20 Famous Actors Who Starred in Made-For-TV Movies
These small-screen movies featured some pretty huge names.
Every actor has to start somewhere—and it's usually not a starring role in a major motion picture. Celebrities like Ryan Reynolds and Keanu Reeves may be making huge films now, but that doesn't mean they didn't pick up some early work that wasn't exactly award-winning, money-making gold. They starred in commercials, had minor TV cameos, and may have even appeared in a made-for-TV movie or two. Yes, it's been a lifetime since these A-listers were on Lifetime and now, we're going to take a look back. From the small-screen movie that starred Jennifer Aniston and Steve Urkel himself, Jaleel White, to another directed by Diane Keaton and starring Reese Witherspoon, read on to learn about the surprising famous faces who starred in made-for-TV movies back in the day.
Brotherhood of Justice (1986)—Keanu Reeves
In the mid-1980s, the eventual star of The Matrix was still an up-and-coming actor in Hollywood. And one of the roles Reeves took on at the time was in an ABC made-for-TV movie called Brotherhood of Justice, based on an actual group of teenage vigilantes known as the "Legion of Doom." The film hardly received Academy Award-level accolades, despite the fact that other members of the cast include Kiefer Sutherland and Titanic's Billy Zane.
Stranger in the Family (1991)—Neil Patrick Harris
Neil Patrick Harris got his big break in the late '80s when he was cast as the titular character on Doogie Howser, M.D. However, that success didn't translate into bigger roles in the early '90s. Post-Doogie and pre-How I Met Your Mother, the young actor starred in some truly regrettable made-for-TV movies.
Take 1991's Stranger in the Family, for example. In this made-for-TV movie, Harris plays a 16-year-old boy who suffers from amnesia after a minor car accident. At the time of its premiere, Entertainment Weekly noted that "despite admirable restraint from both Harris and [Teri] Garr, Stranger devolves into wet melodrama," giving the film a C-.
Gracie's Choice (2004)—Kristen Bell
Let us be clear about one thing: Made-for-TV movies aren't terrible by default. And if you want proof of that, then look no further than Gracie's Choice, which stars a young, unknown Kristen Bell. The Lifetime movie, which is based on a Reader's Digest article about a teenage girl who adopted her siblings in order to keep her family together, received 3 out of 4 stars from TV Guide when it premiered in January 2004. Actress Anne Heche was even nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie for her role in the film. And later that year, Bell burst on to the small screen in full with her starring role on UPN's Veronica Mars.
The Substitute (1993)—Mark Wahlberg
"A high school substitute English teacher resorts to murder to protect her murderous dark past while seducing a student who begins to suspect her true identity." This is how one IMDB user describes The Substitute, a 1993 made-for-TV movie that marked the beginning of Mark Wahlberg's acting career.
Oh, and if this movie poster looks weird to you, that's because it features a composite image of Wahlberg's face on another gentleman's body. This version of the image was created after Wahlberg blew up in the early 1990s with his hip-hop group Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. It was an attempt to highlight the star who merely played a secondary character in the small-screen film, and boy, does it miss the mark.
Fifteen and Pregnant (1998)—Kirsten Dunst
Even after her critically acclaimed performances in Interview with the Vampire, Little Women, and Jumanji in the mid-1990s, Kirsten Dunst starred in the Lifetime movie Fifteen and Pregnant in 1998. The film revolves around Dunst's character, Tina Spangler, who must figure out what to do with her unborn child as a teen mom. One Rotten Tomatoes reviewer describes the '90s flick as an "awful movie with some decent moments." Luckily, it was only up from there for Dunst!
Baja Oklahoma (1988)—Julia Roberts
Baja Oklahoma is an HBO dramedy about a barmaid who dreams of becoming a country singer. It features a young Julia Roberts in a secondary role—and to date, this is just one of two made-for-TV movies that the actress has done (the second being 2014's much more critically-acclaimed The Normal Heart, also on HBO).
Love Comes Softly (2003)—Katherine Heigl
Two years before Katherine Heigl starred on Grey's Anatomy, she appeared in this Hallmark movie about a widower begrudgingly finding love again. Fun fact: The book adaptation of Love Comes Softly was only the first of what is now a 10-movie saga.
Love's Enduring Promise (2004)—January Jones
Behold the first sequel to Love Comes Softly. Like its predecessor, this Hallmark film stars a now-A-list actress—in this case, eventual Mad Men star January Jones—as a young schoolteacher torn between two lovers.
What connects this film to Heigl's, you might ask? Well, Jones' character is the daughter of the man Heigl's character fell in love with in the first flick. (Note: Jones is actually 10 months older than Heigl. Ah, Hollywood!)
Northanger Abbey (2007)—Felicity Jones
Long before she was starring in the Star Wars films, Felicity Jones took on the lead role in this British book adaptation. Like Gracie's Choice, this made-for-TV movie actually did surprisingly well; when it aired in '07, The Hollywood Reporter noted that Jones was "captivating" as a "breathless adventuress, gullible innocent and an Austen heroine hungry for life."
