24 Television Performances That Launched Household Names

For many years, the line between television actor and movie star was not exactly thin, as the former was surprisingly coupled with serious professional baggage.

However, in the age of streaming and "peak TV," that line is virtually nonexistent, with the next generation of crossover screen staples rising to the occasion every day. With this list, I'll recap 24 television performances that helped build the careers of some of Hollywood's best and brightest.

24.Walton Goggins, The Shield

"The Shield"

Before becoming a mainstay in Justified, Vice Principals, The Righteous Gemstones and the works of Quentin Tarantino, Walton Goggins shocked audiences as the corrupt and unstable Shane Vendrell on The Shield, outshining a cast of dramatic heavy-hitters including Michael Chiklis and CCH Pounder.

Prashant Gupta / PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Courtesy Alamy

23.Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story

"American Horror Story"

Sarah Paulson quickly catapulted herself into the pop culture conversation thanks to her longstanding and versatile performances throughout the many seasons of American Horror Story, essentially positing herself as Ryan Murphy’s go-to leading lady while scoring notable roles in 12 Years a Slave, Glass, and Ocean’s Eight.

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22.Alexander Skarsgård, True Blood

"True Blood"

Upon his appearance in True Blood, Skarsgård immediately turned heads of audiences and critics alike, exuding raw star power and sexuality that would capture attention across the show's seven-season run and far beyond.

HBO / Collection Christophel / Courtesy Alamy

21.Nick Offerman, Parks and Recreation

"Parks and Recreation"

While Chris Pratt would parlay his Parks and Recreation role into super-stardom with a little help from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s Nick Offerman who would completely redefine his career as Ron Swanson, who has easily taken the mantle as most endlessly quoted and meme'd character from the beloved sitcom.

NBC / AF archive / Courtesy Alamy

20.Laverne Cox, Orange Is the New Black

Laverne Cox on the red carpet for "Orange is the New Black"

Soon after debuting in her groundbreaking role as Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black, Laverne Cox established herself as one of the most high-profile transgender actresses on the planet, with a Time magazine cover, a Primetime Emmy nomination and roles in Promising Young Woman, Jolt, and Inventing Anna that followed.

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19.Jane Lynch, Glee


Jane Lynch initially made an impact with audiences with scene-stealing roles in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Two and a Half Men, but it was her antagonistic role as Sue Sylvester on Glee that made her a star to millions of viewers around the globe.

PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy

18.Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead

"The Walking Dead"

Steven Yeun was an up-and-coming actor when he landed the role of Glenn on The Walking Dead, but by the jaw-dropping conclusion of his character's arc, Yeun walked away as a real-deal leading man for the likes of the Oscar-nominated Minari, Mayhem, and The Humans.

Gene Page / AMC / PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy

17.John Krasinski, The Office

"The Office"

John Krasinski initially joined The Office as the lovelorn Jim Halpert, the American counterpart for Martin Freeman's Tim on the original British series, but his charisma launched him into not only big-screen comedies, but as the face of action projects such as 13 Hours and Jack Ryan, as well as major horror properties such as A Quiet Place.

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16.Zachary Quinto, Heroes


Though it did not take long for Heroes to flame out, Zachary Quinto's part as the murderous fan favorite Sylar was a fast-track to stardom for the young actor, the momentum from which was later parlayed into the role of Spock in J.J. Abrams' blockbuster Star Trek franchise.

NBC / Photo 12 / Courtesy Alamy

15.Idris Elba, The Wire

"The Wire"

The Wire was the launching pad for many burgeoning careers, including that of Michael B. Jordan, Michael K. Williams, and Andre Royo, but it was Idris Elba as Stringer Bell who exuded a presence that expanded far beyond the lauded series. Soon thereafter, Elba would grace the big screen in major roles throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the D.C. Extended Universe, the Fast and Furious and Star Trek franchises, and the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

HBO / RGR Collection / Courtesy Alamy

14.Damian Lewis, Homeland


Homeland was a major critical and commercial success for Showtime, with British actor Damian Lewis exhibiting a magnetic and brilliant performance that garnered him a Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe in short order. After his character's logical departure from Homeland, Showtime doubled down on Lewis as a leading man by casting him as cutthroat billionaire Bobby Axelrod in their hit original series Billions.

