Careers in Infancy: Early Roles for Premium Cable TV Actors

Actors often have to work a long time before hitting it big. And that’s assuming they hit it big at all. Sometimes, they can’t get steady film work and turn to TV. Still other times, they’re drawn to TV. But before they gain major roles on high-quality TV shows, they’re bound to have a lot of little-known work under their belt. Here are some examples from several of my favorite shows:

Keone Young
Known as: Wu, Deadwood
Early Role: A talking fish on The Simpsons
Young’s IMDb page lists him as “Fish” from the “30 Minutes Over Tokyo” episode of The Simpsons. The family is stuck working in the Osaka Seafood Concern, ripping open fish, when a magical talking fish implores Bart, “Spare my life, and I will grant you three…” just before Bart rips it open. That voice was provided by Wu.

Geri Jewell
Known as: Jewel, Deadwood
Early Role: Jewell, Facts of Life
Jewell is noteworthy enough as the first actor with cerebral palsy to appear in a TV series. She ultimately reprised the role of a character with cerebral palsy on Deadwood while taking on a whole lot of abuse from Al Swearingen.

W. Earl Brown
Known as: Dan Dority, Deadwood
Early Role: Warren, There’s Something About Mary (1998)
This is the one that inspired the whole list last week when my friend Marty pointed it out. Brown eventually became Swearingen’s second in command on Deadwood, but not before playing Warren, Mary’s mentally challenged brother.

Vincent Pastore, Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico
Known as: Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, Christopher Moltisanti, and Paulie “Walnuts” Gaultieri, The Sopranos
Early Role: Goodfellas (1990)
It’s impossible to watch Scorsese’s epic gangster film without noticing many, many cast members of The Sopranos. Lorraine Bracco is the obvious one, and that’s why I left her out. Pastore (Bonpensiero) appears very briefly early in the film, rolling a cart through a restaurant. Sirico played Tony Stacks, also early in the film. And Imperioli was forever immortalized as Spider, the kid who got shot in the foot by Joe Pesci’s character. It’s worth noting that Imperioli also appeared in Malcolm X and several other early Spike Lee films.

Dominic Chianese
Known as: Junior Soprano, The Sopranos
Early Role: Johnny Ola, The Godfather: Part II (1974)
If you’re like me, then you’ve seen the second Godfather film many times. And you’ve probably never put two and two together. Johnny Ola, Hyman Roth’s muscle, was played by the guy who would become Tony Soprano’s meddlesome, doddering old Uncle Junior. Once you see it, you will never unsee it.

Jennifer Carpenter
Known as:
Debora Morgan, Dexter
Early Role: Lisa, White Chicks (2004)
You can certainly be forgiven for not recognizing this one. Because if you’re like the overwhelming majority of the rest of the world, you didn’t see White Chicks. I know I didn’t.

Giancarlo Esposito
Known as: Gus Fring, Breaking Bad
Early Role: Buggin’ Out, Do the Right Thing (1989)
It blew my mind when I first realized this, because I had only known him as Gus, the nefarious Chicken Man. He plays such a cold, ruthless, calculating character that I never would’ve figured out that he was Buggin’ Out.

Anna Gunn
Known as: Skyler White, Breaking Bad
Early Role: Amy, Seinfeld
She took her turn on Seinfeld as- what else?- one of Jerry’s girlfriends. George believes that he caught her kissing Jerry’s cousin, although the information is suspect because he wasn’t wearing his glasses at the time.

Jonathan Banks
Known as:
Mike the Cleaner, Breaking Bad
Early Role: Gunderson, Airplane! (1980)
Again, this can easily be forgiven because the movie is so old, and Banks has gotten much older. But there he is in all his glory as the flight controller.

Dean Norris
Known as: Hank Schrader, Breaking Bad
Early Role: Tony, Total Recall (1990)
If you don’t recall the character “Tony” from Total Recall, he was the guy with a horrifying wrinkly vagina on his face. COOOOHAAAAGEN!! DEES PEOPLE NEED AYUH!

Margo Martindale
Known as:
Mags Bennett, Justified
Early Role: “Plump Ogallala Tart” (Buffalo Heifer), Lonesome Dove (1989)
When the gang rolls into Ogallala, Nebraska, they enter a brothel where they’re greeted by several prostitutes. One of them is Margo Martindale, and she’s listed in the credits only as “plump Ogallala tart”. Bonus points if you also recognize Mags/Martindale as the Dexter character with the deadly affinity for key lime pie.

Dominic West
Known as: Jimmy McNulty, The Wire
Early Role: Jerus Jannick, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
This one makes me laugh more than all of the others combined. Poor McNulty, the Irish American bloodhound drug cop from the gritty Baltimore streets, had to play a throwaway character in the crappiest Star Wars movie. Good for him as an actor, finding better work. Much, much, much, much better work.

Christina Hendricks
Known as: Joan Holloway, Mad Men
Early Role: Saffron, Firefly
I don’t think I needed to include this one because there are enough sci-fi nerds floating around out there that the info is reasonably well-known. Truthfully, I included this one solely for an excuse to use a picture of Christina Hendricks/Joan Holloway, or as she’s known amongst a few friends of mine, Boobasaurus Rex.

Glynn Turman
Known as: Mayor Royce, The Wire
Early Role: Roy Hanson, Gremlins (1984)
Turman was perfect as the conflicted and corrupt mayor of Baltimore on The Wire. But before that, a long time before that, he played the science teacher in Gremlins.  


