The focus of this post will be Hollywood stars who got their start on Broadway. The list is surprisingly long even though most actors will tell you that doing both film and stage will make you a more well rounded performer. Here are a few you may recognize.
Jason Alexander is probably best known as George Costanza, one of television’s most neurotic characters, but he was already a Broadway star when he landed his iconic role on Seinfeld, which ran from 1989-1998. He made his Broadway debut starring as Joe in the Stephen Sondheim play Merrily We Roll Along in 1981. In 1989, he won a Tony for the Jerome Robbins-directed review Broadway. Even after his success on the small screen, Alexander never forgot his musical theater roots. He returned to the stage in 2003. Alexander was cast in a successful run, opposite Martin Short, in the Los Angeles production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Alexander also appeared with Kelsey Grammer in the 2004 musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, playing Jacob Marley to Grammer’s Ebenezer Scrooge.
Before her breakout film roles in The Deer Hunter and Manhattan, one of Meryl Streep’s first professional jobs in 1975 was at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference during which she acted in five plays over six weeks. Streep moved to New York City in 1975, and was cast by Joseph Papp in a production of Trelawny of the Wells at the Public Theater, opposite Mandy Patinkin and John Lithgow. She went on to appear in five more roles in her first year in New York, including in Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival productions of Henry V, The Taming of the Shrew with Raúl Juliá, and Measure for Measure opposite Sam Waterston and John Cazale. She starred in the musical Happy End on Broadway, and won an Obie for her performance in the off-Broadway play Alice at the Palace. Unfortunately, she hasn’t been seen on the Great White Way since 1977, but made a memorable turn as the title character in the 2006 revival of Mother Courage and Her Children at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Not that she’s been twiddling her thumbs. She has picked up a whopping 20 Oscar nominations and three awards since.
In 1996, Taye Diggs played the (slightly) villainous landlord Benjamin Coffin III in the debut of Rent. From there, he has gone from film to theater and back ever since, starting with a role on the soap opera The Guiding Light 1997, starring with Angela Bassett in How Stella Got Her Groove Back in 1998, playing the Bandleader in Rob Marshall’s 2002 movie adaptation of Chicago followed by a stint as Billy Flynn on Broadway later that year. He played nice guy heartthrob Dr. Sam Bennett on Private Practice alongside fellow Broadway star Audra McDonald from 2007-2013, starred as Harper Stewart in the Best Man movie franchise, and was a lead in the cast of the tv series Murder in the First from 2014-2016.
Sarah Jessica Parker
Before making Manolo Blahnik a household name, the Sex and the City star had a long list of credits that stretch back to her teen years. Parker and four siblings appeared in a production of The Sound of Music at the outdoor Municipal Theatre (Muny) in St. Louis, Missouri. She was selected for a role in the new 1977–81 Broadway musical Annie: first in the small role of “July” and then succeeding Andrea McArdle and Shelley Bruce in the lead role of the Depression-era orphan, beginning March 1979. Parker held the role for a year. In 1982, Parker was cast as the co-lead of the CBS sitcom Square Pegs. The show lasted just one season. In the three years that followed, she was cast in four films: the most significant being Footloose in 1984 and 1985’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, co-starring Helen Hunt. While she hasn’t graced the Great White Way in some time, she starred opposite Blythe Danner in the premiere staging of Amanda Peet’s The Commons of Pensacola Off-Broadway in the fall of 2013 until February 2014.
It would probably surprise millions of Law & Order fans that Orbach, who played curmudgeonly detective Lennie Briscoe for 13 years, was a song and dance man. Orbach’s professional career began on the New York stage, both on and off-Broadway, where he created roles such as El Gallo in the original off-Broadway run of The Fantasticks (1960) and became the first performer to sing that show’s standard “Try To Remember”; Billy Flynn in the original Chicago (1975–1977), and Julian Marsh in the original 42nd Street (1980–1985), which I saw as a kid! Nominated for multiple Tony Awards, Orbach won for his performance as Chuck Baxter in Promises, Promises (1968–1972). Later in his career, Orbach played supporting roles in films such as Prince of the City (1981), Dirty Dancing (1987), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) as the voice Lumiere. He also made frequent guest appearances on television; including a recurring role on Murder, She Wrote (1985–1991) as private detective Harry McGraw.