The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been annually awarding Oscars to Best Actor and Best Actress since 1928, and has bestowed additional awards for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress since 1936. Some prizes were awarded to people for their movie debuts, but some of the winners—like Shirley Booth (Come Back Little Sheba, 1952) and Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl, 1968)—had played a part hundreds of times on Broadway before bringing that role to a movie, while others were established stars in other media. But some people didn't fit either bill. Here are six Oscar winners who wouldn’t fall under most definitions of a professional actor at the time they won an Academy Award.
1. John Houseman - Best Supporting Actor, The Paper Chase (1973)
An immigrant from Romania, John Houseman originally intended to work with his father in the grain trade when he came to America in 1924, but his life was changed by a number of happy coincidences. He first broke into the theater after he met opera composer Virgil Thompson at a cocktail party; the composer hired Houseman to direct an off-Broadway stage version of his opera Four Saints in Three Acts, despite the fact that Houseman had no experience. When the Depression sunk his grain trading business, Houseman co-founded the legendary Mercury theater program with a young Orson Welles. Through the success of Citizen Kane, in which he supervised the script process before falling out with Welles, Houseman broke into Hollywood and produced nearly twenty films.
At 66, Houseman retired from producing and supervised the acting program at Juilliard, where he oversaw the development of students such as Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve. It was at this phase of his career that he get a call from another young prodigy named James Bridges, who had been a stage manager in Houseman's professional theater troupe at UCLA. Bridges asked Houseman for advice on his screenplay about a difficult-to-please professor at Harvard Law School. Afterward, when no one on the director's casting wishlist was available, Bridges asked Houseman if he would play the part himself. Although Houseman was an accomplished teacher and director, he didn't immediately win over the studio—but a screen test convinced the production studios that he was right for the role of the stern Mr. Kingsfield.
Houseman won an Oscar for the part, and wrote in his autobiography: "My first reaction was one of incredulity and vague pleasure, followed by a sense of embarrassment at the realization that for most actors of my age an Academy Award or even a nomination comes as the hard-earned culmination of a long and dedicated career: mine was the reward for ten agreeable days spent with a friend in Toronto!"
2. Haing Ngor - Best Supporting Actor, The Killing Fields (1984)
Cambodian physician Haing S. Ngor had been through hell and back when he found himself cast in The Killing Fields. Ngor was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, which claimed 3 million lives and terrorized a nation. The doctor was imprisoned in 1975 and made to work in a labor camp for four years, where he was tortured on three occasions (on suspicion of practicing medicine as a doctor), watched his starving wife die before his eyes, and had part of his finger chopped off. In 1979, Ngor escaped with his niece and a friend and walked four straight days through a jungle laced with land mines to Thailand. A year later, Ngor emigrated to the US with his niece to be near his brother in California.
In the meantime, director Ronald Joffe wanted to make the first film that uncovered the story of the Khmer Rouge and cast Sam Waterson in the main part as a Western journalist covering the genocide. All the director needed was a Cambodian actor. When Ngor was at a Cambodian wedding, he was photographed by a talent scout and asked to audition. Although he had never acted before, he did well enough in the screen test to get the part. Ngor travelled back to Thailand to shoot the film and was essentially asked to relive his horrific experiences on camera, which wasn't particularly easy. According to Turner Classic Movies, one scene was so emotional for him that he fled the set. In the end, though, his mesmerizing performance earned him an Oscar nomination and eventually a win. The day of the ceremony, noted film critic Roger Ebert shadowed the nominee. "Ngor did not have the slightest expectation that he would win, but he'd had an incredible journey from the killing fields to the Oscars, and he was determined to enjoy every moment. He had a camera and photographed everything," Ebert wrote.
Ngor acted in 16 more films and did activist work before he died in 1996.
3. Jennifer Hudson - Best Supporting Actress, Dreamgirls, 2006
Jennifer Hudson grew up in Chicago, where she attended Dunbar Vocational Secondary School and was a Disney Line cruise singer for a year before trying out for the third season of American Idol in 2005. The singer was a wildcard entry to the finals (meaning she didn't win the fan vote) and was an early dark horse (she had the highest number of votes a couple weeks before her exit) before being voted off in seventh place. An indication of her future fame might be the outrage that accompanied her exit.
After Idol, she auditioned for Bill Condon’s film adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical Dreamgirls. To get the part of Effie, she not only had to beat out several other talented actresses, but also Fantasia Barrino, her friend from Idol who had won the third season.
Hudson’s performance in Dreamgirls landed her not just the Oscar but the Golden Globe and BAFTA. Hudson was later cast by Sarah Jessica Parker and director Michael Patrick King to appear in the movie adaptation of Sex and the City, and recently joined the cast of Smash to bolster ratings.
4. Harold Russell - Best Supporting Actor, The Best Years of Our Lives, 1947
Harold Russell was a Canadian-born World War II army veteran who lost both hands in a training accident. At Walter Reed Army Hospital, he was given the option of two plastic hands or two hooks. Russell choose the hooks, and mastered them so well that he was selected to make an instructional military film, Diary of a Sergeant, which showed others without limbs how to go about daily tasks. Director William Wyler saw it and was inspired to cast him for his drama about the lives of a trio of veterans coming home from the war called The Best Years of Our Lives.
Russell was nominated for an Oscar, but because the Academy didn't think he'd win it competitively, they awarded him an Honorary Award for his bravery in showing others the lives of war veterans. To their surprise, Russell did win the Best Supporting Oscar.
After winning the Oscar, Wyler advised him to return to his studies at Boston University because there weren't many roles for handless actors. Russell got a degree in business in 1949. He would later write a bestselling book about his recovery as a veteran. Mr. Russell was also appointed to President Kennedy's Committee on the Employment and the Handicapped and was reappointed by both Johnson and Nixon.
5. Anna Paquin - Best Supporting Actress, The Piano (1993)
Before nabbing parts in HBO's True Blood and such films as 25th Hour, Buffalo Soldiers, Almost Famous, and X-Men, Paquin was the wunderkind who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role of Flora McGrath at the impressively ripe age of 11. Before that, Paquin was pretty much an ordinary school girl.
Director Jane Campion wanted to boost the New Zealand film industry by setting her film in the country. Since she didn’t have a lot of professional actors to draw from, she placed an open casting call. Out of 5000 people, Paquin was chosen for the role. Even more impressive, while Paquin had shown artistic aptitude with activities such as playing the cello and ballet, she had little interest in acting. She only went to the casting call because her older sister, Katja, wanted to go and she had to tag along.
Paquin is the second youngest person to win a competitive acting Oscar history; the other, Tatum O’Neal, had showbiz connections. With her successful acting career, it’s safe to say that Paquin has made good on her serendipity.
6. Marlee Matlin - Best Actress, Children of a Lesser God (1986)
Marlee Matlin, who has been deaf since she was a year old, never expected to be a professional actress. She attended Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois, and found a creative outlet in a summer program called the International Center for Deafness and the Arts, where she starred in a production of Wizard of Oz. Henry Winkler (who played Fonzie on the television show Happy Days) was in the audience for one performance, and Matlin said she wanted to be an actor like him. With Winkler’s encouragement, she landed her first movie role in Children of a Lesser God when she was just 22, and became the youngest person to take home the Best Actress prize. Matlin has had guest star stints on a variety of TV series including My Name is Earl, Seinfeld, The West Wing, Desparate Housewives, CSI, and Spin City.
Matlin has also been highly active in charity work and was a finalist on Celebrity Apprentice, where she raised a significant amount of money for a charity that gives hearing aids to the underprivileged deaf. She was appointed to the Committee for National Service by President Clinton in 1994.