When I started this little project—which hoped to gather a number of juxtaposed images showing various celebrities' first and last filmed acting performances—I thought it would be easy. I was wrong. While it's easier for some of the most iconic names since so much research exists regarding their early years, I encountered time-sucking troubles, and not only when it came to old-timers (whose first films, as you might expect, were often lost silents).
Along with that challenge, I found that many stars' first appearances were as uncredited extras (therefore hard to ID) in obscure movies (therefore hard to find in any form), and that those whose early-years films I found easily might well have ended their careers in similarly obscure straight-to-video releases or in episodic TV, much of which is not floating around on the Internet.
But I pushed ahead and cooked up 25.
I wanted the group to be fairly random, and I think it is. It's less about icons and more about just seeing the changes of life and of career. It's fascinating to me how difficult it is—in all but a few cases—to guess what heights a career may have hit when only viewing its genesis and its conclusion.
Greta Garbo (1905—1990)
How Not to Dress (advertising film, 1920) & Two-Faced Woman (1941)
Garbo's first film was for a department store, made to instruct viewers on how not to dress. Ironically, she would become a style icon before her final film, a comedy, led to embarrassing reviews and a not-quite-intentional retirement.
Too Many Girls (1940) & Three Days to a Kill (1992)
From an uncredited spot in the chorus of a Lucy & Desi musical, Johnson ended his time on screen as a crusty commander in a Fred Williamson action groaner alongside Chuck Connors. That was also the final performance for Connors. Those two had more in common than just their final movie!
You Came Along (1945) & Pulp (1972)
Thanks to her close association with producer Hal Wallis, this sultry answer to Lauren Bacall was the star of the very first film she did. She sued Confidential Magazine for outing her and by 1972 was making her final appearance, opposite Michael Caine, in a film about an old-time movie star (Mickey Rooney) who hires a pulp-fiction writer to do his memoirs. In that role, Scott's character is told, "I'll bet that was a fairy tale romance," to which she says, "On the contrary, the prince was very hetero."
The Flying Scotsman (1929) & Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death (1984)
His first role was a lead in a British part-silent/part-talkie, starring as a fireman aboard a train who falls for the engineer's daughter, running afoul of the fireman he replaced. His last was as the Home Secretary in a made-for-TV Sherlock Holmes installment starring fellow old-timers Peter Cushing and Sir John Mills.
Dorothy Stratten (1960—1980)
Autumn Born (1979) & They All Laughed (1981)
One of the most infamous (for reasons beyond her control) Playboy bunnies of all time kicked things off with a seedy nudie flick and kicked off right after filming her lover Peter Bogdanovich's screwball comedy starring Audrey Hepburn and John Ritter.
Love Me Tender (1956) & Change of Habit (1969)
Already an overnight sensation as a musician, Elvis was a obvious leading man in his debut and was never anything less throughout his relatively brief career. In his final role, he stretched a bit as a doctor, romancing a nun on the run played by Mary Tyler Moore.
Marlene Dietrich (1901—1992)
The Little Napoleon (1923) & Just a Gigolo (1978)
Dietrich referred to herself as "a potato with hair" in her first role and tried to forget it existed. Her last performance was as a wobbly chanteuse in a David Bowie movie. Her daughter wrote that Just a Gigolo was, for Dietrich, "the last film that she should not have had to make" and that her costume and mask-like makeup made her look "like a female impersonator doing a rather tacky take-off on Dietrich."
Leonard Frey (1938—1988)
The Fat Black Pussycat (1963) & "Bride of Boogedy"/Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color (1987)
Most famous for playing the so-called "pock-marked Jew fairy" named "Harold" in The Boys in the Band (1970), Frey's first film was a horrific slasher pic in which he plays a beatnik slain while vomiting over a fire escape. His final (TV) movie, filmed while he was battling AIDS, was a spooky Disney flick—also meant to scare the bejesus out of its considerably younger audience.
Linda Darnell (1923—1965)
Hotel for Women (1939) & Black Spurs (1965)
In her debut, "the girl with the perfect face" was only 16 years old and already a leading lady. In the end, she was still a dish at 40, albeit in a cheesy, low-budget western. She died trying to escape a housefire (no cause for the blaze was ever determined) and being burned over 90% of her beautiful body.
"The Case of the Runaway Racer"/Perry Mason (1965) & "I Will Walk With You: Part 1"/Touched by an Angel (2003)
Though he shone in film as well, Winfield kicked things off with episodic television (in a dramatic role on a series about a God-like lawyer) and kicked off with it, too (on a series about God).
