ROBERT DOWNEY, JR.
Yes, Iron Man was once a Not Ready For Primetime Player. After a childhood spent performing in his father’s underground movies, Downey Jr. joined the SNL cast at the age of 20…and was let go one year later in a huge cast overhaul. Their loss!
He hadn’t yet developed the loud, grating delivery that would define his career, but Gottfried (speaking in a relatively low, calm voice) still appeared in 12 episodes of SNL‘s sixth season, the first without creator Lorne Michaels.
ANTHONY MICHAEL HALL
Seventeen was a good year for Hall: After breakout roles in The Breakfast Club and Weird Science, the actor became SNL‘s youngest cast member ever. Recurring characters included ”Craig Sundberg, Idiot Savant” and ”Fed Jones,” one half of a hustling pitchmen team with fellow Unlikely SNLer Damon Wayans.
The former Roseanne star (more recently seen on The Big Bang Theory) made only one appearance on the show before the 1981 writers’ strike shut down production for the season. Of course, she went on to win three Supporting Actress Emmys — so things worked out.
You know him best as the longtime leader of David Letterman’s house band, but before that Shaffer was a first-generation SNL band member and, in its 1979-1980 season, a featured cast member.
He gained Lorne Michaels’ attention with a short film in 1987, then joined the cast as a writer-performer two years later. Conflicting goals — he wanted to make more shorts; Michaels didn’t — pushed him to leave after four episodes.
He would go on to make his mark on In Living Color, but Wayans got his start at Studio 8H. Of course, this was before he was fired for playing a character as gay — when he had been written as straight — during a live show. Lorne Michaels was none too happy.
The Christopher Guest movie mainstay joined up in 1993, bringing a litany of celebrity impressions including Robert Evans, John Tesh, and Jimmy Carter.
Just out of college, the actress best known at the time as Sixteen Candles‘ neck-braced geek found herself part of Lorne Michaels’ revamped troupe. She lasted only a season, impersonating Brooke Shields and Queen Elizabeth, and later said ”It was much more daunting for me to do SNL than to do Shakespeare because…you have this ongoing series of comic sketches, and it’s hard to find a center in that kind of situation, because it’s all so quick and so fast.”
After eight years with David Letterman, his own Fox sitcom Get a Life, and movies like Groundhog Day, Elliott achieved what he once considered his life-long dream by joining the cast of SNL. But the actor felt lost in the shuffle, later saying, ”It was just such a miserable experience that I have sort of blacked out a lot of these things. That whole year I was just embarrassed.” (Nevertheless, Elliott’s daughter, Abby, is a current member of the cast.)
Guest was part of producer Dick Ebersol’s experiment to replenish the SNL cast with established comedians like Billy Crystal and Martin Short. He shined as a masochistic co-worker (”I hate when that happens”), but his most memorable contribution was directing a mockumentary about a trailblazing pair of male synchronized swimmers, played by Short and frequent collaborator Harry Shearer.
Louis-Dreyfus joined SNL with then-boyfriend, now-husband Brad Hall, and for three years, the show’s writers didn’t know how what to do with her. Actually, one writer had an appreciation for her talents, but he was even more ostracized than she was: Larry David. A decade later, though, a groundbreaking sitcom about nothing made her time at SNL worth the effort.
The comic best known as Tom Cruise’s crooked nemesis in Jerry Maguire suffered crippling panic attacks during his two-year stint at SNL. Though he nailed an impression of late-night fave Christopher Walken, he admitted to plagiarizing sketches and wrote in his 2004 book, Gasping for Airtime: Two Years in the Trenches of Saturday Night Live: ”I would wake up each morning with the feeling that something bad was going to happen.”
Quaid already had an Oscar nomination (1973’s The Last Detail) when he joined SNL, but he hoped the show would be an education experience that would yield him more comic film roles like the one he nailed in National Lampoon’s Vacation. He settled for Caddyshack II, while his impression of President Reagan was quickly usurped by Phil Hartman.
Shearer was disappointed by his first stint on the show when he was supposed to fill the shoes of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. He was lured back after a successful guest spot as a member of Spinal Tap in 1984. Though he starred with Martin Short in a classic synchronized swimming clip, he became frustrated by the show’s tendency to recycle sketch characters and departed acrimoniously midway through the 1984-85 season.
Long before her fling with Matt Damon, Silverman joined the SNL boys’ club that included Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, and David Spade. Not one of her scripted skits made the live show, an unfortunate scenario parodied when she later played an ignored writer on The Larry Sanders Show.