Long before these stars were even a twinkle in a tabloid editor's eye, they built their resumes—and their acting chops—by guest starring in '80s crime shows.
1. Bryan Cranston — Matlock, "The Gift"
In a pre-Walter White world, Bryan Cranston plays an innocent man defended by the show’s titular hero, Ben Matlock. This 1987 holiday-themed episode, part of the show's second season, even gets Cranston dressed in a Santa suit (he is charged with murdering his ex-wife during her Christmas party). To make things even sappier, the poor innocent man goes on trial because he was trying to visit his daughter. Prepare to get gooey over this episode full of holiday cheer. (Fun fact: Cranston would guest star on Matlock again, this time as a marriage counselor, in the 1991 episode "The Marriage Counselor.")
2. George Clooney — Murder She Wrote, "No Laughing Murder"
George Clooney has appeared in so many small roles that we could dedicate an entire “Before He Was Famous” post just to him. In fact, in 1987, he made appearances in two of the year’s top 10 shows (Golden Girls and Murder She Wrote). In Murder She Wrote, Clooney’s character gets engaged to the daughter of his father’s sworn enemy. Their weekend celebration at his future father-in-law’s retreat sets the scene for murder. Clooney has very little screen time, as Angela Lansbury was the main attraction. Oh, how the times have changed.
3. Liam Neeson — Miami Vice, "When Irish Eyes Are Crying"
Most people know Liam Neeson as a serious actor (Schindler’s List) who reinvented himself into an action hero (Taken). But we’re willing to bet most people can’t recall him on the '80s TV phenomenon, Miami Vice. Playing an IRA terrorist who romances Gina, a Miami detective, Neeson’s character meets a dramatic end by the episode’s conclusion. What’s the funniest part of his appearance? Neeson got the role by flirting with a casting director while he was in New York visiting Robert DeNiro.
4. Ed O'Neill — Hunter, "The Garbage Man"
A few years before Modern Family patriarch Ed O’Neill landed his breakthrough role on Married…with Children, he played a parole officer-turned-vigilante on a 1985 episode of Hunter. O’Neill had previously auditioned for the role of Sam Malone on Cheers, as had Hunter star Fred Dryer. And since Dryer played professional football for 13 years and Ed got cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers while in training camp, there might be some sort of “Six Degrees of Ed O’Neill” game in there somewhere…
5. Cuba Gooding Jr. — MacGyver, "The Challenge"
Forget about the Jerry Maguire catchphrases and his Oscar speech—nothing compares to Cuba Gooding Jr.'s MacGyver appearances in the late '80s/early '90s. In a multi-episode arc, Gooding Jr. portrayed Billy Colton, member of the Colton bounty hunting family; "The Challenge" was the episode that caught our attention, mostly because of jokes on the Internet about MacGyver’s dramatic confrontation of a racist (see video above). Try as he may somehow Cuba Gooding Jr. will never escape being part of pop culture’s punch lines—even when he’s not acting crazy.
6. Kathy Bates — Cagney and Lacey, "Revenge"
Kathy Bates has done it all: She won an Oscar for Misery, directed episodes of HBO's Six Feet Under, had a few flops (North and American Outlaws) ... and had a guest-starring role in a 1986 episode of Cagney and Lacey. Bates appears as a domestic abuse victim that refuses to press charges against her husband. When he ends up dead, Bates becomes one of many possible suspects. Though she has very little screen time, you can see the makings of a star.
7. Don Cheadle — Hill Street Blues, "Days of Swine and Roses"
When Don Cheadle was first starting out as an actor, he appeared in one episode of Hill Street Blues, playing a mentally ill man trying to reunite with his mother and sister. Though the episode feels dated—down to the police team trying out a computer in their car—Cheadle’s work is absolutely fresh. Special Bonus: Cuba Gooding Jr. has a “blink-and-you-miss-it" spot as a kid letting a pig loose in the police station.
8. Sean Bean — The Bill, "Long Odds"
One of Game of Thrones star Sean Bean's earliest acting roles was that of an armed robber on a 1984 episode of the long-running British TV series set in London’s Sun Hill police station, The Bill. His character, Horace Clark, merrily escaped and left his partner to take the fall when the cops showed up during a post office robbery.
9. Sharon Stone — Remington Steele, "Steele Crazy After All These Years"
Remington Steele is well known as the show that shot Pierce Brosnan into fame. It also happens to be a series that featured Sharon Stone pre-Basic Instinct crotch shot. Since we all know Stone’s reputation now, it’s no surprise she was featured in an episode titled “Steele Crazy After All These Years.” Annie Potts is clearly the main guest star here, but Stone’s turn as a university homecoming queen—though it was only two scenes—was crucial, bizarre, and glamorous, just like Stone herself.
10. Brad Pitt — 21 Jump Street, "Best Years of Your Life"
We all know Johnny Depp rose to fame as an undercover police officer busting high school students on 21 Jump Street. How else could he have landed inside the pages of Tiger Beat? Unfortunately, though, Tiger Beat missed documenting Brad Pitt’s guest starring spot on the show. In the episode "Best Years of Your Life," Pitt plays exactly who you would expect—a letter jacket-wearing high school jock with a handsome face and terrible '80s hair. Don’t expect good times, though; the episode centered around teen suicide. Though seeing Pitt sit across the lunchroom table from Depp, pre-major stardom, definitely has its appeal.
BONUS: Matthew McConaughey — Unsolved Mysteries, "Texas' Most Wanted"
Photo courtesy of Total Film
Technically, we can't include this on the list because the episode in question aired in 1992. But we had to include it!
Before the world ever thought about Matthew McConaughey getting older and high school girls staying the same age (see Dazed and Confused) or the phrase “McConaissance,” they were watching the southern charmer play a Texan murder victim. As Unsolved Mysteries spent each week reenacting crimes and the unexplainable, they also unwittingly unleashed this oft-shirtless talent onto the world. In good news, the killer portrayed in McConaughey’s reenactment was eventually caught. Acting can save lives!
Additional Source: TV by the Numbers