Soap operas have been a large part of American entertainment since the first radio soaps were broadcast back in the 1930s. They were generally sponsored by soap companies (hence, soap operas) and have always focused on the often-melodramatic relationships between the characters. With soap operas making up so much of what Americans watch, it is not surprising that some of the biggest names in Hollywood started their careers as characters on daytime television. What is surprising is some of the names on the list! So, without further ado, here are 20 famous actors and actresses that got their start on soap operas.
Though Demi Moore had made her film debut in 1981 with the TV movie Choices. The film told the story of a high school football player being kicked off the team, and subsequently deciding to join a street gang. However, this movie was not very popular and only holds a 25% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was not until a year later when she got her real break on General Hospital, playing an investigative reporter called Jackie Templeton. This role was the first of many riveting performances by this talented actress. In fact, only three years later she won her first award – a Theatre World Award for her performance in an off-Broadway rendition of The Early Girl. Many more roles and awards, including two People’s Choice Awards, an MTV Movie Award, and a Saturn Award, were in Demi Moore’s future. And she can attribute it all to the melodramatic start she got on General Hospital. And she’s not done with the soaps yet: Ms. Moore is getting back to her soap opera roots with an upcoming recurring role on the fourth season of Fox hit Empire.
Naomi Watts was a struggling actress, shooting only commercials and one relatively unknown movie called For Love Alone. However, she eventually scored recurring roles in two Australian soaps – Brides of Christ and Home and Away. Ms. Watts was offered another role in a different soap opera called A Country Practice but she turned it down, electing to move to America to further pursue her acting career. Without having starred in the aforementioned soaps, Naomi Watts may have never been able to do so. The celebrated actress has played such roles as Rachel Keller in The Ring, and actress Ann Darrow in the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong. We may never have seen this talented actress in these roles if it hadn’t have been for her time on Australian soaps in the 1990s.
Prolific actress and children’s book author Julianne Moore’s career was a quick shot to the top. Only one year after she started acting for a living with an off-Broadway group, she got tworoles on the soap opera As the World Turns. Yup, that’s right. Two roles. She played both Frannie and Sabrina Hughes, half-sisters, in this wildly successful soap. In fact, she even won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Ingenue in a Drama Series for acting on this show, ensuring that she stayed in the sights of the top people in Hollywood. Ms. Moore has now played roles in many box-office hits, including The Big Lebowski, Hannibal, Children of Men, and The Kids Are All Right. We must thank her role on As the World Turns for bringing Julianne Moore into the public light.
Leonardo DiCaprio is praised for his roles in Titanic, The Wolf of Wall Street, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and many other films. But this prominent actor got his start in the early 1990s on the soap opera Santa Barbara. Playing the character Mason Capwell, DiCaprio received a nomination for the Young Artist Award for Best Young Actor, putting him in the spotlight. In fact, only about a year later DiCaprio took a recurring role on Growing Pains from ABC. It was a short ride from here to the top, as DiCaprio took his celebrated role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. This led to more and more roles for the now-famous actor – all thanks to a soap opera kickstarting his career.
Praised for her roles on When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and other classic films, Meg Ryan was among the most successful actresses of the late 90s and early 2000s. A woman of many talents, she also directed and produced her own documentary, Ithaca. Meg Ryan is another As the World Turns alumna, playing Betsy Stewart from 1982 to 1984. She was a very influential character – her and Frank Runyeon’s character Steve Andropolous were one of the most powerful supercouples of the soap opera. We can expect great things from this actress in the future, especially if she continues to hone her considerable filmmaking and acting talents. Without her memorable role in As the World Turns, she may have not become the woman we know her as today.
That’s right, William Bradley Pitt’s first credited role was on a soap opera. In stark contrast to his roles in Fight Club and Ocean’s Eleven, Mr. Pitt played young basketball player Chris on NBC’s Another World. This was not only Brad Pitt’s first credited role, but the first in which he had spoken lines. This appearance helped Brad Pitt fulfill a lot more roles over the next few years. By the time three years had passed, Pitt was cast in Thelma & Louise as J.D., a small-time criminal. The increased recognition over the years let him land the classic roles he is known for today – such as Lieutenant Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds and his starring role in World War Z. Mr. Pitt has certainly come a far way since his humble beginnings with his two-episode arc on Another World. His talent as an actor is widely-recognized today, as he as won over 60 awards – including two Golden Globes, four People’s Choice Awards, and an Oscar.
