Cary Grant first came to mind. He was a stage actor before coming to the movies, and when he first appeared on screen, he was an instant hit. He made some early films with Mae West, and he did have a short spell of work that wasn't the best. But his popularity, particularly with West, helped to save Paramount, so I don't think he could ever be considered a Bit Actor. I wonder what would have happened to him if he retained his real name, Archie Leach?
My next thought was Katherine Hepburn. Same basic story. Her first film, A Bill of Divorcement (1932) with John Barrymore made her a star.
You can't think of Hepburn without thinking of Spencer Tracy. Another star from the start! He made a few early short films in 1930 and was seen by John Ford who gave him the lead in Up The River (1930).
Maybe in those early days of talking films, if you had so much talent and stage acting experience, it was easy to make it big on screen. The depression was just starting and it was much easier for the cash-strapped public to go to the movies than the theater, so the studios needed great talent to promote in all the films they were pushing out.
Let's try a few more recent titles and see where those stars came from. Jack Lemmon started his screen acting on television in 1949. It wasn't until 1954 that he made his first movie. That was It Should Happen to You, starring Judy Holliday and, you guessed it, Jack Lemmon.
|Intense, and Handsome|
I can't think of Jack Lemmon without thinking of Tony Curtis (1925 - 2010) and that actress, Marilyn something-or-other. Maybe Curtis will fill my need. Curtis' first film was a 16mm documentary short called How to Smuggle a Hernia Across the Border (1949) Anyone who would be in a movie with that title must either be a Bit Actor, or a friend of Jerry Lewis. It was, in fact, the first film directed by Lewis, and it was shot at his house. No Oscars were awarded.
Tony's early films were either uncredited or he was billed at Anthony Curtis. He did make quite a few films before catching on, or rather, before the public caught on to his considerable talent and good looks. In 1950 he was in Francis, a story about a talking mule, but it was a Donald O'Connor film.
Winchester '73 (1950) is one of my favorite Jimmy Stewart westerns, and Anthony had a small part in it, along with a Native American named Rock Hudson. Curtis made two films in 1950 with Audie Murphy. He then stars in The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951), Flesh and Fury and No Room for the Groom both in 1952, but they were not big hits and those films didn't really include any other big stars.
These early starring roles may not have been blockbusters, but they are a proving ground for a young actor who is working out his character. After Son of Ali Baba (1952), he has the title role in Houdini (1953) and I believe that may have been a turning point for him. As with most actors, not every film is a success, but he went on to complete about 130 titles over a 59 year span of work. And let's not forget Jamie Lee. Another one of his successes!