Skip To Content

    The Opposite Of Nepo Babies: 12 Famous People From Old Hollywood Who Seriously Worked Their Way Up

    Frank Sinatra was discovered while he was singing and waiting tables at a restaurant in New Jersey.

    1. Ella Fitzgerald's parents split shortly after her birth. She and her mom moved in with her mom's long-term boyfriend, who dug ditches and chauffeured to take care of the family, while her mom worked at a laundromat and did some catering.

    Ella got her big break by getting her name randomly chosen from a lottery to perform at the Apollo's amateur night in 1934. Benny Carter, a saxophonist in the band that night, started introducing her to people in the industry after hearing her sing.

    2. Debbie Reynolds's mother was a homemaker, and her father was in repairs and carpentry for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

    closeup of debbie

    She was discovered when two studio executives saw her in a Miss Burbank beauty contest.

    closeup of debbie

    3. Greta Garbo's parents were working-class folks under the poverty line in Stockholm.

    closeup of greta

    She was discovered when she met a film executive who wandered into the department store she was working in at the time, and he gave her a small part.

    closeup of greta

    4. Jimmy Stewart's parents owned a hardware store in Pennsylvania.

    closeup of jimmy

    He graduated from Princeton with a degree in architecture, but due to the Depression, there weren't a lot of jobs. He took up an offer from a friend to help prepare a show for Broadway with the Falmouth Players. That led to bit parts, small parts, and leading roles until he was discovered by Hollywood.

    closeup of an older jimmy

    5. Harry Belafonte's parents were emigrants from Jamaica and Martinique. His mother returned to Jamaica in 1935 and he lived with her until joining the US Navy in the 1940s.

    closeup of harry

    He got his big break by studying drama at Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop, where a gig singing at a nightclub got him discovered and led to a pop recording contract.

    closeup of harry singing

    6. Anna May Wong's parents owned and ran a laundromat in downtown Los Angeles.

    closeup of anna

    She got her big break by sneaking out and joining a casting call for The Red Lantern. She then worked as an extra while attending high school and eventually dropped out of high school to become an actress full-time.

    closeup of anna

    7. Louis Armstrong's father worked in a New Orleans turpentine factory, and his mother held several jobs — even while in poor health after his birth.

    closeup of louis

    He got his big break working for Fate Marable, a bandleader in charge of entertainment on one of Mississippi's riverboat lines, where he would be offered a job playing in Chicago by King Oliver.

    closeup of louis playing the trumpet

    8. James Cagney's father worked as a telegraphist and bookkeeper (and later, a bartender). His mom worked at Eagle Pencil Company.

    closeup of james

    While working at Wanamaker's Department Store for $16/week, Cagney was informed by a fellow employee that a vaudeville troupe was hiring and paying $35/week. He auditioned successfully and did vaudeville for several years until his big break on Broadway in the 1929 show, Penny Arcade.

    closeup of james

    9. Gary Cooper's parents were farmers in Montana. His father later became a lawyer and a judge.

    closeup of gary

    Before breaking into acting, Cooper tried out and was rejected from his college's drama club, contributed cartoons to the local paper, failed as an electrical sign salesman, failed as a theatrical curtain salesman, failed as a promoter, and was rejected from a position at the Los Angeles Times. He finally scored the gig of becoming an extra, and signed a long-term contract with Paramount Pictures in 1925, leading to bigger roles.

    closeup of gary with a horse saddle

    10. Frank Sinatra's father was a tavern owner and part-time prizefighter, while his mother worked in local politics.

    Sinatra was discovered in 1939 singing and waiting tables at the Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. There, he crossed paths with trumpeter Harry James, who had just left his old band and was looking to put a new one together.

    closeup of frank singing

    11. Bob Hope's parents were a stonemason and a Welsh concert singer.

    closeup of bob

    Hope worked in vaudeville after several odd jobs and was rejected from a Hollywood screen test. After smaller roles on stage and radio, Hope got his big break with 1938's feature-length film, The Big Broadcast of 1938.

    closeup of bob with a mic

    12. Lastly, Ava Gardner's mom was a cook and housekeeper for a teacher's dormitory while her father sharecropped tobacco.

    closeup of ava

    She got her big break when her brother-in-law, a professional photographer, took portraits for her as a gift to her mom. He was so pleased with the portraits that he put them in the window of his shop. A theatre clerk stopped in one day when he saw the photo and wanted to see if he could get her number. After her brother-in-law refused, the clerk said someone should send her info to MGM. When her brother-in-law did, she was called for a screen test and cast in several bit parts at MGM before her breakout role in The Killers in 1946.

    closeup of ava