Marilyn Monroe (1926—1962)
Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948) & Something's Got to Give (1962)
Not counting a voice-only role, Marilyn's first part was canoeing in an abysmal comedy that was so poorly reviewed she lost her studio contract. No surprise, then that she fudged the truth and would later gripe that her scenes were cut out—they weren't. They were just minuscule. Her final gig was the year she died, looking arguably more beautiful than she ever had before in a broadly comedic remake of My Favorite Wife opposite Dean Martin that was never finished—her tardiness led to her being sacked. The surviving footage reveals a confident, dazzling performance; Something's Got to Give was made as Move Over, Darling (1963) with Doris Day stepping in for the late Marilyn Monroe.
Elephant Boy (1937) & A Tiger Walks (1964)
Hollywood loved him in that turban so much it never wanted to let him out of it—the adorable "Elephant Boy" signed off in a tiger flick just before dying of a heart attack at 39.
Three Little Girls in Blue (1946) & College Debts (2013)
This recently departed film legend bowed in a period piece and took her final, fragile bows in an amateurish production when she was in her nineties and up to her teeth in family turmoil and money problems.
Voyager from the Unknown (1982) & "Golden Opportunity"/Cover Up (1984)
The best-lookin' dude of all time got his start flying around on a wire in a TV movie alongside Meeno Peluce, a gig that later led to a regular (if short-lived series). His final broadcast performance was in an episode of the series on whose set he accidentally—and fatally—shot himself in the head.
Doris Day (1924—)
Romance on the High Seas (1948) & "Byline...Alias Doris"/The Doris Day Show (1973)
Though she'd grow into a deft comedienne, Day's first time in a movie capitalized on her creamy singing voice. She worked steadily into the early '70s, but her last job was her self-titled TV series—when it ended, in spite of rare appearances on TV (that ceased some time ago) Day she never acted again.
The North Star (1943) & The Next Big Thing (2001)
This memorable Hitchcock lead began his career as a veritable work of art of a boy opposite fellow fresh young thing Anne Baxter and capped it off as an elderly art expert in a flick with Connie Britton.
Audrey Hepburn (1929—1993)
One Wild Oat (1951) & Always (1989)
One of the silver screen's most popular leading leadies started out as an unbilled extra. By the time of her final role, she was being directed by Steven Spielberg and playing a spiritual barber who may or may not have been God.
Bud Abbott (1895—1974)
One Night in the Tropics (1940) & "The Joke's on Me"/G.E. True Theater (1967)
The ultimate straight man barely aged from his beginning, as one-half of the star power behind a comedy crafted to his and Lou Costello's talented, to his end, as the (perfectly cast) nervous manager of an abrasive performer.
Elizabeth Taylor (1932—2011)
There's One Born Every Minute (1942) & These Old Broads (2001)
One of history's great screen goddesses was hatched as a child actress with alarmingly black-and-white (they were violet, but wouldn't be captured as such in films for some time) eyes and went out in a TV movie that broadly lampooned not only her image but those of fellow luminaries Joan Collins, Debbie Reynolds and Shirley MacLaine. (A June Allyson cameo was that actress's swan song, too.)
The Vagabond Lover (1929) & "Episode #1.106"/Santa Barbara (1984)
An incredibly successful singer, Vallee's first appearance before the cameras was in a starring vehicle. He wrapped with a tongue-in-cheek, typically charming cameo in a TV soap opera playing the world's oldest convict.
Cab Calloway's Jitterbug Party (1935) & The Wiz (1978)
The serene beauty with the silky voice was criminally underused in films, but at least her first appearance (she's only seen from behind in a music short) and her last (she's only seen from the front in a lavish, if flawed, musical) both featured knock-out dresses.
The Actress (1953) & In the Deep Woods (1992)
A singularly terrifying presence for his "Norman Bates," his first movie reflected a time before he was typecast as sinister; in it, he offers to marry a young Jean Simmons. Aw, shucks. By the end, he was playing his umpteenth creeper in a TV movie, scaring the hell out of Rosanna Arquette.
Agnes Moorehead (1900—1974)
Citizen Kane (1941) & Rex Harrison Presents Stories of Love (1974)
It's pretty hard to top debuting in the best movie ever made, not to mention being an indelible part of it. Moorehead's career was Rosebudding back then, but still felt very much in bloom when she appeared in a TV movie that was meant to be a pilot for a Rex Harrison-branded take on Love American Style.
"Betrayed"/The Streets of San Francisco (1974) & "Burden"/Law & Order (1998)
This familiar face (It's a Living, anyone?) changed her appearance a few times throughout her career, but you'd never know it by comparing her debut TV gig as Martin Sheen's assistant with her final appearance as a doctor, the latter of which was a one-off that came eight years after her previous assignment.
Katy Jurado (1924—2002)
No matarás (1943) & Un Secreto de Esperanza (A Beautiful Secret) (2002)
The Mexican acting legend started anything but humbly, igniting the screen. She ended her nearly 60-year career, which including an Oscar nomination, as a wizened grandmother in a well-received film that only got made thanks to her presence.