It is with some regret, and a whole lot of hastily consumed popcorn, that Best of NJ enters the final chapter of our pre-Academy Award trilogy on the many celebrities who were born or blossomed within our fair state.
The compilation is both alphabetical in order (in this week’s case, P though Z) and Botox-enhanced, with special attention being paid to the many career highlights and award-winning hardware our many famous natives have acquired.
This grand finale’s working title is as follows: Star Tours Episode 3: Return of the Jerseyian. And while the force might not be strong with this one, it does feature not one, but two, different killer shark films!
Name: Joe Pantoliano
This versatile actor has appeared in more than 100 films, from sci-fi (The Matrix) to crime action-adventure (The Fugitive) to children’s fare (Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief). Jerseyans might best know him from The Sopranos, and we’re not sure what part of Joey Pants’ death scene resonated with us more: the loss of his head…or the loss of his toupee.
Name: Dorothy Parker
Hometown: Long Branch
This lady of letters, short stories, theater reviews and poems is known for the various early 20th century luminaries she’d meet at her famed “round table” in Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel. There they would drink (the hard stuff) and dish (on even harder gossip). But this Jersey Shore gal, born Dorothy Rothschild, was also a two-time Oscar nominee thanks to the many screenplays she scribed, with the most famous script being 1937’s A Star Is Born.
Name: Joe Pesci
Pesci was never just a “clown” to us (Goodfellas reference). He was also an unorthodox lawyer (My Cousin Vinny reference), a bumbling burglar (Home Alone reference) and tighty-whitey clad hitman-turned-victim, (Casino reference).
Name: Paul Rudd
Don’t be fooled by this superstar’s impassioned Royals fandom. Rudd’s TWA-employee father moved the family around a bit (eventually settling in Overland Park, Kansas), but Ant-Man was indeed born in the “fastest growing city in New Jersey” before becoming a comedic force (Wet Hot American Summer, Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, to name a few) and a seemingly never-aging heartthrob (Clueless…sigh) who will always be a Baldwin.
Name: Eva Marie Saint
Beloved by both the Academy of Motion Pictures (see her Oscar for On the Waterfront) the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, (see her Emmy for the miniseries People Like Us) and, well, Alfred Hitchcock (see North by Northwest), this local treasure currently resides in California (where she has not one, but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame) and has recently campaigned to ban the use of cell phones by motorists — something her former compatriots, who still deal with traffic on the I-95, can get behind.
Name: Susan Sarandon
This Edison High School grad’s memorable roles are as innumerable as her age is unbelievable. The woman behind Bull Durham‘s Annie Savoy is 69, yet still looks just like she did when, well, she starred in Bull Durham as Annie Savoy. The five-time Oscar nominee took home the gold for her stellar role in Dead Man Walking — but not for her cult hit, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Dammit, Janet, she was robbed!)
Name: Roy Scheider
The French Connection, Marathon Man, Blue Thunder…this late actor was always much more than the iconic role of Chief Brody in Jaws. But that part is still our favorite — simply because it was the multiple shark attacks along our very shore that inspired Peter Benchley to write the bestseller-turned-blockbuster movie.
Name: Kevin Smith
Hometown: Red Bank
Is there anyone who represents New Jersey harder than Kevin Smith? Not only does the Clerks and Jersey Girl director run a local store called Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, which is the basis for his AMC reality TV show Comic Book Men, but — hello? — he made a movie called Jersey Girl. That’s some hardcore NJ love right there.
Name: Frank Sinatra
Out of all of Frank’s accomplishments, it’s been said that the pride of Hoboken was most proud of the 1954 Best Supporting Actor Oscar he received for his career-comeback performance in From Here to Eternity. Of course much has been said about how Ol’ Blue Eyes™ actually got the plum role (cough, mob ties, cough) to begin with….
Name: Kevin Spacey
Hometown: South Orange
It’s nice to think of a kid from Essex County ending up being the artistic director of London’s Old Vic for more than a decade. It’s nicer to think that the same scamp won two Oscars within a four year period (for The Usual Suspects and American Beauty, respectively). And then you remember that he’s the same guy who put Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box in 1995’s Se7en, and you realize just how versatile Spacey is.
Name: Danielle Spencer
Hometown: North Trenton
Would the late seventies sitcom What’s Happening? have been nearly as good without Danielle’s sharp-tongued portrayal of Dee, the bane of Raj’s existence? Spencer became a veterinarian in 1996, but that didn’t stop her from snagging a small role in the 1997 film, As Good as It Gets, starring another known New Jerseyian. (See, once again, Jack Nicholson.)
Name: Meryl Streep
Apart from a few onscreen roles here and some obscure Summer Stock theater there…not much is known about this up-and-coming Union County native. We’re still pulling for the hard-working local, whom we love almost as much as sarcasm. (Seriously, she’s The. Meryl. Streep — a veritable mic drop for New Jersey’s claim to being the thespian capital of the United States.)
His un-chosen birth name? Tracy Lauren Marrow (no wonder Ice ditched it). His chosen profession? Hip-hop legend. But T’s Hollywood credentials are many. From New Jack City to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, this OG could always represent in front of two turn tables AND two cue cards.
Name: John Travolta
Vinny Barbarino (Saturday Night Fever) may have been from Brooklyn, while Vincent Vega (Pulp Fiction) was a product of L.A. and Danny Zuko (Grease) was from Any Town, U.S.A., but the man behind all three does indeed hail from Bergen County. He can fly over all of them in his one of his several planes — since Travolta is an accomplished pilot, too.
Name: Bruce Willis
Hometown: Penns Grove
This superstar action icon is currently getting beat up, rather than administering the beating, in the Broadway adaptation of the Stephen King book/movie, Misery. But his roots are directly across the Hudson…kinda. Technically, Walter Bruce Willis was born in Idar-Oberstein, West Germany. Once his soldier-father left the military, he moved the clan to Jersey when little John McClane was just 2 — and it was in N.J. that Willis discovered his love of acting.
Name: Flip Wilson
Hometown: Jersey City
Writer, producer, actor, Air Force vet…wearer of various female frocks so as to garner laughs from unsuspecting audience members at one of his many Flip Wilson Show tapings… he did it all — including setting the then-record for most Emmy nominations (11, for his eponymous show).
Name: Ian Ziering
Hometown: West Orange
Most Americans will cite Beverly Hills, 90210 as the height of Ziering’s career contribution to modern pop culture. But look past his high-waisted jean days to his recent success — namely, in the SyFy network’s camp-tastic Sharknado series. P.S. Did we mentioned the aforementioned flying fish films also starred Wyckoff native, Tara Reid? Well, we did now!
That’s all, folks. Don’t miss part 1 and part 2 to see some stars so famous they can only go by one name: Nicholson. Gandolfini. Hathaway. Biggs. (Wait — what?). And when the Academy Awards air on February 28, see how many fellow Jerseyians you can spot in the crowd.
About the author: Bill Schulz is the former co-host of FOX News’s Red Eye and current New York Times and Daily Beast columnist. He’s also contributed to Maxim, New York magazine, The New York Daily News, Time Out New York, TV Guide, Men’s Fitness and Yahoo! Travel, among others. Bill is also a former summer share renter in Point Pleasant, and occasional nephew babysitter in Montclair.