Nine “One-Hit Wonder” Actors


In pop music, the phenomenon of the one-hit wonder is well-established: A band or artist comes seemingly out of nowhere, produces a monstrously popular song that takes over the world for a few weeks or even months, then, failing to repeat that success for whatever reason, promptly vanishes. What people don't talk about as much is the one-hit wonder actor, an unknown who makes a splash in a one-of-a-kind role (often their debut) then disappears, going back to a normal job, stage acting, straight-to-video obscurity, or sometimes an even grimmer fate. I've even worked with a couple such actors (*cough*Wil Wheaton*cough*). There are quite a lot of them. Here are nine of my favorites:

  1. Elizabeth Hartman. After a fantastic, Oscar-nominated performance as a blind white girl who unwittingly falls in love with a black man (Sidney Poitier) in the great 1965 drama A Patch of Blue, Hartman struggled with a lifelong depression that ended her screen career and, years later, her life. She committed suicide at 43.
  2. Jaye Davidson. This London club kid became the "surprise" of 1993's The Crying Game as the leading lady who famously turns out to be a guy. Pigeonholed by his androgynous looks, and with no formal acting training, Davidson didn't go far. Though he made a cool million as the silly villain in the movie Stargate, he quit the biz soon after.
  3. Linda Hunt. Like Davidson, Hunt garnered an Oscar nomination for a gender-bending performance (as a young Chinese man in 1982's The Year of Living Dangerously). Unlike Davidson, she won. Though she hasn't wanted for work since – most notably as Judge Hiller on the TV series The Practice – Hunt's subsequent projects have paled in comparison.
  4. Duane Jones. One of the greatest things about George Romero's original horror classic The Night of the Living Dead (1968) was his bold casting of an African American in the lead. Jones's measured performance added gravitas to the film, helping to make it a much more serious work than merely a zombie flick. But NOTLD was a strange creature: a thoughtful horror piece, starring professional stage actors, that played only at drive-ins. Hollywood did not come a-courtin'. So, like costar Judith O'Dea (who incidentally wound up in my film Claustrophobia), Jones went back to live theatre, where he stayed until his untimely death at 52.
  5. Harold Russell. The god of one-hit wonder actors. Russell was an Army sergeant in World War II who lost both of his hands in an accidental explosion. When William Wyler was making his postwar coming home drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), he cast the untrained Russell in a leading role. For his sympathetic performance, Russell actually won two Oscars: one for Best Actor and one for being an inspiration to other disabled veterans. With just two other small film roles to his credit, Russell spent the rest of his life as an advocate for veterans' rights.
  6. Karen Lynn Gorney. Most people who haven't seen Saturday Night Fever will know her only as the girl on the poster behind John Travolta's infamous "pointing at the stars" pose. But she was the female lead in the film and held her own. Sadly, while her costar strutted into superstardom, Gorney, who was already 32 when the film came out, fell victim to Hollywood's ageist casting policies. Her screen career was hit so hard that her next role didn't come until 14 years later, in the Michael J. Fox vehicle The Hard Way. She played "Woman in Subway".
  7. Thomas F. Wilson. This standup comic got the break of a lifetime when Robert Zemeckis cast him as the villainous Biff Tannen in Back to the Future. Wilson made a career out of the BTTF franchise (call him a "three hit wonder"), but couldn't break out of the Biff mold. So, like many actors, he turned to TV guest roles and voiceover work. He now channels his fame into selling his paintings and Christian folk songs.
  8. Renée Jeanne "Maria" Falconetti. Credited only by her surname in the 1928 silent film classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, this actress' intense leading performance is still the stuff of legend. Some say she invented modern screen acting. But she never made another film at all, then died 18 years later.
  9. Quinn Cummings. I certainly can't end this list without paying tribute to the countless child stars who qualify as one-hit wonders. It's all too common: a movie needs a precocious kid to play a specific role, one comes along who takes direction well, looks the part, and is the right age. Boom: Instant fame. But child stardom being what it is, few make the transition to an adult acting career without drugs, bad professional choices, other interests getting in the way, or simply the harsh reality of their post-pubescent selves stopping their careers in their tracks. Let this Oscar-nominated star of 1977's The Goodbye Girl be their representative on this list.