Although they are considered legends today, many favorite old Hollywood stars did not find instant fame and success. Some had to work exceptionally hard to get past all the closed doors in Tinsel Town. While some lucky celebrities from Hollywood’s golden age were picked out of crowds for their good looks, others worked hard until they caught breaks big enough to propel them to stardom.
With abusive studio systems and gossip columnists scrutinizing those lucky enough to become famous, old Hollywood was pretty brutal. Actors and actresses were routinely criticized and asked to change their names, hair, and teeth. Those who had talent and thick skin became household names. Maybe certain silver screen sirens had ideal star signs; maybe some just got lucky. Either way, it’s hard to believe how old Hollywood stars got their big breaks.
Lana Turner’s father was murdered when she was young, so her mother moved the family from Idaho to Los Angeles, CA. Turner was in high school when a Hollywood Reporter publisher noticed her drinking a soda at a local cafe. He introduced the teen to Zeppo Marx, and the Marx brother brought her up to MGM’s Mervyn LeRoy. Soon after, LeRoy cast Turner in 1937’s They Won’t Forget before signing her to a permanent contract.
Although the young starlet didn’t have a large part, Turner’s tight fitting skirt and sweater helped turn her into a Hollywood sex symbol and poster girl.
Age: Dec. at 74 (1921-1995)
Birthplace: Wallace, Idaho, USA
Ava Gardner’s photographer brother-in-law sent her photo to MGM when she was only 18. Although Gardner was studying to become a secretary, she changed her plans when the studio offered her a screen test in 1941. The young woman didn’t have acting experience, but she was given a seven-year contract based on her looks.
After being hired, the North Carolina native had to take speech lessons to lose her southern drawl. MGM also enrolled her in acting classes. Shy and nervous at first, Gardner only booked small roles. Eventually, she took on larger parts, finally becoming a major star with the 1946 release of The Killers.
Age: Dec. at 68 (1922-1990)
Birthplace: Smithfield, North Carolina, United States of America
While working at an Akron, OH, tire factory, 16-year-old Clark Gable saw a play that motivated him to become an actor. The young hopeful joined a traveling theater to follow his passions, but the business went bankrupt, stranding Gable in Montana. He hitchhiked to Oregon, met a manager who gave him a makeover, and then married her.
Afterwards, the couple moved to Hollywood to break into the film industry. Casting agents initially rejected Gable; they believed his large ears weren’t suitable for a leading man. Finally, though, he landed a speaking role in the 1931 film The Painted Desert.
His performance prompted MGM to give him a contract. Soon after, Gable began to star alongside glamorous actresses like Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow.
Age: Died at 59 (1901-1960)
Birthplace: Cádiz, Ohio, USA
Born in Belgium in 1929, Audrey Hepburn was visiting Holland with her mother when Nazi soldiers invaded and trapped them there. After the war, Hepburn moved back to London, studied ballet, and worked as a model. She was approached one day in 1951 by Gigi author Colette. The French writer thought the young woman would be perfect for the title role in a stage adaption of her novel. Hepburn signed on, and after starring in the role on Broadway, she was almost immediately offered a role in 1953’s Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck.
The role won her an Oscar and led to the rest of her remarkable career.
Age: Dec. at 64 (1929-1993)
Birthplace: Brussels, Ixelles, Belgium
Born in England as Archie Leach, Cary Grant joined a troupe of acrobats at 14 and moved to New York with them. He decided to stay in America instead of returning to his native country, though. Grant appeared on Broadway and found work as a stilt walker before moving to Los Angeles, CA, to try his luck in Hollywood.
The hopeful actor failed his first screen test but was hired by Paramount after a second attempt. The studio insisted he change his name. In the late 1930’s, after starring in more than 20 movies, Grant morphed into the man audiences recognize; he found great success throughout the rest of his career.
Age: Dec. at 82 (1904-1986)
Birthplace: United Kingdom
After changing the spelling of her name and taking her husband’s first name as a surname, Vivien Leigh got her initial part on the London stage in 1935. She performed in several Shakespeare productions where she met and began an affair with actor Laurence Olivier. Leigh traveled to America with the actor, while he toured with a stage production crew.
During those travels, Leigh met George Cukor, the casting director for Gone with the Wind. Cukor was very impressed by the virtually unknown Leigh, giving her the part of Scarlett O’Hara. He received a lot of backlash for rejecting American leading ladies like Bette Davis, but Leigh won an Oscar for the role and went on to become a star.
