Oscar Nominees, Before They Were Stars

March 20, 2002 -- Everybody knows Ron Howard as little Opie — but he was already an established actor before he appeared on The Andy Griffith Show.

Howard's parents were theater actors, and Howard started acting at the age of 5. He was already an accomplished actor when he appeared on The Andy Griffith Show at age six. He was also in the 1962 movie The Music Man.

His time spent as a child star was apparently well spent. At a young age, Howard learned the craft that would make him one of film's finest directors, and a first-time Oscar nominee for A Beautiful Mind.

Howard was well-known for his role as Richie Cunningham on Happy Days — but he also appeared in an episode of the Twilight Zone. In a commercial from The Andy Griffith Show, his line was "Parakeets don't drink coffee."

Though he was a highly visible young actor, Howard never performed in any roles that were in bad taste, or that might embarrass him come Oscar night.

Horror Stories

Not so for best actress nominee Renee Zellweger, who, back in the day had a little bit part in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 4. Her character ended up in bits. Now she is up for best actress for her role in Bridget Jones's Diary.

Sissy Spacek played a teen referred to as "creepy Carrie" in the horror film, Carrie. Movie critics learned to be careful what they say about Spacek after that.

But before Spacek was nominated for best actress for her role in In The Bedroom, she was in the bedroom with Lee Marvin, for a cannibal movie called Prime Cut. It was her first film credit back in 1972.

If you've wondered why Dame Maggie Smith was so good in Gosford Park, consider this. Smith had rehearsed the scene 37 years ago with Ann Bancroft in the Pumpkin Eater.

Early in her career, Nicole Kidman played in an Australian soap opera called A Country Practice.

She also waltzed with Bruce Willis in her first big American role in 1991's Billy Bathgate. After learning a few new steps, she kicked her way to a best actress nomination in Moulin Rouge.

Best Actress nominee Halle Berry's first film role was playing a crack addict in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever. It ended up a relative blip for her, though it was Samuel L. Jackson's breakout film.

Shooting Stars

None of the best actor nominees had embarrassing bit parts. They started out as stars.

Taps with Tom Cruise was Sean Penn's first film, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High was just his second.

Will Smith, who starred in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, has been a star since that first TV role. The same is true for Denzel Washington, who starred in the hit TV drama St. Elsewhere. It was 20 years later in Training Day that he prescribed non-traditional medication to his co-star Ethan Hawke, guiding him through his first day on Los Angeles Police Department's tough inner-city narcotics unit.

River Phoenix was Hawke's partner in The Explorer. Hawke — nominated for supporting actor at the Oscars — was 15.

From Soap to Stardom

Jennifer Connelly made her movie debut at 14 in Once Upon A Time in America.TV soaps have been a great training ground for actors, including two titled Oscar nominees.

Sir Ian McKellan, who is up for supporting actor for his role in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, played a role in Country Matters back in 1972.

Ben Kingsley played in a British soap called Coronation Street in 1966. He did better bald: he won an Oscar for the title role in Gandhi in 1982, and was nominated for two more. Queen Elizabeth II knighted him on Tuesday. He is a nominee for best supporting actor for his role in Sexy Beast.

But he's not the only actor with a title. Phyllis Diller made Marisa Tomei a "princess" on the soap As The World Turns back in 1983. Now, she is up for best supporting actress for her role in In the Bedroom.

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