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10 Celebrities You May (or May Not) Know Got Their Start on Broadway

Category Broadway

|by Mark Robinson |

These stars of the silver screen started onstage

Many stars of film, television and the music scene got their start appearing in the plays and musicals of Broadway. The lure of Hollywood entices many of our Broadway stars away, but some of the best make their way back to the Great White Way and continue to dazzle us with their brilliance. Here are a few celebrities you may or may not know got their start on the theatrical stage.

Glenn Close began her career in Broadway plays like ‘Love for Love’ (Photo: Marion Curtis/Starpix)

Glenn Close began her career in Broadway plays like ‘Love for Love’ (Photo: Marion Curtis/Starpix)


Annette Bening
Annette Bening is returning to Broadway this season in the Roundabout Theatre revival of All My Sons, but it is a homecoming that is three decades in the making. Bening was Tony-nominated for her performance in the 1987 play Coastal Disturbances. Hollywood called, however, and Annette Bening answered, appearing in such hit films as The Great Outdoors, Bugsy, Regarding Henry, Mars Attacks!, An American President and turning in four Academy Award-nominated performances in The Grifters, American Beauty, Being Julia, and The Kids Are Alright.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson
Jesse Tyler Ferguson might be everyone’s favorite uptight, redheaded, gay husband as Mitchell Pritchett on the popular sitcom Modern Family, but he had career on Broadway before his ten seasons with the show.  He portrayed Chip in the 1998 Broadway revival of On the Town, playing opposite Lea Delaria (Boo on Orange is the New Black). He originated the role of Leaf Coneybear in the 2005 Broadway production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. He also starred in a Broadway revival of the one-man play Fully Committed in 2016.

Viola Davis
Well on her way to winning an EGOT – having won an Emmy, an Oscar, and a Tony Award – Viola Davis made her Broadway debut in 1996 in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars.  The world of August Wilson did well by Davis, who won Tony Awards for her appearances in his plays King Hedley II and in the 2010 revival of Fences (a role she would reprise on the screen, leading to her first Oscar). Of course, today’s audiences know Davis from her Emmy-winning role on TV’s How to Get Away with Murder. She was Academy Award-nominated for her roles in the films Doubt and The Help.

Morgan Freeman
Morgan Freeman is arguably one of Hollywood’s greatest film actors, having won an Academy Award for his work in the 2005 film Million Dollar Baby, not to mention a prestigious list of nominations for his roles in Invictus, The Shawshank Redemption, Driving Miss Daisy and Street Smart. Before his film career tookoff, Freeman also starred in the popular PBS children’s show The Electric Company. What few people might know is that Freeman started out on Broadway, playing Rudolph (as a replacement) in Hello, Dolly! and as the title character (understudying and eventually as a replacement) in Purlie. Other Broadway roles include parts in The Dozens, The Mighty Gents, The Gospel at Colonus and, most recently, The Country Girl.

Ian McKellen
Filmgoing audiences probably know Ian McKellen best for playing the powerful wizard Gandalf in the movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit prequels. McKellen was Oscar-nominated for the role, as he also received the honor of being nominated for his starring role in Gods and Monsters, playing filmmaker James Whale. He is also renowned for playing the part of the villainous Magneto in the X-Men films. McKellen, however, is a creature of theater, having inhabited numerous roles in London’s West End. One of those roles, Antonio Salieri in the Peter Shaffer play Amadeus, brought McKellen to Broadway where he won the Tony Award for Best Actor. Other Broadway shows include The Promise, Ian McKellen: Acting Shakespeare, Wild Honey, Dance of Death, Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land.

John Travolta
From his starring roles in the film versions of Grease and Hairspray, it should come as no surprise that film star John Travolta got his start on the Broadway musical stage. In 1972, he was a replacement for the character of Doody during the original run of Grease. He then went on to play Misfit in the musical Over Here! Travolta was soon whisked off to television, where he became famous playing the role of Vinnie Barbarino in the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. From there, he became a staple of Hollywood appearing, in such films as Saturday Night Fever, Urban Cowboy, Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty.

Glenn Close
Who can forget Glenn Close’s startling performance as the psychotic stalker in the film Fatal Attraction, or her calculated manipulations in the film Dangerous Liaisons? Close is one of Hollywood’s most revered and celebrated actresses, but she got her start treading the boards of Broadway. She made her Broadway debut in the 1974 revival of Love for Love. Other roles on the Great White Way include The Rules of the Game, The Member of the Wedding, Rex, The Crucifer of Blood, Barnum, Benefactors, and her Tony-winning roles in The Real Thing, Death and the Maiden and Sunset Boulevard.

Sarah Jessica Parker
Long before her HBO series Sex and the City and its subsequent films, and long before her string of ‘80s film hits such as Footloose and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Sarah Jessica Parker starred on Broadway as the title character during the original Broadway run of the musical Annie. In March of 1979, Parker donned the red dress and curly wig and belted out “Tomorrow” as everyone’s favorite orphan. Parker has since returned to Broadway, starring in productions of Once Upon a Mattress and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. She made her Broadway debut in 1976 in The Innocents.

Diane Keaton
Favorite of Woody Allen films and romantic comedies, Diane Keaton got her start on Broadway appearing as one of the tribe members in the ‘60s rock musical Hair. Eventually, Keaton graduated to one of the show’s leads, playing Sheila as a replacement during the musical’s run. Her only other Broadway credit was in the 1969 production of Woody Allen’s Play it Again, Sam. She would also appear in the film version of that play, opening a door for a prolific career as one of the filmmaker’s muses, winning an Academy Award for her work in his 1977 Annie Hall. Other films starring Keaton include The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Reds and The First Wives Club.\

Nick Jonas
He may be a music sensation now, but at one point Nick Jonas was tugging at our hearts playing Gavroche as a replacement in the original Broadway production of Les Miserables. As a child actor, he also appeared as Chip in Beauty and the Beast and Little Jake in Annie Get Your Gun. His Broadway career took a bit of a detour when he and his two brothers Joe and Kevin formed the band The Jonas Brothers, leading to international success and television show for the Disney Channel. Nick made his way back to Broadway though, playing J. Pierrepont Finch in the 2011 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, replacing Darren Criss who, in turn, had replaced Daniel Radcliffe.

Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at

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