TV Shows With the Most Not-Yet-Famous Guest Stars

"E.R." Cast Portrait

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"E.R." Cast Portrait
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Those Were the Days

If you’re a binger of old TV series, you might recognize a fair number of future stars honing their acting chops in smaller roles. For example, in 1996 Viola Davis was in an episode of “NYPD Blue” in a role credited simply as “Woman.” Fast forward to 2017 and you may have seen Davis accepting the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in “Fences” following nominations in 2009, 2012, and 2021). Here are 20 TV shows that helped open doors for some big-name TV and movie stars.

Related: Most Popular TV Show the Year You Were Born

Miami Vice
Silver Screen Collection/Getty

Miami Vice (1984-89)

Who: Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Melanie Griffith, Helena Bonham Carter, Annette Bening, Viggo Mortensen, David Strathairn, Stanley Tucci, Liam Neeson, Benicio Del Toro

Though the stylish show that gave Don Jonhson his start was only on for five season, it employed an amazing string of young up-and-coming actors include two Oscar winners, eight Oscar nominees, and box office hero Bruce Willis just before his career took off on the series “Moonlighting.” Ving Rhames, John Turturro, John Leguizamo, Bill Paxton, and Wesley Snipes also appeared on the show. And that doesn’t even begin to cover it.

‘M*A*S*H’ (1972-1983)
Wikimedia Commons

‘M*A*S*H’ (1972-1983)

Who: Patrick Swayze, John Ritter, Bruno Kirby, Peter Riegert, Teri Garr, Leslie Nielsen

While most of the plot lines were centered on Alan Alda and the regular cast, guest stars played a part in many, many episodes. Lots of those folks — including Shelley Long, Richard Masur, Joe Pantoliano, and Pat Morita — went on to successful careers.

Related: Best TV Shows Starring Boomers


‘Roseanne’ (1988-2018)

Who: George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Toby Maquire, Bob Odenkirk, Alyson Hannigan

The hit show often featured famous people in cameos — from Bob Hope and Milton Berle to cast members of “Gilligan’s Island” (playing members of Roseanne’s family in a dream sequence) — but there were also legit future stars like Clooney, whose character appeared in 10 episodes in 1988 before his breakout role in “ER” in 1994, and DiCaprio, who played one of Darlene’s classmates.

‘Dallas’ (1971-1991)
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‘Dallas’ (1971-1991)

Who: Brad Pitt, Lou Diamond Phillips, Brian Dennehy, Kate Mulgrew, Veronica Hamel

The prime time soap “Dallas” has a long list of actors who worked on the show during it’s 20-year run, but you’d only recognize a handful  though having two-time Oscar winner and all-around superstar Brad Pitt in the mix is pretty impressive. Pitt’s involvement came late in the series in two episodes in 1987 and two more in 1988 as Randy, the boyfriend of Charlie Wade (Shalane McCall).

‘The Twilight Zone’

‘The Twilight Zone’ (1959-1964)

Who: Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Robert Duvall, Cloris Leachman, Dennis Hopper, Sydney Pollack, Ron Howard

Rod Serling’s dimension of imagination was a showcase for young talent, including future collaborators Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. (Who can forget Shatner’s performance in the episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”?) Donald Pleasence, Charles Bronson, Don Rickles, Carol Burnett, and Jonathan Winters also made appearances during the run of the series. Sydney Pollack later found fame — and two Oscars — behind the camera.

‘Hill Street Blues

‘Hill Street Blues’ (1981-1987)

Who: Frances McDormand, Tim Robbins, Joaquin Phoenix, Forest Whitaker, Cuba Gooding Jr., Andy Garcia, James Edward Almos

This beloved crime series featured a large ensemble cast but also found room for up-and-coming talent that included five Oscar winners, two more nominees, and lots of other now-notable big-screen names like Danny Glover, Linda Hamilton, Ally Sheedy, Meg Tilly, and Jennifer Tilly. Future TV staples like Michael Richards, Jane Kaczmarek, Bryan Cranston, David Caruso, and Chris Noth also appeared in the series.

