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Saturday Night Live first aired 40 years ago this fall, and over its history of 787 episodes has featured 141 screen-listed cast members, the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players". Quickly, the show started highlighting new talents that audiences wanted to see more from than a weekly, ensemble, comedy sketch show could provide, and those players would go on to greater successes in television and film. Some of those breakout stars left immediately to seek fame and fortune, others tread carefully between their SNL jobs and movies before fully embracing their stardom; many players' post-SNL careers were jumpstarted by SNL creator/producer Lorne Michaels producing their first big projects.

While thinking about breakout stars, one has to look beyond a single project or character that a player may be known for -- for example, Tim Meadowes may be a talented performer, but his movie The Ladies' Man isn't enough to justify inclusion here. Many SNL players have gone on to lots of roles, even widely-recognizable ones, yet they aren't actually known for who they are as performers beyond the "I know that face, who are they again?" type of recognition, and that ultimately is what makes a breakout star for this list. Others, like Dan Akroyd, are well-known players yet never quite were in demand enough to be seen as a breakout performer, despite a fairly successful career. This list also leaves out castmembers who were famous when they were brought in (Billy Crystal, Martin Short, etc.), and those who went on to fame without much impact on SNL itself (Julia Louis Dreyfuss, Damon Wayans, etc.).

So who are definitive breakout stars in SNL's history?

