Every successful artist has some work that they’re not proud of. In film, even the best and most successful actors always have at least a couple of box office flops. When an actor is just starting out as less than a household name, they’re more likely to act in some less-than-stellar movies.

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But making a movie that completely bombs does not mean an actor won’t move on to bigger and better things. In fact, some of the greatest and most famous names in film history debuted in box-office failures.

Updated on September 28, 2023, by Ryan Heffernan:

Everyone has to start somewhere. From unspoken extra roles in critical failures to major parts in total flops, these movie stars came from humble beginnings to become icons of the film industry. Just a couple of the iconic names to have found their feet in financial flops include Margot Robbie whose role in Barbie proved to be a huge monetary success and Leonardo DiCaprio whose upcoming performance in Killers of the Flower Moon could prove to be similarly impactful when it hits theaters on October 20.

16 Vin Diesel

‘Strays’ (1997)

A young drug dealer stands against a steel wall with his sunglasses on his head, scowling at the camera.
Image via First Look International

Not only his debut as an actor but his first feature film as a director as well, Strays was a major launching pad in the career of Vin Diesel. The indie crime-drama follows a small-time drug dealer as he hopes to escape his repetitious and unrewarding life after falling in love with his neighbor Heather (Suzanne Lanza).

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After premiering at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, it was unable to make a mark in a more commercial sense even with its measly budget. However, it did help Diesel land a supporting role in Saving Private Ryan which would ultimately see him go on to star in the Fast & Furious franchise and even the Riddickmovies as well.

15 Uma Thurman

‘Kiss Daddy Goodnight’ (1987)

A young girl looks over her shoulder as a masked assailant approaches her.
Image via Upfront Films

After starting her career as a model, Uma Thurman made the transition to acting with her starring role in Kiss Daddy Goodnight. The neo-noir crime thriller follows an alluring woman who goes out on the town to drug and rob men whose life takes a dark turn when a stalker murders her friend and starts targeting her.

The mostly forgotten stalker film was critically berated, and audiences didn’t greet it any more warmly, as it completely failed to make a splash in the market. It did however launch the film career of Thurman who has become an icon in the years since, and it also featured a pre-fame Steve Buscemi in one of his earliest acting roles as well.

14 Christian Bale

‘Mio in the Land of Faraway’ (1987)

Two young boys smile as they stand outside.
Image via Sandrew Metronome 

With a vast range stretching from superheroes like Batman to ex-boxers with drug addiction like Dickie Ecklund in The Fighter, Welsh actor Christian Bale can do anything from blockbuster action to Oscar-winning drama. However, his start in the industry wasn’t necessarily so smooth, with Mio in the Land of Faraway, a complete unknown that struggled critically in its homeland of Sweden.

Adapted from Mio, My Son by Astrid Lindgren, the fantasy adventure follows two young Swedish boys who face off with a mystical knight turning children into birds. The consensus was the film was a poor adaptation, and even with Sir Christopher Lee appearing as the black knight Kato, the film flopped in Sweden and was unheard of everywhere else.

13 Angelina Jolie

‘Hackers’ (1995)

Laurence Mason Jonny Lee Miller Angelina Jolie and Matthew Lillard in Hackers
Image via MGM

As Jon Voight’s daughter, Angelina Jolie was present on a number of film sets in her youth. That then led to her appearing in numerous music videos and short films before finally making her feature film debut in 1995’s Hackers, a techno crime-thriller following a group of computer hacking youths as they are framed for creating a virus that will steal a large mass of money and lead to an environmental disaster.

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Made on a budget of $20 million, it became a total flop at the box office making back just $7.5 million. It was a disappointment considering the talent at its disposal as it also served as the cinematic debut of Johnny Lee Miller and featured Matthew Lillard and Lorraine Bracco as well.

12 Michael J. Fox

‘Midnight Madness’ (1980)

Michael J. Fox appears confused in teen comedy 'Midnight Madness' (1980)
Image via Buena Vista Distribution

Michael J. Fox made his film debut in Midnight Madness, a mostly forgotten 1980 Disney drama about a group of college students competing in a series of games overnight. At the time, Michael Fox (as he was credited in the movie – he hadn’t yet added the “J”) was just 19 years old.

