Nine “Engineered” Movie Stars Who Fizzled

Pia Zadora

Movie stars are commodities, bought by producers and sold to audiences. Like all commodities, they are investments. And like all investments, studios hope to buy low and sell high. Thus, for every actor who found stardom only after years of auditions and thankless roles (Jim Carrey, Sandra Bullock, etc.), there is a fresh young nobody who lands a starring role in a studio picture. Just a lucky break? Not always. In many cases, their sudden omnipresence is the result of calculated maneuvers between their agents, managers, and publicists, in cahoots with the casting directors, producers, and executives who owe them favors. These young thespians are then forced upon us by an industry hungry to manufacture new stars as the older ones age out. Sometimes it works. But below are nine "bad investments".

  1. Jean Seberg. The tragic Seberg is the patron saint of failed ingenues. In 1956, director Otto Preminger held a much-publicized nationwide search for a newcomer to portray Joan of Arc in his adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. Out of 18,000 contenders, he chose Seberg, a pretty but nervous Iowa teenager. He chose wrong. Seberg floundered in the role, and although Preminger cast her again in his next film, Bonjour Tristesse, her only real victory was when Jean-Luc Godard cast her in his own debut Breathless. Then came two decades of studio programmers (Airport, Paint Your Wagon) and crummy Eurotrash fare made by her abusive husband Romain Gary. Depression, FBI persecution over her political beliefs, and the death of her newborn drove Seberg mad: she committed suicide at 40.
  2. Pia Zadora. Zadora is a classic case of show biz Svengalism, the likes of which we don't see much anymore (it still exists, but it's a better-kept secret). Raised in New Jersey, Zadora worked as a child star and model, then married billionaire businessman Meshulam Riklis. Rumors persist that it was Riklis who got her in showbiz, with Zadora starring in the sleazy flops The Lonely Lady and Butterfly yet still implausibly winning the Golden Globe Award for "Best New Star" of 1982 (an award allegedly bought by Riklis). Zadora was fleeting tabloid fodder before vanishing into obscurity.
  3. Orlando Bloom. When Peter Jackson cast this little-known English actor as Legolas in the Lord of the Rings movies, every woman on earth was in love. An instant matinee idol! Bloom then latched on to another successful movie franchise with the Pirates of the Caribbean. But after headlining tentpoles like Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, and Elizabethtown – all of which disappointed – it was clear that Bloom was not the leading man he was designed to be.
  4. Theresa Russell. Even Wikipedia doesn't have much to say about Russell, except that she was a model before being thrust into a starring role opposite Robert De Niro in her first film, 1976's The Last Tycoon. Although it bombed, she still went on to star with Dustin Hoffman in Straight Time, then spent the '80s working mostly for her director husband Nicolas Roeg. Her one hit as a Hollywood star was the 1987 film noir Black Widow, opposite Debra Winger. Subsequent starring roles came to naught.
  5. Piper Perabo. This young actress was chosen, Seberg-style, by über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer to star in his lumbering chick flick Coyote Ugly. Before the film was even released, Perabo became a hot commodity, and was soon cast opposite Robert De Niro in the embarrassing Rocky & Bullwinkle. Audiences did not warm to her, so Perabo escaped to the refuges of low-budget indies and a supporting role in the bland Cheaper By the Dozen movies. Although upstaged by a CGI dog voiced by Drew Barrymore, her presence in the surprise hit Beverly Hills Chihuahua may mean Perabo's studio career has some legs yet.
  6. Skeet Ulrich. The reason I list Skeet Ulrich here, as opposed to other never-wases like Devon Sawa and James Van Der Beek, is because in 1997, when I was shooting my movie Foreign Correspondents, cast member Wil Wheaton was complaining about how every role he went out for was instead offered to Skeet Ulrich. I also list Skeet Ulrich because he has such a ridiculous name. Given a plum role in Scream, the actor fizzled in followups like The Newton Boys, Touch, and Ride With the Devil. He made the usual straight-to-video retreat like Natasha Henstridge, Kristy Swanson, and Radha Mitchell. His more recent foray in TV, Jericho, did him slightly better, but it was too little, too late.
  7. Norm MacDonald. There are three kinds of Saturday Night Live players: those who become superfamous (Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler), those who remain in the background (Gary Kroeger, Laraine Newman), and those who make a play for big-screen stardom, but immediately crash and burn (Chris Kattan, Victoria Jackson). MacDonald, a member of the third group, had a huge following on SNL, but he left the show to star in his first vehicle, Dirty Work, which was a dog at the box office. He was forced upon the masses in The Norm Show for three seasons, but after two more dead-in-the-water sitcoms, today he mostly does voiceover work.
  8. Tippi Hedren. Alfred Hitchcock's obsession over this pretty but untrained model made her the leading lady of The Birds and Marnie. Audiences seemed to accept her in the former – perhaps they were so terrified by the fowl play in Hitch's scariest picture that it didn't matter who the human stars were. But when Hedren was required to act in Marnie, she tanked. Some say that Hitchcock ruined her big-screen career after she spurned his advances. I think Hedren's limited talent was to blame.
  9. Emile Hirsch. It may be too harsh (or harsch) to already write off this young actor's career as a leading man; after all, he's only 24. But he was given the two big tests of stardom – a leading role in an Oscar-bait film (Into the Wild) and a leading role in a mega-budget special effects blockbuster (Speed Racer) – and he failed them both; the first not landing him an Oscar nod and the second bombing big time. Hirsch recovered as part of the glowing ensemble of Milk, but he may never be an A-lister again. Newly-minted personalities like Isla Fisher and Chris Pine – as well as their handlers – are surely watching Hirsch's career trajectory closely.