The third actress on our list to get her start on As the World Turns, Ms. Tomei played teenager Marcy Thompson for three years. She left college at Boston University to take the job – which turned out to be a great move for her career. Her role on the soap brought her recognition, eventually letting her obtain her first prominent film, My Cousin Vinny. After filming this movie, she won her first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1993. Marisa Tomei has appeared in many popular films, including Anger Management and Cyrus. Another product of the As the World Turns training grounds, Ms. Tomei is moving on to big roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She plays Aunt May, and has appeared as this character in Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Elizabeth Banks was offered a role on Santa Barbara while she was in college, but she did not elect to pursue this path as she wanted to complete her education. Although her first acting gig was on the independent film Surrender Dorothy, she was credited as “Elizabeth Casey”. The first role in which she was credited with her full name was on a single episode of the soap opera All My Children. She plays an unnamed waitress who one of the main characters charms into paying for his meal. Of course, a credit on such a popular show is a good resumé-booster. And she certainly benefited from it. Less than six years after her short-lived appearance on All My Children, she gained massive exposure in The 40-Year Old Virgin. Ms. Banks has played many prominent roles, all thanks to that little scene in an old soap.
Before he was Michael Knight or Mitch Buchannon, David Hasselhoff played the role of Dr. Snapper Foster on The Young and the Restless. He stayed in this role from 1975 to 1982, but left the series when they started writing out many of the original characters. Mr. Hasselhoff moved on to Knight Rider and Baywatch – two extremely popular series. He has also acted in many comedies such as DodgeBall and Click. He has other talents as well. As a musician, Hasselhoff has achieved considerable success, holding a triple-platinum album in Europe called “Looking for Freedom”. As an actor, David Hasselhoff has found success and widespread recognition. He really owes it all to that first soap opera role on The Young and the Restless.
This famous actor, with his notable roles in Footloose, JFK, and Apollo 13, debuted on the screen with the cult classic National Lampoon’s Animal House. However, this film did not gain him the recognition that he felt he deserved. So, Mr. Bacon moved on to play in the soap opera Search for Tomorrow in 1979. Shortly after this role, he played an important character in the 1980 release of Friday the 13th. He also played on the soap opera Guiding Light from 1980-1981 As Kevin Bacon moved forward with his career, he soon found himself playing the starring role in Footloose – which ended up being a smash hit. Mr. Bacon used method acting to prepare for this role: he actually enrolled at a high school as a transfer student under a pseudonym and studied how the students behaved to give the best possible representation during his role. It’s interesting to note that the soaps were like bridges into his bigger roles, ensuring that Kevin Bacon is the actor we know him as today.
Surprised? That’s right – Laurence Fishburne, most famous for his roles as Morpheus in The Matrix trilogy as well as Dr. Raymond Langston on CSI, had his first credited role in a soap opera. In 1973, Laurence Fishburne landed a role as Joshua Hall on the ABC soap One Life to Live. Mr. Fishburne was only twelve years old when he was featured on One Life to Live, and his acting career took off early. In fact, just two years later he played Tyrone Miller in the Vietnam War classic, Apocalypse Now. This prolific actor has now been acting for 44 consecutive years. He has won awards for his work in Hannibal and Akeelah and the Bee, among other movies. That very first role on One Life to Live served as the catalyst for his entire career.
The Full House alumnus began his acting career as Blackie Parrish on the show General Hospital back in 1982. He later received increased recognition and prominence due to his nomination for a Daytime Emmy in 1984 for this role. As you know, Mr. Stamos stars in Full House and Fuller House as Jesse. He also played a prominent role in another medical show, ER. John Stamos starred as Dr. Tony Gates in this medical drama, getting back to his roots in a way. There is no doubt that John Stamos owes much of his success to his original role on General Hospital. The Soapy Award that he won back in 1982, Most Exciting New Actor, probably lent him a lot of credibility and made it easier to expand his acting horizons.
Enrique Martin Morales – that is, Ricky Martin – is a highly-talented singer, actor, and author. Though his musical career predates his acting career, he started acting on a telenovela called Alcanzar una Estrella back in 1991. He joined the cast for a second season of this limited-run soap, but he did not have recognition in the United States yet. When Ricky Martin accepted a role as a Puerto Rican singer on General Hospital, his status in the states rose to help set the stage for his future stardom. Just a few years after his first U.S. appearance, he was nominated for a Grammy for his album Vuelve. Ricky Martin might have never broken into the lucrative U.S. market without his role on General Hospital. Though he always would have enjoyed modest stardom in Latin America, he would not be the superstar he is today if he hadn’t started out on a soap!
