Special Report

Actors Who Won an Oscar in Their Debut Role

To be nominated for an Academy Award for acting – whether in a supporting or starring role – is a singular honor, and as the cliché goes, even just being nominated is its own reward. 

Many prominent actors have gone their entire careers without a nomination – among them Bruce Willis, Jennifer Lopez, Richard Gere, Kirsten Dunst, Hugh Grant, and Jeffrey Wright. Others, though, have not only been nominated for an Oscar in their debut acting performance, but also won. (Here are 25 of the Oscars’ most egregious snubs.)

To determine the actors who were nominated for Oscars for their debut screen performances, 24/7 Tempo reviewed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Oscar database to find which actors and actresses have taken home Academy Awards for Best Actor or Actress or Best Supporting Actor or Actress. Performances are categorized as “debut” by the Academy. Data is complete through the 93rd Academy Awards, presented on April 25, 2021.

Of the 16 actors who won an acting Academy Award in their debut, several of them had no acting experience at all. Harold Russell, who portrayed a disabled veteran in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” was an actual veteran who had lost his hands in an accident during World War II. Haing S. Ngor, who played a photographer caught in the chaos of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in “The Killing Fields,” was a physician in the Cambodian army before the Khmer Rouge arrived and was imprisoned before he fled to the U.S. 

Anna Paquin landed the role of Flora for “The Piano” when she attended an open audition with her sister – who was the one who wanted to try out for the film. (Paquin won at age 11. She is one of the actors who won an Oscar before the age of 30.)

Click here to see debut acting performances that won Oscars

On the other hand, Oscar-winning actresses Shirley Booth, Katina Paxinou, and Jo Van Fleet had long and distinguished careers in theater before they made their first bow in motion pictures. And for multi-talented performers like Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand, winning an acting Oscar in their film debuts vaulted them to even greater fame, and they are still performing today.

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