  • Chevy Chase - 1975-76 - Chase was huge in the show's first year, basically the "face" of the show, but left after the first year to seek Hollywood fame as a movie star.
  • John Belushi - 1975-79 - the madman, the x-factor, he stayed with the cast while ramping up a Hollywood career, but the features kept coming in and he finally departed the show, only for him to overdose a few years later.
  • Gilda Radner - 1975-80 - while other stars went on to bigger fame, Radner turned down big Hollywood projects trying to do stage work instead, and her quirky career choices made her challenging to follow but easy to remember before her untimely passing.
  • Bill Murray - 1977-80 - Chase's replacement himself grew into a massive hit actor for his unswerving comedy work, then Hollywood came knocking and he did it his way to become one of the biggest movie stars of all time.
  • Joe Piscopo - 1980-84 - while today a punchline, Piscopo was the go-to guy for characters during the behind-the-scenes upheavals at SNL, he was the big man on campus, and just wasn't able to parlay that momentum after SNL, only a stand up special and a few movies.
  • Eddie Murphy - 1980-84 - the kid, living on Piscopo's couch while starting at SNL, quickly became the other face of the show for his era with unwavering commitment to his own comedy. Unlike Piscopo, Murphy was able to transition into massive success with movies and stand-up, all while still a player at SNL for as long as he could.
  • Jon Lovitz - 1985-90 - Lovitz's work on SNL's second massive transition back to Lorne Michaels' control made him one of only two players to survive that '85 season's culling, and Lovitz's characters became household icons; after SNL, Lovitz focused more on a stand-up career and now owns two comedy clubs.
  • Dennis Miller - 1985-91 - the other player who survived the '85 culling, Miller made his bones mainly behind the desk of Weekend Update by bringing it back to sly relevance, and has since made his name on talk show and similar material.
  • Phil Hartman - 1986-94 - a player who made being an SNL character actor into a household name, Hartman did anything thrown his way with professional aplomb and just a hint of personal style, his post-SNL career was looking solid as a star on an ensemble sitcom when his life was cut short.
  • Mike Myers - 1989-95 - Myers worked his way up to stardom by writing most of his own standout material on the show, creating a lot of notable characters during SNL's second wind, and parlaying that into a film career that started with one of those characters' movies (a pattern first found by Lorne Michaels with Akroyd & Belushi's smash hit The Blues Brothers, but has suffered as many misses as hits).
  • Chris Rock - 1990-93 - Rock had been a young standup and was just turning that into an acting career when SNL came knocking, but Rock had to claw for screen time in order to capture our attention, all while still doing local stand-up, and has since become a massive stand-up star and a moderate film star to boot.
  • Chris Farley - 1990-95 - you couldn't help but notice Farley, he didn't demand attention, it's just that everything he did was big, brash, and funny in an incredibly natural manner that would draw your eye to his work on SNL and eventually Hollywood couldn't help but take notice as well with several features, before he too overdosed.
  • David Spade - 1990-96 - Spade was an adequate player with a few breakout moments as a player, but his snarky writing and performance on his Hollywood Minute segment really catapulted him to the next level, and after starring in two films with Farley, Spade went on to sitcom success and returning to the stand-up scene.
  • Rob Schneider - 1990-94 - "you can do eet!" may be what Schneider is remembered for when all is said and done, but during his run on SNL he had a few really big characters in The Richmeister and the Sensitive Naked Man, as well as another unique personality that somehow was able to get attention in a sea of talent at the time; Schneider carried that into moderate Hollywood success both in co-starring and starring roles.
  • Adam Sandler - 1991-95 - you know who this guy is, he makes goofy noises and plays man-children and sings weird songs, he did it on SNL to success then turned around and did it to massive box office success with movies. Can you name a single SNL character he did? It doesn't matter because he's a mega-star, even if his characters are mostly one-note and blend together.
  • Norm MacDonald - 1993-98 - off-the-wall Canadian comedian MacDonald had a number of standout impressions, all with his unique style, before taking over the Weekend Update desk, growing edgier and edgier before a high-up network exec demanded he be fired! Since then, MacDonald's screen career has been all over the map, but his stand-up career has been laser straight.
  • Will Ferrell - 1995-2002 - anybody ever hear from this guy ever again who just giggled and did impressions and acted so unusually on screen for seven seasons? What's that, he's mega-famous for his rubber-faced goofball characters in lots of movies, moving his way up from secondary parts to starring roles? Oh.
  • Tracy Morgan - 1995-2003 - an unstoppable force of nature, Morgan wasn't the most professional or the most gifted of his era, yet whatever that unique feature about certain players is, Morgan has a nigh-infinite reserve of that raw talent, and after SNL played a parody of himself on 30 Rock for seven seasons; although his career had been on hold after a brutal bus accident, he is looking to host SNL in just two months.
  • Tina Fey - 2000-06 - Fey shot to stardom as half of the Weekend Update desk, but it was really her writing which turned her into a breakout name, she didn't even want to star in her show parodying SNL, 30 Rock, but the fates had other ideas, and she's gone on to write, produce, even star in other projects as well, even if her spot-on skewering of 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin may be what she's most remembered for (impressive since she was no longer a player but a host for these performances).
  • Amy Poehler - 2001-08 - it's almost unfair to say Poehler made her name on SNL, as she was starting to get national attention with the Upright Citizens Brigade which had 3 seasons on cable, but ultimately UCB, SNL, and her sitcom Parks & Recreation all somewhat blend together seamlessly with Poehler's career, none of which were massive breakouts alone but Poehler's style and skill shines through in each to create a successful career.
  • Fred Armisen - 2002-13 - Armisen is a chameleon, his impressions are what made him most well-known on SNL, yet his subtle, sly way of smirk-filled performing created many original characters as well; his post-SNL career has consisted of many secondary and cameo roles, as well as a basic-cable indie-sketch series of his own.
  • Kristen Wiig - 2005-12 - keen improv instincts and a dedication to playing a myriad of characters to their fullest slowly built up Wiig's reputation as a player to watch out for, and finally Hollywood couldn't help but drop her into other projects.
  • Andy Samberg - 2005-12 - an utter goofball with a silly face, a huge smile and an unswerving talent for pre-recorded comedy music videos and shorts, Samberg's repertoire of silliness was unstoppable, doing lots of impressions and just going for anything he and his writing partners thought would get a laugh, having transformed that into a popular sitcom and several movie roles, mastering the viral video, and just being an electric personality.

