That annual celebration of all things Hollywood — the Academy Awards — takes place on February 28, under a canopy of palm trees and California sunshine. But the history of the film industry started a lot closer to Trenton than Tinsel Town. In fact, there are many great actors from NJ.
The moving image as it relates to moving money began at Thomas Edison’s West Orange laboratory way back in 1892 — where Edison founded the first movie studio, Black Maria — and the industry would stay put within our borders up until the end of World War I.
That’s not New Jersey’s only claim to Academy Award fame: We’re one of the top five states when it comes to churning out Oscar winners, following California (obvs), Illinois (huh?), New York (duh) and Massachusetts (boo!). Who says there are no good actors from NJ?
Join us now as we tip our hat to the many greats that have called the Garden State home in this, our first installment of the Definitive List of Actors from New Jersey (with a few notable writers and directors thrown in for good measure) *cue dramatic music*
Hometown: Asbury Park
The celebrated late, great straight man to Lou Costello’s super-wide wise guy will always be known as one half of the most popular comedy team of the 1940s. Abbott didn’t always get along with Costello, but they’ll be forever stuck with each other in the form of Montclair State University’s Abbott and Costello Center, which was dedicated in 2003, as well as the pair’s induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame five years later. As for the oft-asked question of who’s on first? Scroll down to “Lou Costello” for the answer, friends!
The artist formerly known as George Costanza has said that, upon graduating from Livingston High School and entering Boston University in 1980, his drama teacher advised that the student’s looks would never nab him Hamlet, and he might want to focus on comedic roles instead. Seinfeld fans the world over thank you for that, nameless, incredibly superficial professor.
Hometown: Pompton Plains
Despite a role in the acclaimed Netflix series Orange is the New Black (for which he and his castmates won a Screen Actors Guild Award), Biggs will forever be known as the guy from the American Pie series who really, really likes pastries.
Hometown: South Orange
Most associate this actor for his nine year stint as Dr. John “JD” Dorian on Scrubs, but we’ll always like the Essex county boy for the kind of loving ode to his home state in the form of his 2004 directorial debut — and cult hit — Garden State. (We say “kind of” because everyone in the movie seemed to be on a boatload of antidepressants.)
James L. Brooks
Hometown: North Bergen
He started as an actor (what, you don’t remember Brooks’s turn in 1981’s Modern Love?), but this prolific writer/producer may be best known as the driving force behind the The Simpsons. Still, before you go looking for 742 Evergreen Terrace, know that the show’s setting is not based on New Jersey’s own Springfield Township.
Hometown: Union City
Cannavale’s rise began in his early forties with an Emmy-winning turn as gangster Gyp Rosetti in the Atlantic City-centric Boardwalk Empire. Lately, his slow burn has become white hot with a big role in Ant-Man and a starring one in Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese’s ode to New York’s 70s music scene, HBO’s Vinyl.
Lou never missed an opportunity to name check Paterson in various movie, TV and radio appearances throughout his long career. And if the buffoonish ying to Bud Abbott’s disapproving yang hadn’t always referenced his beloved hometown? The late actor’s accent would’ve given him away, regardless. Oh, and to answer the question first posted in the Abbot entry: It’s Who. Who is who’s on first.
Hometown: Glen Ridge
Cruise lived on Washington Street in Glen Ridge, where he was on the wrestling team in high school. And we’re as proud of the biggest star in the world being a Garden Stater as we were appalled to see the damage his alien enemies did to said state in 2005’s War Of The Worlds remake. But, much like that whole couch-jumping episode, we’ll leave it in the past. Come visit soon, Tom!
Our feelings for this talent run the gamut from excitement to reverence and, finally… guilt. Excitement that Dinklage’s character of Tyrion Lannister is still alive for the sixth season of Game Of Thrones, reverence for his standout performances in movies like The Station Agent, and guilt that we’ll always associate this highly respected thespian with this particular scene from Elf.
Brian De Palma
This sometimes-celebrated director is responsible for actors being known for their weight gain (see Robert DeNiro in 1987’s The Untouchables), while also being associated with box-office mega-bombs (see, well, everyone in 1990’s Bonfire of the Vanities), and inspiration for the walls of wannabe rappers/freshman dorm residents throughout the campuses of North America (see posters of 1983’s Scarface).
Hometown: Asbury Park
This little man’s large career is impossible to sum up in 50 words or less, so we’ll leave it at this: DeVito’s latest character may assure us that It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, but this former Penguin calls his production company Jersey Films. In fact, despite portraying a slew of New York-based characters (most notably as Louie De Palma in ABC’s Taxi), it’s DeVito’s longtime wife, Rhea Perlman, who actually hails from Brooklyn.
Hometown: New Brunswick
How nice is it to have Douglas follow his longtime pal, Danny DeVito, on this list of actors from NJ? The two lived together in New York during their drama school days and started their frequent collaboration way back in 1975 with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, (Douglas produced, DeVito co-starred and fellow Jerseyian, Jack Nicholson, took home a Best Actor Academy Award for the flick). Sure “greed is good”…but having like-minded, lifelong pals? Well, that’s just great.
Hometown: Point Pleasant
This Jersey Shore gem finished up a big 2015 by getting a Golden Globe nomination for her heavily-accented role in the second season of FX’s Fargo. It was one of many high points in a career that began at the tender age of six in the Woody Allen short film Oedipus Rex. And let’s not forget that Dunst appeared in arguably one of the most iconic (albeit upside-down) kisses in recent cinematic history.
An alum of Shawnee High School in Medford and Rutgers University, Flockhart is best known as the legs behind late ’90s quirk-fest Ally McBeal. Those legs kept on walking — right into projects like Brothers and Sisters and the new hit show Supergirl. (She also walked right into Harrison Ford’s heart. Say it with us now: “Aww!”)
Sopranos creator David Chase hired the late Gandolfini because he was Tony. But the fact that this gentle giant of a talent also happened to hail from the state where this HBO game-changer took place must have been a nice bonus. Since we’ve already elaborated on both the actor, and the show’s old stomping grounds, we’ll just leave it at this: He was a paesano among men, and one of the best actors from NJ.
From Garofalo’s hipster-before-hipster-was-a-thing role in Reality Bites to kooky-camp-counselor in Wet Hot American Summer to holding her own alongside Jack Bauer in many an episode of 24, the Sussex County comic has proven that she’s got more range than a Harmony Township ranch. (Hooray, local references!)
Click here for Part 2 of our series, The Definitive List of Actors from NJ!