We all know the tired old trope of the waiter serving you twenty minutes after their latest callback, or the wannabe popstar belting out the national anthem for a junior varsity baseball game, but it’s an enduring image for a reason. Making your way into showbiz is near-impossible, and it’s hard as hell to support yourself while pursuing your Hollywood dream.
In HBO’s new pitch-black comedy Barry, Bill Hader plays the titular Barry, a contract killer who stumbles into an acting class in Los Angeles and falls in love with the craft. The thought of trying to balance two careers as varied as an assassin and an actor got us thinking about some of our favorite stories of stars who started with small, odd jobs.
Boris Karloff, the Canadian Logger
Boris Karloff is best known for portraying the iconic Monster in the classic Frankenstein franchise from the 1930s and beyond, but he was originally forbidden from acting as a child. It was expected that Karloff (then known by his birth name, William Henry Pratt) follow in his father’s footsteps and work in the consular service in England.
But the would-be horror icon saw a different future for himself, so he broke off ties with much of his family and moved to Vancouver to pursue his craft. There, he worked as a logger to support himself until he could charm his way into the theater, lying about his previous experience and relying on the sophistication of his British accent to get cast in Canadian plays.
Bernie Mac, the Wonder Bread Salesman
Before skyrocketing to stardom, standup comedian Bernie Mac paid the bills driving a Wonder Bread delivery truck around the Chicago area. From his outstanding performance in Friday, to his incredible sets on the Original Kings of Comedy Tour, to The Bernie Mac Show, Mac always came off as equal parts hilarious and grounded. Perhaps this was thanks to the huge amount of real-world work he put in before finding success in stand up comedy in his thirties. With his sharp wit and off-the-cuff sense of humor, we can only imagine what it must have been like to get a weekly delivery from the genius comedian.
Mary Tyler Moore, the Dancing Elf
Mary Tyler Moore was one of the most beloved entertainers to ever grace film and TV. The Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning actress was famous for her roles in The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and for her heartbreaking dramatic turn in the film Ordinary People. But before any of that, fresh out of highschool, Mary Tyler Moore got her start as a dancing elf pushing kitchen appliances.
At age seventeen, Moore made her silver screen debut as Happy Hotpoint, a gray leotard-clad elf. Pushing Hotpoint appliances like dishwashers, she pranced and danced for the brand in over thirty commercials. We’re not saying she owes her entire career to her whimsical beginnings, but watching the old commercials it’s clear to see just how much her signature personality and charm were already in place at such a young age.
Ed McMahon, the Carnival Barker
Ed McMahon spent thirty years as the charming sidekick to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and he’s best known for his deep, irresistible, baritone voice. So it should come as no surprise that he got his start using that voice to earn a living.
At the age of fifteen, McMahon worked at road shows and carnivals, and used his already impressive voice to announce various carnival attractions and shout out numbers during games of bingo. He would later go on to join the military and work on the Atlantic City boardwalk selling kitchen gadgets before going to college for drama, but many of the most important lessons he learned about performance were forged at the carnival fairgrounds.
Peter Falk, the Number Cruncher
Take one look at the rough and tumble career of Peter Falk — which includes his most famous role as the titular detective in Columbo — and it’s hard to imagine him crammed into a desk pushing paper all day. But the actor known for his scratchy voice and signature squint paid the bills as an “efficiency expert” for the Connecticut State Budget Bureau in the early 1950s.
So while you may remember him from Columbo, from cult classic flicks like Mikey and Nicky, or as the grandfather narrating The Princess Bride, there’s someone out there in Connecticut who probably remembers him as the guy who gave them grief for inefficiently going over budget!
Madeline Kahn, the Singing Waitress
With an iconic singing voice and incredible comedic timing, Madeline Kahn quickly made a name for herself as a staple player in Mel Brooks’ comedies of the 1970s. Her instantly quotable work in films like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and History of the World, Part 1 cemented her status as a comedy icon, but before she made it to Hollywood, she worked as a singing waitress at a Bavarian beer hall in Hudson Valley, NY.
She even attributed the work with jump starting her career and getting her interested in opera. It’s pretty incredible to think that Kahn went from slinging beer at a summer resort to being twice nominated for Academy Awards.
Burt Lancaster, the Circus Acrobat
With a filmography that includes titles like The Killers, Judgement at Nuremberg, Birdman of Alcatraz, and The Swimmer, it’s hard to imagine Burt Lancaster as ever being anything other than the classic tough dude actor our grandparents adored. But before he got his start in film Lancaster flew through the air with the greatest of ease as a circus acrobat in the 1930s. A finger injury set him on a different path, including working as a lingerie salesman before being drafted for WWII and eventually impressing a producer with his tall, muscular build. From there, he slowly but surely built himself into one of the most recognized talents in Hollywood by choosing smart roles and using his acrobatic skills to do many of his own stunts.
Marilyn Monroe, the Drone Inspector
Before Marilyn Monroe took on her famous persona she was Norma Jeane, a young woman working as an inspector for a drone manufacturer during World War II. The company, Radioplane, made what were essentially explosives-loaded radio-controlled bombers, and it was the movie star’s job to inspect and spray the parachutes. A famous photo snapped of the actress in the workshop was vital to her being discovered by Hollywood, and lead directly to the start of her fame.
Stories like these give us hope for our Hollywood dreams, because if Marilyn Monroe could spray down parachutes and Burt Lancaster could travel in the circus, and they still turned into icons, maybe we can land our next callback in between shifts. For more Hollywood inspiration, tune in to Barry premiering on HBO on March 25th to see how he juggles his marks.
Giaco Furino is a Senior Writer for Studio@Gizmodo.