So, who are your choices for breakout stars that came from SNL? Who should be on this list but isn't? And who from the current cast are looking like they're going to be the next breakout stars (Pete Davidson, Jay Pharoah)?
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Aug 31, 2015
Jane Curtain did very well for herself. She had the television series Kate and Alli and 3rd rock from the sun.
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Aug 27, 2015
Don't want to be that guy, but Nora Dunn joined the cast in the same season as Lovitz and Miller, her first of 5 seasons. Also, Tracy started in 1996. Like the article, though.
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Aug 27, 2015
You are correct on both. Glad you liked the article regardless of my clumsiness.

With Nora Dunn, she survived the culling along with A. Whitney Brown and Al Franken, all rock solid talents. I remember that "who will survive" sketch at the end of that season being only Lovitz and that kinda permeated when I was doing the player notes later (I had to backtrack what I wrote for Lovitz being the only survivor when I saw Miller started in '85).

Tracy Morgan was merely a typo, I didn't remember what year he started at all and was looking at when each one left, not when they started; just hit the wrong key while reading his start date.
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Aug 27, 2015
You really do not like Dan Aykroyd, do you? Finding any excuse to not include him.
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Aug 27, 2015
No, I do like Dan Aykroyd (although not enough apparently to remember he had 2 y's in his name until you typed that), this isn't about my personal tastes or certainly Kristen Wiig wouldn't be up there. I think Dan Aykroyd is a great talent, but he's NOT a breakout star. I posted an explanation below of why I didn't include him: ultimately I can't think of a single Dan Akroyd-led movie that was successful, I can't remember when I was a kid anybody clamoring for seeing more of him, he was a very dutiful player every time but never felt like a star, instead he was a good soldier even if he was playing general behind the scenes of those projects.

Look, Aykroyd wrote Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers, and lots of his work on SNL, that alone should have made him a star, but instead he shared that spotlight every time. He's successful but not a breakout star, I've seen The Blues Brothers, Doctor Detroit, Trading Places, Ghostbusters, Spies Like Us, Nothing But Trouble, Dragnet, Ghostbusters II, and Sneakers in theaters; when I was a kid, I was the first person I knew who recognized his cameo in Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom. I think Aykroyd is a tremendous and well-rounded talent, but none of that changes the fact that he was a success but not really a breakout star.
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Aug 27, 2015
If you include Fred Armisen you should totally include Bill Hader.

And even more totally, why not Dan Aykroyd? You got some there whose career plummeted post-SNL, and some who are virtually unknown today, and some whose mark in the entertainment industry is almost non-existent.
But Dan Aykroyd? Blues Brothers? Ghostbusters? Dragnet? Driving Miss Daisy? Pearl Harbor?
OK, not the last one ... but this guy is an icon.
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Aug 27, 2015
I was on the fence with Armisen, believe me. Hader is a heavily-working actor, he is in a lot of stuff and has range, but I don't think people know his name, they kinda recognize him but don't really remember him beyond that. I'd say the same of Will Forte and Jason Sudeikis too, those 4 kinda went hand in hand during their time on SNL and their careers are all blossoming in different ways now, but they never individually broke out. Yet Armisen's a little tiny bit different in a way that seems to be pushing him a little closer to the top of that foursome, I see more news stories about him too. I can see Armisen not being on this list far easier than Bill Hader being on it though.

About Akyroyd, I posted this yesterday in response to another comment:

I was on the fence about Dan Akroyd, I went back and forth a lot of times because he's a well-known name, but ultimately I can't think of a single Dan Akroyd-led movie that was successful, I can't remember when I was a kid anybody clamoring for seeing more of him, he was a very dutiful player every time but never felt like a star, instead he was a good soldier even if he was playing general behind the scenes of those projects.
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Aug 26, 2015
I'm old school, definitely. I would put Harold Ramis near the top. Obviously Bill Murray was a huge fan of Ramis, too. I suppose you could argue he didn't become a mega or breakout "star", but he wrote and directed and created so much (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, SCTV, ...), often in collaboration with others.

