21 Actors Who Failed At First, Then Became Hugely Famous


If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. That common saying is something the following actors took to heart. Believe it or not, but some of the most successful actors didn't find success right away. That's right, there are actors who failed at first, but then became hugely famous. You know, sometimes life isn't easy and you have to work hard to make your dreams a reality. Even for these actors, who are seriously popular and rich, not everything was handed to them on a silver platter.

Their success stories are something you should take the time to become acquainted with, because they just might influence you in all the right ways. When you hear that the man who brought Han Solo to life didn't at first get the praise he does today, well, that just might affect you. Plus, it just goes to show you that sometimes celebrities really are like us "normal" folk, who more times than not have to put a lot of time in before we find success.

It's inspiring to hear how actors got to where they are today. So, with that, here are 21 actors who had to really climb the Hollywood ladder to become huge stars.

Harrison Ford

Indiana Jones. Han Solo. Jack Ryan. Harrison Ford has played some of the biggest and most well-known characters in film. So, it may surprise you to hear that it took him a long time to make a name for himself. While chatting with Success in April 2013, Ford opened up about his failures. "I was convinced I would wear my face out before I got a chance to break into better roles," he said. He first came to Hollywood in 1964, and it took over a decade for Ford to find huge success in film. That was in 1977, when he scored a part in Star Wars. As he told Success,

"I chose acting primarily because it is a place where I found a sense of purpose and I had the ability and the agility for it, but it was a long time before I was successful at it. I had an ambition to do what I ended up doing, and persisted when others had said I couldn’t do it. There were a lot of people I worked with in that same time period who gave up. But I prevailed and tenacity was a big part of the reason. I didn’t give up. I didn’t quit."

Jon Hamm

Before making it big as Don Draper on Mad Men, Jon Hamm was an unemployed actor with no money. As he told The Hollywood Reporter in June 2012 about his worst moment as an actor, "Mine would be living in L.A. for 10 years and not working, having no money and no prospects. The days were kind of great; it was the long nights staring at the ceiling waiting for the phone to ring. The uncertainty is always the difficult part, at least it has been for me."

Obviously, he overcame the hurdles and never gave up. "I kept showing up and I kept trying," Hamm told Entertainment Weekly in April 2015. "And I kept trying to push down the voice that was saying, 'You’re terrible. Someone’s better than you. They’re going to give the part to the other guy.' And elevate the part of me that said, like, 'You’re worth it. You should be here.'"


Lisa Kudrow

She'll always be known as Pheobe Buffay from Friends, but did you know Lisa Kudrow fought hard to become a TV sitcom success? Before becoming part of the most famous fictional group of friends to have ever graced television, Kudrow was cast as Roz in Frasier. Can you imagine her as Roz, the role that eventually went to Peri Gilpin? As she explained during her 2010 commencement speech at Vassar,

"I got cast as a series regular on a show that I knew would run forever and be very well written. Jim Burrows was directing and that was a big deal. He'd directed and produced, Cheers, Taxi — everything good. I was set. I was done. No more guest starring roles where you're not really part of the show because you're just there for the week. I was done worrying. "I get to do what I love on the best show ever." After two days of rehearsal, I got fired. I got fired from Frasier, the one everyone knew was going to be a hit, and it was."

There is a silver lining, because if she never got fired, Kudrow would've never played Ursula Buffay on Mad About You and Phoebe Buffay on Friends.

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Oprah Winfrey

She's so popular that she is recognized by only one name. But before becoming known as just "Oprah," Oprah Winfrey worked really hard to get where she's at today. She literally went from rags to riches, according to a May 2015 article from Business Insider. Imagine a young girl who once wore potato sacks as clothing and is now worth $3.1 billion. She grew up in poverty and lived through a tumultuous childhood, but that didn't stop Oprah from finding success.

Before the age of 20, she became the first black female news anchor in Nashville. Soon after she found a job as a reporter and anchor in Baltimore, but was fired after seven and a half months, reportedly faced sexism and sexual harassment, and was also bumped down to reading headlines during a morning segment, the Dailyworth reported in June 2014.

Clearly, she worked her way up and is now one of the richest and most powerful women in the world. As Oprah told The Baltimore Sun in May 2011, "Not all my memories of Baltimore are fond ones. But I do have fond memories of Baltimore, because it grew me into a real woman. I came in naive, unskilled, not really knowing anything about the business — or about life. And Baltimore grew me up."

