A lot of the TV actors and actresses we’ve come to love have a past. Turns out that before they could get a good table at an exclusive restaurant, they were nonetheless doing some fine work. Here are 10 examples of memorable early performances by now famous actors and actresses.
“The Forsyte Saga”
The guy has been a godsend to TV, with his work on “Homeland,” “Billions,” “Wolf Hall,” “Band of Brothers,” and a fine network procedural called “Life,” on which he played a cop released from prison on DNA evidence. I have a particular fondness for his work on “The Forsyte Saga,” a 2002-03 adaptation of John Galsworthy’s novels and a remake of a seminal late-1960s PBS series. It’s an engrossing literary soap about a wealthy family torn between passion and Victorian repression, with Lewis’s Soames Forsyte as the upholder of the latter. Lewis is ice cold, pale, and pathetic, as Soames clings to his Victorian delusions, stuffing his emotions down, his eyes a brutish blue. As his unloving wife, Irene, Gina McKee is perfection.
EVAN RACHEL WOOD
“Once and Again”
Watching Wood, now starring in “Westworld,” on this divorce drama created by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick was thrilling. I felt the way I felt when I first saw Mia Wasikowska on “In Treatment” — certain that this young actress was going to meet with success. On “Once and Again,” Wood played Jessie, a fragile teen struggling to adapt to her father’s new relationship, and she provided the three-season wonder with its most moving scenes. Some of the best material had Jessie in therapy — with a shrink played by Zwick. Shortly before the series ended, Jessie began a lesbian relationship with a school friend. Also getting a break on the 1999-2002 show: Marin Hinkle, who went on to regular roles in “Two and a Half Men” and, currently, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
A lot of Americans know McKidd from “Grey’s Anatomy,” where he has played Dr. Owen Hunt for 10 years. But McKidd, who started out in “Trainspotting,” had a leading role in the fantastic — and oft forgotten — 2005-07 HBO series “Rome.” Many of the characters in “Rome” are historical, and some, like McKIdd’s Lucius Vorenus, are semi-fictional. Vorenus was a by-the-rules Roman soldier who makes a mess of his family life when he returns from war. His best friend is Ray Stevenson’s more emotional and uneven Titus Pullo, and they formed a dynamic duo of opposites as they led us through the storyline.
Lynch had her breakthrough on “Glee,” even while indie film fans knew her from Christopher Guest movies such as “Best in Show.” But in 2006, before she, Adam Scott, Megan Mullally, and Martin Starr killed it in the culty “Party Down,” she starred on this little-known and willfully perverse Lifetime sitcom. The action revolves around a California dating agency, and the humor is politically incorrect, satirical, goofy, partially improvised, and demented. Lynch plays the pill-popping owner of the service, Victoria Ratchford, who is forever in and out of rehab. Also along for the crazy ride: Wendi McLendon-Covey from “The Goldbergs.”
If you saw this 1997-2003 show, which was one of HBO’s first hardcore dramas, then you know what I’m talking about. Sure, Simmons has gone on to greater heights; he won an Oscar for “Whiplash” and he’s remarkable as two men in “Counterpart.” But as Vern Schillinger on the prison-set series, he was indelibly chilling — a passionately racist and anti-Semitic rapist-murderer serving as the head of the prison’s Aryan Brotherhood. When white supremacists became more visible after the election of President Trump, I kept picturing this character. Simmons was uncompromising in his performance and, like Christopher Meloni, who also starred as an evil man on “Oz,” he went to some intensely dark places.
Emerson was compelling on both “Lost” and “Person of Interest,” shows that kept him in the public eye from 2006 to 2016. But Emerson jumped off the screen — and won a best guest Emmy — way back in 2000 and 2001, with his recurring role on “The Practice.” He played a serial killer — or maybe a mentally ill guy who only thinks he’s a serial killer — named William Hinks, who winds up stalking one of the “Practice” lawyers. Lots of trouble ensues, and Emerson is mesmerizing to watch throughout.
She’s very well-known now, from her work on “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” But she was particularly special in David E. Kelley’s Boston-set dramedy “Ally McBeal,” playing Elaine Vassal from 1997 to 2002. Elaine was Ally’s kittenish, gossipy assistant, offering her insecure boss plenty of moral support and coming up with her own inventions in hopes of getting rich. Among the best: a face bra, an automatic toilet seat warmer, and a husband CD that makes you feel like there’s a man in the house without all the fuss.
“Homicide: Life on the Street”
He steals “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” on a weekly basis, as the perfectly deadpan and quirky Captain Raymond Holt. And he has done plenty of straight-up drama, from “Men of a Certain Age” and a number of other short-lived series including “Gideon’s Crossing” and “Thief.” But if you are a fan, you need to go back to his breakthrough on the groundbreaking “Homicide,” which ran from 1993-98. I mean, you should watch “Homicide” anyway, because, a precursor of sorts to “The Wire,” it helped reinvent cop shows with its decidedly unromanticized storytelling. Frank Pembleton was an ace interrogator, which Braugher sometimes sends up on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and the episodes in which he was impaired after a stroke were remarkable.
If you want to get a sense of Foy’s range — and if you want to watch an extraordinary Dickens miniseries from “Masterpiece” — then check out the star of “The Crown” in this one. Foy, who’ll play Lisbeth Salander in the next “Millennium” adaptation, is the kind waif-like Amy Dorritt, who lives with her father in Marshalsea debtors’ prison. A tale of poverty and self-esteem, it follows Amy’s transition from the moral supporter of her self-pitying father to the miniseries’ romantic heroine. By the way, the cast is filled with treasures, including Eddie Marsan (“Ray Donovan”), Russell Tovey (“Looking”), and Matthew Macfadyen, currently a kick in “Succession.”
“Queer as Folk”
You probably know the Irish actor best as Littlefinger on “Game of Thrones,” or as Mayor Tommy Carcetti on “The Wire.” But he broke through in the 1999-2000 British series “Queer as Folk,” which was later remade and expanded on Showtime. He played Stuart, a slick, powerful gay executive who is a big fan of clubbing and one-night stands. Gillen was fierce as the vindictive and seemingly amoral guy, but he also managed to fit in a few likable traits, including loyalty. Also in the series before he was well-known: Charlie Hunnam from “Sons of Anarchy.”
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.