You never know which little role is going to lead to the first big one. Here are the defining moments that helped 11 stars of classic TV shows to land their first major breaks:
1. Mary Tyler Moore
Mary Tyler Moore had fired the imagination of many TV-viewing young men in the late 1950s when she had a small recurring role on Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Only her sultry voice was usually heard, although there was occasionally a shot of her lengthy dancer’s legs or a profile of her lips as she spoke. Moore auditioned for the role of Danny Thomas’s daughter on Make Room for Daddy, and while Thomas was impressed with her acting, he ultimately turned her down because “no one would believe that someone with that cute button nose could be related to him.” However, when his production company was casting The Dick Van Dyke Show and an actress was needed to play Laura, Thomas remembered the attractive girl with the button nose and ordered his assistant “get me that girl with the three names.”
2. Lucille Ball
Lucille Ball had been appearing in minor roles in a string of B-movies since the 1930s, often as a blonde chorus girl. It wasn’t until 1948 when she landed the role of housewife Liz Cooper on the radio show My Favorite Husband that she’d found her niche – comedy. After 124 episodes on radio, CBS decided to bring My Favorite Husband to television. The only problem was they wanted Richard Denning, Lucille’s radio husband, to continue the role on TV, whereas Lucille refused to have anyone but her real-life husband Desi Arnaz play the part. CBS eventually hired two other actors to play Liz and George Cooper, but the network still thought that Ball had solid TV potential with her brand of physical comedy, so they eventually relented and gave the green light to a Desilu-produced series called I Love Lucy.
3. Dick Van Dyke
When Carl Reiner submitted the pilot of his proposed sitcom Head of the Family, executive producer Sheldon Leonard liked everything about it except one small detail – Reiner himself. Leonard felt that Reiner was more of a “gag man” – a comic who was just reeling off a series of jokes – than an actor that could carry a sitcom. He also felt that Reiner was too ethnic (read: Jewish) to play white bread, affable Rob Petrie. Someone had mentioned this guy Dick Van Dyke who could apparently act, sing, and dance and was appropriately middle-American-looking. Leonard went to Broadway where Van Dyke was performing in Bye, Bye, Birdie and decided he’d found their new Rob Petrie.
4. Bob Newhart
Bob Newhart was trained as an accountant, but his philosophy of “as long as you’re within two or three bucks, you’re OK” when it came to reconciling a bank statement didn’t sit well with his bosses, so he spent many long overtime hours searching for an elusive four or five cents. To satisfy his creative urge, he performed comedy with a Chicago-area theatrical stock company in his spare time. That led to a few short gigs of his stand-up on the radio, which led to a record deal. His album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, was a million-seller and garnered a Grammy Award. In turn, he landed some guest appearances on TV variety shows, and it was a performance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that impressed Grant Tinker and the other execs at MTM Productions enough to approach Newhart about starring in his own sitcom.
5. Bill Cosby
While attending Temple University in the late 1950s, Bill Cosby took a night job as a bartender to earn some cash. One night the comedian that was supposed to appear at the club failed to show up, so Cosby took the stage and had the crowd in stitches with his stories of growing up and family life. He eventually landed a record deal, which led to some national TV appearances. Star-spotter Sheldon Leonard saw Cosby's act on The Tonight Show in 1963 and decided to cast him opposite Robert Culp in his new drama series I Spy.
6. Rue McClanahan
The future Golden Girl’s TV exposure had mainly been in soap operas when producer Norman Lear hired her for a spot on an episode of All in the Family. Entitled “The Bunkers and the Swingers,” it featured Rue McClanahan and Vincent Gardenia as a couple who’d placed an ad in the “Swap” column of a local magazine. Edith innocently answered the ad, not understanding that the couple was interested wife swapping, not in being pen-pals. When Doris Roberts turned down the role of Vivian on Lear’s new series Maude, he remembered McClanahan’s work on AITF and asked her to audition for the part.
7. Carol Burnett
When Garry Moore’s variety show debuted on CBS in 1958, one of his stable of comedic performers was a young comedienne named Carol Burnett. Burnett’s self-deprecating humor was a hit with the audience (she’d been insecure about her looks ever since her grandmother had advised her to become a writer, because “you can always write, no matter what you look like”) and eventually won an Emmy Award. Lucille Ball was impressed with Burnett’s skills on the Moore show and offered her the lead in a new sitcom she was creating. Carol declined, however; she wanted to try her hand at a variety show because she loved singing almost as much as comedy. The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS in 1967 and ran for 11 seasons.
8. Henry Winkler
Yale-educated Henry Winkler didn’t give off the proper greaser “vibe” when he petitioned for an audition for the role of Fonzie on Happy Days. In fact, Winkler’s two TV credits (both on MTM Productions) had him costumed in a suit and tie, which didn’t help his case much. It wasn’t until Winkler returned with a reel of his leather-jacketed appearance in a low-budget 1974 film called The Lords of Flatbush (in which he appeared with a young Sylvester Stallone) that Garry Marshall agreed to let him read for the role.
9. Pernell Roberts
Producer David Dortort originally considered Claude Akins for the role of Adam Cartwright when he was casting Bonanza. But one afternoon he saw a handsome young actor dressed in black Western gear walking around the Universal lot. That actor’s name was Pernell Roberts and his dark hair and rich voice was the picture Dortort had in mind for the eldest Cartwright brother. The deal was sealed when he saw Roberts in action in the newly released film Ride Lonesome. On his second day on the Bonanza set, Roberts walked into Dortort’s office, removed his hairpiece and announced that he wanted to play the role of Adam without wearing it. Dortort (after recovering from his surprise that the lush head of hair was a rug) refused, stating that Roberts looked at least 15 years older without his toupee.
10. Redd Foxx
Comedian Redd Foxx had been performing on the “chitlin’ circuit” for several years and had released a couple of successful comedy albums. Granted, his records were usually kept in a special bin at record stores because of Foxx’s penchant for very blue humor. Nevertheless, potty mouth aside, when Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin were looking for a star for their American adaptation of Britain’s long-running sitcom Steptoe and Son, they remembered Foxx’s role as a cantankerous junkman in the 1970 film Cotton Comes to Harlem and asked him if he’d be interested in a series.
11. Gary Coleman
Diminutive child star Gary Coleman was just six years old when he appeared in a local TV commercial for Chicago’s Harris Bank. Norman Lear happened to see the chubby-cheeked tyke and, in a portent of things to come, hired him to appear as Martin Mull’s adopted son in an episode of his syndicated late-night show America 2Night. Coleman, who went by his middle name "Wayne" at the time, was an immediate hit with the audience and inspired Lear (along with Bud Yorkin) to create a vehicle especially for the youngster.