MONEY career advice

7 Surprising People Who Started as Understudies

But history made them stars.

Theater-goers lucky enough to snag a ticket to the hottest show on Broadway will see a new Hamilton in the lead role after Saturday, as Javier Munoz takes over from Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Tony-award winning production.

While Munoz’s rise will no doubt disappoint fans who longed to see Miranda in the role he originated, the understudy brings a swagger all his own to the part of the country’s first secretary of the Treasury. Munoz has played Hamilton regularly at Sunday matinees and has filled in as needed for Miranda during the rest of the week, leading New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley to say of his performance, “Alexander Hamilton is sexy on Sundays.”

In the theater, being an understudy doesn’t necessarily mean you were the second choice for a role. Understudies have a distinct job and are often cast separately from the principal, explains Ilene Starger, a New York City-based casting director and producer. “It’s an incredible skill set,” Starger says. Besides talent to spare, understudies need a tremendous memory (most cover more than one role without much practice), and a highly dependable, team-focused nature.

Every profession has its go-to alternates. Munoz joins understudies throughout history who have been willing to wait for their moment to shine. Despite hard work, some never get their turn in the spotlight—or on the field or in the corner office. Here we salute understudies who got their big break, and who nailed their roles so well that we forgot their humble origins.

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  • Tom Brady

    New England Patriots quarterbacks Tom Brady (L) and Drew Bledsoe drop back together during passing drills at a team practice at Tulane University in New Orleans Louisiana, January 30, 2002. Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick was expected to announce which quarterback will start Superbowl XXXVI against the St. Louis Rams after the practice.
    Mike Segar—Reuters

    Before Tom Brady—with his three Super Bowl MVP awards, his supermodel wife, and his raw-food diet—there was Drew Bledsoe. Bledsoe was the face of the Patriots until a serious injury on Sept. 23, 2001, thrust the second-year backup quarterback into the starting role.

  • Teddy Roosevelt

    William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt

    Historians credit the 26th president with modernizing the office of the presidency and the country itself. His face is on Mount Rushmore, his name on stuffed bears throughout the land. So it’s easy to forget that vice president Roosevelt only ascended to the presidency after William McKinley was assassinated on Sept. 6, 1901.

    Read next: Which President Would Be Best for Your Money?

  • Tim Cook

    C(L-R) Tim Cook, Chief Operating Officer, Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Phil Schiller, EVP Product Marketing, answers questions after Jobs introduced new versions of the iMac and iLife applications August 7, 2007 in Cupertino, California.
    David Paul Morris—Getty Images

    As chief operating officer, Tim Cook stepped in for Steve Jobs when the Apple co-founder and CEO took a medical leave in early 2011. Many doubted whether Cook would be able to fill Jobs’ shoes permanently when the visionary leader resigned shortly before dying in October of that year. He’s since proved them wrong, presiding over a 75% rise in Apple’s stock price, diversifying the company’s product line, and increasing acquisitions.

    Read next: Warren Buffett Just Bought a Bushel of Apple Stock. Should You?

  • John Daly

    John Daly of Memphis, Tenn., blasts one out of a trap on the ninth hole during third round action at the PGA Championship Carmel, Indiana on Saturday, August 10, 1991.
    Ed Reinke—AP

    It takes quite a string of cancellations for a ninth alternate to make it into the game. And it takes some magic for that ninth alternate to win it all. That’s exactly what happened in 1991 to golfer John Daly, who joined the PGA Championship at the last minute as the “ninth and final alternate” and walked away with the championship.

  • Shirley MacLaine

    The Pajama Game (1954 - 1956 Broadway) Music & Lyrics by Richard Adler, Jerry Ross Book by George Abbott, Richard Bissell Directed by George Abbott, Jerome Robbins Shown at center: Eddie Foy, Jr.; third from left: Shirley MacLaine

    Shirley MacLaine’s big break came thanks to the broken ankle of Carol Haney, the actress she understudied in “The Pajama Game” on Broadway in the mid-1950s. Her performance reportedly caught the eye of film producer Hal B. Wallis, who signed her to work for Paramount Pictures.

  • John Oliver

    Correspondent John Oliver (L) and host Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" tape "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Restoring Honor & Dignity to the White House" at the McNally Smith College of Music September 3, 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
    Ethan Miller—Getty Images for Comedy Central

    John Oliver filled in for Jon Stewart during the summer of 2013, when the “Daily Show” host was directing a movie and the race for New York City mayor was reaching absurd heights. Oliver’s success parodying sex-scandal-plagued candidate Anthony Weiner helped execs see the Brit’s hosting potential, and Oliver moved to HBO the following spring to launch his show “Last Week Tonight.”

    Read Next: 3 Things to Know About John Oliver’s Takedown of Debt Collectors

  • Leonard Bernstein

    Leonard Bernstein, second from right, Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, is congratulated by members of the orchestra after the 25-year-old musician made his debut at Carnegie Hall in New York, Nov. 14, 1943. Bernstein substituted for Bruno Walter, who had become ill, to lead the organization in a 90-minute national radio broadcast.

    Leonard Bernstein’s big-time conducting debut came after the scheduled conductor, Bruno Walter, fell ill on Nov. 14, 1943. Then a 25-year-old assistant conductor, Bernstein took over without any rehearsal at Carnegie Hall, and his brilliance prompted a front-page story the next day in The New York Times.

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