It’s a specific kind of agony: You’re holding court at a party and synopsizing your favorite episode of Clarissa Explains It All. Naturally, everyone is interested, but then you go and accidentally call Melissa Joan Hart “Melissa Michelle Gellar.” The party guests’ faces fall. It’s bad. They’re looking at you the way Tom Everett Scott looks at a stranger on the street who’s asking if he’s Seann William Scott.
No one can be sure what was in the water between 1990 and 2000 that made so many teenage and twentysomething actors elect to go by three-part names. The economy was strong, and people were tossing around extra Thomases and Patricks like dot-com shares, I guess. Sure, you had Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tommy Lee Jones, and Jamie Lee Curtis in the mix the prior decade, but the guide below covers a more specific wave of actors — performers who launched their careers (and also sometimes ended them) in youth-oriented ‘90s films and shows while also forcing us to learn their middle names.
The questions at the heart of this guide are less about why the three-name trend caught on and more about the results. Did that third moniker help anyone in these ranks? Could anyone have improved their stage name with a simple, common sense tweak? And how closely did the actors’ parents consider the future genre work of their infants when uttering for all to hear, “We shall call her Jennifer … no, wait … Jennifer Love…”?
You Know Her From: Slaying vampires in a very self-aware way.
High Point: It’s gotta be Buffy. No other actor on this list solidified the success of an entire TV network with their work. They changed The WB’s name to The CW in 2006, but “The SMG” should’ve at least been on the table.
Low Point: It may well be this clip where she leaves an entire open-air cupboard of fresh fruit unused in a Good Morning America snack demonstration! Tell me that’s not more upsetting than Cruel Intentions.
A Role Worth Revisiting: In the interest of full disclosure, I was going to put SMG reprising the role of Kathryn in the 2016 reboot of Cruel Intentions on NBC as her low point, but then I thought more about it. Reprising a teen movie’s only surviving character nearly 20 years later is kind of a boss move, even if the pilot was never picked up.
Did Her Career Survive the ‘90s? Buffy ran until 2003, but that’s where her stardom ran out.
Was the Name Triad a Net Positive or Negative? Let’s call it a slight positive. “Sarah Michelle Gellar” at least rolls off the tongue.
Was There Any Good Reason to Go by Three Names? There is some reason. “Sarah Gellar” just isn’t a star actor’s name. It’s the kind of consonant-driven, German-American name you’d see on a gym manager’s magnetic nametag in Cleveland. “Michelle” sweetens the deal just enough.
How Much of Her Name Could We Fashion From Gift Shop Keychains? 2/3
Did She Ever Act with Another Three-Name Actor? C’mon. SMG being in I Know What You Did Last Summer with Jennifer Love Hewitt is the kind of coincidence that launches stupid article ideas like this one.
How Much Can We Improve the Full Name by Changing One Part? In honor of her long and happy marriage to I Know What You Did Last Summer co-star Freddie Prinze Jr. and also her proud decision not to take his last name, let’s leave hers mostly intact and just call her Sarah Michelle Gellar Jr.
You Know Her From: Party of Five and being the ‘90s answer to Ann-Margret.
High Point: Looking too closely at the politics of Can’t Hardly Wait (1998) won’t do it any favors, but it does offer one of the few Jennifer Love Hewitt roles with legitimate room to act and acknowledge that she might have an onscreen identity outside of men sexualizing her.
Low Point: Jewtopia (2012) should not be the name of a movie. And I’m not sure whether it’s better to have a bit part in Jewtopia or a starring part, but JLH had a bit part in this rom-com about a man pretending to be Jewish to win over a woman.
A Role Worth Revisiting: JLH often played the role of “human woman singer” in her early career. Here she is doing a song from The Hunchback of Notre Dame II. Glad they went with Roman numerals on that one, as long as we’re talking about names. Feels right.
Did Her Career Survive the ‘90s? Yes, but it was never the same after Party Of Five ended in 1999. After that, Hewitt is probably the only actor here who, in the moment, embraced the trashy kitsch that appears on so many of the IMDb pages that inspired this article: the hyper-sexualized music videos, taking off her clothes in random episodes of Ghost Whisperer, Confessions of a Sociopathic Social Climber, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties!
Side note, I love that in the early 2000s, Fox split the cast of I Know What You Did Last Summer onto two parallel paths: They could either be in two Scooby-Doo movies like Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze Jr., or they could be in two Garfield movies like Love Hewitt. Pick your live-action, pet-based, intellectual property poison.
Was the Name Triad a Net Positive or Negative? Probably positive. The name fits her well.
Was There Any Good Reason to Go by Three Names? “Love” is everything to JLH. It’s what makes her sound like a teenage country singer who’s decorated her cherry-red guitar with sequined hearts. It’s crucial.
How Much of Her Name Could We Fashion from Gift Shop Keychains? 1/3, but you could probably find LOVE emblazoned on something in a different part of the gift shop.
Did She Ever Act with Another Three-Name Actor? She was in Can’t Hardly Wait with both Melissa Joan Hart and Sean Patrick Thomas.
How Much Can We Improve The Full Name by Changing One Part? In honor of the Boy Meets World episode where she played a character with this name, let’s go with “Jennifer Love Fefferman.”
You Know Her From: Sex and the City and enough lesser rom-coms to fill the biggest bookshelf at Goodwill.
High Point: Did I say earlier that Sarah Michelle Gellar was the only person in this guide to help solidify a TV network’s standing? Well, