Commercials are the bread and butter for many working actors, providing short-term opportunities in between longer-term gigs. But unlike movies and TV shows, where the characters are the stars, the product is the true hero of an advertisement. Short and to-the-point, a good commercial presents the most attractive features of a product or service in an engaging way. Oftentimes, it’s the charisma of the actors that does most of the selling.
It’s not uncommon for an actor to get their start doing commercial work. At the early stages of their careers, actors are looking for chances to gain experience, flesh out their demo reels, and perhaps even score that coveted SAG card. In fact, a lot of now-famous celebrities acted in commercials before they made their big breakthroughs in Hollywood. Certain stars, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Kirsten Dunst, have been acting in commercials since they were young kids. Others, such as Brad Pitt, started as young adults while also doing background work on the side.
If you flipped through the TV channels during the ‘80s and ‘90s, you might not have realized that the actors on screen were poised to become world-renowned actors. When Paul Rudd popped up in a Super Nintendo ad, no one batted an eye. It’s crazy to think that some of today’s biggest stars were once anonymous commercial players.
Take a look at these vintage commercials that feature some seriously recognizable faces. Do you remember watching any of these when they were first on the air?
It’s no secret that Drew Barrymore was a child actress — after all, at age 7 she played the role of Elliot’s sister Gertie in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. But even before that, when she was roughly 4 years old, Barrymore starred in this ad for Pillsbury cookie dough. Walking inside from the pouring rain, Barrymore is cheered up with homemade cookies from her mom. For a toddler, this is one sweet gig — she got paid to eat some delicious chocolate chip cookies in front of a camera.
From Titanic to The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio knows how to command a screen. Even as a kid, his charisma was undeniable. Back in the ’80s, DiCaprio was in a string of commercials, including this one for Bubble Yum. Somehow, he takes something frivolous like bubblegum and makes it really cool. If you were a kid and this came on TV in between cartoon blocks, how could you not want to save up your allowance for a pack of Bubble Yum?
According to a member of the crew, this Better Homes commercial was the first time Anne Hathaway was ever in front of a camera. The 14-year-old actress gives a riveting, surprisingly emotional performance during the 30-second spot. Hathway sits on her front steps with her neighbor, devastated over the fact that his family will be moving soon. He reassures her that the house has to sell first, and they’ll have the whole summer to spend together. That is, until a Better Homes “For Sale” sign is slapped on his family’s lawn. Even from this one short commercial, it was clear that Hathaway had the chops to be a professional actress.
Before he was Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill played a goofy, charming Romeo type standing beneath his girlfriend’s window in this 1970s Kodak ad. The 30-second commercial definitely shows off Hamill’s leading man potential — it’s no surprise he was cast as the hopeful Jedi shortly thereafter. The most shocking part of this advertisement? A camera used to cost less than $36. Ah, simpler times.
Some fans have jokingly called Paul Rudd an “ageless vampire”, since the actor has remarkably maintained his dashing good looks over the decades. Those looking for proof need only to check out this Super Nintendo commercial from 1991. Although the commercial was filmed just over 30 years ago, you can easily identify Rudd as the star gamer. His hair might be a little longer (it was the ‘90s, after all), but overall, he’s instantly recognizable.
Okay, so Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t actually on the MTV reality show My Super Sweet 16. But she did star in a promotion for the series, which ended up earning her a SAG card. Despite the show’s title, Lawrence wasn’t 16 at the time — she was only 14. Lawrence enters her birthday bash atop a chaise lounge chair, carried by a team of men who promptly drop her on the ground. We wonder if anyone on set had a feeling that Lawrence would become the second-youngest Best Actress winner at the Academy Awards.
For a brief period of time in the 1970s, it seemed as if John Travolta made his living from singing in the shower with a team of dudes. Sometimes sporting a basketball uniform, sometimes seemingly naked, Travolta never drops his winning smile in this pair of commercials for Band-Aid and Safeguard soap. Besides showing off his likable personality, Travolta got to prove that he could carry a tune. It’s also wild to see Travolta’s side-parted hairdo — it could use a little Grease or Hairspray.
Before Kirsten Dunst was rolling the dice for her life as the young Judy Shepherd in Jumanji, she was playing Trouble in this early ‘90s ad for the popular board game. Dunst looks like she’s having the time of life here, jumping out of her seat every time it’s her turn. At just 12 years old, Dunst would score the role of child vampiress Claudia in Interview with the Vampire, earning her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
As the story goes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was discovered while playing the Scarecrow in his musical theater group’s production of The Wizard of Oz. He was only 4 years old. Shortly thereafter, Gordon-Levitt was cast in a series of commercials for Sunny Jim peanut butter, Cocoa Puffs, and Pop-Tarts. This spot is particularly fun because it shows Gordon-Levitt speaking directly to camera as he convinces his father (the audience’s perspective) to heat up a Pop-Tart before leaving for work.
While Joey from Friends might have acted in some embarrassing commercials, Matt LeBlanc’s own resume is far less embarrassing. This advertisement for Cherry 7Up is actually pretty cool, in a retro 1980s sort of way. LeBlanc struts into a convenience store to pick up a pack of the bright red cans, making eyes at the cashier behind the counter. It’s not long before she closes shop, joining LeBlanc for a late-night soft drink outside. LeBlanc doesn’t even have any lines, but he still manages to make us swoon.
Just two years before she would win the part of Jackie Burkhart on That ‘70s Show, Mila Kunis was a 12-year old girl teaching young audiences about the wonders of Lisa Frank. Decked out in tie-dye, denim, and oversized sweaters, a lively Kunis and her friends excitedly tell the camera about their dreamy sleepovers, outrageous parties, and exclusive Club Lisa Frank memberships. While the doors of Lisa Frank’s Tucson, Arizona factory have long since closed, this commercial serves as a nostalgic time capsule.
One of Ben Affleck’s first acting gigs was this advertisement for Burger King, which sees him frantically picking up a salad from the fast food joint after a sultry voice mistakes his number for the restaurant’s. He drops off the salad at the girl’s house, only to be beckoned back home by a phone call from his dad. Wearing his letterman jacket, Affleck looks a lot like his character of Fred O’Bannion in Dazed and Confused — which he would play four years later.
Even at the beginning of his career, Brad Pitt was already getting singled out for his California handsome looks. In this 1989 advertisement for Pringles, 26-year-old Pitt cruises around in a convertible, flirts with a beachy, blonde model, and snacks on the famous potato-based crisps. Around the same time, Pitt was working as an extra in an attempt to earn his SAG card — you can spot him as a partygoer in Less Than Zero and a waiter in No Man’s Land.
Steve Carell is a pro at the direct address to camera — he does it nearly every episode of The Office. In 1989, he was breaking the fourth wall in this advertisement for Brown’s Chicken. Carell is a friendly Brown’s Chicken employee who tells us about the cholesterol-free oil and batter used to fry the tasty chicken. Funnily enough, Carell’s employee has the same nervous energy of Michael Scott — and it totally works. And now we’re craving fried chicken.
We all know that Amy Adams can sing and act. From her star-making turn in Enchanted to her impressive dramatic work in American Hustle and Arrival, she has unquestionable talent. It’s unfortunate, however, that she wound up in this cringe-worthy ad for Commercial Federal Bank. Filmed in Omaha, Nebraska, the 30-second spot was Adams’ first TV commercial. She stars as the equivalent of Sandy in a parodied version of “Summer Nights” from Grease. Bopping along with a cheesy smile plastered on her face, Adams sings about her free checking account, outdoor camera, and receiver TV. It’s something you have to see for yourself.