Actors From The ’80s Who Were Supposed To Be The Next Big Thing, But Never Quite Made It

Over 7.0K Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of Actors From The ’80s Who Were Supposed To Be The Next Big Thing, But Never Quite Made It
Voting Rules
Vote up the actors you still love even though they never became superstars.

For a while it seemed that these forgotten '80s stars were going to become the next big thing in Hollywood. While most of these actors and actresses have had impressive careers in Tinseltown, they never quite made that giant leap to superstardom. 

Remember Mia Sara from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, or Phoebe Cates from Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Both of those forgotten actresses of the '80s hold a special place for anyone who came of age in the Reagan decade. However, after a fast start to their careers, both Cates and Sara never achieved next-level fame. 

Perhaps these forgotten actors of the '80s made the personal decision to step away from the spotlight? Perhaps they ran into a problem with drugs or alcohol that hindered their careers? Perhaps they still continue to work in film or television but their performances come more in independent movies or lesser-known television shows?

Vote up the Generation X actors that you still love from the 1980s, even if they never became the next Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts. 

  • 1
    4,207 VOTES

    The Brat Pack

    The Brat Pack
    Photo: The Breakfast Club / Universal Pictures

    In 1985, New York magazine writer David Blum coined the moniker "The Brat Pack." The hard-partying, ridiculously good-looking band of actors regularly graced the covers of glossy magazines. They received additional media attention for dating each other and occasionally popping up in the news for less-than-respectable public behavior.

    Two 1980s coming-of-age films in particular, The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire, provided the bulk of the famous Generation X group: Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy. (Whether other actors, like James Spader and Robert Downey Jr., were Brat Packers or merely Brat Pack-adjacent, is a bit trickier to tease out.)

    All of those actors were in other successful '80s movies. However, with the exception of Lowe, Estevez, and especially Moore, most failed to carry the momentum of their Reagan-era teen success into the grunge decade. Lowe landed several small-screen gems on The West Wing and Parks and Recreation. Both Moore and Estevez had several '90s big-screen hits, but their careers dimmed in the 21st century (though Estevez started to focus increasingly on directing). 

    The actors reportedly were not happy with Blum labeling them "The Brat Pack." Susannah Gora wrote a book on the group called You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation. She said of the actors, "Many believe they could have gone on to more serious roles if not for that article. They were talented. But they had professional difficulties, personal difficulties after that."

    4,207 votes
  • 2
    3,961 VOTES
    Phoebe Cates
    Photo: Fast Times at Ridgemont High / Universal Pictures

    Phoebe Cates was 17 when she made her cinematic debut in the Blue Lagoon-like teen romance Paradise. Despite not being 18 yet, Cates performed nude love scenes opposite co-star Willie Aames. 

    The former model became the obsession of every teenage boy in her next movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The seminal teen stoner comedy is filled with memorable scenes, but none more unforgettable than Cates’s red bikini pool scene. It made the teen actress an instant sex symbol, and it looked like she was a shoo-in for a monster Hollywood career. 

    Cates enjoyed a little more success on the big screen during the 1980s and early '90s. Her other major film roles came in the 1984 horror-comedy Gremlins and its 1990 sequel. She also starred in the 1991 comedy Drop Dead Fred

    In 1983, Cates auditioned for a part in The Big Chill. She did not get the role, but she did meet actor Kevin Kline. The pair married in 1989. Over the next few years, Cates gave birth to a boy and then a little girl. Instead of grinding it out as an actress, Cates put her family first and decided to retire from acting.

    Cates kept to her decision. The only time she did reappear on celluloid was for a small role in Jennifer Jason Leigh’s directorial debut, The Anniversary Party. Leigh and Cates remained friends after filming Fast Times together. In fact, Kline and the couple's two kids Owen and Greta also appeared in Leigh’s movie. 

    Besides her role as mom and wife (Cates and Kline are still married), Cates opened a gift boutique called Blue Tree on Madison Avenue in New York City.

    • Age: 60
    • Birthplace: New York, New York, USA
    3,961 votes
  • 3
    3,231 VOTES
    Jami Gertz
    Photo: The Lost Boys / Warner Bros.

    Jami Gertz became a hardworking child actress in the early 1980s. She had recurring roles on several popular small-screen series, including Square Pegs and The Facts of Life. Her breakout came when she played the half-vampire Star in 1987's The Lost Boys. Gertz solidified her early star power the following year acting opposite Robert Downey Jr. and Andrew McCarthy in the popular adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero

    Gertz continued to work over the next decade but wouldn't have a hit film again until 1996's Twister, in which she played a comedic foil to Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt's tornado chasers. 

    The actress reportedly turned down the opportunity to play Rachel Greene on Friends. However, her 1990s and early 2000s TV filmography is still impressive. She had recurring roles in hit dramas like ER and Ally McBeal. Gertz also guest-starred in the memorable "I cannot spare a square" episode of Seinfeld in 1994. 

    Though she worked steadily on TV into the 2000s, Gertz doesn't really need to work, considering that she's a billionaire. Gertz married Anthony Ressler in 1989. He wasn't rich at the time - in fact, Gertz was the breadwinner when they first got together. Ressler later made his billions when he co-founded a private equity firm named Apollo Global.  

    Gertz and Ressler have gone on to be a part of the group that bought Major League Baseball's Milwaukee Brewers and the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. Gertz has become the public face of the basketball team since Ressler prefers to stay behind the scenes. 

