What The Parks And Recreation Cast Looked Like Before The Fame

Parks and Recreation, also known as Parks and Rec, revitalized the prime-time sitcom with an earnest heart, a wide smile, and a whole lot of bureaucracy. While the show had a bit of a rocky beginning and a few early ensemble shakeups after the first season, it went on to create seven seasons of laughs.

The show centers Deputy Director of the Parks Department, Leslie Knope, and her never-ending quest to make the city of Pawnee a happier place. Co-creators Mike Shur and Greg Daniels seamlessly threaded political and societal issues into plotlines without using outdated tropes or easy gags. As in Shur's other shows, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place, Parks and Rec is funny without overt cruelty (well, except to Jerry) and always goes for the unexpected joke over the obvious one.

Parks and Rec launched the careers of multiple cast members, from Aubrey Plaza to Chris Pratt. But while you might know where the cast is now, you probably don't know much about their lives before the show debuted. This is what the cast of Parks and Rec looked like before they spent years in Pawnee planning festivals and petting miniature horses.

Amy Poehler, the Leslie Knope of comedy

Amy Poehler was one of the biggest stars to grace the show when it debuted. Prior to her role as Leslie Knope, Poehler made her claim to fame in the late 1990s. The comedian first carved a name for herself with The Upright Citizens Brigade, a Chicago-based improv troupe the young actress helped found. The group eventually moved to New York City, where Poehler appeared multiple times on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. From there, the group moved to their self-titled show on Comedy Central, which was canceled after three seasons.

Poehler's comedy chops didn't go unnoticed. She won the role of Susie in the now cult classic Wet Hot American Summer. In an even more impressive leap, 2001 saw her join the cast of Saturday Night Live. While most people assume she met Tina Fey, her ride-or-die scene partner, on SNL, the pair met in '93 during the ImprovOlympics in Chicago before either of them had reached a modicum of fame. They came a long way from struggling improv comedy artists to hosting the Golden Globes together in 2013. Personally, we love Poehler's iconic performance as a "cool mom" in 2004's Mean Girls best. With her, it's always cocktail hour.

Nick Offerman, strong and silent

Nick Offerman, the king of on-screen social distancing, had a slew of roles on shows like 24 and George Lopez prior to Parks and Rec. He also played Jackson's incredibly uncomfortable older brother Bo in Gilmore Girls. Bo has the confidence of Ron Swanson with zero ability to close the deal — or sound like anything but a stalker. It was Parks and Rec that truly put the actor on the map and into fans' hearts forever: Ron Swanson is likely one of the most beloved TV characters of the 2010s. Who doesn't love a man who can build pretty much anything out wood and gives grade-schoolers Claymore mines?

While Parks and Rec was the private actor's most notable role, another impacted him just as enormously: The Berlin Circle, the 2000 play in which he met his wife, Megan Mullally. Fans will recognize Megan Mullally as Swanson's ex-wife Tammy 2, but their off-screen marriage is anything but the toxic nightmare shown in Parks. After meeting on set, they got married after a little over a year of dating, and have been married ever since. The pair also had a steamy kiss in Will and Grace, and their chemistry is palpable on the set of Parks over a decade after their marriage — a modern-day Hollywood miracle.

Aziz Ansari, networking mogul

Before Tom Haverford was misusing his government connections, Aziz Ansari was co-hosting Human Giant on MTV. As it turns out, Ansari is just about as well-connected as Tommy. A slew of his guests and co-hosts from the comedy series also appeared in Parks. Remember that awful tent guy who charged eight dollars for coffee in one of his sketchy tent emporiums? Ansari's former Human Giant co-host, Rob Huebel, brought that truly awful character to life. There's also the goofy millionaire who "kaboomed" a park as a philanthropic prank. Paul Scheer, their third co-host, played the charismatic prankster.

The small comedy world tends to have a lot of overlap, making connections in the field even more lucrative than a small government office. Will Arnett, Poehler's now ex-husband, showed up on the MTV comedy as well. Parks and Rec recurring guest star Nick Kroll, who played the delightfully immature Howard Tuttleman (AKA "The Douche") also showed up for a beat in the series. The moral of the story? Be nice to your coworkers because they may hire you when they're on an upswing of success.

