Come on Down! Celebrities Who Started Out as Game Show Contestants

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:46:11 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: ABC Television/Wikimedia

For decades, game shows have offered a quick way to win prizes and cash — if you make it onto the show. From making some money to making a date, everyone hopes to walk away a winner.

For some celebrities, game shows were a cool way to show off their looks and skills in hopes of gaining national attention. The goal was to use game shows as a stepping stone to bigger things, and the gamble paid off. Let’s take a look at some surprising celebrities who appeared on game shows well before finding fame in their respective fields.

Simon Cowell

When it comes to reality competitions, Simon Cowell is king. With the introduction of American Idol, he became an overnight sensation worldwide. His harsh comments to contestants earned him the nickname Judge Dread. He followed Idol with two other successful series: The X Factor and America's Got Talent.

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Before his rise to fame, Cowell appeared on Sale of the Century in 1989. His two-episode stint earned him $26 worth of cooking utensils. Following his appearance, he became an A&R consultant with BMG. After Idol's success, clips of Cowell's appearance on Sale of the Century went viral.

Tom Selleck

Tom Selleck's big break came with Magnum, P.I. in the 1980s. Behind the scenes, the Detroit native turned down the role of Indiana Jones due to his contract with the show. The popular crime drama earned the Army veteran a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his performance.

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Before all that, Selleck appeared on The Dating Game in 1965 to find a hot date. Shocking for such an attractive man, right? Even stranger, most people appear on the show once, but he tried again in 1967. Unfortunately, he was denied both times. The actor married his first wife, Jacqueline Ray, a few years after the game show aired.

Cynthia Nixon

After years on Broadway, Cynthia Nixon gained national attention as Miranda Hobbes on Sex and the City. The series reunited her with My Body, My Child actress Sarah Jessica Parker. In 2004, Nixon earned the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.

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At the young age of nine, she appeared on To Tell the Truth as an imposter. While Nixon is known as a redhead, she had blonde hair on the game show. "Kim [Cattrall] and Sarah [Jessica Parker] were blonde, so we wanted to mix it up a little," Nixon told Today.

Marcus Stroman

At 5-foot, 7 inches tall, Marcus Stroman is one of the shortest baseball pitchers playing the game today. His gameplay earned him the Gold Glove Award and World Baseball Classic MVP in 2017. With the Toronto Blue Jays, he made his All-Star game debut in 2019.

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At the age of six, Stroman appeared on an episode of Nickelodeon's Figure It Out. He won a Toys "R" Us gift certificate for answering a single question. The athlete still cherishes that moment and shared it with his fans today. "Wow. Swaggiest family ever," he said on Twitter when posting the clip.

Linda Cardellini

Linda Cardellini first gained the public's attention on the beloved NBC sitcom Freaks and Geeks. Then the California native stuck around the popular network for a six-year stint on E.R. With her appearance on Mad Men, she nabbed her first Emmy nomination.

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Cardellini's first time on TV was on The Price Is Right in 1994. She won a fireplace that she still has today. "Once I was really an actress, I was going to put a plaque on it that said, ‘My First Time on Television,’ and be really proud of it," Cardellini told The Daily Show.

Billy Crystal

In the '70s, Billy Crystal made people laugh in a range of comedy clubs in New York. His act impressed Lorne Michaels so much, he was scheduled to be on the first Saturday Night Live episode. Unfortunately, his sketch was cut at the last minute.

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Before landing his first notable role on Soap, Crystal appeared on several game shows. His most memorable appearance was $20,000 Pyramid. He holds the record for the fastest time to lead a partner to the top of the pyramid with 22 seconds. The comedian also appeared on Hollywood Squares and All Star Secrets.

Paul Reubens

Paul Reubens is known worldwide as the lovable Pee-wee Herman. The New York native got the idea for the character while training with The Groundlings. Reubens brought Herman from The Roxy Theatre to movie theaters with Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

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Years before Herman, Reubens was still finding his way in the Los Angeles comedy scene. Along with Charlotte McGinnis, he formed the stand-up duo The Hilarious Betty and Eddie. Herman and McGinnis appeared on The Gong Show with their act on four different occasions. The pair won the show on their first attempt in 1977.

Heather Graham

Actress Heather Graham gained critical acclaim for her work in 1997's Boogie Nights. Following its release, the Wisconsin native landed roles in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Bobby and The Hangover. Aside from acting, Graham was a producer for Emily's Reasons Why Not.

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In 1986, she appeared on an episode of Scrabble. Her appearance was part of the show's popular Teen Week installment. Despite her effort, Graham didn't walk away with the grand prize of $50,000. The following year, she got her first major TV gig on an episode of Growing Pains.

William Shatner

William Shatner owes his entire career to Star Trek. The sci-fi series turned the Canadian actor into a pop culture icon. In 1983, his portrayal of Captain Kirk earned him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1989, Shatner settled into the director's chair for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

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In 1965, Shatner appeared on John Charles Daly's What's My Line? Two years later, he was a judge on Chuck Barris' beauty pageant competition Dream Girl of '67. Around that time, Star Trek debuted on TV, but it didn't make an immediate impact with its early ratings. The cult following came a bit later.

Joyce Brothers

From 1960 to her death in 2013, Joyce Brothers was one of the most beloved columnists in the world. As a psychologist, the Brooklyn native shared advice on her long-running TV and radio shows. In fact, she was one of the first people to host a weekly advice show.

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In 1955, Brothers made a controversial appearance on The $64,000 Question. She won the grand prize, but many claimed she cheated to do it. Brothers denied winning through shady tactics. In 1957, she appeared on $64,000 Challenge and also won the top prize on that game show. Smart lady!

Suzanne Somers

Every boy growing up in the '70s fell hard for Suzanne Somers. The actress turned heads as secretary Chrissy Snow in the hit sitcom Three's Company. Somers got the role after actresses Susan Lanier and Suzanne Zenor were turned down by the studio.

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In 1974, Somers made an appearance on The Dating Game. She managed to win a trip to the Bahamas with fellow actor B.G. Fisher. While romance didn't blossom, she did later marry game show host Alan Hamel in 1977. The two met while on the set of his show The Anniversary Game.

Lindsay Wagner

In the '70s, Lindsay Wagner gained fame as Jaime Sommers in The Bionic Woman. She was originally slated for one episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, but audience reactions changed the producers’ minds. Wagner earned two Golden Globe nominations and an Emmy win for her time on The Bionic Woman, which lasted three seasons.

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Wagner appeared on a 1969 episode of The Dating Game. One of the male contestants she turned down was Gunsmoke actor Roger Ewing. Two years after the show, Wagner made a crucial career decision by signing a contract with Universal Studios, and the rest is TV history.

Jenny Lewis

While Jenny Lewis started out as a child actress, she eventually dropped the scripts for a guitar. In 1998, she formed the indie rock band Rilo Kiley with then-boyfriend Blake Sennett. The band toured the world with Coldplay and Bright Eyes before disbanding in 2013.

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In 1987, Lewis appeared on a Kids Week episode of Card Sharks. The singer walked away from the episode with $500. "I did an episode of Card Sharks as a kid, and I was terrible at it," she told NME. Two years later, Lewis landed her most notable acting role as Haley Brooks in The Wizard.

Bob Saget

Grammy-nominated comedian Bob Saget had to trade his adult humor for something cleaner with 1987's Full House. The show put the Philadelphia native in the spotlight along with fellow comedian Dave Coulier. Saget continued delivering laughs as host of America's Funniest Home Videos from 1989 to 1997.

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In 1979, he appeared on an episode of Make Me Laugh. The object of the game show was to not laugh at comedians to obtain prize money. Unfortunately, the contestants couldn't resist Saget's humor. Saget appeared on the show with Tiny Tim, Bruce Baum and Steve Bluestein.

