Actors We Saw In Kids' Movies Before We Knew They Were Legends

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Vote up the great actors you'll always remember for a family-friendly role.

Legendary actors are usually associated with the highbrow movies that made them famous, but at some point, many of these performers find their way into kids' movies, whether for easy cash, a public relations boost, or a genuine love of the genre or project. For many kids, these appearances are the first time they see famous actors on the screen. While adults probably associate James Caan with The Godfather, for example, few kids will have been exposed to Coppola’s bloody masterpiece. Instead, they’re more likely to remember the actor from the holiday movie Elf. These first glimpses of famous performers are powerful. For a generation of kids, legendary actor Michael Caine will always be associated with The Muppets Christmas Carol no matter how many times they see The Last King of Scotland or The Italian Job later in life. This is particularly true when famous actors create surprisingly excellent performances in kids' movies

There are a lot of great performances from prestigious actors in lighthearted family films, but which is most inextricably linked to its actor? Vote up the kid-friendly performances that will always spring to mind first when you think of the famous actors behind them.

  • It’s hard not to smile when Danny DeVito enters the frame. In movies such as Get ShortyRomancing the StoneLA Confidential, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he often plays jovial sidekicks who never fail to inject some pep and chuckles into even the most serious drama. His recurring role in the viciously dark TV comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has cemented his status as a beloved performer. In addition to his onscreen work, DeVito has also directed movies such as The War of the Roses and Hoffa, and produced many others, including Pulp FictionErin Brockovich, and A Walk Among the Tombstones. He’s even found success on the stage, receiving a Tony nomination for his Broadway debut in Arthur Miller’s The Price in 2017.

    As far as many kids are concerned, however, DeVito is inextricably linked to his 1996 performance as Mr. Wormwood in Matilda, an adaptation of the Roald Dahl book of the same name that DeVito also directed and produced. Matilda (Mara Wilson) is a kind-hearted child with a nasty family. When she discovers that her extraordinary intelligence extends to telekinesis, she uses her powers to make her life at home more bearable. As Matilda’s dad, DeVito is all bluster and slapstick, an unscrupulous car salesman whose intelligence is limited to a conniving instinct for scamming his customers. Even though Mr. Wormwood is verbally abusive toward his daughter, DeVito’s colorfully sleazy, silly performance is undeniably endearing.

  • Oscar winner Joe Pesci is one of Hollywood’s most reliable supporting actors. This may sound like damning with faint praise, but one look at his filmography will dispel any doubts about his skill as a performer. His roles in GoodfellasMy Cousin Vinny, the Lethal Weapon franchise, and Casino distinguished him as one of the best working character actors whose performances elevate every movie he's in. Throughout his career, he’s specialized in characters who are short-tempered and volatile, constantly on the lookout for a pretense to make things nasty. His “Funny how?” scene in Goodfellas in which he confronts Ray Liotta for calling him a “funny guy” may have single-handedly won him the Oscar that year, and showcases the lightning-fast agility as an actor to go from playful to deadly serious within seconds that makes him such a compelling screen presence.

    In Home Alone, he plays another tough guy, but this time for laughs. As one of the only movies he’s appeared in that isn’t rated R, it’s the first exposure many kids have of him. Pesci plays Harry, half of a burgling duo known as the Wet Bandits who are on a break-in spree in a suburban neighborhood. He and his buddy Marv (Daniel Stern) run out of luck when the next house on their list is occupied by eight-year-old Kevin (McCauley Culkin), who has been inadvertently left at home by his vacationing family. While Pesci may have gone out of his way to terrify Culkin both onscreen and off, he won over generations of kids who felt that maybe burglars aren’t so scary after all.

  • Even if you can’t picture James Earl Jones, you can almost certainly conjure a memory of his voice. From Darth Vader intoning “I am your father” in Star Wars to Mufasa reminding his young cub that he will someday become a ruler in The Lion King, his velvety baritone has given life to some of the most famous movie characters in a generation. For someone who is so well known for his voice, however, Jones has had an illustrious career outside the recording studio. He got his start in the late '50s as an acclaimed Shakespearean actor on Broadway before making his big screen debut in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. His filmography is vast, including appearances in Conan the BarbarianThe Hunt for Red October, and Coming to America. He’s won two Emmys, two Tonys, a Grammy, and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars. With this body of work, he’s a bona fide legend of show business if ever there was one.

