Please don't list this on a work's page as a trope. Examples can go on the work's YMMV tab.
'60s: Ward, West, Williams, some guy. '70s onwards: "Wait, is that Bruce Lee?!"
"It's a harrowing watch. Big Bird fumbles mess hall etiquette, pokes fun at Mickey's name, and, worst of all, splashes his exasperated counselor with a cannonball. The audience knows in their bones that Mr. Snuffleupagus received a bloody bowling-ball-size gizzard in the mail shortly after Labor Day."
You start watching a show. There's an actor on it. Let's call him Terry O'Quinn. As far as you know, you've never seen him before.
You keep watching the show.
Then you see an old rerun of The X-Files. There he is! Or you come upon the movie The Cutting Edge on cable. There he is! Or The Rocketeer. Or Heaven's Gate. Or that other episode of The X-Files he was in, playing someone else. Or Star Trek: The Next Generation, when he played that asshole admiral. Or JAG where he played that badass admiral. Or The X-Files: Fight the Future. Or the other 94 things he was in.
Point is, you've seen these things before. You just never paid enough attention to the actor to learn his name, or connect one appearance to another, until he finally landed a regular role on a series you regularly watch.
This is what happens when a former Hey, It's That Guy! finally lands a breakout role. It may also include a few minor roles before their Star-Making Role. When you just can't shake the image of the other roles, it's Role Association. If the older work is repackaged to accentuate the actor's later successes, it falls into Billing Displacement.
Examples (sorted by last name):
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In a variant of this, Kirstie Alley was a contestant on the game shows Match Game and Password Plus before her career started. Both of these episodes have occasionally rerun on GSN.
Knights of the Dinner Table once featured a column called "A Gamer's Rant on the Movies", in which a guy named Noah Antwiler would give snarky reviews of bad movies. If that name sounds familiar to you, it's because you might know him today as Spoony.
Simon Baker's small role as a young and absurdly pretty gay actor (and murder victim) in L.A. Confidential.
Kristin Bauer showed up as one of the members of the bitchy girl clique in Romy And Michele's High School Reunion, after which she went on to portray a stripper in Dancing At The Blue Iguana, and now she is known worldwide as the bisexual vampire Pam on True Blood.
He had a pretty significant and memorable role in 1993's The Program as the steroid-dependent defensive lineman "Lattimer."
It's hard to tell on some older televisions, but with HD or some good light you can see Gerard Butler in Tomorrow Never Dies, on the submarine that is attacked. If you can't see him, his voice is almost unmistakable. Almost.
Near the end of Season One of Highlander in the episode called Nowhere To Run, there is a young woman who's raped by a rich ambassador's son. It's her first ever acting role. Her name? Marion Cotillard.
And before that, she was Alex Keaton's girlfriend during the final season of Family Ties.
And before that, she was a conflicted telekinetic teenager in the almost completely forgotten series Misfits of Science.
And even before that she was the girl who got up on stage and danced with the Boss in the Dancing in the Dark video.
Blink and you'll miss her, Nikki Cox is the red headed Girl interviewed by the T-1000 in Terminator 2.
She also played an alien pen pal to Data in an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Given that her people were in crisis, her role is fairly significant.
Ronny Cox has shown up as the villain in any number of movies, from RoboCop (1987) to Total Recall (1990), but this editor never really put it together until seeing him as recurring character Senator Kinsey in Stargate SG-1. He was also profoundly surprised when, upon rewatching Beverly Hills Cop, he turned out to be a good guy.
Even further into the past, there's Deliverance (1972), where he plays the guitar with that banjo-playing hillbilly.
Somewhere between the two, but not as a bad guy, he played Louden Swain's dad in Vision Quest.
He was also in an episode of The X-Files as an anti-semite, dying a slow and agonizing death as a result of secret US Navy ELF transmitters, who takes Mulder hostage. That episode was written by Vince Gilligan, who would later create Breaking Bad; he claims Cranston's performance in that episode is what inspired him to cast him as Walter White.
