The Greatest Acting One-Hit Wonders in History

The Greatest Acting One-Hit Wonders in History

Some actors reach incredible success early in their careers and somehow maintain it for decades. Others toil away in relative obscurity for years before getting their big break. There is a class of actors, however, who seem almost cursed by success. After securing a breakout role in a successful film or television show, they practically disappear from the spotlight. Much like bands who score one hit song before fading away, these thespians are the greatest acting one-hit wonders.

For some, it’s an inability to deal with sudden success. For others, it is something like typecasting. They become so connected with a certain role, it’s hard for producers and subsequently, audiences to imagine them as anything different. Whatever the case, there are a select few actors who reach meteoric success before turning away from the Hollywood spotlight. In this article, we will explore the greatest acting one-hit wonders. 

To compile a list of the greatest acting one-hit wonders, 24/7 Tempo consulted a range of movie and entertainment publications. Next, we selected actors who had one or two major breakout roles with notable public impact. We further selected actors who met fame before falling into relative obscurity. After that, we confirmed the actors’ biographical information using sites like IMDb and Britannica. (For musical one-offs, discover the biggest one-hit wonders from the 2010s.)

Rupert Grint

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Rupert Grint’s role as Ron Weasley has defined his acting career.

One of the greatest acting one-hit wonders is Rupert Grint. Cast as Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter series at the tender age of 11, Grint went on to act in all of the canon Harry Potter films. This started with “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” before rounding out the series with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows – Part 2.” 

After that, Grint starred in various films, mostly made in England, such as “Driving Lessons” and “Cherrybomb.” None, however, reached the level of impact of the Harry Potter series. Perhaps it was the trademark shock of red hair and the connotation with Ron Weasley. Whatever the case, Grint has struggled to reach the meteoric heights he reached as a child actor with Harry Potter. 

Edward Furlong

Source: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures
Edward Furlong appeared as John Connor in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.”

Another one of the greatest acting one-hit wonders is Edward Furlong. At age 13, he was cast in the starring role of John Connor in the Terminator sequel, “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” A breakout role, Furlong was noted for his instinctual acting abilities at a young age. 

Though he would follow up with a sizable role in “American History X” a few years later, stardom would ultimately elude Furlong. While he starred in various films in the following years like “American Heart” and “Before and After,” problems beset Furlong’s personal life. For years, he battled alcoholism and drug addiction, which likely led to various probation sentences and jail stays. Ultimately, this prevented Furlong from reaching the acting heights hinted at in his early career. 

Linda Blair

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Linda Blair gave terrifying performances in The Exorcist franchise.

When William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” was released in 1973 it was to shock and awe. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the role of the demon-possessed young girl Regan, played by 13-year-old Linda Blair. Her shocking, unhinged and unquestionably powerful performance earned her many accolades including a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination. As such, she returned to the role for the two sequels “Exorcist II: The Heretic” and “The Exorcist: Believer.” 

Her roles in The Exorcist trilogy were so controversial, however, they drastically affected her life. Besides receiving death threats and scorn from religious groups, many speculated that the stress of the roles caused Blair to have a mental breakdown. Though she denied this, she did admit that playing Regan had a significant impact on her health and career. After that, Blair starred in various films and television movies, but none came close to reaching the heights of “The Exorcist.” These days, besides seldom appearances in shows and films, Blair is best known as an animal rights activist. 

Shannon Elizabeth 

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Shannon Elizabeth found success as Nadia in “American Pie.”

Another one of the greatest acting one-hit wonders is Shannon Elizabeth. Thanks in no small part to her role as the foreign exchange student Nadia in “American Pie,” the movie was a runaway success. Besides making appearances in the later installments of the American Pie franchise, she starred in smaller parts in films like “Scary Movie” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.”

None of her roles, however, would come close to meeting the cultural impact of “American Pie.” Unable to capture the same level of success, Elizabeth drifted through various media like television shows such as “Dancing with the Stars.” After that, she turned her attention to cards, playing in numerous poker events including the “2005 World Series of Poker.” Elizabeth even said that “poker has become my second career.” Besides gambling, Elizabeth spends much of her time like Linda Blair, as an animal rights activist.

Hayden Christensen

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Hayden Christensen is known for his role as Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars franchise.

Another one of the greatest acting one-hit wonders is no doubt, Hayden Christensen. He began appearing in increasingly larger parts, culminating in “Life as a House.” After that, Christensen broke through to the highest of films with his main role as Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequel series. After his appearances in “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” and “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” he was assumed to be the next big A-list actor.

Being catapulted to superstardom, however, didn’t sit right with Christensen. He was overwhelmed by the sudden attention and suffered from a bit of imposter syndrome. As such, he functionally packed in his acting career and lived on a farm. Since then, he’s made brief roles in media, but nothing compared to his roles in the Star Wars prequels. Regarding the sudden shift, Christensen told The Independent, “I felt like I had this great thing in ‘Star Wars’ that provided all these opportunities and gave me a career, but it all kind of felt a little too handed to me.”