Filed under Movies, TV Shows

28 responses to “Careers in Infancy: Early Roles for Premium Cable TV Actors

  1. Oh wow, I loved this list. It’s funny,before I started watching Breaking Bad (I plowed through all four seasons in a bout a week), I was rewatching Do the Right Thing, remembering all the work Giancarlo did back in the nineties and wishing he was still acting. Then I watched Breaking Bad and got blown away by his performance.

    • I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard about someone watching entire seasons of Breaking Bad in a day or two. I did the exact same thing with seasons 1 and 2. It’s some of the best praise a show can get.

  2. It’s always interesting to see where some of today’s stars came from. Or to be watching some old movie or show and just be like “Oh my god, that’s so-and-so!”, finding them in an early role.

    I still find it funny when I’m watching Big Bang Theory, remembering back to seeing Johnny Galecki in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. And also seeing him on Roseanne.

    • Galecki as Rusty just blew my mind. I was not aware of that at all. The Roseanne role doesn’t surprise me, I can definitely remember that. But as Rusty… I mean, the two don’t even look alike.

      • Yea, Galecki in Christmas Vacation caught me off guard too. I didn’t realize it for the longest. Then, during one of my traditional viewings of Christmas Vacation it just sorta clicked. I think it was just an expression he made. He definitely has changed in looks since then. But looking at him as Rusty you can still see it. It’s in the eyes.

  3. surroundedbyimbeciles

    Deadwood is my all-time favorite show. It’s probably because I also research that time and place in history. Also, it is interesting to see how many Deadwood actors show up on Justified, my second all-time favorite show.

    • I can’t believe how many of those characters keep popping up in Justified. Dan’s been on there. Ellsworth is in the mix. Bullock/Olyphant, of course. Johnny from Deadwood has been on there. That guy who was on The Killing, the bartender in Deadwood, had a long run in season one. I think the preacher had an episode or two. The Justified writers apparently have a ton of respect for Deadwood.

  4. Oh my God…she WAS Saffron! Woulda never put those two together.

    • It became really apparent amongst me and my friends after Mad Men first started because we all had to know what other stuff she’d been in. You know, ’cause her acting ability is awesome.*

      *ok, technically, she is a great actress. But really we all just thought she was hot.

  5. Love that you listed so many characters from Breaking Bad! Mrs. G-LO and I just started catching up on this show. It’s absolutely insane! We are about half way through season 3 and have so many mixed emotions about all of the characters. Really growing to hate Walt. Have oodles of sympathy for Jessie and Hank. On the fence about Skylar (Skyler?). Bob Odenkirk is absolutely hilarious! And Giancarlo Esposito is just awesome! Such a huge change from his Buggin Out role in Do The Right Thing. Everytime I see him I hear, “Yo Sal! How come there’s no brothers up on that wall?”.

    Once again, well done!

    • I love that part of the show so much. They all blur the lines of morality, and it’s all Walt’s fault. Great catch on Skyler’s name, BTW.

      Esposito just gets better and better from where you are in the series. You’ve got 1 1/2 seasons worth of some of my favorite TV, ever, ever, ever, forever and ever, coming your way.

  6. rtm

    WOW, I had no idea Dominic West was in a Star Wars movie! He’s quite a versatile chameleon actor isn’t he, I like actors who can sort disappear into roles like that.

  7. Deadwood is the clearing house.

  8. Man, these are quite the finds! I just watched The Godfather II recently and had no idea Dominic Chianese was in it. Same goes for Jonathan Banks in Airplane.

    And that’s a great pic of McNulty, haha.

  9. If you ever saw my FF-UN series when I ran Blog Cabins, you’ll know that this is right up my alley.

    I know Do the Right Thing is earlier, but when I see Giancarlo Esposito, I can’t help but think of The Usual Suspects.

    Total Recall is a That Guy haven! Norris fits right in – I think he’s also played a corrupt cop about 8,000 times.

    Yeah, The Phantom Menace has a lot of those types of roles. Knightley and Byrne are the two other big ones that come to mind.

    I only knew Carpenter from Dexter but checked out her resume a couple weeks ago when we had finished the latest season. Was a bit shocked – she’s been around for a while, though I wasn’t too surprised I hadn’t seen her work – it’s mostly in shitty and/or horror flicks (as evidenced above).

    • Holy crap… Esposito was in The Usual Suspects? Mind blown.

      I caught Carpenter in The Exorcism of Emily Rose within a matter of months of starting to watch Dexter. I did it backwards with her.

  10. Thanks for the Hank / Total Recall connection. I thought I knew everything there was to know about the production and the cast. Will have to reprimand my kuato for not pointing it out to me when I mainlined the first few seasons of Breaking Bad last summer. Bad kuato!

  11. Steve

    Nice list! A reminder of why I prefer character actors to ‘stars’. The good ones inhabit their roles so well, sometimes you don’t realise you’ve been watching them for years. Dean Norris is an excellent example of this, I had no idea he was ‘vagina face’ Tony in Total Recall, not sure how I missed that…. scratch that, I know exactly how.
    Thanks for adding Christina Hendricks. The cleavage that seems to follow you round the room like the eyes of a creepy painting. She should be added to every list… just because…
    Geoffrey Arend you lucky lucky man. Guess I should do some work now 🙂

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