Movie Stars Youngsters Don't Know Used To Be TV Stars

Once movie stars reach a certain level of fame, it can be hard to imagine their earlier days of grinding it out in smaller, supporting roles in forgettable projects. But many of today’s major film stars initially made a name for themselves on the small screen. If you’re under a certain age, you may not even know that some big-time movie stars first found success on popular television shows

It used to be that television was viewed as the inferior medium, but these days, TV series certainly rival movies in pop culture cachet, and many movie stars are now vying for buzzworthy streaming television series. But back in the day, television roles could be used as launching pads to transition into film. From Will Smith to Tom Hanks to Melissa McCarthy, here’s a rundown of movie stars that younger audiences may not know started out as TV stars.


  • Tom Hanks
    Photo: Bosom Buddies / ABC

    Tom Hanks has been a universally beloved major movie star for over 30 years. But before he was ruling the box office with Big, Sleepless in Seattle, Forrest Gump, and Cast Away, he was a young actor in New York looking to gain traction in the industry. In 1980, he caught his first break when he was cast as one of the leads in the ABC series Bosom Buddies, which followed two men who dress as women in order to live in an affordable female-only hotel. While the show only lasted two seasons, and the premise and subsequent gender stereotypes have not stood the test of time, Hanks caught the attention of critics and the industry with his performance. 

    “The first day I saw him on the set, I thought, ‘Too bad he won’t be in television for long,’” Ian Praiser, co-producer of Bosom Buddies, told Rolling Stone.

    Two years after the show was canceled, Hanks landed his first starring film role with Splash, which went on to gross over $69 million at the box office.

    • Age: 66
    • Birthplace: Concord, CA
  • Robin Williams
    Photo: Mork & Mindy / ABC

    In the mid-1970s, Robin Williams was beginning to generate major buzz as a stand-up comedian and regular at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. It was there that Williams was discovered by TV producer George Schlatter, who cast him in the revival of Laugh-In in 1977. While that revival was unsuccessful, the exposure led to Garry Marshall casting Williams as last-minute replacement to play an alien named Mork in an episode of Happy Days.

    The character and episode became so popular that ABC developed a spin-off series titled Mork & Mindy. The show ran for four seasons and became a big hit with younger audiences, catapulting Williams into stardom. His first breakthrough film role would come nearly a decade later with Good Morning Vietnam, which garnered him an Academy Award nomination.

    • Age: Died at 63 (1951-2014)
    • Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois, USA
  • Johnny Depp
    Photo: 21 Jump Street / FOX

    Although Johnny Depp played smaller, supporting roles in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Platoon (1986), he first rose to prominence on the hit series 21 Jump Street. The series ran for five seasons and was a big hit for the then-newbie FOX network, turning Depp into a famous teenage heartthrob. But despite the show’s success with younger audiences, Depp became uncomfortable with his new image, later saying that he felt “forced into the role of the product.” 

    Depp took a sharp left turn with his first starring movie role in Tim Burton’s fantasy film Edward Scissorhands, which achieved both commercial success and critical acclaim. 

    As a result, Depp asked to be released from his 21 Jump Street contract after the fourth season and vowed to focus only on films that felt right for him.

    • Age: 59
    • Birthplace: Owensboro, Kentucky, USA
  • Will Smith
    Photo: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air / NBC

    Will Smith is one of biggest movie stars of our time, but his story took a winding path that many kids today may not be aware of. Smith’s first taste of fame came as a rapper known as the Fresh Prince. He was one half of the breakthrough hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, who rose to prominence with hit singles like “Summertime” and “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” But Smith initially struggled to manage the sudden financial success and wound up overspending and underpaying his taxes

    He was at a crossroads in his music career and in rough shape financially when he met Benny Medina, who was producing The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a television sitcom based on his own life story. Smith auditioned for the lead role at a party at Quincy Jones’s house and was signed on the spot. The show became a major hit - running for six years - and launched Smith’s acting career, opening the door for major movie roles like Bad Boys, Independence Day, and Men in Black.

    • Age: 54
    • Birthplace: USA, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Denzel Washington
    Photo: St. Elsewhere / NBC

    Denzel Washington has won two Academy Awards for acting in Glory (1989) and Training Day (2001), while his directorial debut, Fences (2016), was nominated for Best Picture. He actually started out in theater in the late 1970s and made his big-screen debut in Carbon Copy (1981).

    But Washington really rose to prominence in 1982 when he was cast in the NBC series St. Elsewhere. The acclaimed medical drama was hailed by TV Guide as the best drama series of the '80s, and the exposure allowed Washington to score more coveted film roles in A Soldier’s Story (1986), Hard Lessons (1986), and Cry Freedom (1987), a performance that earned him his first Academy Award nomination.

    • Age: 68
    • Birthplace: USA, New York, Mount Vernon
  • Ryan Reynolds
    Photo: Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place / ABC

    Ryan Reynolds is now known as one of Hollywood’s premier male movie stars, anchoring massive hits like Deadpool, The Proposal, and The Green Lantern. But Reynolds landed his first starring role in 1991 on the Canadian soap opera Hillside, which aired in the US on Nickelodeon as Fifteen. From there, Reynolds appeared in an episode of The X-Files and co-starred in the TV movie Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

    Then in 1998, he landed his breakthrough TV role starring in Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, which ran on ABC for four seasons. The exposure led to Reynolds being cast as the lead in Van Wilder (2002), which lead to more film roles in The In-Laws (2003), Blade Trinity (2004), and Just Friends (2005).

    • Age: 46
    • Birthplace: Vancouver, Canada