Being in movies is tough. Not everyone is able to make the leap straight to Hollywood. It's something that takes planning, thought, effort and a lot of good old-fashioned luck. While many of your favorite superhero movie actors have starred chiefly in movies, almost all of them had to do a little time on the small screen first too. The end result is a wildly varied career, with actors appearing on shows you wouldn't expect them to. Prior to discovering fame and fortune, you'll find many of your favorite movie stars exploring the world of television dramas, be it on network television or premium networks like HBO and Showtime.
But there's also the murky world of sitcoms. While dramas can serve as a springboard into a film career, the seemingly disposable nature of quick action sitcoms can be a hindrance. With stories that typically don't carry over week to week and perceived lower quality of production, sitcoms have a reputation as a place where actors go and remain for the bulk of their careers. There's still lots of success to be had with memorable sitcom roles, though they remain few and far between. Despite this, there have been plenty of actors who have managed to fight their way out of the hell of sitcoms. Not only were the actors on this list able to make their way into big picture success, but they also stopped along the way to leave their mark on the growing field of superhero movies, both past, and present.
20 COBIE SMULDERS
Cobie Smulders dabbled in television for a few years, including roles on Veritas: The Quest and Smallville before landing her most popular role, former Canadian pop icon turned reporter Robin Scherbatsky on CBS's surprise hit How I Met Your Mother.
Smulders would remain on How I Met Your Mother for a good nine years, but in 2012 got a big screen break when she joined The Avengers. Unlike the more cutthroat interpretation of the comics, Smulder's Maria Hill is depicted as Nick Fury's relentless right-hand woman. She's kept busy outside of the MCU, with roles on A Series of Unfortunate Events, Friends from College and The Lego Movie, but Maria Hill has remained a consistent part of the MCU for almost a decade.
19 MICHAEL CHIKLIS
Michael Chiklis seemed like a pretty obvious shoo-in for the role of The Thing when 20th Century Fox made movement on a Fantastic Four feature film in 2005. A response to the success of films like X-Men and Spider-Man, the FF have long been a requested film series, but never seem to take off.
Chiklis was well known for this turn on The Shield at the time, but he'd dabbled in sitcom work earlier. He appeared in a season 3 episode of Seinfeld as Steve, a guest who overstays his welcome. He would later be the star of 2000 NBC sitcom Daddio as a stay-at-home dad. Despite strong initial ratings, the show was canceled in its second season.
18 JAMES SPADER (AND IDRIS ELBA)
The Office has only featured two members of the MCU to date, but it's only a matter of time before it grows. It started with Idris Elba's appearing in season 5 as Charles Miner, a regional vice president who quickly became a foil for Michael Scott. Appearing just a few years before Thor was released into theaters, Miner was a brief appearance, leaving by season's end.
A few years later, James Spader would join the cast as Robert California, a businessman who had been hired to replace Michael but talked his way into becoming CEO. Spader would remain on the series for the 8th season, being written out when Dunder Mifflin was bought back by previous management.
17 EZRA MILLER
Ezra Miller quickly became a fan-favorite when he was cast as The Flash for Zack Snyder's Justice League. Already having built a reputation in smaller films such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower and We Need To Talk About Kevin, he may have been the most attention-grabbing casting behind Affleck's Batman.
Before that though, he was making one of his first appearances on the Showtime series Californication. Miller appeared during the show's second season as Damien, a love interest for Hank's daughter, Becca, who quickly exited after breaking her heart. Miller would appear on Royal Pains for a few episodes before exiting for Hollywood and is still tapped to bring The Flash back for a solo outing.
16 JAMES MARSDEN
After years of false starts and rumors, X-Men finally landed in theaters during the summer of 2000. Bringing many of fans favorite characters to the big screen, James Marsden had the difficult task of bringing Cyclops to the big screen. While many did agree the performance was good, his role was diminished in each following film, with Marsden ultimately stepping out of the role to join Superman Returns.
Marsden cut his teeth in Hollywood on sitcom roles, though, before leaping to Hollywood. He got his start with guest stints on Saved By The Bell and The Nanny and featured on Blossom as one of Blossom's dates in a very special episode.
15 DON CHEADLE
Following Terrence Howard's departure from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Don Cheadle filled his shoes as Tony's close friend and War Machine pilot James "Rhodey" Rhodes, a role which he kept for Avengers: Infinity War and the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. But long before donning a suit of armor, Cheadle was hanging out with everyone's favorite older ladies.
