Movies & TV / Columns

10 Movie Acting One Hit Wonders 

November 29, 2021 | Posted by Steve Gustafson
Crocodile Dundee

First, the people on this list aren’t here to ridicule or shame. They’ve done something most of us have never done, which is lead a popular or successful movie. 

That’s what we’re discussing this week. That person who fronted a movie, gained lots of attention, and then…never quite hit that level again. 

Let’s set some ground rules because this can get out of control really fast. I’m just looking for actors or actresses who were in the lead (or close to a lead role) in a movie of some success. 

If this person went on to have success in television, it doesn’t matter. They make the list. 

No ranking so we can just run down the list.

Ian McDiarmid Star Wars & Alex Winter Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
I’m putting these two together since they both best exemplify being so good in a role that you’re pretty much only known for that role, no matter what else you do. Ian McDiarmid IS the Emperor. For me, he was one of the few highlights in the Prequels and he understood what was needed for him in order to get the character to work. 

With Alex Winter, he IS Bill. His portrayal of the time-travelling slacker was so good, that’s the first thing we all think of when we see or hear his name. I will note that he’s a damn fine director and you should head to IMDB to get a list of his movies. 

Tommy Morrison, Rocky V Back in 1989, Sylvester Stallone saw one of boxer Tommy Morrison’s fights and was inspired to cast him in Rocky V as Tommy “The Machine” Gunn, a young protege of the retired Rocky Balboa. Gunn went on to fame and fortune but bristles at being in Rocky’s shadow. The movie ends with a street fight with Rocky, which (SPOILER) he loses. 

Morrison was primarily a boxer and played a part pretty much written for him. While he didn’t make another go on the big screen, I always thought he could have transitioned to the WWE at some point. Unfortunately legal issues, health problems, and his death in 2013 derailed that. 

Cool Note: Professional wrestler Terry Funk helped choreograph much of the street fight between Rocky and Tommy Gunn.

Brandon Routh, Superman ReturnsI’m sure I’ll get some flack for this but playing Superman in a very heralded relaunch for one movie gets him on the list. That’s what’s lost in all the talk about Superman Returns. This was supposed to be the big comeback and they found a great actor in Routh. He embodied the look of both Superman and Clark Kent and a weak script is what tripped it up. 

Routh has gone on to do just fine for himself and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back in the lead of another major motion picture in the future. Oh, and yes, Dylan Dog; Dead of Night was cool but never gets above cult status. 

Paul Hogan, Crocodile Dundee
I don’t know if some of you can comprehend how huge this movie was. Made for $8.8 million it went on to pull in $328 million worldwide. Paul Hogan is an Australian icon and his “That’s not a knife…” is still quoted by people who probably haven’t even seen the movie. The Crocodile Dundee trilogy was his golden run, getting him nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for his performance. 

Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game
The Crying Game
came at the perfect time and it’s twist could only work before social media came along. At the center of it all was Jaye Davidson, a promising actor who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. While he portrayed the villain Ra in Stargate, Davidson retired from acting soon afterwards, disliking the fame he had received at that point.

Eminem, 8 Mile
Eminem made his Hollywood debut in the semi-autobiographical 8 Mile. The movie was a critical and commercial success and while you can say he was playing himself, that’s still something many couldn’t do for a movie. Critic Richard Roeper said that Eminem has a “winning screen presence” and “raw magic” to him. He won an Academy Award for Best Original Song and received praise from his fellow actors that another movie role or two was sure to be in the making.   

Rowdy Roddy Piper, They LiveIn another timeline Roderick George Toombs would have had a pretty decent movie career. He had a raw edge that could have been harnessed more. Especially after his role in They Live. Directed by John Carpenter, the movie  walks the line between cult classic and an underrated movie that predicted the future that spawned the catchphrase Piper came up with: “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.”

Entertainment Weekly wrote that Piper’s role in They Live made him a “cult icon” and “some kind of legend”. Yes, Hell Comes to Frogtown is a fun ride but never comes close to They Live.

Casper Van Dien, Starship Troopers
Here’s another one who’s entry on this list is debatable. He is best known for his lead role as Johnny Rico in the 1997 science-fiction action film Starship Troopers. He’s one of those actors who has all the tools but never found the one big role that rocketed him to the next level. That’s not to say he hasn’t done well for himself. He’s appeared in a number of television and film roles, often in daytime and primetime soap operas, and a large number of TV movies and direct-to-video films. 

George Lazenby, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
George Lazenby was the second actor to portray British secret agent James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He only appeared in only one movie, making Lazenby’s tenure as Bond the shortest among the actors in the series. 

So what happened?

After making On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Lazenby returned home to Queanbeyan to see his parents. He said he had 18 films to consider. “But it’s all commercial rubbish, such as the guy getting the girl at the end of the Battle of Britain”, he said. “I’ll just have to wait and see.” Lazenby said he was to make the next Bond film, which was to be The Man with the Golden Gun but prior to the Her Majesty’s… coming out he changed his mind.

A great “What if…” but an example of the fleeting nature of fame.

Clevon Little,  Blazing Saddles 
If I had made this a TOP 10 list, this would be my number one. Clevon Little’s signature performance, portraying Sheriff Bart in the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles. The movie was made for $2.6 million and made over $119 million. It’s still referenced and quoted today. Little earned a nomination for the BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles and then Hollywood completely squandered his potential. Little would still find roles on Broadway and television but never reach those blazing heights again. 

Who makes your list?