Fox had only a minor role in the movie, cast as the younger brother of a more prominent character, but something about his performance must have garnered attention, as just two years later he was cast in Family Ties. From there, he appeared in the Back to the Future trilogy and cemented himself as an enduring screen icon.

11 Madonna

‘A Certain Sacrifice’ (1985)

Madonna appears in grainy, low-budget art film 'A Certain Sacrifice'.
Image via Vidimax Home Entertainment

Filmed in 1979 when Madonna was just 19 years old, A Certain Sacrifice wasn’t released until years later in 1985. What little attention it got only came from the music icon’s starring role – which she received no pay for – as it follows a victim of a violent sexual assault who works with her former “love slaves” to exact revenge.

The film was nothing short of a disaster, being criticized for its appallingly low quality and rather boring story which has garnered it an unbelievably low rating of 2.3 on IMDb. It is reported that Madonna even tried to buy the rights back and ban it from public viewing.

10 Gwyneth Paltrow

‘Hook’ (1991)

Young Wendy (Gwyneth Paltrow) rises from her bed to greet Peter at her window sill in 'Hook'.
Image via TriStar Pictures

Hook is one of the more recognizable names among box-office flops. It was directed by Steven Spielberg, boasts a truly wonderful cast, and features a rousing score from legendary composer John Williams. It also features Gwyneth Paltrow making her film debut with a minor role as young Wendy.

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While everything pointed to Hook being a hit, it drastically underperformed at the box office as critics took aim at its clumsy execution among other flaws. Paltrow found fame later in the decade with star-making appearances in Se7en and Emma before winning the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love.

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9 Julia Roberts

‘Firehouse’ (1987)

A sleazy man stands in front of a firetruck with two women in 1987 sex comedy 'Firehouse'.
Image via Cinema Sciences Corporation

A typical 80s sex comedy, Firehouse would be otherwise unremarkable were it not for featuring the film debut of Hollywood star Julia Roberts. The film focuses on a group of women who become firefighters to solve a local crime, with Roberts briefly appearing in an uncredited role (in the above image, she’s the girl on the left).

The film was met with widespread disdain, even by the subgenre’s usual low standards, but its abysmal ratings certainly never hurt Roberts’ acting career. She appeared in several other films in the late 80s before finding worldwide fame in 1990’s Pretty Woman, a role which shot her to superstardom and made her one of the highest-paid actors of the 90s and early 2000s.

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8 Amy Adams

‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’ (1999)

A competitor at a beauty pageant smiles while fiddling with her necklace in front of a small group of lingering people.
Image via New Line Cinema

Amy Adams has made a name for herself as one of the most adored and versatile actors of the 21st century, appearing in everything from iconic family adventures to gritty dramas, but her career didn’t get off to the most illustrious of starts. She made her debut as supporting character Leslie Miller in Drop Dead Gorgeous, a satirical mockumentary movie surrounding a competitive beauty pageant that spirals out of control.

While the film had its fun moments and a star-studded cast, it failed to make its money back and became a largely forgotten flop. It does have the honor of being Adams’ introduction to Hollywood though, and the talented actor has gone from strength to strength ever since.

7 Denzel Washington

‘Carbon Copy’ (1981)

A young black man and his white father walk through the streets in 'Carbon Copy'.
Image via AVCO Embassy Pictures

The 1981 comedy Carbon Copy stars Denzel Washington in his debut role. The film follows Walter Whitney (George Segal), a white corporate executive whose life is flipped on its head when he discovers he has a Black teenage son in Roger Porter (Washington) who is eager to form a bond with his biological father.

RELATED: The Best Denzel Washington Performances, Ranked

The film received mixed reviews. It was commended for its message, but criticized for its execution with The New York Times labeling it awkward and unrealistic. This didn’t hamper Washington’s career though, as the following year he was cast in St. Elsewhere, the TV show that shot him to fame.