A spin-off released after Bea Arthur opted to exit The Golden Girls, The Golden Palace saw Blanche, Rose, and Sophia purchase a hotel in Florida after Dorothy remarried. Featuring Cheadle as hotel manager Roland Wilson, the show ran for a single season before being canceled by CBS in 1993.
14 DANNY DEVITO
Danny DeVito redefined Batman's nemesis The Penguin for a few years, with a take so shockingly different from anything before it that it could scarcely be believed. But prior to that, he had an incredibly successful TV career. After a few bit parts in films and television, he was cast as the gruff head dispatcher Louie De Palma for 1978's Taxi, a role he rode to stardom.
DeVito's film career since has been hit or miss, with notable blows such as losing the role of George Costanza on Seinfeld to Jason Alexander. Still, he remained active in the film industry, and today is credited with being the missing piece that made It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia a cultural milestone.
13 HALLE BERRY
Halle Berry was always a renowned actress when she joined the X-Men franchise as Storm in 2000, a role which quickly was elevated into leadership. She turned into one of the more definitive interpretations of Storm, returning for Days of Future Past despite a failed misstep with 2004's Catwoman.
Berry has had a varied career, with turns in classic films like What's Love Got To Do With It? and Monster's Ball. But prior to all this, she starred on a little-remembered sitcom called Living Dolls. Co-starring Leah Remini, Living Dolls was a Who's The Boss? spin-off which followed four models just getting their start in the industry.
12 WOODY HARRELSON
It's a surprise that it took as long as it did for Woody Harrelson to appear in a superhero movie. But with 2018's Venom he finally turned up, wearing a pretty terrible wig to play Cletus Kasady, the future human host of Carnage. Though a sequel has yet to be officially announced, it's expected that he'll return.
He'd first come into the limelight with a stint on Cheers, though. Joining in the fourth season, he played the dimwitted Woody Boyd, a role he reprised years later on Cheers spin-off Frasier, and even joined Will & Grace for a few episodes as Grace's boyfriend Nathan.
11 JENNIFER LAWRENCE
Jennifer Lawrence's career blew up out of nowhere thanks to The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook, but before any of that, she was starring in X-Men films. A soft reboot of the franchise, X-Men: First Class cast Lawrence as Mystique, and re-imagined her as a childhood friend of Xavier who fell into a darker path.
But Lawrence didn't start in film, and shortly before making the jump had co-starred on The Bill Engvall Show. A vehicle for the popular Texas comedian, Lawrence co-starred as Engvall's daughter in this family drama that ran for two years but has been largely forgotten over the years.
10 MICHAEL KEATON
Everyone knows who Michael Keaton is. I mean, he was Batman, for crying out loud. And after Birdman and Spider-Man: Homecoming, he had a great career resurgence in the public eye playing characters who wore suits modeled after birds and hated Robert Downey Jr.
But Keaton first took a crack at the small screen before Hollywood. After a few appearances on shows like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, Keaton took a leading man role alongside Jim Belushi on Working Stiffs, and later as a parole officer on Report to Murphy. Neither show took off, but Keaton would occasionally return to TV, for roles on shows such as Frasier and 30 Rock.
9 CLARK GREGG
It's hard to imagine the Marvel Cinematic Universe existing in any capacity without Clark Gregg. Since the beginning, Gregg's S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson has been an ally to the growing team of superheroes, ultimately giving his life and bringing The Avengers closer than ever. Coulson would be revived though, and spearhead the MCU on television through Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Gregg himself got a significant start on sitcoms, appearing in the main cast of Julia Louis-Dreyfuss vehicle The New Adventures of Old Christine as Christine's ex-husband, Richard. Gregg also appeared in a number of sitcoms in bit parts prior to the MCU, including Sports Night and Will & Grace.
8 JON FAVREAU
Jon Favreau has the distinction of being in the MCU from the first moment, not just on-camera as Happy Hogan, but behind the scenes as the director of Iron Man and Iron Man 2. While there are a seemingly infinite number of factors that determined the ultimate success of the MCU, but Favreau's vision and direction made Iron Man the standalone success it needed to be.