‘All in the Family’

‘All in the Family’ (1971-1979)

Who: Billy Crystal, F. Murray Abraham, Bernadette Peters, Eileen Brennan, Vincent Gardenia, Christopher Guest

The Bunker clan and regulars like Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford (who quickly got their own show) consumed most of the screen time on Norman Lear’s groundbreaking comedy. But along with famous cameos from stars like Sammy Davis Jr., there were opportunities to shine for then-unknown actors like Cleavon Little, Hector Elizondo, Robert Guillaume, and Mary Kay Place. Rue McClanahan even pops up (before she became a regular with another future “Golden Girl” Bea Arthur on “Maude”) in the memorable 1972 episode “The Bunkers and the Swingers” with Vincent Gardenia (before his recurring role as Frank Lorenzo).

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‘ER’ (1994-2009)

Who: Chadwick Boseman, Octavia Spencer, J.K. Simmons, Chris Pine, Zac Efron

Not only did the show launch the careers of regulars like George Clooney and Julianna Margulies, it gave fine actors like Sterling K. Brown, Keegan-Michael Key, and Michael Rapaport a chance to show off their talents. At some point, about half the cast of “Breaking Bad” — Dean Norris, Anna Gunn, and Aaron Paul — made an appearance on the show. 

‘Happy Days

‘Happy Days (1974-1984)

Who: Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Penny Marshall, Cindy Williams

You probably know that Robin Williams got his start in a goofy guest spot that led to his own series, “Mork & Mindy.” But did you know Tom Hanks made a guest appearance in 1982 — after the short-lived “Bosom Buddies” and before “Bachelor Party,” his breakout film? Guests Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams also got their own show (“Laverne & Shirley”), and future TV staples like Ed Begley Jr., Cheryl Ladd, Jeff Conaway, and Dick Van Patten showed up in episodes as well.

Related: 29 Legendary Vehicles From the '70s and '80s

Law and Order

‘Law & Order’ (1990-2010)

Who: Samuel L. Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chadwick Boseman, Allison Janney, Chris Cooper

These Oscar winners and nominees probably didn’t spend much time on the screen in any episode — there was plenty of drama happening between the big ensemble cast. But they were all there — as well as future TV stars Cynthia Nixon, Claire Danes, Julianna Margulies, John Spencer, Idris Elba, and John Slattery.

‘The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis

‘The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis’ (1959-1963)

Who: Warren Beatty, Ron Howard, Ellen Burstyn, Sally Kellerman, Ryan O’Neal

This kooky teen drama starring Dwayne Hickman — but maybe better known for Bob Denver’s portrayal of beatnik Maynard G. Krebs — didn’t have a long run, but it boasted at least three future Oscar winners and young performers like Marlo Thomas, Bill Bixby, and Burt Metcalfe (“M*A*S*H” producer) who would go on to big things in the medium. 

‘Death Valley Days

‘Death Valley Days’ (1952-1970)

Who: Clint Eastwood, George Kennedy, James Coburn, Ellen Burstyn, James Caan

Westerns were big in the 1950s and ’60s and the top franchises needed a lot of hands to keep the wheels rolling each season. You might know this Western more for Ronald Reagan’s role, but it was a stepping stone on the path to stardom for at least four Oscar winners and one nominee as well as actors like Vic Morrow, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Dabney Coleman, and Angie Dickinson.

Related: The Worst Clint Eastwood Movies Ever Made, According to Critics


‘Maverick’ (1957-1962)

Who: Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, George Kennedy, Martin Landau, Joel Grey

A Who’s Who of future stars made stops on this popular Western featuring James Garner and Jack Kelly (and later Roger Moore) including the five Oscar winners mentioned above as well as people like Adam West, Max Baer Jr., Buddy Ebsen, and Dawn Wells that would soon find stardom on their own popular programs.


