By Alan Carter
Sure, NASA has launched more careers than “Saturday Night Live,” but NASA also had a two-decade head start. When it comes to putting stars into the stratosphere, few shows have done it as well, or for as long, as “SNL.”
The original Not Ready for Prime Time Players in 1975 (and Bill Murray in 1977) set the bar. Now a film career for a popular player seems all but inevitable. By 1999, NBC insisted on signing new cast members to contracts that would obligate them to star for SNL Films and, failing that, to star in an NBC sitcom-done at least in part to keep some of the show’s bigger stars from leaving the nest too quickly for the more lucrative lights of the big screen.
Here is a short list of the film stars and performers who started on “SNL.” Some have found major stardom and some have found recurring status as the second banana:
Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Jane Curtin, Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, Billy Crystal (yes, he really started on “Soap,” but it was “SNL” that gave him his movie cred), Dana Carvey, Ben Stiller, Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, David Spade, Molly Shannon, Janeane Garofalo, Tim Meadows, Julia Sweeney, Jay Mohr (even though the popular comic has said his “SNL” experience was a blip he would rather forget), Ana Gasteyer, Chris Kattan, Tracy Morgan, Will Ferrell and Kenan Thompson (he was a great Fat Albert, even if the movie wasn’t so great).
And no, we didn’t forget Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, Joan Cusack or Randy Quaid. In 1985 they were hired for “SNL” because each already had a bit of a name in the business. Damon Wayans, also hired that year, had little screen time. His big break, of course, came from “In Living Color” five years later.
Curent cast member Tina Fey recently hit it big. Her original script “Mean Girls” was a critical and box office smash in 2004.
“Wayne’s World” is the biggest box office winner among the movies based on “SNL” skits, grossing more than $120 million in 1992.
A host of films over the years have starred “Saturday Night” alumni but are not based on material from the show itself, such as Mr. Myers’ “Austin Powers” movies. “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” was a huge hit in 1999, grossing more than $200 million. The two “Shrek” films, with Mr. Murphy voicing a cartoon character, have grossed more than $700 million combined. Mr. Sandler’s movie career took off with the 1997 hit “The Wedding Singer” ($80.2 million) and skyrocketed with his two subsequent films “The Waterboy” and “Big Daddy,” each of which grossed more than $160 million domestically.