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6 Jennifer Aniston

‘Leprechaun’ (1993)

Jennifer Aniston wields a pump-action shotgun in 'Leprechaun'.
Image via Trimark Pictures

A peculiar blend of horror and comedy, 1993’s genre misfire Leprechaun is perhaps best known for being Jennifer Aniston‘s feature film debut. Set in South Dakota, the film follows an evil leprechaun who torments the family that he believes has stolen his gold.

Sound like a promising plotline? Reviewers didn’t think so either, though the Leprechaun horror franchise now has a total of eight films within it. Critics noted the film failed at being either scary or funny with some even going so far as to call it unwatchable. The very next year, Aniston was cast as Rachel in Friends which sparked the beginning of her career as an A-list star.

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5 Arnold Schwarzenegger

‘Hercules in New York’ (1969)

arnold schwarzenegger flexing arms with woman

Despite his notoriety for his appearances in a number of 80s action hits, Arnold Schwarzenegger made his film debut in a little-known 1969 movie called Hercules in New York. The low-budget romp had elements of fantasy and comedy as the legendary hero tries to acclimatize to life in New York City.

While Schwarzenegger occupied the starring role, all of his lines were originally dubbed on account of his heavy Austrian accent. The movie was panned by audiences and critics alike and failed to even make a splash at the box office, but did accurately foresee Schwarzenegger’s penchant for playing god-like figures and fantastical heroes.

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4 Brad Pitt

‘No Man’s Land’ (1987)

Brad Pitt appears as a young Waiter while notorious car thief Ted Varrick (Charlie Sheen) converses with people in the background.
Image via Orion Pictures

No Man’s Land is a Charlie Sheen-led crime drama from the 1980s which technically serves as Brad Pitt‘s feature film debut. Like many other would-be A-listers, he only played a minor part in his first movie appearance, simply being listed as “Waiter” in what was a critical flop and a commercial disaster.

RELATED: The Best Brad Pitt Movies, Ranked

While eagle-eyed viewers can pinpoint Pitt as the vested waiter gliding in and out of the party scene, the actor was reportedly almost fired from the gig for trying to improvise dialogue despite not having any lines. Perhaps it was that same gumption that facilitated his ensuing rise to become one of the most famous celebrities of all time.

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3 Margot Robbie

‘Vigilante’ (2008)

A woman (Margot Robbie) sits in a quaint cafe in Australian action film 'Vigilante'.
Image via Outlandish Films

Margot Robbie first rose to stardom after her role in The Wolf of Wall Street, but her actual film debut was five years earlier when she appeared in Vigilante, a low-budget Australian action movie that saw no success. The film follows a vengeful businessman out to kill the criminal thugs who raped and murdered his fiancée.

The Australian actor has made herself an ever-popular figure in Hollywood over the past decade, appearing in numerous hits and receiving multiple Oscar nominations. She has ascended to new heights of stardom in 2023 as well, with the Aussie actress’ Barbiebecoming one of the highest grossing movies of all time and a lasting pop-culture hit as well.

2 Scarlett Johansson

‘North’ (1994)

Scarlett Johansson in 'North'
Image via Colombia Pictures

Scarlett Johansson was just nine years old when she debuted in the 1994 family comedy film North. Following a child prodigy who leaves his otherwise occupied parents to find a perfect family environment, the film was met with overwhelmingly negative reviews and became the biggest box office flop of the year.

Johansson makes her appearance as the young daughter of a seemingly ideal family that North (Elijah Wood) spends some time with. She has since become a cinematic megastar, one of the highest-paid actors in film history, and was credited by Time as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2021.

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1 Leonardo DiCaprio

‘Critters 3’ (1991)

A perplexed Josh (Leonardo DiCaprio) looks to his friend in 'Critters 3'.
Image via New Line Home Video

With an illustrious career starring in one huge hit after another, Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the most celebrated and acclaimed actors of all time. But even he had to start somewhere and, at just 17 years old, he made his feature film debut in the genre-bending horror movie Critters 3.

The film follows a family on the move, with DiCaprio appearing as their landlord’s son, Josh, who quickly becomes one of the main characters in the film. Unsurprisingly, Critters 3 did not perform well at theaters, but it did help launch one of the most accomplished acting careers in Hollywood history.

NEXT: Actors Who Won Oscars For Their Big-Screen Debut

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