Adam Scott, the '90s kid

Add a leather jacket, some pomade, and a smidge of eyeliner on Adam Scott, and his stint on Boy Meets World comes flying back. There's a reason Ben Wyatt is so obsessed with the 1990s: After the Ice Town debacle, he snuck into John Adams High to become the resident bad boy.

Alongside Poehler and Rob Lowe, Scott is one of the more prominent names to show up in Pawnee. However, while he appeared in several episodes of Party of Five and Wasteland, his biggest claim to fame before Parks was the comedy Step Brothers. He stars in the film alongside Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly to unravel a version of the angsty new step-parent/step-sibling trope — except the kids are fully grown adults.

Scott has dipped his toes in most genre pools, appearing in Hellraiser: Bloodline, ER, CSI: Miami, Veronica Mars, and Star Trek: First Contact. He's also starring in the smash-hit Big Little Lies. Is there anything this guy can't do?

Rob Lowe, lifelong heartbreaker

Rob Lowe had the "teen heartthrob" angle on lock in the 1980s before he was even 20. He entered the acting pool at 15, clinching roles in The Outsiders, St. Elmo's Fire, and About Last Night. He later went on to feature in several Austin Powers films, The West Wing, and Brothers and Sisters before taking on the role of the health-obsessed Chris Traeger. Out of his many Parks co-stars, Lowe arguably rose through the ranks of stardom the fastest — and he's stayed the longest.

But while older millennials and Gen Xers were there to witness the start of his career, Parks and Rec revitalized his platform for the current younger generations. The show catapulted Lowe forward into a slew of new credits, including his post-Parks and Rec show, 9-1-1: Lonestar. Not all child actors stand the test of time, but Rob Lowe is one of the few exceptions. With charm and a twinkle in his eye, he can take on any role.

Chris Pratt was almost a stripper

While Poehler, Scott, and Lowe already had name recognition, Chris Pratt's portrayal of goofy, lovable Andy launched Pratt's career. Parks helped him clinch blockbuster films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. Unlike most stars, though, he didn't immediately ditch his roots for greener pastures. Pratt had his absence and weight loss written into the script so he could return when filming on Guardians wrapped. But where was Pratt before he donned plaid, a guitar, and Burt Macklin's sunglasses? Anyone who watched the early 2000s teen dramas will likely recognize him from his recurring roles in Everwood and The O.C.

But before that, Like Andy, Pratt took a single community college class that changed his life. During an interview with Vanity Fair, he said, "I did a scene — something I wrote — and the teacher took me aside and said, 'You should think about doing this professionally.' He saw something." It took dropping out of college, a lot of odd jobs, and almost enlisting in the military, but Pratt eventually found his rightful place in Hollywood. But not before he tried to get a gig as a stripper. As the actor told Buzzfeed, "I was never like, Magic Mike, you know. I did go one time and audition on a stage for a club, but I don't think I got the job. I don't think I'm a very good dancer." Maybe he's better off jammin' at kids' parties to "Stinky Feet Patrol."

Aubrey Plaza's brush with death

While April Ludgate's disdain for most of humanity doesn't stem from a dark childhood, actress Aubrey Plaza had a few hurdles to overcome before she became a Pawnee resident. During an interview with The Guardian, Plaza recounted the stroke she had when she was 20 years old. "Things take on a different meaning when death comes so close," she noted, but the stroke's effects weren't purely symbolic: She was left her temporarily paralyzed, and had to work through expressive aphasia, which keeps the sufferer from using written, physical, or verbal language.

Following her recovery, Plaza went on to intern for Saturday Night Live and became a page for NBC. She even had a stint performing with The Upright Citizens Brigade, her future co-star Amy Poehler's old improv powerhouse. But doing improv at Poehler's old digs didn't get her the job on Parks. During an interview with co-creator Greg Daniels, she convinced him to change their idea for the role completely. As Plaza told NPR, "It was gonna be someone that was kinda blonde, and not the brightest." She pitched April as a college student who just needs the credits, and she got the job without even auditioning. Daniels later recalled that the meeting was "an extremely uncomfortable hour with Aubrey Plaza." But, he still hired her. No one says no to Aubrey Plaza.

