For some time now, it’s been clear to me that the unsung heroes of the industry are casting directors. We don’t talk about them; sometimes, it can be extremely difficult to find information about them at all. And yet the media we’re exposed to would look completely different without them. A particularly interesting phenomenon, most notable on shows like Quantum Leap or the Law & Order franchise—shows that run through as many as hundreds of minor characters in a season—is the appearance of Before They Were Famous types. Ones where you’re catching the show and say, “Wait a minute!”
Okay, so Doogie Howser, MD was still on the air when Neil Patrick Harris went on Quantum Leap. And, sure, a two-years-before-Friends Jennifer Aniston had already been Jeannie Bueller on the Ferris Bueller TV show at the time. Even ten-year-old Joseph Gordon Levitt had done twelve episodes of Dark Shadows already. Anna Gunn’s first TV appearance was, however, on “The Play’s the Thing—September 9, 1969.” Any number of other people on the show were at best working actors at the time.
Philip Seymour Hoffman made his TV debut, the same year his film debut (in that deathless classic Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole) came out, on an episode of Law & Order—one which also features Samuel L. Jackson, admittedly not in his own TV debut! Zoe Saldana has two episodes under her belt, both from 1999—her own TV debut. Sebastian Stan? Law & Order. Claire Danes? Law & Order. Plus, of course, any number of people for whom it wasn’t a debut but definitely a “before they were famous.”
The lists go on. Star Trek in all its incarnations probably has more than a few. Doctor Who, famously. Canadian and British TV in general—Mark Ruffalo’s third TV appearance was an episode of Due South where he tries to sell his baby, which puts an interesting spin on The Kids Are All Right! And while Murder, She Wrote is famous for being full of past-their-prime actors (surely I am the only person excited by the appearance of Eddie Bracken other than the guy I knew who was his grandson), who can forget the episode featuring a young Bryan Cranston and a two-years-post-Terminator Linda Hamilton?
This is always going to happen in any series involving more than just its main characters. You’ve got ER, where they have to run through patients and families and so forth, and so you get the TV debut of Anton Yelchin. And Dakota Fanning. You’ve got Perry Mason, where they have to have murderers and victims and suspects and so forth, so you’ve got early performances (albeit not debuts) from Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, and DeForest Kelley! You’ve got anything involving exploring strange things like The X-Files, which gave us Luke Wilson (TV debut, although he’d been in four movies already). And was also the show that brought Bryan Cranston to the attention of Vince Gilligan.
Are there equal numbers of people from these shows who have spent all their lives as working actors, or who did one or two episodes and went on to a quiet life selling insurance or something? No; there are far larger numbers. On the other hand, it is also unsurprising that you might see someone on The Pretender or The Love Boat or M*A*S*H and be impressed enough by their work to give them a chance on something else, something bigger. When I’m writing about people who were acting on TV in certain decades, I’m more surprised if they haven’t done any of a list of shows, because my goodness did those shows need actors. Even if all they were needed for was to say, “Duck, Magnum, duck!”