    Despite this prestigious resumé, however, the first time many kids saw Jones was in The Sandlot, David Mickey Evans’s 1993 coming-of-age movie about friendship and baseball. As Mr. Mertle, a mysterious neighbor who turns out to have been close friends with Babe Ruth, Jones plays a small but memorable role. Although the boys are at first terrified of his dog and unsure of what to expect, he turns out to be warm, generous, and downright awe-inspiring once the kids learn about his past.  

  • Tim Curry was worried he would be typecast when he landed the role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the “sweet transvestite from Transylvania” in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Far from being pigeon-holed, however, Curry became one of the most versatile character actors in show business. His movie appearances include playing a stuffily eccentric butler in Clue, an evil overlord in Legend, and Pennywise the clown in the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel, It. Added to his live-action appearances are scores of voiceover performances, from Scooby-Doo to Barbie, that highlight his vocal range and agility, along with several theater interludes.

    One of Curry’s most prominent movie roles outside of Rocky Horror is Brian Henson’s Muppet Treasure Island, which is loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel. Curry, as one of the few live-action actors in the movie, plays Long John Silver, a one-legged pirate hell-bent on snatching a treasure map from the teenager Jim Hawkins (Kevin Bishop). Posing as a benevolent father figure, Silver oozes smarmy charm while plotting against Jim and the ship’s captain, Smollett (Kermit the Frog). Curry pulls out all the stops for the role, returning to the glorious excess that made Frank-N-Furter such an indelible role. He purrs, cackles, and belts a show-stopping musical number that succeeds in sidelining the Muppets. Legendary actors such as Orson Welles and Michael Caine made memorable live-action appearances in Muppets movies as well, but no other performance upstages the puppets like Curry’s. 

  • Dame Maggie Smith came to the attention of many Americans through her irascible yet witty performances as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies and the Dowager Countess in the soapy period series Downton Abbey. Long before these roles, however, Smith was a luminary of the stage and screen on both sides of the Atlantic. Beginning her career in the London theater in the late 1950s, she performed opposite dramatic greats such as Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Williams, and broke into movies in Olivier’s screen adaptation of Othello in 1965. Since then, she’s gained a mind-numbing number of awards and nominations for playing emotionally nuanced, challenging women. Her career is so vast and prestigious that the two Oscars, four Emmys. and seven BAFTAs she’s won hardly begin to scratch the surface of her accomplishments.   

    One of the first roles many kids saw her in is Granny Wendy in Steven Spielberg’s 1991 Peter Pan sequel, Hook. Although she isn’t a main character, her portrayal of a 92-year-old Wendy Darling is both playful and poignant. For some, she is the best thing about the movie, with one critic writing that her performance has “the regal, otherworldly air of the perfect fairy-tale enchantress.” 

  • At 6’7”, James Cromwell is known for playing imposing, occasionally hostile characters who command respect in movies such as LA Confidential and The Green Mile. His television work is arguably more prominent, including multiple guest appearances in Star Trek, a memorably sinister performance as a Nazi doctor in American Horror Story, and the austere black sheep of the Roy family in Succession.

    Out of his hundreds of screen credits, Cromwell is known to many children as Farmer Hoggett, a kindly man of few words who adopts a young pig with extraordinary talents in Chris Noonan’s 1995 family movie, Babe. The sight of such a staid, towering figure dancing a jig and bottle-feeding a sickly pig is so incongruously delightful that the performance stands out amidst the more showy, dramatic farm animal characters. Babe received seven Oscar nominations (a rare feat for a live-action family movie), including for Cromwell’s performance. The experience had a profound effect on the actor, who credits the experience with his turn to veganism and animal rights activism.