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first impressions: SEAN PENN

Kid in Little House on the Prairie, Ep. 1.11 – “The Voice of Tinker Jones” (1974)

At long last First Impressions returns! And for the grand reopening of sorts (since it’s been since October since we’ve visited this territory), I’ve opted for one of my all-time favorite actors – Sean Penn. And for Mr. Penn, his first screen performance was as an uncredited extra in an episode of the homespun family drama Little House on the Prairie. Here’s the toughie – he has no speaking parts (which actually made it difficult to spot that screen grab to the left). But he is doing what he does best here: scowling broodingly. The episode surrounds a traditional town squabble – whether or not to upgrade the church with a giant new bell – from the eyes of local mute Tinker Jones. And of course the Ingalls girls catch flack from the fellow kids when Papa Ingalls voices a dissenting opinion at the town meeting. This is where Sean’s scowling comes in. Relegated to being one of the bad boys leaning on a nearby fence, he’s already perfecting the “wrong side of the tracks” thing at the ripe old age of 14.

Second Impression: Penn’s next role was as guest star Sam in a 1979 episode of the long-running detective series Barnaby Jones.

first impressions: MICHELLE WILLIAMS

Bridget Bowers in Baywatch, Ep. 4.1 – “Race Against Time: Part 1” (1993)

Before she was gracing the melodramatic scenes of Dawson’s Creek and receiving an Oscar nomination for Brokeback Mountain, Michelle Williams took a stab at the brainless beach phenomenon that is Baywatch. In her very first role on screen, Williams was, unfortunately, relegated to a tiny minute-long part as David Hasselhoff‘s son’s crush. The worst part? This minute-long scene was in the very beginning of the episode, and I had know idea Ms. Williams would not be appearing later. So I watched the entire episode. And a few cut-off denim shirts, slow-motion running scenes, pieces of over-emotional lifeguard poetry, and one ridiculous plane crash later, she was still the best part of the episode. Granted, Just Shoot Me‘s Wendie Malick had a guest stint as Hasselhoff’s ex-wife, but the 13-year-old was clearly the highlight. Thank god she avoided a recurring role and was able to make a decent career for herself (see: Brokeback and Wendy and Lucy).

Second Impression: She played April Porter in the 1994 big-screen interpretation of Lassie alongside The Sandlot‘s Tom Guiry.

first impressions: MARION COTILLARD

Lori Bellian in Highlander, Ep. 1.21 – “Nowhere to Run” (1993) 
Before she became an Oscar winner for her performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose , Marion Cotillard made a substantial appearance in the hilariously over-acted Highlander  television series.  Now, I’m no avid fan of the show, so I had to read up on the back-story.  In this particular episode, Cotillard plays Lori, the stepdaughter of an immortal who is raped by the son of a fellow immortal.  And Mr. Highlander himself is caught in the crossfire, as he’s friends with the accused’s poppa.  Ms. Cotillard gives a nice enough performance as a fresh-faced 17-year-old, and her otherwise difficult time with English is handled with relative ease.  She eventually avenges her rape, in a dramatic, fog-ridden swordfight/gunfight climax.  As an added bonus, Buffy the Vampire Slayer  alum Anthony Stewart Head has a guest appearance as well, playing the father of the rapist.

Second Impression:  A year later, Cotillard’s second effort was in film, starring in a French movie, The Story of a Boy Who Wanted to Be Kissed .

first impressions: PETER SARSGAARD

Josh Strand in Law and Order, Ep. 6.6 – “Paranoia” (1995)

Before Chuck Lane in Shattered Glass and Alan Troy in Jarhead a then-24-year-old Peter Sarsgaard had his very first on-screen role:  as the boyfriend of the deceased in a 1995 episode of Law and Order.  Sarsgaard’s single scene in the episode was a mere two minutes, but he had the distinct honor that Law and Order tends to bestow on a character in every episode — the first real suspect.  But Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) set their sights elsewhere rather quickly and Sarsgaard’s character wasn’t in the picture anymore.  I mean, an online pervert and a crazed roommate with a juvie history seem like more likely perpetrators, no?  But the younger Sarsgaard had, as always, a meek, soft-spoken nature about him, and I half-wanted him to be the killer so he’d get more screen-time.  Luckily for him, he got to go toe-to-toe with the best ensemble any Law and Order series had offered (Orbach, Bratt, Steven Hill, Sam Waterston, S. Epatha Merkerson, etc.) — of course until SVU came along.
Second Impression:  Sarsgaard’s next gig was the big-screen critical darling Dead Man Walking, in which the tables were turned, and he played the deceased this time around, Walter Delacroix.