Don't forget his performance as the admiral in Babylon 5 who went on a suicide mission.
He's astronaut "Gus" Grissom on the variety show The Wonders play on near the end in That Thing You Do! He plays "not used to the camera celebrity who does awkward scripted bits" really well. Takes a great actor to play a bad one!
He also had a small part in the 2002 remake of Solaris, and as a teen he starred in the film "Spanking The Monkey" — and also was in an ill-conceived car commercial in which he declared Subaru was "like PUNK ROCK".
Leonardo DiCaprio had a tiny part as one of Darlene's classmates on Roseanne, before his larger roles on Parenthood (1990) and Growing Pains. Roseanne featured a number of people who would later go on to bigger, more recognisable parts. Some examples: Tobey Maguire, Alyson Hannigan, Stephen Dorff, Jena Malone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dot-Marie Jones, and several others.
Disney Channel Original Movies often featured actors that would go on to much bigger things. Not counting those who rose through Disney and Disney Channel there's...
Emmy Rossum in "Genius"
Mischa Barton in "A Ring Of Endless Light"
Alyson and Amanda Michalka as well as Jack Coleman in "Cow Belles" though the two former were starting to make a name for themselves as Aly and AJ about the same time.
Daniele Panabaker in "Stuck in The Suburbs" and "Read it and Weep."
Also in "Read it and Weep" her sister Kay Panabaker
Sara Paxton in "Return to Halloween Town" unless you knew her from "Summer Land" which she did previously.
Most people would recognize Jason Earles as Miley Stewart's brother in Hannah Montana. Before that, he played the nerdy Grady in Phil of the Future, and before that, a geeky, virgin bandy trying to get laid and assisted in creating a porn video of his friends in American Pie: Band Camp.
Interestingly, a year before her first appearance as Cuddy, the highly successful doctor, she played a highly successful doctor in an episode of Without a Trace. It gets even weirder, considering that both characters had a longing for maternity, with the latter role going in search of the child she gave up for adoption in her teens, and the former having an extended storyline about wanting to conceive a child.
Jerome Flynn, who plays the sellsword Bronn in Game of Thrones, was previously a regular in the ITV series Soldier, Soldier. During that time, he also starred as one half of the English pop duo Robson & Jerome, who released a series of hit singles that were covers of Silly Love Songs. People who read up on the actor are often shocked when they discover him doing stuff like this.
Frakes was also in an early episode (sans beard) of "Hill Street Blues", playing a drug dealer.
He also played one of the main character's brothers in the series "North and South.
Jason David Frank appeared as a bully in an episode of Family Matters, a far cry from fighting evil space monsters as a Power Ranger. For that matter, fans of his current MMA career would probably get a good laugh out of the fact that he loses to Urkel in that episode.
Even though the three actors playing the other three leads (Lisa Ortiz, Eric Stuart, and Veronica Taylor) were also breaking out at the time, all three of them would wind up working for the not-too-fondly thought of 4KidsEntertainment, as did most of the other actors who worked on Slayers; when CPM started to fall under, Freeman rose to stardom working for other companies dubbing more popular, un-Bowdlerised anime, mostly those licensed by Bandai Entertainment.
Recognize the blonde girl◊ watching A.J. Soprano vandalize a swimming pool in The Sopranos episode "The Telltale Moozadell"? No? Give up? It's a fifteen-year-old Stefani Germanotta, who would become slightly better known as Lady Gaga about seven years after that episode was aired.
Paul Giamatti had a minor role in the FMV videogame Ripper back when he was still an unknown. Ironically, said game had an All-Star Cast of people still fairly well known today meaning he ended up enhancing it over time.
Darla's victim in the opening scene of the Buffy pilot was played by Carmine Giovinazzo of Csi Ny.
