Earlier this week, a friend on social media posted a set of four photos of Michelle Pfeiffer, taken from various early career projects, and asked if anyone could name the films and television series. As you might imagine, I moved faster than the speed of light to answer. My fingers started tapping so fast and furious on the keyboard that I even surprised myself. They were easy answers! Well, for me, at least. I might have a problem, as we all know, but it’s the best possible problem to have, trust me. The four shots were all circa 1979-1980, from TV shows Delta House, B.A.D. Cats, and Fantasy Island; the lone movie was one I have a major soft spot for, 1980’s The Hollywood Knights. It was a brief, but fun diversion for a Monday morning that had already gone south, just like most every day does lately. Baby Pfeiffer has a habit of turning frowns upside down, after all.
Several years back, I started referring to Pfeiffer during those first few years of her career as “Baby Pfeiffer.” It caught on with some friends, and there’s very little that makes us smile more than sharing posts and pictures about Michelle in those early roles that were clearly beneath her burgeoning talents, even then. Her recurring character in the short-lived Animal House spinoff series Delta House, her first regular series role, didn’t even earn a name! Believe it or not, she only ever referred to as “The Bombshell.” My friend Nathaniel Rogers has written about it, and I tackled this televised turd of a show myself a few years back, where the best I could say about it was, “We all have to start somewhere.”
Search YouTube for clips and full episodes of this sitcom for a glimpse of a truly stunning young Pfeiffer, but please don’t expect much will hold your interest. The show is seriously, profoundly unfunny. One of the frat guy’s thanks Bombshell for always doing “favors” (ahem) for all the guys. Michelle wears snug sweaters and even tighter pants. Her long, blonde hair cascades effortlessly down her shoulders like a blonde avalanche tumbling down the mountainside. As demeaning as the role was, being called Bombshell did align her with the long lineage of blonde bombshells, from Marilyn Monroe up to a woman Michelle was often mistaken for in the 1980s, Debbie Harry.
With the even-shorter-lived police drama B.A.D. Cats, Michelle definitely took a step up, this time as the third lead. She even got a cool name, Samantha Jensen. However, her male costars tended to call her…wait for it…Sunshine. Of course they did! Bombshell and Sunshine. You can’t make this stuff up. As Samantha/Sunshine, she certainly had more agency than on Delta House, but she still mainly worked from the office while the boys went out in the field to do the dangerous work. In her Daisy Duke shorts, she also continued to supply the eye candy, for sure. Even though she likely despised this role, there’s no denying she was a flawless presence onscreen – as cool as the other side of the pillow, as dreamy as a perfect Southern California day at the beach.
The most interesting aspect of early Michelle roles, like Bombshell and Sunshine, is how strongly they comment on her own, real-life aversion to being labeled “beautiful” or anything similar. She has always wanted to stand on the merits of her acting, not her looks. Early in her film career, critics tended to comment more on her physical assets than her acting. She’s gotten downright annoyed at fielding questions about her ethereal beauty, and rightly so. Seeing her in a couple early roles where her primary job was to stand around looking pretty, can be shocking to the uninitiated. Once you get past the surprise, though, it’s mostly just enjoyable to see where this superstar began, and to realize how quickly she rose above all of that. By 1982, just two short years after B.A.D. Cats was mercifully cancelled, she was starring in Grease 2 as ultra-cool Pink Lady supreme Stephanie Zinone, a role that most Pfeiffer pfans adore, even if Michelle doesn’t seem too keen on it. Even though Grease 2 received mostly mediocre reviews, she was certainly on her way at that point, and the film and the role of Stephanie are cult favorites now. It’s astonishing, really, just how quickly she transitioned from being the Bombshell to the coolest Cool Rider at Rydell High, and beyond.