Before The Hunt for Red October and 30 Rock, Alec Baldwin made his acting debut on The Doctors, a daytime soap opera from NBC. Baldwin’s role as Billy Aldrich on this soap brought him some recognition, which definitely helped him land the roles that made him famous. In fact, just a few short years after his role on The Doctors, Mr. Baldwin was cast in Beetlejuice – his first film that brought him widespread recognition as an actor. Over the years, Alec Baldwin has had many more notable roles – such as Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle in Pearl Harbor. Alec Baldwin has been nominated for and has won several awards over the course of his illustrious career. Of course, his rise to fame might have been considerably slower had he not played Billy Aldrich all those years ago.
Sarah Michelle Gellar
Though Sarah Michelle Gellar had been acting since she was four, her big break on TV didn’t come until she took on the role of Kendall Hart in ABC’s All My Children. She played the long-lost daughter of a fan favorite character, Erica. Viewed by many soap opera fans as the second coming of Erica, Ms. Gellar became a household name. She even won a Daytime Emmy for her role in the show. Using her experience on All My Children, she leveraged a role in Buffy the Vampire Slayer – one of her best-known roles. Sarah Michelle Gellar is quite famous today, owing much of it to her soap opera debut. She has had roles on I Know What You Did Last Summer and other famous films. The soaps are clearly a great place to weed out awesome talent, as this actress’s humble origins show.
Tommy Lee Jones
You might not think of this traditionally gruff actor as one to play on a soap opera. However, his first role on the screen rather than the stage was as Dr. Mark Toland in ABC’s One Life to Live. He followed up this role with several other jobs, including his role as murderer Gary Gilmore in a TV adaptation of The Executioner’s Song. His role as Gary Gilmore brought him his first Emmy, and it was all uphill from there. Shortly after, he received another Emmy nomination. In addition, in the 1990s he starred in many blockbuster hits, including Batman Forever and The Fugitive. He received his first Oscar for The Fugitive. Tommy Lee Jones might be known today as tough characters like Agent K and the prison warden from Natural Born Killers. But don’t forget – he had his first role in a 70s soap opera, melodrama and all.
Director and actor Jensen Ackles started off as a model. But when he changed his career plans in 1996, he began to take guest roles on several television shows. His first recurring role, however, was on NBC’s soap, Days of Our Lives. Mr. Ackles played Eric Brady. He won a Soapy and was nominated for several Daytime Emmys during his tenure on the show. All of this exposure helped to score him roles in shows such as Dawson’s Creek, Smallville, and the film Devour. Though today Jensen Ackles is best known for his long-time role as monster-hunting Dean Winchester on Supernatural, the soaps are where he got his start. It’s not surprising that this talented man went on to do great things after Days of Our Lives.
James Earl Jones
The famous bass-voiced James Earl Jones’ first recurring role on television was actually on a soap opera. He first appeared on Guiding Light in 1966, playing former hospital administrator Doctor Jim Frazier. Though he was already an accomplished stage actor, this role proved that he had talents beyond Broadway. From Guiding Light, Mr. Jones moved on to Sesame Street, and shortly thereafter into his first starring role as boxer Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope. Jones continued to expand his horizons. In fact, he was the second African-American male to be nominated for an Academy Award after completing this film. James Earl Jones’ most famous roles are his voice acting roles in which he plays Darth Vader and Mufasa. It’s possible that had he not appeared on that fateful soap over 50 years ago, the world might not have known the man’s considerable talent.
Before she was on Friends, and far before the first Scream movie was released, Courteney Cox took her first credited television role on As the World Turns. She played Bunny on the old soap during the year 1984. The actress moved on shortly thereafter to several prominent roles. After getting her start on As the World Turns, not to mention appearing in Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” music video, Ms. Cox took several film roles and a recurring role on Family Ties. This role lasted from 1987-1989. Only five years later, Courteney Cox was cast as Monica Geller in Friends. She won several awards in the following years, including a Screen Actors Guild Award for her work on Friends. Ms. Cox’s talents go beyond simply acting – she also produces and directs movies, as well as owning her own production company.
Perhaps the most surprising name on this list, Morgan Freeman became widely-known in American media after he played on NBC’s soap opera, Another World. He played Dr. Roy Bingham on this show from 1982 to 1984. He also played on the PBS kids’ show The Electric Company for some time, before moving on to his bigger roles in famous films such as Driving Miss Daisy and The Shawshank Redemption. Mr. Freeman may have had humble soap opera beginnings, but he worked hard to advance his prolific career for many years. Now, he is ranked as the 4th highest box office star – bringing an average of $74.4 million dollars per film. In addition, he has won an Oscar for his work on Million Dollar Baby and a Golden Globe for Driving Miss Daisy.
Soap operas are a great way to screen potential talent. Though they may be cheesy and melodramatic, some of the best actors and actresses of our time have had their start on the soaps.
Are you surprised at any of these names? Did we miss anyone?