Everyone has to start somewhere. For most actors, its bit roles on the small screen. Some of the biggest action heroes of the last four decades got their start on TV. The shows — and the roles — just might surprise you.
They may not have been big names, but, boy, were they bulked up. Let's muscle our way into the past and check out the humble origins of blockbuster stars. Where else to begin but with Arnold…
Arnold Schwarzenegger on 'The Streets of San Francisco'
The cult film Hercules in New York introduced the Austrian strongman to American audiences in 1970, but Arnie mostly kept to flexing competitions the rest of the decade. In 1977, he bulged his way onto the boob tube making his TV debut on an episode of The Streets of San Francisco dubbed "Dead Lift." It was not much of a stretch (though it was a significant flex) as he played a champion bodybuilder named Josef Schmidt.
Sylvester Stallone on 'Police Story'
Rocky and the Rifleman, together? Now that's mucho macho. In "The Cutting Edge," Chuck Connors plays veteran cop Sgt. Ed Peebles. Naturally, he is teamed with a young partner, Elmore Caddo, played by Sly Stallone in his first television role. Airing a year before Rocky hit screens, the episode included a prescient line of dialogue. "They actually call me 'Rocky,'" his character says. "I prefer that."
Kurt Russell on 'The Fugitive'
Born into Hollywood, son of Western regular Bing Russell, Kurt started in biz at an early age. His very first role was an uncredited gig as one of Dennis' friends on Dennis the Menace. "How 'bout some leap frog?" he suggests on the playground in "Mr. Wilson's Second Childhood." A meatier role came along two years later, in a 1964 episode of The Fugitive called "Nemesis." In it, Richard Kimble, the fugitive, runs from the law in a hot car — only there's a young boy stowed away in the rear seat. That would be Russell on the run, decades before he would Escape from New York.
Bruce Willis on 'Miami Vice'
Moonlighting made Willis an immediate star in 1985. His resume was light leading up to that breakout role. A year earlier, he earned his first television credit in a very early episode of Miami Vice, "No Exit." With pleated pants, puffy blouses and wavy hair, he oozed '80s style — and made a pretty sleazy arms dealer.
Harrison Ford on 'The Virginian'
Doesn't he just look natural wearing a vest and holster? Ford's practically in Han Solo costume in "The Modoc Kid," a 1966 episode of The Virginian. The Western was his first credited TV role, though he would find steady work as young gunslinger on other oaters.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson on 'Star Trek: Voyager'
Of course, professional wrestling made him a star, and that sports involved a good deal of acting. (Sorry, folks, it's fake.) But the former football player truly got to show off his scripted skills in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager called "Tsunkatse," in which he battles Seven of Nine inside an alien MMA arena.
Nicolas Cage on 'The Best of Times'
From his very first scene, Nicolas Cage was 110% Nicolas Cage — even if he was going by Nicolas Coppola back then. His trademark over-over-the-top acting made this obscure ABC comedy pilot into the ultimate rare Cage clip reel. The future Con Air and National Treasure star also happened to be surprisingly ripped as a teenager, showing off his stuff as he shadow-boxed and flexed on the beach. The highlights are a gem. And to think this potential series also featured Crispin Glover. Oh, in what alternate universe was this a hit — and can we go there?
Samuel L. Jackson on 'Movin' On'
He's been a Jedi, an animated superhero, Shaft, the ringleader of the Avengers and an FBI agent on a plane full of snakes. Jackson's first national screen debut came on television, in season two of Movin' On, the drama series that capitalized on the trucking craze of the 1970s. In the episode, "Woman of Steel," Sonny and Will, the main characters, are truckin' to a steel mill in Georgia. At one point, about 16 minutes in, the two stop. They are hauling too much weight. A policeman pulls up and tells them as much. It is Samuel L. Jackson, unmistakable, albeit with a heavier Southern accent. It was an uncredited role, but people took notice.
Sigourney Weaver on 'Somerset'
The Aliens badass got her start on soaps. As this 1976 snippet from Soap Opera Digest explains, "Ms. Weaver is now playing Avis Ryan on Somerset," also citing her Broadway experience. A spin-off of Another World, Somerset ended that same year, cutting her TV life short. But a small role in Annie Hall the following year got her career rolling.
Image: Soap Opera Digest
Clint Eastwood on 'Highway Patrol'
The Dirty Harry and Rawhide tough guy started out in B-movies, the type you see on Svengoolie, drive-in stuff like The Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula. In 1956, he showed his cool, and his darker side, playing a biker in "Motorcycle A," late in the first season of Highway Patrol. He's in pure James Dean mode here, in slicked hair and black leather.