Watching afterschool specials from the 1970s and 1980s is like looking through baby pictures or a high school yearbook for A-list actors. Many of them had their first TV roles on ABC Afterschool Specials, and the show’s teen angst and melodrama, acted out by inexperienced young actors, adds a level of unintentional comedy, especially upon reflection. Alumni of the corny but well-intentioned program include Oscar winners, TV heartthrobs, and great comedic talents.
Read on for 21 stars you never knew were in an afterschool special.
Rob Lowe in “Schoolboy Father”
In one of his first television roles, Rob Lowe played the title character of the schoolboy father, Charles Elderberry, in the 1980 episode “Schoolboy Father.” His ex-girlfriend Daisy gives birth to a son and puts him up for adoption, but Charles is not having it and says he wants to raise the child himself. Bonus: Rob Lowe sings pop love ballads in the shower.
Kyra Sedgwick and Jennifer Grey in “Cindy Eller: A Modern Fairy Tale”
“Cindy Eller: A Modern Fairy Tale” is a two-for-one deal for future stars Kyra Sedgwick and Jennifer Grey. The episode is a modern reimagining of Cinderella with Kyra Sedgwick playing Cindy, a teenage girl who isn’t getting along with her new step-mother and step-sisters. She befriends a homeless woman named Martha who wears metal pans for hats and encourages Cindy to go to the big party.
Jennifer Grey plays Laura, Cindy’s catty step-sister. This was one of her first on-screen roles, coming out only a year after Red Dawn and before Dirty Dancing or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Reed Diamond in “Date Rape”
Before he was hailing Hydra on Agents of SHIELD, Reed Diamond played a similarly unlikable character, Gary, in the 1988 episode “Date Rape.” Spoiler: Gary is the rapist. In the episode, he takes his date Samm to an old, nearly abandoned warehouse and then forces himself on her. She doesn’t want to tell anyone, though, because Gary is the most popular guy in school.
Melora Hardin in “What Are Friends For?”
Melora Hardin is best known as Jan on The Office and Tammy in Transparent, but back in 1980, she appeared in the afterschool special “What Are Friends For?” This episode is probably one of the most insane of the afterschool specials with divorced parents, mental problems, kleptomania, Americans co-opting Eastern religious practices, witchcraft, and best-friend-forever pacts. Plus, Hardin’s character has a creepy antique doll collection that looks like something out of The Conjuring.
Sarah Jessica Parker in “The Almost Royal Family”
“The Almost Royal Family” firmly has its feet planted in 1984 with Sarah Jessica Parker posing next to a picture of Princess Diana. Sarah Jessica Parker plays Suzanne, a girl who is obsessed with the idea of royalty. Against all odds (and logic), her family inherits an island located between the United States and Canada. Technically, the island is not part of either country, so they form their own country Great Mosquito Island which makes Suzanne’s family “royalty.”
Ecstatic about finally being a princess, Suzanne makes press appearances and invites a French delegate to pay an official visit, but most of her efforts backfire with the United States declaring an embargo on the island.
Michelle Pfeiffer, Val Kilmer, and Mare Winningham in “One Too Many”
“One Too Many,” a not-to-subtle morality tale about drunk driving, boasts an all-star cast, including Michelle Pfeiffer (The Fabulous Baker Boys), Val Kilmer (Top Gun), and Mare Winningham (Philomena). Pfeiffer and Winningham are best friends, and Kilmer plays Pfeiffer’s new boyfriend who loves beer a little too much.
Ben Affleck in “Wanted: The Perfect Guy”
Two-time Oscar-winner Ben Affleck appeared in the 1986 after school special “Wanted: The Perfect Guy.” Affleck plays Danny, a young teen who is trying to find the “perfect guy” for his mother, played by Madeline Kahn. (Yes, that Madeline Kahn.) With the help of his friend Melanie, he places a personal ad in the local paper and then screens his mother’s potential suitors.
