Alison Ross looks at the humble background of some who made it to superstar status

Whoopi Goldberg, Sean Connery and Rod Stewart had something in common.

Before she became famous, Whoopi worked in a funeral parlour as a beautician applying lipstick and rouge to the dead bodies before the relatives and close friends arrived.

Sean polished coffins, and Rod was a gravedigger at Highgate Cemetery in London. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lady Gaga and Courtney Love took an easy route to fame. All three became strippers. Lady Gaga was also a waitress in a Greek restaurant, where she had to wear high heels on duty at all times.

Tom Cruise and Dan Aykroyd started out with lofty ambitions. At one stage in their lives, both aspired to be ordained and become priests.

Johnny Depp started out as an over-the-phone pen salesman. Jerry Seinfeld also used the telephone, but to sell light bulbs.

Brad Pitt’s job was to wear a chicken suit in order to attract diners into a fast food store, Chubby Checker plucked chickens at a poultry market, and Sylvester Stallone had the not very appealing job of cleaning up after the lions at Central Park Zoo in New York.

Warren Beatty tried to land an acting role at the National Theatre in Washington D.C.; he was turned down for the part but was taken on Charles Bronson started his working life as a coal miner.

Joan Crawford operated a lift in a Kansas City department store. Clint Eastwood installed swimming pools. Burt Lancaster was an acrobat in a circus. Harrison Ford was a carpenter for the pop group The Doors and, when he made cabinets for the film director George Lucas, he was offered his first movie role.

Raquel Welch was a barmaid. Barry Fitzgerald worked in Ireland’s Board of Works, and Mick Jagger was a porter at Bexley Mental Hospital in London.

Ava Gardner visited New York in 1941 at the age of 18. Her brother-in-law took a photograph of her and was so pleased with it that he sent it to Al Altman, head of MGM’s talent department in New York. Altman called her in for a test and was not at all happy with her performance until he looked at the test film. He was astounded. Ava on screen was magnetic.

He sent the test film to Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, with the covering message, ‘She can’t sing. She can’t act. She can’t talk. She’s terrific!’ Mayer looked at the test film and Ava was soon on her way to Hollywood.’

Francis McCown spent several years in prison for robbing jewellers’ stores and stealing a car. One evening he attended a party at the home of actor Alan Ladd. Also present was Henry Willson. This Hollywood talent scout noticed the handsome McCown, changed the young man’s name to Rory Calhoun and started him on a movie career. When it was revealed that Calhoun had been a criminal, the news merely added to his bad boy image. He married twice. His first wife divorced him and listed 79 women he had affairs with. “Heck!” Calhoun protested. “She didn’t include half of them.”

As a postman, Roy Scherer delivered mail to Henry Willson’s home. One day he put a photograph of himself into the Willson mail box. The scout was impressed by the postman, changed his name to Rock Hudson and started him on a great Hollywood career.

Michelle Pfeiffer and Sharon Stone travelled somewhat similar roads to fame and fortune. Pfeiffer was a check-out girl at a supermarket and aimed to be a court stenographer. Stone was a McDonald’s counter girl and was advised to become a lawyer. Both won beauty contests, and this led them on to modelling and from there to acting.

Oprah Winfrey was an interviewer at the age of six. She liked to conduct interviews with her doll and with the crows on her grandmother’s fence. She was born into poverty in Mississippi to an unmarried teenage mother who was a housemaid.

For the first six years of her life she lived with her grandmother who sometimes beat the girl with a stick and who, because of poverty, often clothed her in dresses made of potato sacks. From the age of nine she was abused by a cousin, an uncle and a family friend. She had a baby at 14, but the boy died soon afterwards. Her mother sent her to live in Nashville with Vernon Winfrey, the girl’s probable father. He treated her well and insisted that she got a good education. Luck was turning for her.

At 17 she won a black beauty pageant, and she was taken on by a radio station as a newsreader and interviewer. She had taken her first steps to superstar status and to becoming America’s first black billionaire.