Candice Bergen

Candice Bergen's work as Murphy Brown broke new ground by showcasing working single mothers. The California native earned five Emmy wins for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. A mere 20 years after its finale, CBS brought the show back for another season in 2018, but it only lasted for one year before being canceled.

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At the age of 11, the actress appeared on a 1958 episode of You Bet Your Life with her father. The duo won $1,000, which went to Girl Scouts of the USA. The episode also featured host Groucho Marx singing with Bergen and his own daughter, Melinda.

Brad Garrett

Everybody Loves Raymond actor Brad Garrett appeared on a slew of game shows while working in minor acting roles. In 1984, he appeared on Body Language and the Family Feud clone Hot Potato. In 1987, he appeared on four episodes of Super Password. He closed out the '80s with Win, Lose or Draw and The New Hollywood Squares.

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Garrett kicked off the '90s as a panelist on ABC's revival of Match Game. It was his last game show appearance before landing the Emmy-winning role of Robert Barone. In 1999, Garrett made his return to Hollywood Squares as the center square.

Richard Dawson

Richard Dawson became a game show staple in the '70s with appearances on Match Game and Family Feud. His work as the original Family Feud host earned him an Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host, and his talent influenced a slew of future hosts.

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Before being a game show titan, Dawson was a contestant on several episodes of The Dating Game in 1968. During that time, he was finalizing his divorce from his first wife, Diana Dors. While hosting Family Feud, he met his second wife, Gretchen Johnson, who stuck by him until his 2012 death.

Sally Field

Three-time Emmy-winning actress Sally Field made her TV debut as the titular character in Gidget, but having a new face in the starring role didn't help the series gain ratings. Following the show’s cancellation, Field continued acting with roles in Hey, Landlord and The Flying Nun.

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In 1967, Field appeared on The Dating Game and won a date. Unfortunately, the lucky man didn't get a chance to woo the actress. "I refused to go on the date. It probably would have changed my life. Honestly, he was probably the one," Field said on The View.

Joey Fatone

He was born in Brooklyn, but singer Joey Fatone spent his teen years living in Orlando. Following high school, he started working at Universal Studios as a performer along with Chris Kirkpatrick. In 1995, he landed the fourth spot in the then-upcoming boy band NSYNC.

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In 1997, Fatone appeared on an episode of Nick Arcade. Unfortunately, his team didn’t make it to the bonus round. A year later, his life changed forever with the release of NSYNC's self-titled debut album. Fatone also found himself hosting game shows over the years, including The Singing Bee and Karaoke Battle USA.

Hunter Hayes

Louisiana native Hunter Hayes sang anywhere he could as a kid. Being able to sing in both English and French made him a hot commodity in the local scene. At the age of six, he got his first guitar from Oscar-winning actor Robert Duvall.

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In 1998, Hayes made an appearance on Nickelodeon's Figure It Out. During the show, he wowed the crowd with his cover of "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)." This was the first of many TV appearances for Hayes in his youth. Two years later, he released his debut album, Through My Eyes.

Jon Hamm

Before he became Don Draper, Jon Hamm was a fresh face in Hollywood. The St. Louis native moved to Los Angeles in 1995 with only $150 in hand. He was determined to make it in Hollywood, and he took several odd jobs to make ends meet.

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In 1996, Hamm appeared on The Big Date to find love. Instead, the actor was rejected by aspiring actress Mary Carter. "I was all of 24 years old and making some questionable decisions in my life, as you could see," Hamm said on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.

Lady Gaga

As a teen, Lady Gaga already had her sights set on being a music star. In 2003, she studied music at New York University's Collaborative Arts Project 21. Two years later, she dropped out of school to focus more on her music career.

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In 2005, Gaga appeared on an episode of MTV's Boiling Points. The episode found Gaga being served a restaurant meal that was switched out with trash. She angrily walked away and started talking on the phone. "We almost decided to end the shoot because we weren't sure when she was coming back up," actress Rebekka Johnson told MTV.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

In 1969, Arnold Schwarzenegger landed the title role in Hercules in New York. At the age of 22, he hoped this would be his big break in Hollywood. Unfortunately, the film had a lackluster run at the box office. It didn’t help that his lines had to be dubbed because of his strong accent.