Carmine also guest starred on the season 2 ep "Revenge is Best Served Cold" on the regular CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, two years before his casting in the spinoff. But Word of God says they weren't connected.
It can be a severely weird experience to first see Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias in Watchmen and then later find him all over the place in quieter fare like Brideshead Revisited and A Single Man, or as the male lead in romantic comedies like Chasing Liberty. (The fact that his Watchmen role had him being stern, middle-aged and German-American in a very convincing blond wig when he and most of his other characters are affable dark-haired young Brits can make this even weirder.)
Betty Grable appeared in The Gay Divorcee as Edward Everett Horton's unnamed dancing partner, and was a chorus girl in several earlier movie musicals.
Aubrey Drake Graham was "Jimmy Brooks" on seasons 1-7 (2001-2008) of Degrassi. He now is known as the rapper/singer Drake.
And as Woody Allen's childhood self in Radio Days.
Clark Gregg became famous playing Agent Phil Coulson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which makes it very weird to see Gregg in old episodes of The West Wing. In The West Wing Gregg plays FBI Special Agent Casper, whose deferential but sarcastic demeanor makes the two characters seem almost identical.
A completely different direction, though, is two episodes as a serial old-lady rapist on The Shield
Journeyman supporting actor/Saturday Night Live standout Bill Hader was a field agent on Punk'd. Avid viewers of the credits of action films (all two of you) may also spot his name as a production assistant on a host of early-2000s films like Collateral Damage and The Scorpion King.
In the Highlander episode "Nowhere To Run", Anthony Stewart Head (credited as Anthony Head) plays an ambassador and friend of Duncan MacLeod. This is the same episode that features Marion Cotillard in her first ever acting role.
In Under Siege 2 the 17 year old Katherine Heigl played the niece of Casey Ryback. Off course, this was before her role in Grey's Anatomy
Audrey Hepburn's silent appearance in the opening scene of The Lavender Hill Mob. The same year she instantly became a smash success with Roman Holiday.
As the shadowy Marita Covarrubias in several episodes of The X-Files.
Billie Holiday made two uncredited appearances in films before she became famous: as an extra in a nightclub scene in The Emperor Jones, and as a vocalist in one segment of the Duke Ellington musical short Symphony in Black.
A year before his band, Blind Melon, had a major label album and a hit with "No Rain", Shannon Hoon could be seen in Guns N' Roses' "Don't Cry" video, harmonizing with Axl Rose in the performance segments. Hoon sang backup on that song and four others on Use Your Illusion Inote the other four being "November Rain", "Live And Let Die", "The Garden" and "You Ain't The First", plus the alternate version of "Don't Cry" on Use Your Illusion II.
Karl Jenkins as Paul Stubbs, the bad-tempered astrophysicist from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Evolution", is instantly recognisable as a younger Dr Kelso from Scrubs.
After the success of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe", some radio stations chose to ride on her newfound fame by playing "Tug of War". Cue people's jaws dropping when they recognize the song from a few years ago and realize, "Holy shit, that was Carly Rae Jepsen!?".
Turns out Cherry Jones (aka President Allison Taylor) played politician Barbara Layton in an episode of The West Wing in 2004. Probably averted for Broadway theatre-goers, as by the time she had already been a huge name on it for years, had won one Tony award and was on the cusp of another for her role as Sister Aloysius in Doubt.
And Gunfight at the OK Corral, which was alluded to in the episode "Spectre of the Gun" in an illusion.
He also had an uncredited part as an army medic in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit in which he actually utters the line "This man is dead, captain." In 1955!
The 1956 novel The Last Hurrah, which was very loosely based on real events in early 1950s Massachusetts politics, features a character named Kevin McCluskey, who is a telegenic but politically inexperienced candidate with a fancy education, a pretty wife, smiling kids, a respectable war record from his days in the Navy, and more good looks than brains. Reading the book anytime after 1960, the character seems strangely familiar...
