It’s hard to break through as an actor. The vast majority of hopefuls never make it, and an even smaller number go on to become movie stars. Acting has always been an unfair business, but it’s especially so for those actors who should be on the A-list but aren’t, or who briefly were and then dropped off of it for a variety of reasons, or sometimes no reason at all. Here are 10 talented performers who have appeared in some popular films, and may have even won a major award or two, but for some reason haven’t achieved major stardom.
10. Ron Livingston
Cult films generate adoring fans who keep the movies alive in our culture for much longer than they would be otherwise, but appearing in them is not always the road to big-screen stardom. Ron Livingston should know — he’s appeared in two of them and, well, he’s on this list. Swingers (1996) was an acting springboard for Vince Vaughn and launched Jon Favreau into directing, but did nothing for Livingston. Neither did Office Space (1999), which is remembered as among the better of Jennifer Aniston’s movies, although Livingston was the star. He also appeared as one of Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriends for a season of HBO’s Sex and the City, and had a sizable role in the HBO World War II documentary Band of Brothers. Perhaps the actor should consider more TV roles. His leading-man looks don’t mesh with a vocal delivery more suited to character acting.
9. Joan Allen
One of the sadder trends in Hollywood today is the lack of substantive roles for women. There are far more good actresses than good roles, making long, prominent female careers in film a rarity. Joan Allen should have one of those careers. She had a successful, albeit brief, run in the movies during the mid- to late 1990s that resulted in three Oscar nominations (for Nixon, The Crucible and The Contender), although she was also quite fine in The Ice Storm (1997) and gave an amazing performance as the alcoholic single mother of four daughters in the 2005 indie film The Upside of Anger, which few people saw. An undemanding but lucrative recurring part in the last three Bourne pictures has allowed Allen to pay the bills. That an actress of Allen’s intelligence and grace hasn’t worked more often is an indication of how few intelligent, graceful female characters films have to offer.
8. Delroy Lindo
The difficulties faced by women in Hollywood are only magnified for African American actors, males as well as females. For every Denzel Washington and Will Smith, there are half a dozen Don Cheadles, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s and Delroy Lindos trying to keep a film career going. Lindo’s lack of success is a particular mystery, given his talent (he has extensive stage experience) and how emphatically his screen roles have dried up in recent years. Sure, he’s made some mistakes, like turning down a role in Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing to star in something called The Blood of Heroes (aka Salute of the Jugger), but Lee would later cast him in Malcolm X and Crooklyn. He gave a memorable performance in 1999’s The Cider House Rules, but has largely been absent from the big screen since 2007. Fortunately, for a man of Lindo’s talent there’s always the theater.
7. Laura Linney
As she rose through the ranks, she quickly gained a reputation as one of the most talented young actresses working in film, only Laura Linney wasn’t as young as most women starting out. She was in her 30s by the time the really good roles came her way, and by the time she reached her mid-40s her amazing run appeared to be over, thanks to Hollywood’s gender-specific ageism. Three Academy Award nominations (for 2000’s You Can Count On Me, 2004’s Kinsey and 2007’s Savages), as well as three Emmy Award wins, weren’t enough; they never are. Like many film actresses who find they can’t stop time, even though they may still have their talent and even their looks, Linney has turned to the small screen for interesting challenges, most recently appearing as a cancer patient in the Showtime series The Big C. But today movies are less interesting without her in them.
6. David Morse
He’s been around for a while. Named one of the 12 most promising young actors of 1980, he made good on that two years later by landing a prominent role on the medical television series St. Elsewhere, where he remained until the show ended in 1988. Although he’s done more recent work in TV, Morse hasn’t worked so visibly since. His largest film performance was in 1999’s The Green Mile. While Morse’s big-screen resume is extensive, a decision he made years ago to not focus on the size of the roles he takes — or, evidently, the likely success of the movies — has affected his career. Character actors can have long runs in motion pictures, but out of sight really does translate into out of mind. Morse has appeared in eight films since 2008, but apart from The Hurt Locker, an Oscar winner for Best Picture, in which he appeared briefly, his movies have not found an audience.
5. Elisabeth Shue
Whatever happened to Elisabeth Shue? The question became a punchline in the 2008 film Hamlet 2, in which the actress played a version of herself who had quit acting to go into nursing. But the question remains a valid one. Shue showed promise early, conventional though it may have been. She was Ralph Macchio’s girlfriend in The Karate Kid (1984), landed her first starring role in 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting and then found herself in a truly high-profile gig, Cocktail (1988), not a great film by any means, but appearing opposite Tom Cruise then got an actress noticed. Shue later kicked her career up several notches with 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas, for which she won a deserved Oscar. Any actor’s agent will tell you that the projects a star picks immediately after winning an Academy Award are vitally important. Shue’s choices all bombed, one right after another.
4. Edward Norton
It shouldn’t be assumed all the stars on this list are unhappy with the state of their film careers. Most probably are. But one gets the feeling it isn’t the end of the world for Edward Norton, an actor with plenty of other interests (working on films in an off-camera role, as well as a host of social causes). Still, as an actor, he hasn’t lived up to his early potential. He earned an Academy Award nomination right out of the box, for 1996’s Primal Fear, his first film. Unlike a lot of first-time Oscar nods, it wasn’t a fluke; Norton got a second one two years later, for American History X. But after 2002 his film work slowed down considerably. The actor has deliberately eschewed the celebrity status being a player in Hollywood offers, and doesn’t seem interested in being a star. He also got a reputation for being difficult to work with after script disagreements surfaced on 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.
3. Robin Wright
After getting her start in soaps (the daytime drama Santa Barbara), the actress found success on the big screen almost immediately. The Princess Bride (1987) was just her second film. But oddly, Wright appeared in only four forgettable motion pictures until her next hit, Forrest Gump, finally emerged a full seven years later. Despite the critical and commercial success of that movie, it didn’t serve as a springboard to full-fledged stardom for Wright either. An intelligent performer with long, blond hair, she reminded many of actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who landed many of the parts Wright didn’t for years. And although she’s worked steadily since Gump, raising two kids with her former husband, the actor Sean Penn, gave Wright other priorities besides appearing in movies. A stronger filmography — which she unfortunately doesn’t have — would give her the opportunity to keep working past age 50.
2. Kurt Russell
On one hand, Kurt Russell has had an exceptional career. Very few child actors have been able to remain in acting for as long as Russell. That he’s never gotten close to an Academy Award isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Plenty of name actors have had sturdy, successful runs in the movies without critical acclaim. But Russell really is a top-notch actor, with a host of career highlights, and why his profile hasn’t been higher is a mystery. A productive contract with Disney in the 1970s placed him in a series of popular films for both television and the big screen. Partnering with director John Carpenter resulted in several pictures (Escape From New York, Escape from L.A., The Thing and others) in the 1980s and 1990s that have achieved cult status. And Russell deserved an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks in 2004’s Miracle.
1. Peter Fonda
His famous last name undoubtedly opened a lot of doors for him early in his career, and has kept him in the public consciousness, when really very little else has in recent years. But it also brought with it an expectation of acting greatness, exhibited not just by his father, Henry, but also his sister, Jane, that Peter ultimately couldn’t live up to (if he even wanted to at all). Fonda will forever be associated with a classic film for the ages, 1969’s Easy Rider, something most actors never achieve. But he wasn’t able to keep his momentum going after that picture. Although Fonda has a long list of movies on his resume, the vast majority of them were very small, or he had small parts in them, with the notable exception of Ulee’s Gold (1997), for which Fonda received his one and only Oscar nomination. While Peter Fonda will always be a star, we’ll never know how good an actor he could have been.