    So, while Gertz never quite became Julia Roberts, she did have a steady working career in Hollywood. Plus, you know, the whole "billionaire pro-sports team owner" side gig.

    • Age: 57
    • Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois, USA
    3,231 votes
  • 4
    4,303 VOTES
    Ralph Macchio
    Photo: The Karate Kid / Columbia Pictures

    Ralph Macchio had his first recurring TV role as a teenager in the popular sitcom Eight is Enough. He scored his maiden big-screen role as Johnny in the coming-of-age drama The Outsiders, starring alongside a cast of some of the hottest young stars in Hollywood: Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, and Matt Dillon.

    Macchio's breakout came when he starred as Daniel, the underdog hero of 1984's The Karate Kid. The martial arts drama made an astonishing $91 million dollars worldwide, turning Macchio into the next teen idol. Two Karate Kid sequels followed to finish out the 1980s. 

    Macchio had another big role in 1992's My Cousin Vinny, which was also a box office and critical success, proving he had comedic as well as dramatic (and karate) chops. However, his post-My Cousin Vinny career never quite took off. Macchio certainly didn't disappear, but he failed to land another hit movie as he completed the transition to adult roles.

    Macchio did find a niche making cameo appearances as himself. In the 2000s, the actor had reflexive roles in Entourage, Head Case, He's Way More Famous Than You, and How I Met Your Mother. He also had a recurring role on the popular sitcom Ugly Betty and co-starred in the Artie Lange comedy Beer League

    More recently, Macchio has experienced a nice return to the spotlight. He reprised his role as Daniel for the YouTube Premium series Cobra Kai, which is set 34 years after the first film. Cobra Kai had a strong two-season run and was picked up by Netflix in 2020, where it's already been renewed for a third and fourth season.

    • Age: 61
    • Birthplace: Huntington, New York, USA
    4,303 votes
  • 5
    3,431 VOTES
    Jennifer Grey
    Photo: Dirty Dancing / Vestron Pictures

    In 1984, Jennifer Grey made her cinematic debut in the romantic comedy Reckless. Over the next few years, Grey tacked on a few more supporting roles in Red Dawn and The Cotton Club. She also played Ferris’s antagonistic sister Jeanie in Ferris Bueller’s Day off. 

    Her big breakout performance came as Baby in the 1987 sleeper hit movie Dirty Dancing. The coming-of-age romance was made for just $6 million. It was a small movie expected to perform modestly at the box office. 

    Instead, Dirty Dancing wound up bringing in $213 million at the box office and raking in millions more in video sales. The song “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” off of the film’s popular soundtrack won a Grammy and the Oscar for Best Original Song. Dirty Dancing was not more than just a hit movie: It became a Gen X cultural touchstone.

    Patrick Swayze may have been Dirty Dancing's sexy heartthrob, but Grey was the heart of the movie. She didn’t look like the traditional Hollywood leading lady, which was part of her appeal. 

    Right before Dirty Dancing hit theaters, Grey was in a car accident with then-boyfriend Matthew Broderick. He was driving while the pair were on vacation together in Ireland. Two passengers in the other car perished in the head-on collision. 

    The effects of the car accident stayed with Grey for years. "The impact was emotional and physical," she revealed. "My body was never the same, my head was never the same, my ambition was never the same."

    “I became America’s sweetheart within five days of the accident,” she added. “The juxtaposition of that deep sorrow, the survivor’s guilt... and then being celebrated as the new big thing just didn’t jibe. It didn’t feel good to be the toast of the town.”

    The actress also underwent two plastic surgery procedures on her nose in the late 1980s. Grey may have come out of the surgeries looking a lot more like a traditional Hollywood leading lady, but she no longer looked like herself. “I went into the ­operating room a ­celebrity and came out anonymous,” she said. “It was the nose job from hell. I’ll always be this once-famous actress nobody ­recognizes because of a nose job.”

    Grey would appear in several TV movies and series following her surgeries. In 1999, she even starred as herself in a sitcom sendup of LA life called It's Like, You Know... One of the central jokes on the short-lived series was the decline of Grey’s career following her rhinoplasty. 

    The actress danced her way back into America’s hearts for Season 11 of Dancing with the Stars, winning the competition. Grey also found success starring in the Prime Video dramedy series Red Oaks, which lasted for three seasons.

    • Age: 63
    • Birthplace: New York, New York, USA
    3,431 votes
  • 6
    2,740 VOTES
    Mia Sara
    Photo: Ferris Bueller's Day Off / Paramount Pictures

    Mia Sara's cinematic debut came as Princess Lili in Ridley Scott's 1985 dark fantasy epic Legend. Her next role would make the actress even more popular and an instant Gen X celebrity: Ferris's hip girlfriend Sloane Peterson in the wildly popular John Hughes comedy Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Sloane was basically everything a teenage boy could want in a girl - she was sweet, fun, and beautiful. Anyone who came of age in the 1980s is likely to look back on Sloane fondly. 

    The following year, Sara moved her talent over to the small screen to star in the miniseries Queenie. Sara stayed busy working in both film and television, but she was unable to land a role that would catapult her into A-list status. 

    In 1994, she co-starred in the Jean-Claude Van Damme hit science fiction movie Timecop. She proceeded to work on projects like The Set Up and The Pompatus of Love, which were smaller films that never saw a wide theatrical release. 

    Sara continued to pop up during the aughts with guest spots on series like CSI: NY, and as Princess Langwidere in the TV miniseries The Witches of Oz

    • Age: 56
    • Birthplace: Brooklyn Heights, New York, USA
    2,740 votes