As you learned from Samuel L. Jackson’s monologue in Pulp Fiction, a pilot is a test episode of a prospective TV series shown to network executives. If those execs like the pilot, it becomes a series. If not, all the participants move on to other things—often better things. Such is the case for the actors on this list, who made these pilots early in their careers before they did work that lasted much longer.
1. Keri Russell in Clerks.
Kevin Smith started his career by making his own movie on his own dime: 1994’s indie classic Clerks. It was distributed by Miramax, which is owned by Disney, which is how that filthy, chatty movie got turned into a laugh-track heavy sitcom pilot rejected by ABC in 1995. Among the cast is a pre-SNL Jim Breuer, and as the requisite Desirable Female, future Felicity and The Americans star Keri Russell.
2. Julia Louis-Dreyfus in The Art of Being Nick.
The Fonzie of Family Ties was Nick (Scott Valentine), the dumb-dumb artist boyfriend of Mallory Keaton who would delight audiences by uttering his catchphrase, "HEY MALLORY!" He was so popular that NBC rejected (but aired) a spin-off in 1986 about Nick moving to the Big City to pursue his art career. Future president Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, between her stints on SNL and Seinfeld, portrayed Rachel, a proto-Elaine.
3. Jack Black and Owen Wilson in Heat Vision and Jack.
This 1999 pilot has become a cult classic online because it’s so good and just way before its time. Directed by Ben Stiller and written by Dan Harmon (Community) and Rob Schrab (The Sarah Silverman Program), it stars Jack Black as an astronaut who flew too close to the sun, becoming the smartest man alive due to exposure to its rays. Owen Wilson plays the voice of the astronaut’s talking motorcycle. Together, they must stop supervillain and character actor Ron Silver (played by character actor Ron Silver).
4. Leonard Nimoy in Baffled!
In 1973, the once-and-future Spock played Tom Kovak, a race car driver who gets injured. When he comes to, he realizes that he has psychic abilities, which he uses, per the rules of television, to help the police fight crime.
5. Amy Adams in Manchester Prep.
This 2000 pilot was an attempt at a prequel series to the 1999 movie Cruel Intentions (which itself was a remake of Les Liaisons Dangereuses). Taking over the role of Kathryn (played in the film by Sarah Michelle Gellar) was Amy Adams in one of her first paid gigs. The pilot never aired because Fox thought it was too sexually explicit; it was released on home video instead as Cruel Intentions 2.
6. Bobby Cannavale in So Here's What Happened.
In 2006, Cannavale starred in this generic-looking sitcom (created by Paul Resier) about a slimy car salesman who picks up women and then tells his barber about it. Also, a pre-The Office and Parks and Recreation Rashida Jones is one of those women.
7. Taran Killam in Nobody's Watching.
Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence co-wrote this 2006 meta pilot for the WB in which two bros from the Midwest (including a pre-SNL Taran Killiam) send a video to all the TV networks boasting that they can make a better TV show than any that are on the air. They get a deal and delve into the sick, sad world of TV production, à la Episodes.
Ironically predictably, the pilot wasn’t picked up, but webisodes were later produced.
8. Seth Green, Juliette Lewis, and Mayim Bialik in a failed The Facts of Life continuation.
The Facts of Life ran for seemingly forever, but in reality it was only nine years. It felt like longer because once the main cast members graduated school, they ran a shop together, which felt like a new show. In 1988, the last episode of the series, "The Beginning of the Beginning," tried to set up a continuation of the show, returning to the boarding school format and bringing on a bunch of new kids. Some of them were played by very tiny versions of Robot Chicken, TV’s Blossom, and the actress who would get an Oscar nomination for Cape Fear just four years later. A school-based comedy that produced so many stars—It’s like Freaks and Geeks, except not good.
9. Adam West in Lookwell.
Adam West—the only Batman that matters—was perfectly cast as Ty Lookwell, an actor who starred on a barely remembered 1970s detective show who is so delusional, he thinks he can solve actual murder cases in real life. The police don't want his (non) help, but he keeps offering it up anyway. Lookwell was created in 1991 by two writers during what would be one of the last lulls in their careers: Conan O'Brien and Robert Smigel (a.k.a. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog).