First jobs don’t often portend future careers. Donald Trump collected soda bottles for the deposit money. Michael Dell washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant. But it turns out playing swashbuckler Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t the first time Johnny Depp donned makeup to earn a buck.
As a teenager, Depp fronted a Kiss tribute band, and, according to his biographer Nigel Goodall, even warmed up audiences for the B52s and Iggy Pop. On lean nights, Depp pulled in $25 a night. Only later, when he was 22, did Depp land his first acting role, in Nightmare on Elm Street. Last year, Forbes estimated the Hollywood A-lister had pocketed $29 million from his acting gigs.
Yes, even big shots pay their dues, washing dishes (Michael Caine), mopping floors (Jim Carrey) and bussing tables (Suze Orman) before emerging as superstars. Before she was penning fantastic tales of a boy wizard, Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling, worth $1 billion, was a research assistant for the London office of Amnesty International, investigating human rights abuses in Africa. Hard-core Potter fans cite Hermione Granger’s strident advocacy of enslaved elves as evidence of the group’s influence on Rowling.
For better or for worse, first jobs can prove seminal to a star’s career development. Rapper 50 Cent says his first job as a teenage drug dealer in Queens, N.Y., taught him how to manage his current music empire, from dealing with distributors to marketing new products to customers. While once he pushed crack, these days 50 Cent is peddling albums, ringtones, apparel and even bottled water. Last year 50 Cent made $41 million. “There are people who would actually like to be me,” the hip-hop all star confesses in his 2005 autobiography, From Pieces to Weight. “But if they had to go through the situations I was in before I became a rap star, I don’t think they’d still want to be me.” Those situations include three arrests and the shooting in 2000 that nearly killed him.
Quentin Tarantino says one of his first jobs–as an usher at a porno theater in Southern California–actually had very little to do with his later career as a filmmaker of especially graphic films like Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs. “To me the greatest job a person could ever have was being an usher at a movie theater, you know. You get to go to a movie theater all day long, and then you get to see all the movies for free,” he explained to Charlie Rose in 1994. “Irony of ironies, I end up getting a job at a movie theater that I could care less about the movies and was totally bored by them.” Soon after he landed a job as a video store clerk, a job that he credits with igniting his passion for film.
Today Jim Carrey commands as much as $20 million per film. But when he was a 15, his father lost his job. Carrey took after-school jobs as a security guard and janitor at a tire factory outside Toronto to help his family get by. Times got so tough that his family lived in a Volkswagon camper for almost a year. His relief? Visiting local comedy clubs. “My mother dressed me in a polyester suit and I got booed off the stage, and I didn’t go back for two years. But then when I went back, I was gangbusters,” he told Larry King in 2001.
Yet another face who didn’t always know he was destined for fame and fortune, Danny DeVito began his career as a hair dresser at his sister Angela’s salon. The five-foot-tall Devito quit after 18 months to enroll at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts–not to realize any dreams of acting, but rather to pursue a deep interest in makeup and cosmetology. During the course of his time there, he took a few acting classes and well, the rest is history.
Funnyman Chris Rock launched his career as a busboy at a Red Lobster franchise in Queens, N.Y. Of course, his experiences were woven into a bit he did on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2003. “The thing about Red Lobster is that if you work there, you can’t afford to eat there. You’re making minimum wage. A shrimp costs minimum wage,” he said. Rock moved to bussing tables at The Comic Strip in Manhattan. In exchange for stacking chairs at the end of the night, he was allowed to try out his own jokes on stage. The rest, as they say, is history.