It’s been 17 years—this week!—since Freaks and Geeks premiered to a small but loyal audience, and nearly two decades later it holds a special place in the gone-too-soon, one-season-wonder TV cannon.
It was also an early look at Apatow crew mainstays like Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jason Segel, who starred alongside Busy Phillips and Linda Cardellini. Beyond the core cast, there were a few familiar facing roaming the halls of McKinley High, including a Gilmore Girls ex, a child star-turned-movie-star-turned-“I’m Not Famous Anymore”-performance artist, a Girls mom and and indie darling (or three). The show was def a breeding ground for the next big thing.
Lizzy Caplan: Paul Feig has said that Lizzy tried out for the parts of Kim and Lindsay (which went to Phillips and Cardellini, respectively), but she must have left an impressions since she did score a small part as a McKinley classmate with heart-eyes-emojis for Jason Segel’s wannabe drummer Nick Andopolis. We first noticed her in Episode 2 as a co-conspirator in a keg-buying scheme and she popped up against as Nick’s unlikely partner in disco. Who’s gonna say no to that face?
Shia LaBeouf: Pre-Even Stevens, Shia was just another young actor looking for his breakout role (think: DiCaprio on Growing Pains). Like Lizzy Caplan, he tried out for a lead role and ended up with a small part as the school mascot who breaks his arm, leaving an opening for perpetual underdog Sam Weir.
Ben Foster: Young Ben is nearly unrecognizable as Eli, a developmentally challenged kid who is mocked by many of his classmates. (Oh high school, you are cruel.) Lindsay steps in to defend and protect him, but inadvertently hurts his feelings (and in a roundabout way, breaks his arm). Many (many) years later he went on to replace a fellow Freaks and Geeks alum in the Broadway play Orphans after Shia LaBeouf got into an email slap fight with Alec Baldwin.
Paul Feig: Freaks and Geeks is unfairly known as a “Judd Apatow show”, but it was actually created by Feig, who made a cameo in Episode 6, as a member of the band that was auditioning Nick (Jason Segel) to be their drummer. He may not be as much of a household name, but you’ve certainly heard of him since he’s gone on to spin box office gold with Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy and Ghostbusters–all female-driven films. Early cancellation, what’s good?
Rashida Jones: One of Rashida’s earliest IMDb credits was in Episode 4 of the show, in a very un-Rashida role (she played a locker-defacing, boyfriend-stealing, bullying teen). IRL, Rashida went to school with Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie and Kim Kardashian, so maybe she had a few experiences to draw on.
Becky Ann Baker: Was this actress destined to play an inquisitive and loving mother to complex, moody and introspective young people? Judging by her work as Jean Weir on Freaks and Geeks and then Loreen Horvath on Girls–yes.
Leslie Mann: It would be years before she broke out as a comedic scene-stealer in films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but Leslie and Judd have long-standing relationship (they met at her audition for Cable Guy and were married in 1997). Her role on Freaks was a small but sweet standout–she was one of the few teachers who didn’t actively enjoy torturing the students and was kind to Bill Haverchuk (Martin Starr).
Matt Czuchry: Playing a McKinley High rival, Matt nailed the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it grunting jock role. His resume progressed from a teen on Freaks and Geeks to an Ivy Leaguer on Gilmore Girls to a hot shot lawyer on The Good Wife, which seems like a natural arc.
Ben Stiller: Ben and Judd’s collaborative relationship began when they met outside an Elvis Costello concert in 1990 (obviously inspo for future rom-com meet-cutes), so it was no surprise that Ben (who was already bona fide famous) popped up for an uncredited cameo as a Secret Service agent in the throes of a career crisis.
Jason Schwartzman: Quirky, heartfelt, instant classic: that’s the Jason Schwartzman calling card. He popped up as a purveyor of fake IDs in mid-season’s “Carded and Discarded”—which also starred character actor Kevin Corrigan—and though he’s soooo young, there’s no mistaking the hirsute face for anybody else’s.