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In 1973, the actor-turned-governor appeared on The Dating Game. At the time, he had a string of successful Mr. Olympia defenses. Schwarzenegger impressed the ladies with his massive stature and thick accent, but he unfortunately didn't land a leading lady. Four years later, he met his future wife, Maria Shriver.

Farrah Fawcett

At 21 years old, Farrah Fawcett moved to Hollywood for a new gig with Screen Gems. With a weekly paycheck of $350, the actress lived comfortably in her brand new town. Fawcett landed commercial gigs as well as minor roles in I Dream of Jeannie and Mayberry R.F.D.

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After settling down in Hollywood, she appeared on The Dating Game for a chance at love. The actress won a skiing date to Austria. Years later, her acting career skyrocketed with a simple poster. The racy image got her the recognition she needed to land the role of Jill Munroe in the hit series Charlie's Angels.

Steve Martin

In college, Steve Martin was turned on to the world of comedy. By the late '60s, he had piled up writing credits as a budding comedian. Aside from writing jokes for others, Martin had several stand up appearances of his own both on-screen and off-screen.

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In the '70s, he appeared as a judge on The Gong Show. He also showcased his musical talent with his trusty banjo under the name The Mad Banjo. Shortly after his introduction to Hollywood, Martin delivered comedy gold in The Jerk. He concluded the decade with the platinum comedy albums Let's Get Small and A Wild and Crazy Guy.

John Ritter

As a former student body president, John Ritter originally had a career in politics in his sights. While studying at the University of Southern California, he changed his mind and pursued an acting career. While attending USC School of Dramatic Arts, he took part in numerous plays on campus.

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In 1967, Ritter competed on The Dating Game, which resulted in him winning a date. Three years later, he landed his acting debut in the TV show Dan August. By the end of the decade, Ritter became everyone's favorite bachelor, Jack Tripper, on Three's Company.

Aaron Paul

Before earning accolades for Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul competed on The Price Is Right. Things were going fine for Paul until the Showcase Showdown. The actor lost it all after overbidding on a sports car. A friend who came with him managed to win the Showcase Showdown at the following taping.

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At the time, Paul was on the hunt for minor roles. "When I did the show, I was struggling. I had no money, and it was really a source of possible income," Paul said on The Late Late Show with James Corden.

A.J. McLean

As a kid, A.J. McLean focused on tightening his skills in dancing, singing and acting. With 1986's Truth or Dare?, he got his foot in the door in Hollywood. Instead of heading to Los Angeles, he moved to Florida to attend the Florida Academy of Dramatic Arts.

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Following Hi, Honey, I'm Home!, McLean started appearing on other Nickelodeon shows. In 1992, he appeared on the game show Guts. Later that year, he responded to an ad about a new boy band. He nailed the audition and became the first member of the group that turned into Backstreet Boys.

Kirstie Alley

In the late '80s, Kirstie Alley became a TV star on Cheers. Her portrayal of Rebecca Howe earned her an Emmy and Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. The Kansas native also became a part of Star Trek history as Saavik in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, although she did not reprise the role in the films that followed.

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Alley arrived in Los Angeles in 1979 to work as an interior designer. While working, she appeared on The Match Game. It was meant to be one appearance, but her personality landed her on the show numerous times. She also appeared on Password Plus in 1980.

Vanna White

Before Wheel of Fortune, Vanna White appeared on a 1980 episode of The Price Is Right. The South Carolina native was scolded by Bob Barker for looking at herself on the monitor. "I wasn’t looking at myself in the monitor! I was looking at my friend to get an answer from her," White told Yahoo.

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Two years later, White got the chance of a lifetime as a substitute hostess for Wheel of Fortune. She managed to beat out Vicki Iovine and Summer Bartholomew to land the job. White's constant clapping earned her the Guinness World Record for most frequent clapper. Sounds fitting.