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13.Rami Malek, Mr. Robot

"Mr. Robot"

Upon throwing on the hood of Elliot Alderson in Mr. Robot, Rami Malek ascended from dependable character actor to full-fledged star almost overnight, racking up countless accolades while utilizing his newfound fame to nab his Oscar-winning role in Bohemian Rhapsody and even the main antagonist part in Daniel Craig's final James Bond film, No Time to Die.

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12.J.K. Simmons, Oz


By playing one of the most reprehensible and disgusting villains in television history, J.K. Simmons evoked gasps on a weekly basis and carved out his path to future stardom as a character actor, which included parts in the Spider-Man franchise, Justice League, and an Oscar-winning turn in Whiplash.

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11.Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy

"Sons of Anarchy"

Charlie Hunnam was not new to the entertainment industry when he accepted the role of Jax Teller on Sons of Anarchy, but the role turned him into not only a leading man with opportunities to lead such films as King Arthur and 50 Shades of Gray (which he would later turn down), but would turn him into a sex symbol for multiple generations of fans discovering the series via streaming.

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10.Danny McBride, Eastbound & Down

"Eastbound and Down"

Prior to Eastbound & Down, Danny McBride was balancing his status as an indie darling from The Foot Fist Way and a go-to supporting player in films such as Tropic Thunder and Hot Rod. But it was his unforgettable four-season run as Kenny Powers that elevated McBride into HBO's comedy golden boy, later headlining his acclaimed series Vice Principals and The Righteous Gemstones.

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9.Julia Garner, Ozark


Julia Garner had been accruing buzz throughout independent film circles prior to her casting on Ozark, but her performance as Ruth Langmore won over critics and audiences en mass, throttling her into the conversation of the "next big star." Garner's star power has only grown during her time on Ozark, most recently resulting in her incredibly popular headlining role on Netflix's Inventing Anna.

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8.Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones

"Game of Thrones"

Peter Dinklage was well-respected by his peers and critics prior to his time on Game of Thrones, but his journey to becoming a household name as a result of his stellar work on the pop culture behemoth was nothing less than extraordinary. In addition to getting opportunities to act in the X-Men and Avengers films during this time, Dinklage has also used his public persona to advocate for little people both inside and outside of his industry.

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7.Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad

"Breaking Bad"

The world may have recognized him as the patriarch on Malcolm in the Middle, but it wasn't until his game-changing role as Walter White on Breaking Bad that Bryan Cranston's star power would rise, resulting in leading roles on-screen and on stage as well as the lead part on Showtime's gritty crime drama, Your Honor.

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6.Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things

"Stranger Things"

Millie Bobby Brown was not only launched into the spotlight following her bold and vulnerable performance in the first season of Stranger Things, but she was outright branded as the next "It" girl as well, leading to high-profile roles in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Godzilla vs. Kong, and Enola Holmes.

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5.Kerry Washington, Scandal


Kerry Washington's career entered the stratosphere thanks to her performance as Olivia Pope on Shonda Rhimes' Scandal, with consistently high ratings, rave reviews, and award nominations. In addition to subsequent leading roles in the HBO film Confirmation and the Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere, Washington was highlighted among the Time 100 in 2014 and as Forbes' eighth highest-paid television actress in 2018.

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4.Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks

"Twin Peaks"

Twin Peaks swept the nation during its debut in 1990, but it was Kyle MacLachlan as the fresh-faced Agent Dale Cooper whose stardom was given an even bigger boost, which has extended to his cultural reverence as a performer over 30 years later.

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3.George Clooney, ER


There may be no actor whose television role has paid off more than George Clooney as Doug Ross on ER, as his near instantaneous reputation as the sexiest man on television only served to precede his future success as an Oscar-winning actor and producer, a leading man for action, horror, and comedy films, and a vocal political activist.

Warner Bros. Television / AF Archive / Courtesy Alamy

2.Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men

"Mad Men"

Though Mad Men was a vehicle that elevated many careers, including her co-stars Jon Hamm and John Slattery, Elisabeth Moss was a magnetic and undeniable star over the course of her time as Peggy Olson. With this recognition to her name, Moss would continue winning awards and thriving with her leading role on The Handmaid's Tale, while also performing in major studio releases like Us and The Invisible Man.

Jaimie Trueblood / AMC / PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Courtesy Alamy

1.James Gandolfini, The Sopranos

"The Sopranos"

James Gandolfini had stolen scenes playing tough guys for many years prior to his casting on The Sopranos, but the role of Tony Soprano not only made him a star, but a full-fledged icon, with his performance still discussed, dissected, and emboldened on merchandise nearly a decade after his untimely passing.

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