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Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball wasn't always making headlines as the star of I Love Lucy or for showing that, yes, women can be funny, too. Actually, Business Insider reported in July 2015 that Ball was once known as "The Queen of B Movies," because of all the second-tier films she starred in. Obviously, that all changed.

According to Biography.com, after meeting her husband, Desi Arnaz, she booked the lead on the radio show called My Favorite Husband thanks to him pushing her to try something new. CBS loved her so much, they wanted her to recreate something similar for TV, but that was immediately put to bed after the network wouldn't include Arnaz, like Ball wanted. Eventually, CBS came crawling back and the creation of I Love Lucy everyone knows and loves today began. In addition to becoming a famous comedian, she also became the first woman to run a major television production studio, Desilu, after she and Arnaz divorced and she bought him out.

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Mark Ruffalo

The man who can both flawlessly pull off Marvel's the Hulk and earn Oscar nominations doesn't seem like the type of actor who would struggle. But, Mark Ruffalo certainly did. In 2011, he spoke with Details magazine about his struggle as an actor and said, "It was brutal. The years are stripping away, but when you talking to anyone from home, you’re saying something like, 'Well, I’m just working on my craft right now,' when the truth is that I can’t get a f*cking job because no one will hire me. It was humiliating."

He also told The Guardian in June 2005 that he hated Los Angeles so much and his failed successes as an actor made it worse. "I'd get to a stop light, and see some 16-year-old kid in a $100,000 BMW convertible, and I'd be so jealous. I'd be thinking, 'I'm such a loser. I'm 27 years old, I do these plays, nobody comes to see them, I get my brother to pay my parking fines.'"

Clearly, he's doing extremely well now and is even one of the most admired actors in Hollywood.

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Kerry Washington

How is it possible that Scandal's Olivia Pope has been fired two times? While chatting with Variety's "Actors on Actors" in June 2016, Kerry Washington revealed, "Before Scandal, I was actually cast in two other pilots. Both went to series, but I was fired and recast. For both, it was because they wanted me to sound more 'girlfriend,' more like 'hood,' more 'urban.'"

That was their loss, because she is now one of the most sought out actors today. Plus, her talent is beyond amazing. Who doesn't know her face or name? Like she told Variety, "I definitely feel like I’m at that point where it’s nice to not have to sit at home and wait to be invited to the party, but to be creating work for yourself."

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Jim Carrey

When you think of a successful comedian, who do you think of? One of the first names that probably comes to mind is Jim Carrey, but that wasn't always the case for the actor. Before booking roles in films like The Mask, Dumb & Dumber, and Ace Ventura, Carrey was getting booed off stages and not landing high-profile gigs. According to Lifetime UK's site, Carrey made his comedy debut at 15, but he "bombed badly." However, that pushed him to work harder and after moving to Los Angeles he ended up as Rodney Dangerfield's opening act for one season.

With the highs came the lows, like auditioning for Saturday Night Live and getting rejected multiple times. Carrey knows all too well about failure, but as he said during his May 2014 commencement speech Maharishi University school of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, "I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which, was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love."

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Jerry Seinfeld

Jerry Seinfeld is a legendary comedian who will never not be recognized for his role in Seinfeld. Before getting his own NBC comedy series or getting his big break on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1981, Seinfeld was getting fired. According to Business Insider, after being cast in a small role on Benson, he was fired. Apparently, producers weren't happy with how he played the part and gave him the boot after only three episodes. If that isn't bad enough, he reportedly didn't know he was fired, showed up for work, and then realized he was without a job.

It didn't stop him from performing at comedy clubs, which also landed him a gig on The Tonight Show. "I mean, I went from a club comic to The Tonight Show to my own TV series, all in the same building," he told Vulture in December 2014. "And then I kind of retired from show business. I mean, my career was really that simple: nightclubs, The Tonight Show, TV series, done."

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Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga wasn't always known as an award-winning actor and singer. At just 19, Def Jam signed Lady Gaga, but only a short three months later, the record label dropped her. She told The Sunday Times in December 2008, "It just wasn’t for them." It took a couple more years, before she was noticed again. Between 2007 and 2008, she started working for Interscope, where she wrote songs for Fergie, New Kids On The Block, and Britney Spears. Eventually, she was signed as an artist and put out her first album, The Fame, which included her first hit single, "Just Dance."

