You know them now as ultra-famous Hollywood superstars. But did you miss your favorite actors’ performances in these TV shows?
Check out 30 times a star slipped under the radar and surprised us all in these weird TV show roles.
Tom Hanks – Family Ties
You mostly know Tom Hanks as the epitome of friendliness. And you might know that he got his start on cross-dressing TV sitcom Bosom Buddies. But you likely forgot that on Family Ties, the Michael J. Fox-starring ‘80s classic sitcom, he played a viciously drunk uncle named Ned Donnelly.
In Hanks’ three episode run, Alex Keaton watches Ned swig an entire bottle of vanilla extract when he’s desperate for some booze. Ned gets so drunk that he even slaps Keaton in the face, causing Michael Gross’ Steven Keaton to kick him out of their house.
Get some help, Tom!
Brad Pitt – Friends
In 2001, superstar Brad Pitt was married to superstar Jennifer Aniston. Which made his uncredited guest-starring role on Friends episode “The One With the Rumor” all the more diabolically ironic. Pitt plays Will Colbert, a friend from school, who started an “I Hate Rachel” club.
Rachel being, y’know, Aniston’s character.
Pitt’s character Will even goes so far as to spread a nasty (and in modern eyes, transphobic) rumor about Rachel. As you watch the episode, you’ll hear the studio audience hoot and holler at the metatextual edge given each joke.
And — you’ll cringe knowing that their marriage dissolved soon after.
Jack Black and Giovanni Ribisi – The X-Files
The ‘90s were a golden age of the prestige procedural drama — especially when it comes to giving hungry actors lots of work. As a result, you’ll see lots of celebs randomly pop up in classic supernatural cop series The X-Files.
One episode, “D.P.O.,” even gives you a twofer.
“D.P.O.” stands for Darin Peter Oswald, played by Giovanni Ribisi. He plays a video game-obsessed slacker bro given mysterious lightning bolt powers. Playing the owner of a video arcade who’s Mulder and Scully’s first lead on the case? None other than Jack Black.
Ewan McGregor – ER
In 1996, Scottish actor Ewan McGregor broke through on the international scene thanks to his work in gritty drug drama Trainspotting. One year later, he got a juicy guest role in medical drama ER alongside future movie star George Clooney, who was at the time a regular on the show.
In “The Long Way Around,” McGregor plays a sympathetic but scary bank robber who inadvertently causes a hostage situation when he holds up a convenience store. Nurse Carol Hathaway, played by Juliana Margulies, happens to be there, and she tends to everyone’s physical wounds… and perhaps McGregor’s emotional ones?
Stephen Colbert – Law & Order: Criminal Intent
To know Stephen Colbert is to laugh at him. From The Daily Show to The Colbert Report to his current run on the Late Show, he’s everyone’s favorite intellectual funnyman.
Which makes his deadly serious turn on an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent all the more shocking.
In “The Saint,” Colbert plays a criminal with a mission: Get revenge on the Catholic institution that ruined his life. To do so, he commits signature forgery, mail fraud, and even resorts to murder. His final scene, where he breaks down and starts signing famous signatures, is wild.
Dave Bautista – Chuck
From the WWE to the MCU, Dave Bautista has powerbombed his way into Hollywood, and we ain’t complaining.
He shows chops both emotional and comedic in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy. But before he became a star, he did a supporting turn in NBC’s spy action-comedy Chuck.
Season four episode “Chuck Versus the Couch Lock” brought Bautista in as one of Colonel John Casey’s (Adam Baldwin) former military team members, alongside Eric Roberts and Joel David Moore. Bautista’s character, T.I., threatens to cut someone’s arm off, which is probably illegal in the WWE.
Dwayne Johnson – Star Trek: Voyager
Before Dwayne Johnson fully transitioned from professional wrestling to being an international movie star/producer/Instagram wizard, Hollywood decided he needed to take baby steps.
So in 2000, he appeared in Star Trek: Voyager episode “Tsunkatse,” where he played… a professional wrestler.
As Champion, Johnson fights many of the other regular cast members, including Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine. The series regulars were content to let stunt doubles jump in, but Johnson did all of his own stunts. He even did The Rock’s signature move against Ryan!
Robin Williams – Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
In 2004, a man pretending to be a police officer called a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky and ordered employees to do terrible things.
On Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, who never met a headline they couldn’t rip, producers crafted a similar episode for one man: Robin Williams.
“Authority” finds the funnyman in an eerily chilling mode, playing a criminal who does terrible things as part of a social experiment, and gets juries to go along with them, too. Williams got the part thanks to a recommendation from his friend, series regular Richard Belzer.
Matthew McConaughey – Unsolved Mysteries
Remember Unsolved Mysteries? For 15 years, the spookily deep-voiced Robert Stack took us on numerous true crime journeys, anchoring the show’s earnestly unsettling stories and bafflingly comical reenactments with dramatic importance.
Did you know Matthew McConaughey appears in an episode? Unfortunately, his performance is not alright, alright, alright.
Edward Bell was a vicious spree killer who did horrible things before his arrest and death in prison. McConaughey played one of his victims, Larry Dickens. He does his best to commit to the reality of Dickens’ circumstances — the show around him is just not interested taking it as seriously.
Lucy Liu – Beverly Hills, 90210
In the world of Beverly Hills, 90210, the Peach Pit is an epicenter. The retro-styled restaurant serves as the temporary home for many characters who wish to travel through.
So, just from a purely statistical standpoint, it was inevitable for Lucy Liu to show up. Right?
Before Kill Bill or Charlie’s Angels, Liu played Courtney, a worker at the Peach Pit, in the season two episode “Pass, Not Pass.” It was Liu’s first screen credit, and she plays Jason Priestley’s replacement, a paragon of hard work even as he tries to get his job back.
Laurence Fishburne – Pee-wee’s Playhouse
What if we told you Morpheus started as a cowboy?
That’s right — Laurence Fishburne, the hardboiled action star of The Matrix franchise, earned his Hollywood sheriff’s star as Cowboy Curtis on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Paul Reubens’ bonkers comedy show that played as well for adults as it did for kids.
Sporting a very Old West outfit with a very 1980s Jheri curl, Fishburne gives Cowboy Curtis a goofy Southern twang and broad physical gestures. If you want a creation that plays with ideas of machismo and bravado while still being silly and vulnerable, Cowboy Curtis is… The One.
Daniel Kaluuya – Skins
So you’ve been a Daniel Kaluuya fan since Get Out? Pshh, big deal, he’s been going since before then. Oh, you know him from that bicycle video game episode of Black Mirror? Whatever.
If you don’t know Kaluuya’s work on the British drama Skins, you ain’t a real fan, bruv.
Kaluuya plays the accurately titled Posh Kenneth, a character who fronts as a hard rapper but is, in reality, quite posh. Kaluuya took his job seriously, even joining the writing staff and penning a few episodes. Also, if you watch the show, you get to see Kaluuya rap, which rules.
Andrew Garfield – Doctor Who
If we were to ever meet Andrew Garfield, we would politely grab him by the shoulders and shout three things at him.
One: “The Amazing Spider-Man movies were not your fault!” Two: “You did great work in your Doctor Who episodes!” Three: “Sorry for shouting!”
In “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks,” Garfield plays a worker in a shanty town under the threat of pig monsters (which is, as far as Doctor Who plots go, pretty tame). His character blends into the background when he needs to, even while Garfield steals viewers’ attention.
Jeremy Renner – Angel
Before Jeremy Renner played a brooding hero with a specific style in the Joss Whedon-guided MCU, Jeremy Renner played a brooding villain with a specific style in the Joss Whedon-guided Angel.
If you’re wondering what TV producers thought was “cool” in 2000, look no further.
This is Renner as a vampire named Penn in the season one episode “Somnambulist.”
While Penn’s story is a fairly predictable (but still super-entertaining) noir-tinged serial killer riff, the episode is notable for Kate Lockley (Elisabeth Röhm) discovering that Angel (David Boreanaz) is actually a vampire himself.
Mahershala Ali – Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
In his Oscar-winning performances in Green Book and Moonlight, Mahershala Ali exudes a level of calming authority, both cool and warm, both empathetic and able to drive. In a previous Law & Order: SVU episode “Unstable,” he played a horrible sex criminal.
So… he’s upgraded!