A few years before having hits of her own, Kesha appeared in Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" video. A prominent pre-fame musical appearance was doing backing vocals for Flo Rida's "Right Round" - she was uncredited at her own request, and someone else lip-synched her part for the video.
Before Taylor Lautner was in Twilight, he was a junior world champion karate master, having gotten his black belt by age eight. He competed in an ISKA event at age 11 that was taped by ESPN, which a few years later (but still before Twilight) was riffed on Cheap Seats.
Adam Lazare-White, voicing Jacob from Mass Effect 2, should sound familiar to older gamers that have memories of video gaming later in The Nineties. He played 1LT Terrence "Zero" O'Hearn in Wing Commander Prophecy and provided the character's voice in the sequel, Wing Commander Secret Ops.
Even Evangeline Lilly can invoke this, despite having next to no acting experience with dialogue prior to starring in LOST. She worked in Vancouver for a while as a part-time model and would occasionally appear as a mute extra in tv series filmed there, notably in Smallville, where she managed to be in 5 episodes. So if you go on a Smallville binge, expect several moments of, "Hey! DidKate Austinjust walk past the screen?!"
She even did a stint being the pitchwoman for phone dating service Quest Personals- meaning, for a time viewers might be lead to believe if they called Quest for a date they'd get Lilly.
Chad Lindberg, aka Ash, the computer genius, from Supernatural, started his computer training early: he shows up in the first-season Buffy episode "I Robot, You Jane."
Vincent Martella, who is the voice of Phineas in Phineas and Ferb, was Greg in Everybody Hates Chris. Sort of an inversion, because Phineas and Ferb started in 2007 and Everybody Hates Chris didn't end until 2009.
Rita Moreno, the only actress to win an Oscar, Tony and Grammy can be seen as the troubled Dolores Guerrero in the 1950 film So Young So Bad under the name "Rosita Moreno" plus gets to show off her amazing singing voice a few years before starring in West Side Story. The film also features two other actresses in this trope - Anne Francis now famous for Forbidden Planet and Honey West, and Anne Jackson who has a huge list of film and TV credits.
Alex O'Loughlin had the memorable role of the obsessive-compulsive serial killer who tries to redeem himself by helping the blind son of one of his victims on an episode of Criminal Minds.
Terry O'Quinn from LOST. Part of the failure to recognize can be attributed to slightly altered appearance for the role of Locke. In most other roles, he sported a mustache and balding hair, rather than a totally shaven head.
He was also a dickish Starfleet admiral in an episode of TNG.
He also played the killer in an episode of Matlock in a Columbo-style mystery (that is, where we're shown right at the start that he's the killer and it's up to Matlock to prove it). This episode is significant to longtime Matlock fans because O'Quinn Killed Off for Real a longtime Recurring Character. It's significant to LOST fans because it also features Daniel Roebuck (friggin' Arzt, people!) as a series regular!
In 1962, Kerry Wendell Thornley wrote a Roman ŕ Clef called The Idle Warriors about a strange young man he had known while in the United States Marine Corps. His name? Lee Harvey Oswald. For those who don't know, that's one year before the Kennedy assassination.
Gwyneth Paltrow played the younger version of Wendy in Hook.
It's startled quite a few people watching reruns of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit when they see Hayden Panettiere in a season 5 episode as a highschool prostitute and murderer, especially if they also see her first appearance (in a season 2 episode) as an injury-prone child of a pop star. Imagine watching 'em back-to-back.
One of the ickier episodes of Law & Order revolves around two sisters, one killed by a serial rapist, the other narrowly surviving, turning out to be in league with the killer. Say hello to Ellen Pompeo, best known as Meredith Grey.
She was also Matt Murdock's secretary in Daredevil.
And prior to both, he hilariously hammed it up playing Tori Spelling's Pet Homosexual on her show So Notorious. Watching that show and then Heroes back to back makes for an especially hilarious experience.