Marisa Tomei in “Supermom’s Daughter”
One of Marisa Tomei’s first credited TV roles was in the after school special “Supermom’s Daughter.” In the episode, Tomei plays Noelle, a high school student who wants to be a school teacher, but her mother (and local news anchor) is pushing her to go to MIT and study science. On top of that, Noelle says she wants to get married young and have a family, and her career-driven mother isn’t supportive, saying Noelle is throwing her life away. Of course, she changes her mother’s mind at the science fair where she build a “monster-buster” robot, applying her scientific knowledge to early childhood education, and her mother finally says she is proud of her.
Seth Green in “I Want to Go Home”
When he was only 11 years old, Seth Green made one of his first big TV appearances in the after school special “I Want to Go Home.” The episode follows a brother and sister who are kidnapped by their mentally-unstable mother while they are on vacation. By far, the most ridiculous moment is their mother claiming that their father moved and left them behind, and the best unintentionally funny moment is little Seth Green in a blue suit, bow tie, and obviously dyed black hair.
Yeardley Smith (Lisa Simpson) in “Mom’s on Strike”
“Mom’s on Strike” is a bit of a misleading title. The episode isn’t about a working mother on strike, but rather, it is a mother who is sick of her family acting like spoiled brats. To whip them into shape, she goes “on strike” and marches on the front line with picket signs reading, “On Strike: Unfair Labor Practices.” Naturally, the neighbors all show up to watch her yell at her ungrateful children and husband.
The premise is ridiculous, but after listening to the family complain that it is the mother’s job to take care of them, I can’t really blame her for walking out.
Viggo Mortensen and Greg Germann in “High School Narc”
Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises) and Greg Germann (Ally McBeal) both appeared in “High School Narc” as the typical high school stoners/drug dealers who are being watched by Andrew, an undercover police officer posing as a high school student. The title is appropriate because Andrew is possibly the worst undercover officer ever, giving students lectures about wearing seat belts and working on their cars while high. Anyone with the slightest bit of intelligence could see he was a narc. Of course, if he got found out, the episode would be over, and the audience wouldn’t get to hear about the dangers of drugs.
Wil Wheaton in “My Dad Can’t Be Crazy…Can He?”
In the midst of his Star Trek: The Next Generation years, Wil Wheaton appeared in the after school special “My Dad Can’t Be Crazy…Can He?” In the episode, Wheaton plays Nick, a kid whose father suffers from undiagnosed schizophrenia. His father cannot hold down a job and thinks that everyone is a Communist spy, and his mother, played by “Hot Lips” herself Loretta Swit, refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem. Fortunately, Nick puts the pieces together during a trip to the museum, where someone conveniently highlighted the word “schizophrenia” on a poster. (How convenient!)
River Phoenix and Joaquin Phoenix in “Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia”
Real-life brothers River and Joaquin Phoenix also played brothers in the 1984 episode “Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia.” River played Brian, a teenager who is having trouble with reading and writing in school, and Joaquin (credited as “Leaf Phoenix”) played Brian’s younger brother Robby. Unlike the other episodes on this list, “Backwards” is sadder in retrospect considering that River died when he was only 23 years old. This scene between the two brothers, however, is very sweet, as Brian tells Robby a story and bonds with him.
Meg Ryan in “Amy & the Angel”
“Amy & the Angel” is basically a retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life, except set in a high school in the 1980s. Amy Watson, played by Helen Slater, is depressed, and she makes a wish that she had never been born. Her guardian angel Oliver, the stand-in for Clarence, shows Amy what life would be like if she had never been born and the impact she has made on the people around her. The big star of the episode, however, is not Amy or her Angel. It is Meg Ryan as the school’s resident “mean girl,” playing the exact opposite of her sweet, relatable characters in Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner and John Cameron Mitchell in “A Desperate Exit”
The appearance of Malcolm-Jamal Warner in an afterschool special isn’t all that surprising, since he is best known for his work on television in The Cosby Show and Community. However, “A Desperate Exit” is worth mentioning because of the appearance of another young actor, credited only as “Friend At Bus Stop.”
John Cameron Mitchell is best known as the writer, director, and star of the movie musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and he also wrote and starred in the original Off-Broadway stage production. Additionally, he directed the critically-acclaimed films Shortbus and Rabbit Hole, and in 2015, he received a Special Tony Award for his contributions to Broadway theater with Hedwig and the Angry Inch.