Using his full first name, Mahershalalhashbaz, Ali plays Mark Foster. In classic Law & Order fashion, Foster is introduced so early that we think he can’t be the criminal. Until it’s revealed that he is, in fact, a serial criminal, and Detective Stabler (Christopher Meloni) put the wrong person in jail.
Sarah Silverman – Star Trek: Voyager
When you think of Star Trek, you probably don’t think of a risque standup comedian known for her controversial jokes. But the producers of Voyager sure did.
So they booked Sarah Silverman to play Rain Robinson in the two-part season three episode “Future’s End.”
Robinson is a Los Angeles-based astronomer from the 1990s that the Voyager crew happens upon during their time travel shenanigans. The unorthodox casting of Silverman paid off — she gives the role a needed sense of sharpness, and one of the producers even considered making her a regular cast member.
Octavia Spencer – The X-Files
She’s won an Academy Award and been nominated for two others. She’s beloved for her onscreen talent and her offscreen kindness. And she’s played a total of 17 characters in movies and television who are solely credited as “Nurse.”
She is Octavia Spencer. And we do not deserve her.
In The X-Files episode “Millennium,” Spencer’s pattern of playing nurses reached its peak when she played, seriously, “Nurse Octavia.” And sure, this episode is important because it’s the first time Mulder and Scully kiss or whatever.
But it’s mostly important because it means Octavia Spencer is canonically in the X-Files-verse.
Amy Adams – Smallville
2001 was a different time. A time when writers and producers could pitch an episode of Superman prequel series Smallville where an overweight girl is so depressed that she eats kryptonite-infused vegetables, loses weight, and starts craving human flesh — and everyone went, “Yeah, sure, doesn’t seem problematic!”
At the center of this body-shaming brouhaha is the multi-Oscar-nominated Amy Adams, four years before her breakout role in Junebug. Adams tries to give the role of Jodi Melville dignity and earned catharsis, but her exaggerated fat suit and wild CGI effects when she starts eating people make it difficult.
Lady Gaga – The Sopranos
Before A Star Is Born (2018), Stefani “Lady Gaga” Germanotta had a brief brush with the spotlight in an episode of The Sopranos. And she is a bad influence on A.J. (Robert Iler)
How is the son of a mafioso supposed to have a normal life with Gaga around?
In “The Telltale Moozadell,” a 15-year-old Gaga appears as a high school girl who peer pressures A.J. into playing around by the school pool, which earns him academic probation. Gaga also appeared on a 2005 episode of MTV reality show Boiling Points.
Michael B. Jordan – Bones
In Black Panther, audiences worldwide marveled at Michael B. Jordan’s jacked, rippling, drool-inducing… acting talent. But to see the best results on the outside, you have to start within, from the bones out. Which is why it makes sense to see Jordan pop up on an episode of Bones.
Jordan plays the new boyfriend of recurring character Michelle Welton (Tiffany Hines). And while the episode, “The Plain in the Prodigy,” features the murder of a renowned Amish piano player (!), you can’t help but be riveted by Jordan’s presence. His bone-dry comedic banter with David Boreanaz is quite something.
Ellen Page – Trailer Park Boys
Ellen Page’s screen work, including Juno and The Umbrella Academy, is marked by a quiet resilience and strong will. Oh, and also, she appeared as the very silly Treena Lahey in the very silly Trailer Park Boys for several episodes in season two.
People contain multitudes!
Page is Canadian. So on paper, it makes sense that she would start her young career appearing in Canadian TV shows like Trailer Park Boys. But on screen, it is a true, surreal delight to see Page’s Treena behave so giddily reprehensible alongside the titular boys.
Jessica Chastain – Veronica Mars
Season one of Veronica Mars, the Kristen Bell-starring teen detective show, features an episode titled “The Girl Next Door.” Playing this girl next door is Jessica Chastain. And while she later hunted down Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, this episode may be her most harrowing role to date.
Chastain plays Sarah Williams, a neighbor of Mars who disappears. As Mars investigates the case, we see Chastain play out a series of depressing vignettes about her life. But her actual fate is even more miserable: Her stepdad abused and impregnated her. Thankfully, Mars helps catch (and shoot) the stepdad.
Zac Efron – Firefly
Despite being cancelled after one season, Firefly has had a long staying power for many of its key players. People like Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk have gone on to have wonderful careers in part because of the critically-acclaimed space western.