If she never would've gotten signed as an artist, her fans might not have ever seen Lady Gaga acting in hit series like American Horror Story or accepting Golden Globe awards for her acting talents.

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Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier was the first African American actor to win the Best Actor Academy Award for his work in the 1964 film Lilies of the Field. Now, he is known as one of the most successful, talented, and highly-regarded actors in the entertainment industry. But before that, Poitier faced a lot of hardships.

Before becoming famous, he lived in extreme poverty in the Bahamas and ended up moving to New York as a young teenager with only $3 in his pocket. He found an ad for actors at the American Negro Theatre where he auditioned, but after messing up his lines and speaking in a heavy Caribbean accent, the director said, according to Oprah.com, "Stop wasting your time — get a job as a dishwasher!"

This didn't discourage Poitier, but pushed him harder. He studied American newscasters to lose his accent and ended up going back to the American Negro Theatre and scored a role in Days of Our Youth. From that moment on, nobody would forget the name Poitier.


Taraji P. Henson

Empire fans agree Cookie Lyon is one of the greatest characters to have ever come to TV, right? That's all thanks to Taraji P. Henson's magnificent performance. However, it wasn't all sunshine, rainbows, and Golden Globes for Henson, who moved to Hollywood with her son and only $700 to her name. When roles didn't come her way, Henson did what she could like producing theater productions with her friends. "I wasn't in California to party and go to clubs," she told People in March 2015. "I just kept myself immersed in the craft of acting so that when opportunity struck, I would be ready."

Even though, as News House reports, she was rejected from a performing arts high school and failed pre-calculus as an electrical engineering major at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, she attended Howard University for acting and then found herself in California. It took a lot to work her way up the ladder, but she found initial success with The Division and Hustle & Flow. Eventually, she even earned an Oscar nomination for her part in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.


Meryl Streep

Can you imagine the entertainment world with Meryl Streep? The 67-year-old actor is a powerhouse and continues to prove why she belongs in the acting profession. Though, before becoming one of the most famous and successful movie stars, roles didn't come easy to Streep. Do you know the 1976 film, King Kong, which stars Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges? Streep auditioned for Lange's part, but was reportedly rejected because she wasn't beautiful enough.

During a January 2015 interview on The Graham Norton Show, Streep revealed that breaking into the movie industry wasn't easy. Before making her film debut, she went to an audition for King Kong. While there, she claims the producer questioned her appearance to his son, who was responsible for bringing in Streep for the audition, and said in Italian, "che brutta." As Streep explained, that basically means, "Why do you bring me this ugly thing?" Streep understood exactly what he said and responded back in Italian by saying, "I'm sorry I'm not beautiful enough to be in King Kong."

Well, he certainly made a mistake.


Salma Hayek

She has impacted the entertainment world in huge ways and not just with her acting talents, but as a woman of color who continues to push the boundaries. Well, Salma Hayek wasn't always welcomed with open arms as an actor. As Red magazine's July cover star, she revealed she was told many times she'd never succeed in Hollywood.

"In Mexico they said, 'You have no talent, you’re a spoiled brat, you’ll never make it as an actress here.' I ended up doing telenovelas in Mexico and then went to the U.S. because I wanted to do films. They said, 'You’re Latina, you’re very limited, the parts don’t exist, you’ll never make it as an actress here.' In both scenarios, I thought, 'What an interesting challenge. This is wrong. It must be changed.' I had conviction because I was completely clear that this was what I had to do."

Even once she became a success, Hayek still faced failure. When pitching Ugly Betty to American TV networks, it got rejected three times. Her persistence paid off and look at Hayek's success now.

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Jennifer Aniston

Thanks to Friends, Jennifer Aniston is now one of the most famous actors in the world. Before taking on the role of Rachel Green? Not so much. She struggled to keep a role and a series afloat, and so much so, that she had four failed sitcoms in a row in the early '90s. They were Molloy, Ferris Bueller, The Edge, and Muddling Through.

According to Vulture, one day in 1994 while pumping gas, Aniston spotted NBC's then-entertainment division president, Warren Littlefield. She went up to him and asked a serious question about her career, "Is it ever going to happen?" He promised her it would and it certainly did. Obviously, you know what happened next, because soon enough he presented her with the script for Friends. The rest is history.

