Hollywood Flashback: Julia Roberts Debuted on 'Crime Story' in 1987

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Left to right: Hannah Cox as Lisa Altman, Dennis Farina as Lt. Mike Torello and Julia Roberts as Tracy on an episode of NBC's 'Crime Story' that aired Feb. 13, 1987.

At 19 years old, the actress starred as a juvenile sexual assault survivor on NBC's Michael Mann-produced series: "You knew she was in it for the long haul."

Julia Roberts, who has never won an Emmy but this year appears to be a strong contender for an acting nomination with Amazon's Homecoming, made her first appearance on television in 1987 as a juvenile survivor of sexual assault on NBC's Michael Mann-produced Crime Story. She was 19. "Julia was unusually magnetic," says writer David Burke. "She really popped when she was onscreen. You knew she was in it for the long haul, that was clear." The series (where Kevin Spacey at 28 and Ving Rhames at 26 got early TV acting jobs) had become something of a surprise hit for NBC. The plot involved two men, one a cop (Dennis Farina) and the other a mafioso (Anthony Denison), who stalk each other in early 1960s Las Vegas. Crime Story was given the plum slot following Miami Vice on Friday nights and thrived there. But it got whacked when it shifted to Tuesday and went up against the combined weight of Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis on ABC's Moonlighting.

For Roberts, the show was her introduction to fame. A year after her episode aired, she was back home for Christmas with her family in Smyrna, Georgia, and went shopping with friends. Strangers stopped her to ask if she was the girl on Crime Story, which she denied by saying, "Nah, you're in the Cumberland Mall." But within a few years, she'd made Mystic Pizza, Steel Magnolias and Pretty Woman, at which point she was no longer able to shop unnoticed (though her last film, the 2018 family addiction drama Ben Is Back, did feature a sequence shot in a mall about an hour outside New York City — the film's producer, Nina Jacobson, told The Hollywood Reporter that it was not the easiest location shoot: "You're taking one of the biggest movie stars in the world into a mall and shooting when people are doing their Christmas shopping").

As for Crime Story, the series lasted only two seasons, but at least the cop and the mafioso were able to exit together — they were presumably obliterated when a nuclear bomb went off in the Nevada test area where they'd chased each other. By then, Roberts was well on her way to her four Oscar nominations — for 1990's Magnolias, 1991's Pretty Woman, 2000's Erin Brockovich — which resulted in a win — and 2013's August: Osage County. In its Brockovich review, THR said Roberts "seizes the film's eponymous role with fire-in-her-eyes possessiveness and injects the character with all the energy and drive she can muster. Her performance is a true star turn, one that should make this Universal/Columbia production from Jersey Films into a solid hit." It was, making $126 million ($185 million today).

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.