A sudden breakthrough performance by an actor is a hard thing to live up to. We’re not talking the first performance in an actor or actress’s career, but the first role that brought them to the forefront of Hollywood. Many times, success in such a role can be a double-edged sword; on the one hand it’s great that the performer is finally being recognized and rewarded for their work, but on the other hand there is a ton of pressure to “one up” that breakout performance. This is something which many actors are simply unable to do, causing them to forever live in the shadow of this breakout performance.
While most great performers manage to overcome and indeed better their breakthrough performance, those included on this list have never quite achieved the same feat. Check out this list of 10 actors who (up to this point) have never able to top their breakout performance or role.
10. Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds
Before 2009, Waltz was completely unknown to Western audiences as an actor. That was, until Quentin Tarantino cast him as Col. Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, which transformed Christoph Waltz into an established Hollywood actor. His breakout role in this film won him acting awards at Cannes, BAFTA, the Golden Globes, and, finally, the Oscars, with Waltz picking up the award for Best Supporting Actor. Always an effective presence on the screen, Waltz hardly ever changes his style, as he seemingly plays variations on the role which made him famous. He won a second Oscar for his role in yet another Tarantino film, collecting a Best Supporting Actor win for his role in Django Unchained. That performance, though good, is clearly not as powerful, with Waltz playing an assassin with a heart as opposed to his role as a Nazi assassin with no compassion in Inglorious Basterds.
9. William H. Macy in Fargo
Before his breakout role in Fargo, character actor William H. Macy starred in forgettable movies by forgettable directors, mostly blink-and-you’ll-miss-them bit parts with little substance. Then the Coen Brothers cast him as the luckless Jerry Lundegaard in their Oscar-winning Fargo, which put the actor on the map, as Macy was nominated for an Oscar (Best Actor in a Supporting Role). One of the best character actors around, Macy went on a nice run of supporting turns in great films, such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Putting that small handful of films aside, though, Macy has never come close to matching his work in Fargo.
8. Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire
Up until 1996, Cuba Gooding Jr. was known primarily for a couple of smaller roles in films like Boyz n the Hood and A Few Good Men, but it was his role as Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire that put him in the spotlight. His role as a disgruntled NFL player was great enough to earn him an Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor. This led to a brief period of success soon after Jerry Maguire, with roles in movies like As Good as it Gets and Pearl Harbor, but he also appeared in a number of unsuccessful films that received awful reviews. On top of this, there are also rumors that Gooding Jr. turned down some solid roles in the wake of his Oscar win due to his new celebrity status.
7. Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense
After a series of lesser roles in television and film throughout the 1990s, Hale Joel Osment finally hit gold when he appeared in M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller The Sixth Sense. In this film, the 11-year-old Osment played an eerie and often unwilling child medium. The role garnered him worldwide fame and led him to receive leading roles in numerous films, but sadly, none of them came close to his success in The Sixth Sense. His line “I see dead people” is one of the most popular quotes in film history and is often parodied or repeated in other forms of media.
6. Robert Pattinson in Twilight
Before his breakout performance as Edward Cullen in the Twilight series, Pattinson was a an actor only slightly known for his part in one of the Harry Potter films. But in the span of a few years from 2008-2012, Pattinson established himself as one of the highest paid and most bankable stars in Hollywood for his leading role in Twilight. This role made him one of the most powerful men in show business and brought him worldwide fame. Unfortunately, even though it has only been a few years since the release of the final movie in the Twilight saga, the films he has starred in since, including Remember Me and Water for Elephants, have neglected to garner him the same degree of attention and admiration.
5. Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction
Before this role, Jackson mainly acted various bit parts in films like Goodfellas, True Romance and Jurassic Park. That was, until Quentin Tarantino cast him as hitman Jules Winnfield in his pop culture hit Pulp Fiction. Despite his numerous aforementioned performances, this was Jackson’s first major leading role, with the star in his mid-40s by the time he finally hit it big. But, despite appearing in a ton of different films since, Jackson has never bettered his work in Pulp Fiction, as that performance is considered to be iconic and one of the classics in film history. Jackson’s performances in the wake of Pulp Fiction are good, enjoyable roles, but are, in short, inferior versions of Winnfield.
4. Bruce Willis in Die Hard
Best known at the time for his work on TV series Moonlighting, Bruce Willis wasn’t the most obvious selection for an action hero, but in hindsight it was a brilliant casting choice. Bruce Willis’ breakthrough performance as John McClane put him on the map as a bonafide action star. In this film, Willis crafted perhaps the greatest action hero of all time, with his natural toughness fusing with brilliant writing. Willis is always a watchable, charismatic presence on screen, but nothing will likely ever top his original stint as John McClane in Die Hard.
3. Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone
Culkin is one of the prototypical examples of a child star going off the rails and never really amounting to much in adulthood. He got his big break in the Home Alone series, in which he plays Kevin McCallister, a craft child who was accidentally left home by his on Christmas and goes through various interesting situations while trying to evade a duo of hapless robbers. This role established him as a mega child star, leading to numerous other similar roles in the following years. And even after a few years of inactivity, his return to acting was never was able to match the success he achieved with this iconic movie series. Unfortunately, he later found himself in some legal troubles because of his drug use.
2. Sylvester Stallone in Rocky
Rocky is, to this day, one of the great sports films of all time, and within that film is Sylvester Stallone’s breakthrough performance, the one he’s yet to better in the past three decades and counting. Stallone is phenomenal as the titular character, turning in a performance full of brutal, realistic physicality that is extremely iconic not only in the boxing world, but the film world as a whole. He’s been in big franchises since, such as Rambo, but it’s his work in Rocky that serves as the best example of both Stallone the action star, and Stallone the actor.
1. Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter
And coming in at the number one spot is none other than Daniel Radcliffe and his monumental role as child wizard Harry Potter. He appeared in eight different installments of this film series from the ages of 11-21, which garnered him star status and worldwide fame. Even to this day, it is hard for many people to watch him act in other films and see anything but Harry Potter. Since Harry Potter is one of the most successful and illustrious film franchises of all time, there is little chance he will ever appear in something that will match the magnitude of his breakout performance.