7 classic TV actors who got famous from their very first role
The journey for most actors isn’t an easy one. Just being able to work steadily as a performer is tough to achieve. But for a lucky few, breaking into Hollywood happens almost immediately.
Here are seven classic TV actors who landed big roles as their very first gigs. Whether they were a child star without much experience or a 30-year-old switching careers, these famous faces hit it big right away.
Besides one appearance doing a comedy bit on The New Steve Allen Show in 1961, Jim Nabors' first acting role was the one that made him famous — Gomer Pyle. Andy Griffith saw him performing at a club in Los Angeles and thought his Southern drawl would be perfect for The Andy Griffith Show. Gomer's first appearance came in the 1962 episode "The Bank Job." After Barney gets locked in the safe, Gomer uses a torch from the filling station to try to break open the door. Nabors' performance as Gomer proved so popular that he not only turned a one-time character into a recurring one, he headlined his own successful spinoff!
Ted Cassidy also technically had one gig before playing Lurch but it doesn't really count as a first role. He did uncredited voice work as a Martian in the 1959 film The Angry Red Planet. That aside, Lurch was Cassidy's very first onscreen character and it became his most famous. The former college basketball player quit his job in radio to pursue acting at the not-so-young age of 30. Luckily, he hit the jackpot on the first try.
Tom Lester broke into Hollywood the way many actors dream of. A farm boy from Mississippi, he moved to California and try to make it in show business and landed a part in a soon-to-be successful sitcom. As the story goes, he beat out hundreds of other actors for the role of friendly farmhand Eb Dawson on Green Acres because he didn’t have to fake milking a cow — he already had plenty of experience doing it!
Holy successful first try, Batman! Burt Ward was only 20 years old when Batman premiered in January of 1966. It soon garnered high ratings and has since become one of the most beloved takes on the comic book character. Ward's role as Robin, his very first Hollywood acting job, has become iconic — especially his exclamatory catchphrases.
Vicki Lawrence catapulted straight from high school senior to television variety star. She sent Carol Burnett a fan letter and noted their resemblance. Burnett was casting her show at the time and was particularly interested in someone that could play her little sister. Lawrence won a spot as a regular performer alongside Harvey Korman on The Carol Burnett Show — after auditioning, of course, she didn't get the job just from a fan letter — and the rest is history.
It might not seem that out of the ordinary for a child actor's most famous character to be their very first role, but Mike Lookinland was actually the only Brady kid to not have any prior TV show experience before getting cast on the series. His TV brothers and sisters had played small parts on programs like Bewitched, The Big Valley and Adam-12. Even Susan Olsen had been in Gunsmoke and Ironside before playing youngest Brady sibling, Cindy. Though he hadn't played any TV show roles, Lookinland was a veteran of many TV commercials by the time he was cast as Bobby Brady at 8-years-old.
Tony Dow became Wally Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver without any real TV experience at all, unlike Jerry Mathers who had appeared in multiple movies and shows before he became the Beaver. Dow grew up in Los Angeles and his mom was a stunt woman in Westerns but he was more of an athlete than an actor as a child. His sports prowess served him well for his first acting role that made him a household name.