All the struggling actors around Hollywood working as waiters and auditioning for any roles they can find might be annoyed to learn that 12-year-old Carole Lombard was simply playing baseball in her backyard, applying no diligence or even showing any interest in being a movie star, when she was spotted by a director from 20th Century-Fox. He signed her up for a movie because she looked right. If only it was always that easy to become a star. Obviously it isn’t—but here are some proven short cuts from the past 100 years of movie stardom.
1. Get a job on the inside
It’s the usual suggestion in most professions: Get into the industry first, and then go for the job you actually want. You don’t even need to get an acting job. Gary Cooper was a stuntman. Telly Savalas was a top executive at ABC Television and stepped into a role when nobody more suitable could be found. Boris Karloff told children’s stories on BBC Radio before he became famous for killing children in movies like Frankenstein. John Wayne was a studio props man, who was so good-looking that when he walked past Marlene Dietrich’s restaurant table she said, “Daddy, buy me that,” and Wayne was cast in her next movie.
2. Cash in a debt with the studio
In 1922, Richard Arlen was a humble backstage hand at Paramount Pictures. While working at Paramount, he was struck by a company car and hospitalized with a broken leg. Studio executives decided to make it up to him by offering him a movie contract.
3. Enter a beauty contest
It helps to try this one if you’re conventionally attractive. Clara Bow won a national beauty competition in 1921 and one of the prizes was a role in a film. Within a few years, she was Hollywood’s most popular star. Ann Sheridan, a top star of the 1940s, was entered secretly into a contest by her sister and ended up winning a five-week movie contract.
4. Wait for the right role
Lew Ayres was a medical school dropout who took up acting and eventually became the first actor to play Dr. Kildare, hero of several medical dramas. Director Federico Fellini cast Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita because the young architect had a face “with no personality in it.” This is unusual for a star, but it proves that if you find a visionary director, being bland might work for you (though it probably helps if, beneath all the blandness, you still look like Marcello Mastroianni).
5. Get on the cover of a magazine
Sometimes a magazine cover photo can lead to a Hollywood contract. It worked with models such as Lauren Bacall, Brigitte Bardot, Raquel Welch, and Ali MacGraw. Happily, at least one of those four could also act.
6. Take on any role you are offered
Obviously, this isn't always a good idea if you’re an up-and-coming star who is already being noticed. The wrong role or the wrong film could destroy everything you’ve fought so hard to get.
But if nobody has heard of you, that’s different. If the film is a flop, nobody will notice that you were in it, but if it’s a success, you might suddenly get some attention. Carole Landis had small speaking roles in at least 25 movies before she suddenly became a star in One Million BC (1940), a movie in which she played a cave-girl who didn’t have a single line of dialogue. The film itself wasn’t much good—and nor were most of her later films—but it made her a B-movie star. Even if you're a B-movie star, you're still a star.
7. Wait in the wings for your big break
You know the old story about the leading lady who breaks her ankle so that the chorus girl has to come out of nowhere to replace her and becomes a star? The story became famous in 42nd Street (1933), with Bebe Daniels playing the injured actress and Ruby Keeler as the new star.
Just as it worked for Ruby Keeler (even if only in a movie), it also worked for Shirley MacLaine, who was understudy for theater star Carol Haney in the Broadway production of The Pajama Game. When Haney fell ill, MacLaine took to the stage and the rest is history.
A few years earlier, when Betty Hutton fell ill making the Broadway show Panama Hattie, she was replaced by her understudy June Allyson. Both Hutton and Allyson were eventually spotted by talent scouts at the show and were sent to Hollywood. The advice for aspirants is easy: star in Panama Hattie on Broadway.
8. Don’t be afraid of stalkers
Normally, you should be very careful with stalkers—but if you are desperate to be a star, you never know your luck. One day, film director Mario Costa spotted a young art student named Gina Lollobrigida on the streets of Rome and chased her for his new film. She decided he was just getting fresh and told him to go away, but he kept following her. Eventually he convinced her that he really was a film director. She signed up soon afterwards—and went on to be one of Italy’s most popular stars.
9. Be an elite sportsman
It has worked in the past, with superstars like swimmers Johnny Weissmuller (later of the 1930s Tarzan films) and Buster Crabbe (who played Flash Gordon around the same time), ice-skater Sonja Henie (whose figure-skating numbers made her a popular musical star), and of course, bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you’re an elite athlete, then you’re already famous. You probably already have a hero’s physique and your previous career may have been fairly short-lived, meaning that you want something else to do. Still, becoming a movie star is not so easy.
Sprinter Carl Lewis won nine Olympic gold medals and was one of America’s favorite sports heroes of the 1980s. He still took intensive acting lessons when he decided to go into the movies and used the same focus and hard work that made him a top athlete. So what was the highlight of his film career? An awful TV movie called Alien Attack. However big of a sports star you are, you still need to be very lucky to make it in Hollywood.
10. Be a pop idol
Even the most original and innovative musical performers have their heroes. Frank Sinatra was a Bing Crosby fan. Bob Dylan worshipped Woody Guthrie. And Elvis Presley’s idols were movie stars James Dean and Tony Curtis, neither of whom were known for their musical prowess. Though he was the king of rock ’n’ roll, Elvis’s ambition was to become a great actor. He starred in 33 films, most of which were highly popular, even if they weren’t taken seriously. They were mostly silly comedies with musical bits—exactly the sort of films that his fans wanted. According to critics, his best performance was in a non-musical, Flaming Star, which wasn’t a big box-office success. Fans didn’t want to see Elvis as a great dramatic actor, and non-fans didn’t particularly want to see Elvis doing anything. Still, other rock stars—from Cher to Mark Wahlberg—have been more career-minded in their choice of roles. If you want to be a movie star, it might not hurt to be a pop star first.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.