And he was the forgettable Adam Kaufman in season 3 of 24.
Following from 24, TJ Ramini gets some billing as Tarin Faroush, but will be more recognised among British audiences as DC Zain Nadir, one of the more famous characters of The Bill.
Starred as Billy Simpson in the Canadian teen soap-opera Fifteen.
British schoolchildren studying Romeo and Juliet often have this happen when their teacher shows them the 70s BBC adaptation, featuring a young (but instantly recognisable) Alan Rickman as Tybalt.
Giovanni Ribisi had one of those moments in Friends, compared to his recurring role later on the series; he grabs a condom out of Phoebe's guitar case in one episode. Later that season, he plays her half-brother. He also had one of these moments on The X-Files.
He also played one of Bud's friends on Married... with Children, though this is almost a subversion; he was only 12 years old at the time and almost unrecognizable even knowing who it is.
Wayne Robson. You know Mike Hamar, the ex-con on The Red Green Show? Did you notice him in One Magic Christmas? How about the Disney TV Movie Murder She Purred? Cube? Welcome To Mooseport? The Rescuers Down Under?
Interestingly he was retconned in a Voyager episode to actually BE Tuvok (complete with pointed ears in a flashback) as a lieutenant on the Excelsior who had joined starfleet in Kirk's era only to become disillusioned by Sulu's maverick attitude, quitting Starfleet for decades until rejoining in Picard's time.
Debra Jo Rupp aka Kitty Forman was Josh Baskin's secretary, Miss Patterson, in Big.
And Jerry Seinfeld's long-suffering (not that she didn't deserve it) agent. And the biological mom of Phoebe Buffay's babies.
Tim Robbins appears in a 1st season episode of Moon Lighting as an assassin that underestimates an old man and is Curb Stomped with a bedpan.
Ryan Seacrest was the host of a children's game show called Click before American Idol came calling. Click's main source of notoriety was its particularly dim contestant pool, even with the questions set to middle-school level. How dim? One contestant was asked who was tied down by the people of Lilliput, and came up with Superman.
Amanda Seyfried appeared as the girlfriend of a patient on an early House episode. (1x11 'Detox')
Hey, did you know Tony Shalhoub, TV's Monk, played the guy who set up the "borrowed ladder" deal between Jerome and Vincent in Gattaca?
Not to mention as the President of the Federation in Star Trek VI. (Cracked summed it up perfectly: "Let us redefine progress to mean that just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily mean we must do that thing, dumbass!")
Hilary Swank guest starred in two episodes of Growing Pains, had a small role in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then starred in the critical and commercial failure The Next Karate Kid. Some critics actually singled her out as a potential star in their otherwise negative reviews of the film, but it's unlikely anyone predicted she'd go on to win two Best Actress Oscars.
Leon Thomas is well known as Andre on the Nickelodeon show Victorious. You might've seen the seventh episode of the second season of another Nick show, Just Jordan two years before that. Watch it present-day and you'll recognize Ronnie as a young Leon Thomas.
Before making it big as Maddie in The Suite Life or Sharpay in High School MusicalAshley Tisdale can be seen (with her natural brown hair to boot) getting attacked by a banshee in the Charmed episode "Look Who's Barking".
She is credited as as "Lead Blueberry Scout" in A Bug's Life.
Sam Trammel plays the upstanding owner of a popular bar in True Blood, but way back when in the second episode of Dexter he played a drunk with a persistent hit-and-run problem. He didn't last long.
John Travolta's first role was in the horror movie The Devil's Rain. He yells "Blasphemer!" and falls down the stairs, and the protagonists see the flashback inside his eyes.
Same-TV-show example: Before Michael Wisher was the first actor to play Davros on Doctor Who, he had a fairly minor role as a broadcaster in "The Ambassadors of Death," five years earlier, and then another role the next year.
He also provided may Dalek voices before playing Davros.