Traditionally, an actor becomes a movie star either after a slow ascent from minor roles to bigger ones (see: Harrison Ford, Sandra Bullock), or with a hell of a debut (see: Edward Norton, Julie Andrews). The actors on this list, however, all had potential breakthroughs: large or memorable parts in heavily-promoted studio features. Yet for one reason or another, those breakthroughs didn't happen, and stardom would have to wait a few years.
- Amy Adams in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. Adams debuted in the 1999 mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, which led to a number of TV guest starring roles. Stealing scenes opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in a hit Spielberg film should have been her big break, right? Wrong. Catch Me If You Can was released in 2002; Adams had absolutely zero credits the following year, then a few TV roles in 2004. It took a little 2005 indie comedy called Junebug to put her on the map, thanks to a surprise Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
- Tom Hardy in STAR TREK NEMESIS. A scrawny 24-year-old Hardy was cast as the villain in this, the last of the Next Generation movies. Alas, Star Trek was at its most unhip in 2002, the film fizzled, and Hardy remained a no-name for six more years. It was only after he bulked up for Nicolas Winding Refn's bizarre Bronson that A-list filmmakers took notice. Then Christopher Nolan cast him in Inception and the rest is history.
- Naomi Watts in TANK GIRL. Without question, Watts's searing performance in Mulholland Drive made her a star. Six years earlier, however, the Australian actress landed her first major role in a Hollywood picture: Tank Girl, where she played second fiddle to an obnoxious Lori Singer. Tank Girl, uh, tanked at the box office, and Watts went back to smaller fare. Even Mulholland Drive looked like a non-starter, as the pilot, shot in 1999, was shelved for a year and a half until David Lynch sexed it up for the big screen.
- Jeremy Renner in S.W.A.T. I'd first seen Renner in Dahmer, an interesting indie bound to go nowhere as it was a gay horror movie. That was in 2002; it was enough to score Renner a solid supporting part in the following year's adaptation of the '70s action TV show. But S.W.A.T. came and went, and Renner stayed on the sidelines until The Hurt Locker – which itself saw a long delay in its release – got him an Oscar nod in early 2010.
- Jessica Lange in KING KONG. The model-turned-actress was all set to become the new Fay Wray, but the 1976 Kong remake, though it was a blockbuster, didn't earn Lange any points for her performance. She wasn't seen again for three years, until she turned up in her lover Bob Fosse's semiautobiographical musical All That Jazz. It led to leading roles in the underwhelming How to Beat the High Cost of Living and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and then came 1982 and Tootsie and Frances. Lange received Oscar nominations for both films.
- Helen Mirren in AGE OF CONSENT. The year was 1969, and veteran British director Michael Powell was still struggling with a comeback after his polarizing chiller Peeping Tom. Age of Consent, a vehicle for still-popular James Mason, could have done it. And it could have elevated the status of its young costar in her first leading role. But nope. Helen Mirren had perhaps the longest slow-burn career of any screen actor, taking supporting roles in UK film and TV for years until the 1980 gangster drama The Long Good Friday made her a name and the 1991 TV series Prime Suspect made her a star.
- Liam Neeson in DARKMAN. Mirren and her then-boyfriend Neeson were among the many thespians (including Patrick Stewart and Gabriel Byrne) who earned little fame from 1981's Excalibur, despite its financial success. But Darkman was Neeson's official blown star turn. Sam Raimi's wacky superhero-ish movie was a modest hit in 1990. Yet Neeson, now officially a leading man, failed to deliver in his next four starring roles: all were box office disasters. Schindler's List finally did the trick for him in 1993.
- Christian Bale in EMPIRE OF THE SUN. A Spielberg film is always an event, and 1987's Empire was a grand showcase for its young protagonist, then just 13. But what does one do with an intense kid like Christian Bale? Disney tried to fashion him into a teen idol with Swing Kids and Newsies in 1992-1993. Both were flops, so Bale plugged away in indie ensembles. He ultimately emerged as a leading man with 2000's American Psycho. Still, it took Batman Begins, five years later, to put him on the A list.
- Michelle Pfeiffer in GREASE 2. Pfeiffer was a busy if generic TV actress when she was cast in the Olivia Newton John role in this 1982 misfire. Lucky for her, she'd already lined up Scarface by the time Grease 2 bombed, but Scarface didn't advance her celebrity either. After a credit-free 1984, Pfeiffer supported Jeff Goldblum and Matthew Broderick, respectively, in Into the Night and Ladyhawke, to middling returns. She even did an ABC Afterschool Special! No one could guess then that The Witches of Eastwick and superstardom were just two years away.