How 11 Classic TV Stars Got Their Big Breaks

henry winkler happy daysHenry Winkler almost didn’t play The Fonz after he auditioned in a suit and tie.

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You never know which little role is going to lead to the first big one.Here are the defining moments that helped 11 stars of classic TV shows to land their first major breaks.

Lucille Ball had been appearing in minor roles in a string of B-movies since the 1930s, often as a blonde chorus girl. It wasn't until 1948 when she landed the role of housewife Liz Cooper on the radio show My favourite Husband that she'd found her niche--comedy.

After 124 episodes on radio, CBS decided to bring My favourite Husband to television. The only problem was they wanted Richard Denning, Lucille's radio husband, to continue the role on TV, whereas Lucille refused to have anyone but her real-life husband Desi Arnaz play the part. CBS eventually hired two other actors to play Liz and George Cooper, but the network still thought that Ball had solid TV potential with her brand of physical comedy, so they eventually relented and gave the green light to a Desilu-produced series called I Love Lucy.

Bob Newhart started his career as an accountant, and was terrible at it. He got into comedy by performing at a theatre on the side.

Bill Cosby was a bartender at a comedy club, and when a headliner never showed one night in the late 1950s, Cosby got the chance to display his natural talent.

While attending Temple University in the late 1950s, Bill Cosby took a night job as a bartender to earn some cash. One night the comedian that was supposed to appear at the club failed to show up, so Cosby took the stage and had the crowd in stitches with his stories of growing up and family life. He eventually landed a record deal, which led to some national TV appearances. Star-spotter Sheldon Leonard saw Cosby's act on The Tonight Show in 1963 and decided to cast him opposite Robert Culp in his new drama series I Spy.

Carol Burnett spun her awkward teenage years into an unforgettable comey career.

Pernell Roberts landed his role on Bonanza when he was seen walking around the Universal lot wearing cowboy gear.

Producer David Dortort originally considered Claude Akins for the role of Adam Cartwright when he was casting Bonanza. But one afternoon he saw a handsome young actor dressed in black Western gear walking around the Universal lot. That actor's name was Pernell Roberts and his dark hair and rich voice was the picture Dortort had in mind for the eldest Cartwright brother.

The deal was sealed when he saw Roberts in action in the newly released film Ride Lonesome. On his second day on the Bonanza set, Roberts walked into Dortort's office, removed his hairpiece and announced that he wanted to play the role of Adam without wearing it. Dortort (after recovering from his surprise that the lush head of hair was a rug) refused, stating that Roberts looked at least 15 years older without his toupee.

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Gary Coleman was only 6 years old when he got his first gig—starring in a local TV commercial for Chicago's Harris Bank.

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