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September 01, 2017

Casting praise for visionary casting

Here are some films and TV series whose then-unknown performers are stars today

Recently, HBO marathoned its turn-of-the-century series, “Oz.” Created by uber-producer Tom Fontana (“Homicide: Life on the Street,” “St. Elsewhere”), “Oz” was, depending on your point of view, either a searing, hyper-realistic expose of inhuman conditions in our prison system, or (my vote), the blackest black comedy to ever hit the small screen.

But there is no debate that, from a distance of two decades, those responsible for its casting were downright visionary. Consider its then-mostly-unknown ensemble of actors that included Oscar-winner (and insurance company front man) J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”); Emmy magnet Edie Falco (“The Sopranos,” “Nurse Jackie”); Kathryn Erb (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”), Christopher Meloni (“Law & Order: SUV,” “Veep”) and Dean Winters (“Law & Order: SUV,” “30 Rock,” “Rescue Me”).

This led me to think about some other TV shows and films that featured multiple young, mostly obscure performers at the time they appeared in said works, but who went on to varying degrees of stardom (for every Al Pacino, there is a Bruno Kirby, the late character actor who, while he wasn’t a superstar, was a popular--and seemingly always-working--performer.

What follows is not, by any stretch, a “definitive” list, but some examples of other works that turned out to be breeding grounds for acting royalty.

*The Godfather (1972)

Today, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton are viewed as paragons of their craft. But back then, they were all just faces in the Hollywood crowd looking for that elusive big break. This relatively low-budget gangster flick was supposed to be carried on the beefy shoulders of Marlon Brando, but movie magic was conjured as much by his youthful co-stars (and future mega-stars) as it was by Brando. 

*American Graffiti (1973)

Let’s start with Harrison Ford and Richard Dreyfus, and then sprinkle in Cindy Williams, (“Lavern & Shirley”), Candy Clark (“Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Zodiac”) and ever-reliable character actor Charles Martin-Smith (“The Buddy Holly Story”). Ron Howard, of course, doesn’t count because he’d been a star since the early-‘60s thanks to “The Andy Griffith Show.” 

*Between the Lines (1977)

This little-known, but wonderful, indie flick about an alternative weekly newspaper in Boston is chock-full of now-familiar faces including Jeff Goldblum (whose hilarious turn as the paper’s rock critic should have garnered him a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination); the recently deceased John Heard (the dad in the “Home Alone” films); Marilu Henner (“Taxi”); Jill Eikenberry (“L.A. Law”) and Lindsay Crouse (“L.A. Law,” “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Hill Street Blues”).

*The Big Chill (1983)

Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Meg Tilley, JoBeth Williams and Kevin Costner were among the relative unknowns who populated what is arguably the most successful ensemble piece of the 1980s.

*That Thing You Do! (1996)

Tom Hanks wrote and directed (and co-starred) in this near-perfect film about a fictional “one-hit-wonder” band from Erie, Pa. in the Beatles-drenched summer of 1964. Current silver-screen goddess (and Oscar winner) Charlize Theron has a small part, but the troupe of featured players included Tom Everett Scott (“La La Land,” “13 Reasons Why,”); Steve Zahn (“Treme,” “Dallas Buyers Club”); Liv Tyler (“Jersey Girl;” three “Lord Of the Rings” movies); Giovanni Ribisi (Amazon Prime’s “Sneaky Pete,” “Avatar”) and Obba Babatunde, who killed as a scheming pimp in the recently concluded first season of the Showtime series, “I’m Dying Up Here.”

*Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)

Who knew during its single season of existence that this offbeat look at then-contemprary teen culture would cast such a huge shadow on show biz almost two decades later? Even if the ensemble hadn’t included James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Martin Starr (“Silicon Valley”), it would be notable for its executive producer, a still relatively unsung Judd Apatow.

Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860),, iTunes, IHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.

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