Great list overall! Even some of the newer ones (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler) are getting into all aspects of production and not just writing or performing. Such a great list of talent.
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Aug 26, 2015
Harold Ramis was never an SNL player, he worked with a lot of SNL castmembers via his works in Second City and the National Lampoon, but he even turned down a writing gig with SNL, has never been part of that show. A fantastic personality, and it's so sad he passed away so early, I could have watched so much more of his work from both sides of the camera.

Thanks for the compliment, I had been thinking about it for a while, wrote most of those names down while trying to fall asleep one night.

Tina Fey is possibly the most amazing breakout star from the current crowd because she's consistently tried to eschew her career in front of the camera, she seemed like she was destined to write AND produce rather than star.

I think Dan Akroyd was the first SNL player to be really serious about all aspects of creating, he did a lot of writing and I think some producing as well as his acting, he's somewhat a jack of all trades. In that way, it feels like Amy Poehler unintentionally followed in his footsteps, although hers almost seems more organic from coming up with the UCB where it was a bit more a "do it yourself or it doesn't get done" comedy scene.
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Aug 26, 2015
I guess Robert Downey Jr wouldn't count, since many don't remember he was a cast member for a season. Including Rob Schneider, but leaving out Dan Akroyd is a gray area of preference I'll leave to you.

But I really think Jimmy Fallon should be included. He went from the Weekend Update Desk and Giggling Boy in the Background Guy (according to Jiminy Glick) to the host of two premier late night talk shows.
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Aug 26, 2015
Definitely a worthy comment, thanks for contributing. I was on the fence about Dan Akroyd, I went back and forth a lot of times because he's a well-known name, but ultimately I can't think of a single Dan Akroyd-led movie that was successful, I can't remember when I was a kid anybody clamoring for seeing more of him, he was a very dutiful player every time but never felt like a star, instead he was a good soldier even if he was playing general behind the scenes of those projects. Schneider had Deuce Bigalowe, a few sitcoms, and showed up a lot in the late '90s in films for whatever reason - he may not seem like a star now, but for some reason Hollywood kept calling him up to the plate.

Let me be honest, I intentionally left Fallon and Seth Meyers off my list for exactly the same reasons: I don't feel like them getting the Late Night jobs ultimately had anything to do with audience demand, and everything to do with NBC recognizing the value of a controllable, Lorne Michaels-produced personality running the programs. They are generic, affable, semi-topical white guys from SNL's Weekend Update desk, but aren't really stars on their own, they are filling a role that a corporation wants them to. That's just my opinion though.
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Aug 27, 2015
Yeah, I know you're not a fan of Fallon. He's not edgy, like my old favorite, David Letterman, but that doesn't seem to be the trend recently. I guess people want friendly and heartwarming these day. I know I do.

Still, hosting The Tonight Show is the top of the line and needs to be acknowledged.
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Aug 27, 2015
I'm trying to be objective about this list, I included names I personally can't stand and are kind of on the fence (Kristen Wiig was a tough one, she's doing indie projects and big budget projects and is in and out of the spotlight every other day), so let me ask you because this ultimately is why I had to keep him off the list:

Had Fallon's career gone "SNL, Taxi (movie), Fever Pitch, aimless writing in '07 and '08," the way it did, but in '09 he didn't get Late Night, it didn't lead to him hosting the Emmys and getting The Tonight Show, would you consider him a breakout SNL star?

For me, the answer was a resounding "no", he'd just be a guy we sorta remembered for giggling and breaking character on SNL, and that meant that his later success is related to the work quality Lorne Michaels saw in him rather than what the audience got out of him. I don't mean to diminish his current successes, I just don't think he broke out stardom from SNL.
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