vote up the luckiest stories of actors getting a career boost in unexpected ways.

One of the most famous stories about how a famous actor got discovered or landed their first break is the one about Lana Turner supposedly being spotted sitting on a stool at Schwab's drugstore. And while that story may not actually be true (instead, she supposedly was discovered at a malt shop across from Hollywood High School), it still illustrates the idea being in the right place at the right time can propel an actor's career. Even if, in some cases, the person may not have even been thinking of becoming an actor at the time of the lucky break.

From being spotted drunkenly dancing in a store to arguing with a bank teller to getting a call out of the blue from a famous actor who was a fan of their previous work, each of the actors listed below either was "discovered" or got an early break in their career in an unusual way.

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  • Jack Nicholson, Playing A Bit Part, Happened To Smile At The Camera In A Clip That Producer Robert Evans Was Watching To Scout Another Actor
    Photo: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever / Paramount Pictures

    Producer Robert Evans and Jack Nicholson's most well-known collaboration was the 1974 film Chinatown, which earned the actor the third of his eight Academy Award nominations for best actor. But the two men first met six years earlier, when Evans was the head of Paramount Pictures and the studio was looking for an actor to play the role of the main character's stepbrother in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

    As Evans told the audience at the AFI Life Achievement Award: A Salute to Jack Nicholson ceremony, he was actually watching a scene of another actor when he spotted Nicholson - who at the time was a relatively unknown actor:

    The casting director comes in and says, "We've found a new guy, the new James Dean. You've got to see him." We go to the screening room, we watch the film for about five minutes. And into the frame comes a guy, walks down, sits at the table, hands the James Dean guy an envelope, smiles at the girl, walks out. Doesn't say a word.

    I jump up and say, "That's the guy! You gotta find him!" 

    The casting director comes back, he says, "Forget it. His name is Jack Nicholson. He's some nut - he works for Roger Corman. He directs, he stars, he paints, he does bookkeeping. Forget him."

    But two weeks later, the studio head had a meeting with Nicholson and the latter's new agent. Evans recalled:

    We sit down, he talks for 15 minutes and I don't understand one thing he's saying. The only thing I see is this smile and the more he smiles, the more his eyebrow goes up. I say, "Let me tell you something kid. How'd you like to star opposite Barbra Streisand. I'm gonna pay you 10 thousand bucks for six weeks' work." He just smiles, he doesn't answer me.

    They eventually settled on a fee of $12,500. Evans recalled Nicholson - whom he referred to as “The Smile” - told him Evans didn't know how much getting the job would help the actor out and told the studio head he'd never forget it. And he never did.

  • Charlize Theron Got Into An Emotional Argument With A Bank Teller - And A Talent Agent Behind Her In Line Gave Her His Card
    Photo: 2 Days in the Valley / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

    Charlize Theron was 18 when she moved to Los Angeles to try and break into acting, supporting herself by waitressing and doing modeling jobs. One day, she went to cash a check from her latest modeling job, but the bank wouldn't cash it because it was from an out-of-state bank. 

    As Theron told Oprah Winfrey in a 2005 interview for O, The Oprah Magazine, she really needed the money, so she started pleading with the teller:

    I know [throwing a tantrum] is what people say, but I'm like, "It's survival, people." If I didn't cash that check, I wouldn't have had a place to sleep that night. I said to the teller, "You don't understand - please!" I was begging and pleading, and a gentleman came over and tried to help. I had to fill out a ton of paperwork and open an account, and I cashed the check.

    On her way out of the bank, the man who helped her handed her his card. It was John Crosby, an agent who represented John Hurt and Rene Russo. He told her if she was interested, he'd be her agent:

    I'd be unbelievably wrong to say there isn't such a thing as the right place, right time - luck. If I hadn't met John, I don't know what I would have done next. I had no idea how to get a manager. If I hadn't been in the bank that day, I honestly don't think I'd be here right now. There are so many talented actors who don't ever get the chance.

  • Harrison Ford Was Doing Some Carpentry Work In The Offices Where George Lucas Was Casting For 'Star Wars' When The Director Asked Him To Read For The Role Of Han Solo
    Photo: American Graffiti / Universal Pictures

    Harrison Ford is not only a famous actor, he is a skilled carpenter. And it is that talent - which Ford taught himself in order to try and support his family - that helped him get his first real break.