Among these notable players? A young Zac Efron.
Before High School Musical, an elementary school-aged Efron appeared as a young Dr. Simon Tam, played as an adult by Sean Maher, in a flashback sequence in the episode “Safe.” It was Efron’s on-screen debut, and he is adorable as heck as he spouts hyper-intelligent jargon.
Rob McElhenney – Lost
When you create, write, produce, and star in a breakout TV hit like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, you get certain perks.
For Rob “Mac” McElhenney, one of those perks includes popping in on other TV shows he’s a big fan of. And that’s how McElhenney appeared briefly in Lost.
Let’s be fair: McElhenney’s cameo appearance in “Not in Portland” does not make him look good.
He plays Aldo, a security guard who is promptly tackled and disarmed by Sawyer (Josh Holloway). Later in the series, Aldo appears again — just to get shot to death by Claire (Emilie de Ravin).
Millie Bobby Brown – NCIS
Think Stranger Things was the debut of breakout performer Millie Bobby Brown? Think again.
The English actor cut her teeth in guest star spots on several TV shows before landing the coveted Eleven gig. Perhaps most notably, she was in a charged episode of NCIS called “Parental Guidance Suggested.”
A criminal forensics expert visits a killer in jail to help find another killer, and is murdered for her troubles. Her daughter, Sarah Barnes, is played by Brown. And in an impeccably performed scene, it’s revealed that she was the killer.
Anyone have some Eggos for us to stress-eat?
Armie Hammer – Arrested Development
In The Social Network, Armie Hammer’s depiction of the Winklevoss twins was unchecked, aggressive masculinity at its most toxic. As it turns out, Hammer had been rehearsing this dual role for a while, even in his debut performance: a brief appearance in season two Arrested Development episode “The Immaculate Election.”
In this episode of the cult comedy classic, George-Michael (a very un-Armie Hammer Michael Cera) runs for school president. But when an embarassing, “Star Wars Kid”-esque video is released with George-Michael pretending to fight with a lightsaber, Hammer walks by to call him “Star Dork.”
And… that’s it!
Zach Galifianakis – Tru Calling
The Hangover. Between Two Ferns. Tru Calling. Wait, sorry, what’s that third one?
Believe it or not, Zach Galifianakis was a lead on Tru Calling, the short-lived supernatural medical drama starring Eliza Dushku as a med student who can talk to the dead. Her name? Tru, of course.
Galifianakis plays Tru’s boss, Davis, who knows more about her dead mom than he’s letting on. And he hated every second of it.
He told producers the show was dumb, threw scripts in the garbage in front of writers, and even told Dushku “she was eating her way to cancellation.”
Robert Redford – The Twilight Zone
Hollywood legend Robert Redford has a long, storied career of playing bad people we can’t help but be charmed by. This tendency, solidified in classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, started in one of his first screen roles: The Twilight Zone episode “Nothing in the Dark.”
Wanda Dunn (Gladys Cooper) is so afraid of death, she refuses to leave her home. But when a very handsome, very played-by-Robert-Redford police officer shows up asking to help with a gunshot wound, she lets him in.
And he slowly reveals he’s Death Incarnate… and we’re still into him.
Aaron Paul – The Price Is Right
On Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman is enthusiastic about a lot of things. Heck, the last image we see of him is a hooting, hollering, punching-the-roof car ride away from danger.
That raw enthusiasm was fostered in one of Paul’s most storied TV credits: The Price Is Right.
In 2000, when Bob Barker was still hosting the long-running game show, Paul came on down to be the next contestant on The Price Is Right. He was charming as all get out, doing little dances and screaming his bids.
Unfortunately, he wound up losing his Showcase Showdown.
Ryan Reynolds – The X-Files
In the opening scenes of The X-Files episode “Syzygy,” we watch a skeevy jock named “Boom DeBoom” give two female passengers a ride home. We watch him be super skeevy.
And, garnering a small amount of satisfaction, we watch as he’s killed by those female passengers.
“Boom DeBoom” is only a slightly more ridiculous name than “Deadpool” or “Detective Pikachu.” And all three characters are played by the wisecracking superstar Ryan Reynolds.
While Reynolds’ X-Files character is not someone we’d wanna hang out with, he does pull off a “single dramatic tear” quite well.
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