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Jane Lynch

Who doesn't know Jane Lynch? She brought Glee's Sue Sylvester to life and even won a Golden Globe and Emmy for her portrayal. Despite having some relatively well-known acting gigs throughout her acting career, it didn't come easy. Plus, she didn't become hugely popular until the age of 49, when she booked Glee. "If you were to tell me five years ago that this would have happened for me, I would have told you you were lying," she told USA Today in September 2011 about her quick jump to success as a late bloomer in Hollywood. "But it just feels so right and so wonderful."

Finding Glee really made Lynch feel good and showed her she is talented. "I think I really needed some professional success," she admitted to USA Today. "I would have had to find a way to be happy without it, but I think it really did help me get a sense of myself and a confidence."

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Connie Britton

It's hard to imagine Connie Britton failing at anything in life, but her acting career didn't always soar. She didn't find huge fame until she was 39. Yes, that was after being cast as Tami Taylor in the beloved NBC series Friday Night Lights.

Before that, she did have some success on TV, including starring in shows like The West Wing, Spin City, and 24, and also in film with 1995's The Brothers McMullen. However, what she thought would be her biggest role to date didn't exactly pan out. Her big break almost came when she nailed her audition for Jerry Maguire. Unfortunately, she lost out to Renée Zellweger. "It was heartbreak," she said about it while chatting with the New York Times in February 2013.

She may not be remembered as Dorothy from Jerry Maguire, but she'll always be remembered as Tami Taylor.

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Jeremy Renner

From The Avengers to The Hurt Locker to The Bourne Legacy, Jeremy Renner is no stranger to starring in major films. However, if you would've told the 45-year-old actor when he first came to Hollywood in 1992 that he'd be a big name, he probably wouldn't have believed you. Despite booking his first role in 1995 in National Lampoon's Senior Trip, Renner struggled.

According to an October 2014 Los Angeles Times profile on Renner, it took him over a decade to land a movie that would put him on the map. In 1999, he lived by candlelight, because he couldn't pay his electric bill. Many would give up after a long struggle, but not Renner, especially when he scored a role in The Hurt Locker, which earned him an Oscar nomination. "It was like you're playing baseball your whole life and then you suddenly get on a team and go to the World Series," he said. "All of a sudden I was 'the new guy in town' after being here 20 years. I was like, 'That's fine by me, I'll be the new guy.'"

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Carey Mulligan

It's mind-boggling to think someone as talented as Carey Mulligan faced a lot of rejection at the beginning of her acting career. In 2012, she told Charles McGrath at the New York Times 11th annual Arts & Leisure Weekend (via The Huffington Post) how she desperately wanted to go to a theater school as a child, but her parents wouldn't allow it. Eventually, she ended up applying to drama schools when deciding where to attend college and quickly realized acting wasn't going to be easy.

"It was the most rebellious thing I’ve ever done," she said about sending in her applications. "I applied to drama school instead of university and got rejected from every one. And Drama Center London told me to be a children’s TV show presenter." She even described her auditions as "horrendous" and "torture."

Well, it all paid off in the end, didn't it?


Elvis Presley

Believe it or not, but "The King of Rock and Roll" wasn't always so popular. As much as he was remembered for is singing talent, he was also a movie star. Based on a March 2013 New York Times obituary for Eddie Bond, a rockabilly singer and radio host, not everybody saw Presley's talents, including Bond. Apparently, he once told Presley that he'd be better off driving a truck than pursuing a music career. Elvis Presley, a truck driver? No way.

The two first met in May 1954 at an audition, where Presley was trying to score a gig at the Hi Hat Club in Memphis. Based on Bond's description of the singer, it's no surprise he didn't book it. Per the New York Times, his words affected Presley who told a friend during the filming of Jailhouse Rock that Bond's comment "broke [his] heart" and later added, "I wonder what Eddie Bond thinks now."

Despite not booking gigs and the negativity thrown is way, Presley pushed on and is still a legend today.

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Winona Ryder

Far too often are actors judged by their appearance, which is something Winona Ryder faced as just a teenager. While chatting with Interview magazine in May 2013, she revealed that her looks almost impacted her career. "I remember one time in particular," she explained about an audition. "I was in the middle of auditioning, and I was mid-sentence when the casting director said, 'Listen, kid. You should not be an actress. You are not pretty enough. You should go back to wherever you came from and you should go to school. You don't have it.' She was very blunt — I honestly think that she thought she was doing me a favor."

Not only is that awful, but can you imagine? Thankfully, Ryder didn't let it sway her from her passion and now she is an extremely successful and recognized actor.

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