Age: Dec. at 54 (1913-1967)
Birthplace: Darjeeling, India
Greta Garbo was attending Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theater in 1924 when silent film director Mauritz Stiller offered her the lead in The Saga of Gosta Berling. The film made Garbo famous in German and Sweden, and she changed her last name from Gustafson at Stiller’s urging. Not long after, Louis B. Mayer of MGM hired Stiller to travel to America and direct a movie, but Stiller only agreed because 19-year-old Garbo was allowed to join him.
The contract between Stiller and MGM didn’t work out, so he eventually returned to Europe. Garbo’s first American film, 1926’s The Torrent, was a hit, though. The European transplant quickly rose through the ranks of Hollywood’s glamorous actresses.
Age: Dec. at 85 (1905-1990)
Birthplace: Stockholm, Sweden
James Cagney grew up fighting on the streets of Manhattan, NY, and working odd jobs. He wrapped packages and waited tables before finding work in vaudeville as a dancer. The performer was self taught, watching other dancers and copying their steps. His first stage performance was done in drag as a chorus girl.
After dancing his way through small parts on stage, Cagney played a killer in the 1930 play Penny Arcade. Warner Brothers Studios asked the young actor to reprise the role on screen; they renamed the piece Sinner’s Holiday. Cagney’s performance won him other supporting roles, and he eventually earned the lead role in 1931’s The Public Enemy.
Age: Dec. at 87 (1899-1986)
Birthplace: New York City, New York, United States of America
Born Margarita Carmen Cansino in New York, Rita Hayworth was a professional dancer at age 12. Her family moved to Los Angeles, CA, when she was young, and the young girl performed with her father in American and Mexican clubs. When she was 16 and performing, Hayworth was spotted by a Fox studio executive; she was immediately offered a contract.
After starring in her first film in 1935, Hayworth changed her name, dyed her hair, and managed to get a better studio contract. Then she landed a role opposite Cary Grant in the 1939 release Only Angels Have Wings.
Age: Dec. at 69 (1918-1987)
Birthplace: New York City, USA, New York
Fred Astaire and his sister paired up as a dance team when they were young, performing in vaudeville acts and various Broadway shows. Astaire tried his luck with screen tests in Hollywood but was turned down. One studio executive even commented, “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Slightly balding. Can dance a little.” However, when his sister retired from dancing to get married, Astaire decided to try again.
He managed to get a small role in a 1933 Joan Crawford movie (Dancing Lady) and was offered a contract with RKO. That same year, the persistent performer worked with Ginger Rogers in Flying Down to Rio. Although they both had minor roles, their dance number became the highlight of the film, propelling Astaire’s career.
Age: Dec. at 88 (1899-1987)
Birthplace: Omaha, Nebraska, United States of America
Born in 1922 as Frances Ethel Gumm, Judy Garland began performing before she was three years old, using the stage name Baby Gumm. She eventually formed an act with her two older sisters and moved to California with her family. Their mom, a former vaudeville performer, became the family agent.
At age 13, Garland adopted her well-known stage name, ventured out on her own, earned a little fame after singing on the radio, and signed a contract with MGM. She took small roles until working with Mickey Rooney in 1938. Garland became incredibly popular after that and landed her legendary role in The Wizard of Oz. Despite the fame, Garland’s life was rife with tragedy.
Age: Dec. at 47 (1922-1969)
Birthplace: Grand Rapids, Minnesota, United States of America
When she was a teenager, Bette Davis decided to become an actress. She tried, unsuccessfully, to get into a New York acting school and worked briefly as an actress at a stock company. After finally landing a few parts in hit Broadway productions, Davis was offered a screen test from Universal Studios. So she traveled to Los Angeles, CA, by train with her mother.
Although the studio executives left her on the platform because they “didn’t see anyone get off the train who looked like an actress,” they reluctantly signed her. Davis refused to change her name or appearance, made several flops, and was let go by the studio. She almost returned to New York before being cast by George Arliss in 1932’s The Man Who Played God.
Age: Dec. at 81 (1908-1989)
Birthplace: Lowell, Massachusetts, United States of America
After being expelled from boarding school for poor grades and being honorably discharged from the Navy, Humphrey Bogart took on the job of company manager of The Ruined Lady, a touring stage production. In 1921, he appeared in front of audiences for the first time in the role of a Japanese waiter. Although he only spoke one line, Bogart got hooked on acting, working hard to get other stage roles.
Eventually he landed the part of the villain in the stage version of The Petrified Forest. When a film adaption was made in 1936, Bogart was cast in the same role thanks to his captivating performance. He played villainous characters in many other films until he broke the typecasting by playing detectives instead.
Age: Dec. at 58 (1899-1957)
Birthplace: New York City, USA, New York