Beloved Actors Who Got Their Start in Raunchy '80s Teen Comedies

Fran Drescher at the 48th Annual AFI Life Achievement Award Honoring Julie Andrews, Los Angeles, 2022

Where It All Started

Emilio Estevez and Molly Ringwald weren’t the only actors who became famous thanks to 1980s teen comedies. Other actors who are a big deal today got their start in one of the Reagan decade’s many films, and those movies often gave them their breakout roles.

Some of those movies would go on to be great successes, while others ended up on Showtime After Dark at three in the morning. Here are a few actors who got their start in these movies, sometimes in roles so marginal you may not even remember they were in them.

Tom Cruise at the China Premiere of the Movie "Mission: Impossible C Fallout" in Beijing, China, 2018

1. Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise is easily the most commercially successful actor to emerge from the 1980s teen comedy scene. While his first few appearances consisted of supporting roles in dramas like “Taps” and “The Outsiders,” his big break came with 1983’s "Risky Business." The film gave him both the lead role and an express elevator to permanent superstardom.

Patrick Dempsey at the Premiere of "The Art of Racing in the Rain", Los Angeles, 2019

2. Patrick Dempsey

Patrick Dempsey is known to many by the nickname “McDreamy,” which he earned on the television medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy.” His status as a heartthrob probably surprised people, because in 1987’s “Can’t Buy Me Love,” he portrayed a teenage doofus who pays a cheerleader a four-figure sum of money to act like his girlfriend for a month. She should have demanded seven figures, but whatever. Nevertheless, it increased Dempsey’s profile exponentially and kicked off his stardom in earnest.

Phoebe Cates Arriving at the 81st Academy Awards, Los Angeles, 2009

3. Phoebe Cates

Technically speaking, Phoebe Cates got her start in the 1982 movie “Paradise,” a third-rate knockoff of “The Blue Lagoon,” which is itself one of the stupidest movies ever made. Luckily, that same year, she also starred in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," and despite being in a supporting role, she made an impression and went on to star in movies like “Gremlins” and “Drop Dead Fred.” She probably could have kept acting for the rest of her life if she wanted to, but Cates left it all behind in the 1990s to focus on raising her children with actor Kevin Kline.

John Cusack at the 67th Annual Cannes Film Festival, 2014

4. John Cusack

John Cusack has been one of the most consistently employable actors to emerge from the 1980s. While some actors of his generation took a few movies to get on a roll, three of his first five movies were popular teen comedies that helped put him on the map. “Sixteen Candles,” “The Sure Thing,” and the highly underrated “Better Off Dead,” the movie that made the line “I want my two dollars” a national catchphrase. Cusack also had a supporting role in 1986’s “Stand by Me,” which showed that as funny as he was, he could also handle more serious roles.

Nicolas Cage at the Saturn Awards, Burbank, California, 2024

5. Nicolas Cage

Nicolas Cage’s real name is Nicolas Coppola, as in Francis Ford Coppola, the Oscar-winning director of “The Godfather.” His first movie role was pretty small in 1982’s "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," for which he was credited under his real name. He won his stardom the following year in “Valley Girl,” in which he performed under the name Nicolas Cage. He went from there to perform in much more serious movies, such as “Birdy” and “Leaving Las Vegas,” as well as absolute garbage like 2006’s “The Wicker Man,” which one assumes he appeared in to pay a few bills.

Kim Cattrall at the Tribeca Film Festival, New York City, 2014

6. Kim Cattrall

Kim Cattrall is best known for her legendary portrayal of the perpetually aroused Samantha Jones on HBO’s “Sex in the City." Her performance was so iconic that when she didn’t come back for the sequel series “And Just Like That...” it was like watching the Jimi Hendrix Experience perform, minus Jimi Hendrix. Cattrall's movie career goes back to the 1970s, but she gained more recognition after starring in 1981’s “Porky’s,” a smutty comedy that was received with much critical hostility upon its release  that even critic Roger Ebert said “it hates women” and described it as “smarmy.” He had a point, too.

Jennifer Grey at the L.A. Dance Project Gala, Los Angeles, 2021

7. Jennifer Grey

If we chose to, we could say that Jennifer Grey’s first star-making turn in a 1980s teen comedy was in “Red Dawn.” The 1984 action movie was so stupid and implausible that it seen as a comedy. However, the movie that made her career take off was 1986’s “Ferris Bueller's Day Off.” Grey stole the movie every time she appeared on screen, even as a supporting role, playing Ferris Bueller's sister. This led to a starring role in 1987’s “Dirty Dancing,” in which she played Baby, whom nobody puts in a corner. Sadly, in the 1990s, she underwent two rhinoplasty procedures that rendered her unrecognizable, damaging her career to the extent that she compared to “being in a witness protection program.”

Kevin Bacon at the VULTURE Festival, New York City, 2017

8. Kevin Bacon

Kevin Bacon’s career goes back to a small role in 1978’s “Animal House,” a more prominent role in 1980’s “Friday the 13th,” and a good, meaty role in 1982’s “Diner.” However, his breakout role was in 1984’s “Footloose,” in which he foils the uptight local clergy's rule on dancing in his small town. He went on to make scads of movies beyond counting, to such an extent that it inspired “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” a game in which you name any actor and link it back to Bacon within six steps. If someone says “Elvis Presley,” one would respond with “Ed Asner,” who appeared alongside the King in 1969’s “Change of Habit.” Asner then appeared alongside Bacon in 1991’s “JFK.” Play it at home with a friend!

Sean Penn at the CORE Gala, Los Angeles, 2022

9. Sean Penn

Sean Penn’s earliest film credit was a supporting role in the 1981 drama “Taps." His breakthrough came one year later when he played 24-hour-a-day stoner Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." While that movie starred other actors who would go on to be famous too, such as Judge Reinhold and Jennifer Jason Leigh, the film belongs to Penn, who out-acts everybody in every scene he’s in. Today, he’s considered one of the all-time greatest dramatic actors, and he’s won the Oscars to prove it. For those of a certain age, this is where it all started.

Timothy Busfield at the ABC TCA Winter, Los Angeles, 2015

10. Timothy Busfield

Timothy Busfield is best known for playing the character of Elliot Weston in the long-running television drama “Thirtysomething.” However, before that, he played the character “Poindexter” in 1984’s “Revenge of the Nerds,” in which his combed red afro and bifocal glasses render him almost unrecognizable. He didn’t have much dialogue, and as everyone knows, the movie belongs to the character “Booger.” But without Poindexter’s violin playing, the nerds of the Lambda Lambda Lambda fraternity would never have won the homecoming games, so his presence in the movie was crucial.

Fran Drescher at the 30th Screen Actors Guild Awards, Los Angeles, 2024

11. Fran Drescher

To this day, actor and SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher remains best known for two things; her starring role on the CBS sitcom “The Nanny" and her tri-state area accent, which is spoken at such a jarring pitch that you’re guaranteed to remember her for the rest of your life. Her first role was a brief one in 1977’s “Saturday Night Fever,” but she gained more notice in 1980’s “Hollywood Knights,” a teen sex comedy with no story to speak of and even fewer laughs. Coincidentally, it was also the movie in which Michelle Pfeiffer made her film debut, although her career didn’t take off until she starred in the 1983 crime epic “Scarface,” which is not a teen comedy in any sense.

Smiling Tom Cruise Giving an Autograph to a Fan, Facing Camera, Los Angeles, 2012

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