Retta's secret scientist days

Retta may be a comic dynamo, but the glamorous comedian and actress wasn't always in the limelight. Before she was Donna Meagle, she spent a lot of her early days in a lab coat. Retta was on the pre-med track when she graduated from Duke University with a sociology degree. The New Jersey native became a pharmaceutical chemist while honing her comedy skills at Charlie Goodnights Comedy Club and the college circuit in her free time. Eventually, she ditched her lab coat and headed to the City of Angels to pursue her comedy dreams full-time.

Mike Shur described Retta to Vulture as "an onion, and the more layers you peel back, the cooler the onion gets." And while she's currently starring in NBC's Good Girls, she hasn't completely ruled out a future in medicine. "School was my sh**," Retta told Vulture, "I really feel like, if this does not work out, I can pack up those bags, move in with my parents, start studying for the MCATs, and go to medical school." 

Whether Retta decides to keep acting or goes back to her academic roots, she taught multiple generations "treat yo' self," and for that, we will always be grateful.

Rashida Jones, the poetic, noble land-mermaid

Rashida Jones probably looked familiar to most people when she first showed up to a "crackpot convention" to yell at the Parks Department in the Parks and Rec pilot. Before she became Ann Perkins, "the greatest nurse in the world," Jones starred in Boston Public and menaced the halls of McKinley High in Freaks and Geeks as Karen Scarfolli. In the latter cult classic, Jones embodies 1990s grunge. Freaks and Geeks Jones is barely recognizable when compared to her Parks look as a "chestnut-haired sunfish."

Apparently, casting directors think Jones makes a good Karen, because it's a character name she keeps garnering. Years after her stint on Freaks and Geeks, she became Karen Filippelli, Jim's girlfriend on The Office before he finally ends up with Pam. If Parks and Rec creators had followed the original idea to make the show a spinoff of The Office, Jones' casting would have been hard to explain. Witness protection from Toby, maybe? It's probably best that the universes exist on their own.

Jim O'Heir, the man with six names

Jerry Larry Terry Gary Gergich Gengurch may be the laughing stock of the Parks Department, but Jim O'Heir elicited laughs from the cast in a much different manner: Innuendo and crass jokes are O'Heir's specialty. His former castmates cackle at his antics and choice language in almost every PaleyFest video

O'Heir, who's 15 years younger than his on-screen Parks character, got his Hollywood start in the mid-1990s. He has appeared in several comedies including 3rd Rock From the Sun, The Drew Carey Show, Malcolm in the Middle, and a long run on Strip Mall. Friends fans may recognize him from a minor role he had in "The One with the Birth Mother:" O'Heir plays an adoption agent when Monica and Chandler try and fail to adopt a baby in Ohio. Younger fans may have also seen him in a brief cameo on the Disney show, The Suite Life of Zach & Cody.

Before the mini-reunion to benefit COVID-19 relief, O'Heir was adamant about a revival. On the subject of a reunion, he told Entertainment Weekly, "So would I go back? Whatever it took. Whatever it took!" He jokingly clarified, "Though next time I would be the lead, and Amy Poehler could do craft services." He admitted that at this point, his name would probably be Marty, but he wouldn't know why. While other cast members have been vaguer on reunion talk, O'Heir and fans got their wish.

Li'l Sebastian Lives

While Li'l Sebastian is up in horsey heaven learning to fly, Gideon, the real-life quadruped actor, is reportedly alive. In 2017, Offerman posted a Facebook photo of Li'l Sebastian's memorial program with the hashtag, #NeverForget. The internet read into the throwback post, and fans feared the worst. Fans began calling Gideon's representatives at A-List Animals. They were quick to assure everyone that he was happily living on a California ranch. A representative told the Tampa Bay Times, "That program is actually a prop that was made for the show ... It turns up every so often, and we start getting calls, but he's fine."

No news of Gideon has emerged since, but it's safe to say that the company would make a statement if something were to happen. Gideon, who also appeared on Hart of Dixie, is apparently a little playboy. His trainer Morgan Bateman told Esquire, "He's a sassy little guy when he wants to be. He's pretty much the smallest guy. He lives with full-sized horses. Actually, one of his girlfriends is humongous." Maybe he's in horsey heaven after all?

Speaking of heaven, Li'l Sebastian popped up as an Easter egg on The Good Place. Janet actress D'Arcy Carden tweeted a photo of herself with a mini-horse (that doesn't appear to be Gideon) on-set. The official Parks Instagram reposted it with the caption, "1 like = 1 candle in the wind."