10 Actors Whose Debut Movies Bombed


  • Many successful actors had humble beginnings in box office flops and forgotten films.
  • Actors like Denzel Washington, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Scarlett Johansson had small roles in critically unsuccessful movies early in their careers.
  • These actors eventually achieved massive commercial success and critical acclaim in later roles.

There are so many great actors that audiences readily associate with major box office success, compelling performances, and fantastic films, who began their careers in box office bombs and forgotten failures. While all these actors would eventually go on to achieve massive commercial success and widespread critical acclaim in their later roles, their debut features left a lot to be desired, and the success they would later gain was nowhere to be seen. Before achieving a certain level of fame, actors are often forced to accept whatever roles they can get, and this can lead to some interesting choices for great actors’ first movies.

Take, for example, multiple Academy Award-winning movie star Denzel Washington whose first role in the forgotten comedy-drama Carbon Copy completely flopped at the box office. There is also the career of George Clooney who, before gaining wide recognition in Hollywood, got his start with a minor role in a comedy slasher where he was the first cast member killed off. Or even child stars, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson, who debuted with small roles in unsuccessfully critically reviled movies.

10 Michael J. Fox

Midnight Madness (1980)

The film debut of the man who later gained worldwide fame as Marty McFly in the Back to the Future series, Midnight Madness was a box office flop about five teams taking part in a city-wide all-night scavenger hunt. Michael J. Fox played Scott Larson, a member of the Yellow Team, who often acts out to get his brother’s attention. While Midnight Madness did not find success at the box office, grossing just $2.9 million on a budget of $4.5 million, it did lead to several recreations like Minnie’s Moonlit Madness, where Disney cast members raise money for charity in a Q&A and scavenger hunt at Disneyland (via Disney Parks.)

9 Denzel Washington

Carbon Copy (1981)

The film debut of two-time Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington, Carbon Copy was a comedy-drama about a white corporate executive discovering he has an illegitimate black son. Washington portrayed Roger Porter, the long-lost son of Walter Whitney, who was played by George Segal. Carbon Copy made just $3.5 million at the box office on a budget of $6 million and Washington would go on to have much greater success in his next role as part of an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Charles Fuller A Soldier’s Spy.

8 George Clooney

Return to Horror High (1987)

George Clooney shortly before getting killed in 'Return to Horror High (1987)

George Clooney briefly appeared in the 1987 comedy slasher Return to Horror High. The film tells the story of a film crew making a movie at an abandoned high school where, several years before, a series of ghastly murders took place. However, once the camera starts rolling, the homicidal maniac who was never captured makes his return. Clooney plays the fictional movie’s lead character, Oliver, who is murdered by the returning killer in a gruesome attack. Return to Horror High did not do well at the box office and barely broke even, making $1.2 million on a budget of $1 million.

7 Sandra Bullock

Who Shot Pat? (1989)

Sandra Bullock as Devlin Moran in Who Shot Pat

In Sandra Bullock’s first lead role, she played Devlin Moran in Who Shot Pat? This was a coming-of-age tale about teenagers in 1950s Brooklyn dealing with racial tensions at their high school. Trouble starts when one of the students is shot by random gunfire. Bullock plays a privileged rich girl who falls in love with vocational student Bic Bickham. A relatively unknown film, Who Shot Pat? rehashed many of the themes of Francis Ford Coppola’s earlier, and much more successful, movie The Outsiders.

6 Leonardo DiCaprio

Critters 3 (1991)

Before becoming one of the most acclaimed actors in Hollywood with roles in Titanic, The Departed, and Killers of the Flower Moon, Leonardo DiCaprio got his start in the low-budget direct-to-video film Critters 3. At just 17 years old, DiCaprio plays Josh, the stepson of a corrupt landlord, in the third installment of this franchise about the malevolent carnivorous aliens called Krites. As a direct-to-video release, Critters 3 never got the chance to bomb at the box office, but if its 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes is anything to go by, its chances of success were slim.

5 Scarlet Johansson

North (1994)

Scarlett Johansson 1st Movie Role as Laura Nelson in North

The Rob Reiner-directed adventure film North starred Elijah Wood in the title role and featured a 9-year-old Scarlett Johansson in her very first movie. North tells the story of a boy traversing the world in search of new parents and was universally panned by critics and was a box office bomb. North was described as “one of the worst movies ever made” by film critic Roger Ebert (via Roger Ebert.) Johansson had a brief appearance in North as Laura Nelson, the daughter of a family that North is staying with. Johansson would continue to appear in small film parts throughout the 1990s before gaining breakout roles in Ghost World and Lost in Translation.

4 Angelina Jolie

Hackers (1995)

Angelina Jolie as Acid Burn in Hackers


Release Date
September 15, 1995

Iain Softley


Hackers was a 1995 crime thriller that featured Angelina Jolie was one of her very first roles following numerous short films and minor projects. Jolie played Kate Libby, known by her hacker alias Acid Burn, who is part of a teenage group uncovering a criminal computer virus conspiracy. Hackers was a box office flop and made just $7.5 million with a budget of $20 million. However, despite its failure at the box office and negative critical reception, the film’s director Ian Softley has stated that he has been actively discussing plans to make Hackers 2.

3 Vin Diesel

Strays (1997)

Vin Diesel in his feature debut Strays

Vin Diesel’s feature debut as an actor was also his debut as director, writer, and producer of the 1997 drama film Strays. In the film, which is based on Diesel’s adolescence and upbringing in New York, Diesel portrays Rick, a disillusioned small-time drug dealer searching for meaningful relationships. A surprisingly nuanced and heartfelt debut, while Strays did not perform well at the box office it was selected for competition at the Sundance Film Festival. Strays is also what convinced Steven Spielberg to cast Diesel in Saving Private Ryan, his breakout role the following year (via Slash Film.)

2 Amy Adams

Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)

DROP DEAD GORGEOUS (1999) Amy Adams as Leslie Miller

Drop Dead Gorgeous was a satirical mockumentary about a small-town beauty pageant whose contestants will do anything to win. Featuring Amy Adams as Leslie Miller in her very first role, her character was clueless, ditzy, and promiscuous and eventually took home third place in the fierce beauty competition. Drop Dead Gorgeous, which starred Kirsten Dunst, took in $10.5 million at the box office on a budget of $15 million. However, over time, it has built a following and is today regarded as a cult favorite.

1 Margot Robbie

Vigilante (2008)

While Australian actress Margot Robbie would gain worldwide attention following her breakout role in Martin Scorsese’s The World of Wall Street, her first role was actually in the low-budget thriller Vigilante. Robbie played the character of Cassandra in this movie about a vengeful businessman determined to avenge the murder of his wife. Vigilante was an independent film that failed to find success and is mostly notable for being the beginning of a career that would see Margot Robbie tackling iconic roles such as Tonya Harding, Harley Quinn, and Barbie.

Sources: Disney Parks, Rotten Tomatoes, Roger Ebert, Slash Film