Oscar Nominees Before They Were Stars

What were this year's award contenders doing before they made it big?

Feb. 20, 2008 #151 -- Every actor has to start somewhere — even the biggest Hollywood stars struggled to pay the rent and auditioned for bit parts in movies and TV shows.

Hollywood's hottest hunk George Clooney was in stinkers like "Return of the Killer Tomatoes" and "Return to Horror High," and showed up in TV shows like "Murder She Wrote" and "Riptide."

And who knew that acting elder statesman Tommy Lee Jones was in the 1970 pilot episode of "Charlie's Angels"?

Read on to find out more and see pictures of some of this year's Oscar nominees before they were stars.

George Clooney

Clooney's success on the big screen in the last decade makes it easy to forget his humble roots. Clooney first made female hearts flutter in the '80s sitcom "The Facts of Life," but got his big break when he appeared on the hit television series "Roseanne" in 1988, playing the role of Booker Brooks, Roseanne's arrogant boss. By 1994, Clooney had gained a major following as Dr. Doug Ross on "E.R."

Clooney's charm and good looks, which are often compared to Carey Grant, made him a movie star natural and roles in "Three Kings" (1999) and "The Perfect Storm" (2000) eased the transition to the big screen. He then caught the academy's eye in 2005, when he was nominated for his role in "Syriana" as well as for directing and writing "Good Night and Good Luck."

Johnny Depp

Depp didn't begin his career on the lavish streets of Hollywood, but got an early start by pacing on "21 Jump Street," a hit television show about young looking officers solving crimes, which premiered in 1987.

A few years earlier in 1984, Depp was on another street in "Nightmare on Elm Street" and a big-time Hollywood scene, just unfortunately with a minor role. Depp played the heroine's boyfriend, who also ended up being one of Freddy Kruger's victims unfortunately.

Depp showed off his acting skills and blockbuster potential as the darkly beloved Edward Scissorhands in director Tim Burton's 1990 film. However, a more commercial turn as Jack Sparrow in 2003's "Pirates of the Caribbean" earned him his first Oscar nomination.

Ellen Page

The Canadian actress has been acting since the age of 10, but the Kodak Theater red carpet is quite a step from her Nova Scotia beginning. After gaining experience on the TV series "Pit Pony," Page broke onto the Hollywood scene with 2005's "Hard Candy."

The young actress' performance reportedly impressed director Brett Ratner so much that he plucked her to star in "X-Men: The Last Stand" as Kitty Pryde. But a less supernatural portrayal of teenage pregnancy in this past year's "Juno" wowed academy members, who nominated the 20-year-old for best actress.

Casey Affleck

Affleck, who began his career with a part in 1995's "To Die For," starring Nicole Kidman, had a supporting role in the 1997 film "Good Will Hunting" that went rather unnoticed, while his older brother Ben won an Oscar for the film's screenplay.

A decade later, after memorable supporting roles in "200 Cigarettes" and the "Ocean's 11" franchise, he got his shot in the spotlight. The Affleck brothers teamed up for 2007's "Gone Baby Gone," which Ben wrote and directed, but Casey scored a nomination for his portrayal of Robert Ford.

Julie Christie

Currently laying low after her 1996 Oscar nod for "Afterglow," the British actress got her big break as the love interest of "Billy Liar" in the 1963 film directed by John Scheslinger. Christie found critical success quickly and in 1965 she won the best actress Oscar for her role in "Darling." But Christie will forever be remembered for a different role that same year: Lara Antipova in "Dr. Zhivago."

Viggo Mortenson

Mortenson's acting career began on the stage, though a string of supporting film roles led to Oscar-worthy opportunities. In addition to small parts in 1995's "Crimson Tide" and 1997's "G.I. Jane," Mortenson seduced actress Gwyneth Paltrow on screen in "A Perfect Murder," the 1998 remake of an Alfred Hitchcock classic.

After gaining popularity as Aragon in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Mortenson has a shot at academy acknowledgement for his acting prowess as a Russian mobster in "Eastern Promises."

Laura Linney

Linney snuck onto the Hollywood scene as well with minor roles in the mid-'90s in "Dave" and "Searching for Bobby Fischer." She flirted with box office success when she took on the role of Dr. Karen Ross in "Congo," but has drifted to many independent films since. Her low profile roles in "You Can Count on Me" and "Kinsey" both garnered Oscar nods for the actress who is nominated this year for "The Savages."

Javier Bardem

Bardem's first major film, "The Ages of Lulu," came to him at the very young age of 20. However, Bardem truly gained recognition for his 1992 film "Jamon," which also starred Spanish beauty Penelope Cruz, whom he recently started dating, 15 years later.

His prolific career in Spanish films even breached the American borders: His performance as Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in 2000's "Before Night Falls" earned him an Oscar nod. However, American audiences have gotten to know him for his turn as a psychopathic assassin in last year's "No Country for Old Men," for which he is the Oscar favorite.

Cate Blanchett

The Australian actress had a little help from Hollywood female heavyweights Glenn Close and Frances McDormand when she starred in her first international film, 1997's "Paradise Road."

A year later, she proved she could carry a film when she portrayed the virgin queen in "Elizabeth." Although she lost the Oscar to Gwyneth Paltrow for "Shakespeare in Love," Blanchett has a second chance at winning an Oscar for playing the queen after starring in the film's sequel.

However, Blanchett, who won in 2004 for portraying Katherine Hepburn in "The Aviator," is predicted to have a better chance at snagging the award for "I'm Not There."

Tommy Lee Jones

It's been a big year for Jones, who scored his third Oscar nomination for "In the Valley Elah" and co-starred in another Oscar-nominated film "No Country for Old Men."

The Texas native graduated in 1969 from Harvard, where he was a star football player and a top student, graduating cum laude with a degree in English. He also roomed with future Vice President Al Gore.

After college, Jones moved to New York City and started acting on Broadway and television. In one of his first roles, he he played Dr. Mark Toland on the soap opera "One Life to Live."

Amy Ryan

Ryan has already won or been nominated for about two dozen critics awards for her portrayal of a drug-using South Boston mother whose daughter disappears in "Gone Baby Gone."

Though not a household name, Ryan is a versatile and busy actress, with two Tony award nominations under her belt and roles in several feature film and television shows, including the critically acclaimed HBO series "The Wire."

Like Jones, Ryan did a short stint on a soap opera, playing a teenage runaway in "As the World Turns."