    Ford had moved to Hollywood to pursue a career as an actor, but in the mid-1970s his main job was as a carpenter. One day, he was doing some carpentry work in the offices where George Lucas was auditioning actors for Star Wars. As the director recalled in an interview with Leonard Maltin, he was auditioning actors in groups of five, and he was one person short to read for Han Solo. So he turned to Ford - who he had worked with previously when the actor played a small role in Lucas's film American Graffiti:

    I said, "Harrison, do you want to do this? Do you want to stand in and sort of read some parts against other parts so we can get through this thing?" He said yeah, and he started reading. And he read them better than anyone else did...

    In a 2014 Reddit "ask me anything" Q&A session, Ford admitted he thought he was only doing a favor for the director so he'd have five actors to audition for the role:

    I had helped George Lucas audition other actors for the principal parts, and with no expectation or indication that I might be considered for the part of Han, I was quite surprised when I was offered the part.

    Of course, Star Wars went on to be an enormous hit, turning the 35-year-old carpenter into a movie star. 

  • Joe Pesci Had Given Up Acting When He Got A Call Years Later From Someone Who Saw His Only Movie And Wanted Him To Play His Brother; That Someone Was Robert De Niro
    Photo: Raging Bull / United Artists

    Joe Pesci is an acclaimed actor who won a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance in Goodfellas. But his original goal was to have a career in music. The first film he appeared in was a low-budget crime drama called The Death Collector (1976). But after he wrapped that film, he had trouble finding acting work and ended up working as a manager at a restaurant in the Bronx called Amici's.

    In 1979, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese were in production on Raging Bull but were having difficulty finding an actor to play Jake LaMotta's (De Niro) younger brother Joey LaMotta. According to De Niro, Pesci was not their first choice for the role. But he had seen The Death Collector and loved Pesci's performance. He eventually suggested to Scorsese they cast Pesci in the role of Joey. The role turned out to be a composite of Joey and Jake's good friend Peter Savage and was greatly expanded from what it had been in the original draft of the script.

    When Pesci got the phone call from De Niro and Scorsese, he originally thought it was a joke. Of course, they were able to convince him they were serious, and he accepted the offer. He ended up earning his first Academy Award nomination for his performance.

  • Jennifer Lawrence Was Spotted At Age 14 While On A Vacation In New York City
    Photo: Winter's Bone / Roadside Attractions

    Jennifer Lawrence is an Oscar winner, earning the Academy Award for best actress for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook. But she is probably best known for playing Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games film series.

    Lawrence, who is originally from Kentucky, was discovered while on vacation. Then a 14-year-old, she was spotted walking around New York City's Union Square by a photographer who had connections in the fashion industry. As Lawrence said in an interview for ABC News:

    My mom gave him her number because she didn’t know that was potentially dangerous and creepy, and then he called and said modeling agencies wanted to meet with me. And I made up my mind in the cab ride, I was like, "Well, I’m only going to sign with a modeling agency if they’ll let me act." Which came out of nowhere... I was already negotiating.

    After doing some modeling and acting in commercials and as part of the cast in the television sitcom The Bill Engvall Show, her breakthrough role came when she was cast as a teenager living in poverty in the 2010 independent film Winter's Bone.

  • Charlie Hunnam Blew A Kiss To Someone While Drunkenly Christmas Shopping - Who Happened To Work On The Only TV Show In His Town
    Photo: Queer as Folk / Channel 4

    Charlie Hunnam is a British actor perhaps best known for playing Jackson "Jax" Teller on the FX series Sons of Anarchy. But his first acting job was in a BBC One teen drama called Byker Grove when he was just 17 years old.

    In a 2017 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Hunnam explained how flirting with a stranger while Christmas shopping resulted in him getting this first big break:

    I was discovered in a shoe shop... in JD Sports on Christmas Eve. [...] I was trying on some trainers for my brother, having a bit of a dance around - drunk, obviously - and there was a lady staring at me. So I blew her a kiss and gave her a little wink, and it turned out that she was the production manager for Byker Grove. She said, "I think you're quite lovely."

    I said, "I do, too!" And she invited me in and I did an audition and they gave me a part, which I haven't seen since I did it.

    His first major role came soon after when he was cast in the Channel 4 drama Queer as Folk.