The City Killer (1984)—Heather Locklear
When you think of romantic gestures, killing people and destroying buildings probably aren't the first things that come to mind. And yet, these are the actions through which an angry demolition expert tries to win back the love of his life—or really, blackmail her into a relationship—in The City Killer.
The only slightly redeeming thing about this deranged made-for-TV love story is that it stars a young Heather Locklear.
Double Jeopardy (1996)—Brittany Murphy
Right after starring in Clueless as outsider Tai, Brittany Murphy took on a less notable role in the made-for-TV movie Double Jeopardy. Even Murphy's talent and rising star status wasn't enough to save this flick about a cop who kills to cover up his affair; in 1996, one critic for The Spokesman-Review described it as "a run-of-the-mill tale hampered by a spotty script."
Wildflower (1991) — Reese Witherspoon
Wildflower is a surprisingly star-studded made-for-TV movie. And when we say star-studded, we mean star-studded: This Lifetime film doesn't just feature a young Reese Witherspoon, alongside Patricia Arquette and Beau Bridges, it also marks the feature-length directorial debut of none other than Diane Keaton. Though Keaton and her A-list cast seemingly did their best telling this story of a young deaf woman, a Los Angeles Times review of the film from 1991 notes that the story's climax "seems as forced as it is irresolute." Ouch!
Death of a Cheerleader (1994)—Tori Spelling
Based on a true story, Death of a Cheerleader (also known as A Friend to Die For) sees Tori Spelling play Stacey Lockwood, a popular cheerleader who is killed by a shy sophomore who yearns to fit in. And if you've heard talk of this made-for-TV film recently, that's likely because Lifetime remade it in 2019, casting Kellie Martin—who played the shy murderess in the 1994 version—as the FBI agent who solves the case. Twist!
Camp Cucamonga (1990)—Jennifer Aniston
The cast of the made-for-TV film Camp Cucamonga is basically the who's who of 1990s stars. In addition to Jennifer Aniston—who didn't become A-list-level famous until Friends premiered four years later—this NBC movie also stars John Ratzenberger of Cheers fame, Brian Robbins of Head of the Class fame, Chad Allen of My Two Dads fame, Candace Cameron of Full House fame, Jaleel White of Family Matters fame, and Danica McKellar of Wonder Years fame—just to name a few.
If It's Tuesday, It Still Must Be Belgium (1987)—Courtney Cox
In 1987, also years before Friends made her mega-famous, Courteney Cox starred in If It's Tuesday, It Still Must Be Belgium, an NBC remake of a 1969 satire of a similar name. The made-for-TV movie follows a tour group as they gallivant all over Europe, causing a ruckus everywhere they go.
Mazes and Monsters (1982)—Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks' first leading film role was in Mazes and Monsters, a CBS made-for-TV movie about a college student whose obsession with a fantasy role playing-game is taken to dangerous extremes. Despite its strange plot, this film actually received a favorable review from The New York Times when it came out in '82; the newspaper noted that the book adaptation "achieves a broader 'rites of-passage' experience than most viewers might be expecting."
The Last Cowboy (2003)—Bradley Cooper
If you saw A Star Is Born and just can't get enough of Bradley Cooper in a cowboy hat, then you need to add The Last Cowboy to your queue. The Hallmark movie stars Cooper—long before his breakout role in The Hangover, mind you—as Morgan Murphy, a cowboy who helps a struggling ranch return to its former glory.
Attica (1980)—Morgan Freeman
Before he was breaking out of Shawshank State Penitentiary, Morgan Freeman was a captive at another prison: Attica. In 1980, he starred in a made-for-TV film about the 1971 prisoners revolt that went down there and instantly, he became one to watch. The film was nominated for five Emmys, one of which director Marvin J. Chomsky won.
True Women (1997)—Angelina Jolie
It's hard to imagine movie star Angelina Jolie in anything but a blockbuster flick. And yet back in 1997, the superstar took on one of the leading roles in True Women, a made-for-TV miniseries about a trifecta of fearless ladies struggling to survive in the male-dominated Civil War era. The film might not be as notable as Mr. & Mrs. Smith or even Maleficent, but it was nominated for an Emmy in '97, so that's something!
Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996)—Ryan Reynolds
Before there was Sabrina the Teenage Witch the TV series, there was Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the made-for-TV movie on Showtime. It stars none other than Ryan Reynolds as Seth, the popular boy/temporary love interest of Melissa Joan Hart's Sabrina. But don't worry, Sabrina/Harvey shippers: By the end of the film, the iconic TV couple ends up together, just like they're meant to be. And if you're a fan of the Sabrina comics, then check out The 30 Best-Selling Comic Book Series of All Time.
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