Josh Holloway

Source: Courtesy of American Broadcasting Company (ABC)
Josh Holloway starred in the TV show “Lost” for many years.

When the television show “Lost” premiered in 2004, it was a revelation. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the mysterious, mercurial and handsome character “Sawyer,” played by Josh Holloway. After playing in bits parts for years, Holloway received his big break and starred as Holloway for the remainder of the series to critical acclaim. 

That success, was a double-edged sword, however. It prevented him from taking big acting offers while the show ran. What’s more, it became a role that was hard to overcome. Though he’s starred in some shows since “Lost” ended, such as “Colony” and the film “Stay Cool,” he’s yet to come close to reaching that level of stardom that “Lost” provided. Most recently, however, he secured a recurring role on the hit show “Yellowstone.” 

Mark Hamill

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Mark Hamill formed a second career as a voice actor after starring in several Star Wars films.

Much like Hayden Christensen, actor Mark Hamill was in many ways cursed with the success of the Star Wars franchise. After being cast as Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars: A New Hope,” Hamill tasted unheard-of success, which parlayed into reprisals of the role in subsequent Star Wars films. From there, he reprised the role of Luke Skywalker in the more recent Disney additions to the franchise including “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

The character of Luke Skywalker was beloved. So beloved, however, that Hamill found it hard to translate it to future acting success. Though he appeared in various roles since then, he found a second career as a voice actor for shows and video games. Some of these include “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” (For more Star Wars-centric information, discover the most legendary Star Wars quotes.)

Brandon Routh

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Brandon Routh garnered international attention after playing Superman.

Another one of the greatest acting one-hit wonders is Brandon Routh. First, he starred in bit roles in various television shows. After that, however, he reached international fame after being cast as Superman in “Superman Returns.” Though touted to be the next big thing in Hollywood, Routh failed to reach the success his initial superhero role brought. 

Since then, Routh has starred in various films and television shows like “Zach and Miri Make a Porno” and “Arrow.” None have come close to catapulting him to his earlier stardom, however. What’s more, Routh has bemoaned this trajectory away from Superman. He told ABC News, “I would have liked to do another movie. I love the character.”

Jack Gleeson

Source: Courtesy of Home Box Office (HBO)
Jack Gleeson is best known for his time in “Game of Thrones.”

When “Game of Thrones” premiered on HBO, it was a runaway success. Though many actors shined bright in the serious, no one captured the audience’s attention quite like Jack Gleeson as King Joffrey Baratheon. Spoiled, sadistic and conniving, the character brought Gleeson heaps of critical acclaim. It was assumed he would transition to a long and successful acting career. 

Gleeson had other ideas, however. After his character was killed off the show, Gleeson retired from acting and earned degrees in philosophy and theology instead. Though he later started a small theatre company called Collapsing Horse, he shows no sign of returning to center stage. As for his transition, Gleeson told the Herald Sun, “I suppose something just changed. I still love acting, and I see myself acting in the future, but that kind of spark is not there anymore, and I don’t know why.”

Alex Winter

Source: Courtesy of Orion Pictures
Alex Winter starred alongside Keanu Reeves in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

Another one of the greatest acting one-hit wonders is Alex Winter. He rose to fame as the lovable slacker Bill S. Preston Esq. in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” After that, he reprised his role in the two subsequent sequels, “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” and “Bill & Ted Face the Music.” Though he would secure a notable role in the 80s classic film “The Lost Boys,” he practically disappeared after that.

Winter is still around and working in Hollywood. These days, however, he has mostly taken to jobs behind the screen, directing various movies and television shows. These include “Deep Web: The Untold Story of Bitcoin and the Silk Road” and episodes of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” What’s more, Winters said he was abused as a child actor. This may have led to his transition away from acting roles. Regarding the trauma, Winters told The Hollywood Reporter, “It’s going to take time, it’s going to take mental health work, it’s going to take the capacity of society to listen to some very unpleasant truths about itself.”

Jake Lloyd

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Jake Lloyd portrayed a young Anakin Skywalker.

Say what you will about the massively popular Star Wars series, but it seems to be a curse for some of its starring actors. Take Jake Lloyd, for instance. First, he started his acting career with bit parts in shows like “ER” and the movie “Jingle All the Way.” After that, Lloyd was tapped to play young Anakin Skywalker in the much-anticipated Star Wars prequel “Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.”

Though he starred in two small movies after Star Wars, Lloyd soon retired from acting. Much like Mark Hamill and Hayden Christensen, Lloyd couldn’t match the wild success of Star Wars, much less transcend it. As for his retirement, Lloyd claimed the success of the series caused him to be bullied at school. As told MSNBC, “Other children were really mean to me…They would make the sound of the lightsaber every time they saw me. It was totally mad.” (For other beloved actors who stepped away from the limelight, discover what happened to memorable TV stars you forgot.)

To top