Favreau obviously spent some time dabbling in sitcoms before he went Hollywood, in a series of high profile roles. Notably, he appeared on Seinfeld as Eric the Clown, a party clown who antagonized George, and a short stint on Friends as Pete Becker, a client who Monica briefly dated.
7 TOBEY MAGUIRE
Films like X-Men may have given birth to the explosion of superhero movies, but Sam Raimi's Spider-Man cemented it with earnest performances and strong storytelling. Tobey Maguire was a cornerstone for this, his instantly personable Peter Parker becoming the face of a generation of superhero movies.
He has since made a name for himself in Hollywood, but the Tobey Maguire of 2002 was just getting started. But in 1992, after an appearance on Roseanne, Maguire would lead his own sitcom, Great Scott! on Fox. The show played much into his character's imagination and rivalry with his brother but was canceled after 6 episodes.
6 MARTIN FREEMAN
Thanks to roles on Sherlock and Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, Martin Freeman was instantly recognizable when he was cast as Everett K. Ross for Captain America: Civil War and Black Panther.
On the original UK version of The Office, Freeman portrayed Tim Canterbury, who pined over receptionist Dawn Tinsley (played by Wonder Woman's Lucy Davis) to no avail. Shortly afterward, he also featured on the series Hardware, alongside Guardians of the Galaxy's Peter Serafinowicz. In recent years, Freeman has stuck to more serious television roles, such as his stint on FX's Fargo or the Crackle crime drama Startup alongside former Hellboy Ron Perlman.
5 ZACHARY LEVI
Zachary Levi seems to do good with the superhero thing. Levi was a cast member on 2002 ABC series Less Than Perfect, playing an executive assistant in a TV station but he caught the public eye in 2007 with his stint on Chuck as a regular joe who became a superspy.
He would spend the next several years dabbling in a variety of sitcoms after Chuck commitments kept him out of Thor but ultimately joined the cast with Thor: The Dark World as Fandrel. With Fandrel's defeat in Thor: Ragnarok, he'd make the jump to the DC film series, cast as the adult form of Billy Batson for Shazam!
4 WILL SMITH
Will Smith has proven to be a very versatile actor for his generation. He's nailed the action corner, as Deadshot in Suicide Squad or Mike Lowrey in the Bad Boys franchise, but also managed to slip into comedies such as Hitch or dramas with The Pursuit of Happyness.
It's strange to think it all started with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1990. Smith had never acted at the time but was convinced to take the role when he came into financial difficulty over back taxes. Smith reluctantly auditioned for the role, having never acted before, and wound up creating something truly magical and catapulted him into a film career.
3 RYAN REYNOLDS
Ryan Reynolds has made a hell of a career for himself in the modern era of superhero films. After featuring in flops like X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Green Lantern and missing out on a chance to star in The Flash, he jumped ship back to Marvel's X-Men universe for Deadpool following a massive leak that he may or may not have perpetuated himself.
But before all that, he was an easily recognizable television actor. Beginning in 1998, Reynolds was a lead in ABC's Two Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place. Also featuring an impossibly young Nathan Fillion in the second season, the show proved likable enough for a 4 year run before slipping in the ratings and ending.
2 BRIE LARSON
Brie Larson's career started out pretty harmlessly, with a few guest spots on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1998. Just a few years later, she was on Raising Dad, a Bob Saget vehicle designed to recapture some of the Full House magic after it had ended. The show only lasted a season but opened the door for other roles for Larson.
Shortly after it's cancellations, she joined the cast of United States of Tara as the daughter of a woman with dissociative identity disorder. After it was canceled, she began working on films and television, appearing on The League and Community. As of 2014, she's remained in Hollywood, especially since being cast as the MCU's Captain Marvel.
1 CHRIS PRATT
Chris Pratt's career started off slowly, with appearances on shows such as The O.C. and in films like Wanted, but he really hit it big in 2009. Pratt would join the cast of NBC's Parks & Recreation, a spiritual sequel to The Office that became something huge. As Andy Dwyer, Pratt was intended to only join the show for a few episodes but ultimately became one of the series most recognizable characters.
During the show's filming, Pratt would head to Hollywood and eventually wind up in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy franchise as Star-Lord. Following Guardians, Pratt would remain on Parks & Rec for another few years, even featuring alongside Paul Rudd and Peter Serafinowicz before the show ended in its seventh season.