‘Bonanza’ (1959-1973)

Who: George Kennedy, Lee Marvin, Louis Gossett Jr., Jodi Foster, James Coburn, Dennis Hopper, Gary Busey

You’d think that one of the longest-running Westerns on TV would feature a virtual stable of big-name actors passing through the Ponderosa — and you’d be right. While many of them — like Robert Culp, Jack Lord, Ted Knight, Tom Bosley, Richard Thomas, and Richard Mulligan — would become famous on other series, only the ones mentioned above would have a shot at an Oscar one day.

‘Dr. Kildare’
Wikimedia Commons

‘Dr. Kildare’ (1961-1966)

Who: Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, George Kennedy, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, James Caan, Teri Garr, James Earl Jones

In addition to soon-to-be iconic actors like Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson, this show featured Ted Knight, Suzanne Pleshette, Marion Ross, and Tom Bosley in various episodes. Many guest stars on the series also appeared on “Ben Casey.” 

‘77 Sunset Strip’

‘77 Sunset Strip’ (1958-1964)

Who: Mary Tyler Moore, Tuesday Weld, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Joe Grey, George Kennedy, Bruce Dern

This popular detective drama with the catchy theme song not only featured the six future Oscar winners above but a good number of up-and-coming actors like Connie Stevens, Telly Savalas (back when he had hair), and Marlo Thomas — many of them contract players for Warner Bros., which produced the series.

‘Ben Casey
Wikimedia Commons

‘Ben Casey’ (1961-1966)

Who: George C. Scott, Lee Marvin, Patty Duke, Bruce Dern, Robert Loggia, Katherine Ross, Tuesday Weld, Ellen Burstyn, James Caan, Vincent Gardenia, Sally Kellerman, Richard Dreyfuss

Medical shows need a steady stream of patients to maintain fresh stories week after week and this gritty hospital drama starring Vince Edwards and Sam Jaffe turned up seven Oscar winners and five more nominees. It also featured actors like Ed Asner, Suzanne Pleshette, Robert Culp, Dean Jones, and Carroll O’Connor in guest spots.

The Defenders

'The Defenders' (1961-65)

Who: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Martin Landau, Ellen Burstyn, Vincent Gardenia, Dennis Hopper, James Earl Jones, Gene Wilder, Peter Fonda, Charles Durning

For a show that only ran for a few seasons, “The Defenders” — starring E.G. Marshall and future “Brady Bunch” dad Robert Reed — featured an impressive number of future Oscar winners and nominees (above) in the cast. Future A-list actors Martin Sheen, Charles Grodin, and Billy Dee Williams were also alums of the series.


'Gunsmoke' (1955-1975)

Who: Jon Voight, George Kennedy, Jodie Foster, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Martin Landau, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Burt Reynolds, Katherine Ross, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, Nick Nolte, Robert Loggia, Sam Elliott, Charles Bronson

Maybe it’s because there were just so many roles in the series’ 635 episodes or maybe it was because actors lined up to be seen on the popular show, but “Gunsmoke” is the king of giving future stars a place to show off. Burt Reynolds did five episodes and then joined the cast for 45 more before becoming a superstar. Future film stars Charles Bronson, Harry Dean Stanton, Kurt Russell, and Tom Skerrit also appeared in episodes as well as scores of performers who would gain fame in their own series like Barbara Eden, Jack Lord, Angie Dickinson, Wayne Rogers, Ted Knight, Leonard Nimoy, and Ed Asner.

'NYPD Blue' (1993-2005)
Wikimedia Commons

'NYPD Blue' (1993-2005)

Who: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Mahershala Ali, Sam Rockwell, Paul Giamatti, Jonah Hill

You probably couldn’t have predicted it at the time but this popular police show featured performances from five future Oscar winners and two nominees. Future television stars such as David Schwimmer, Debra Messing, Michael Imperioli, Jenna Elfman, Sterling K. Brown, and Isaiah Washington also made appearances on the show.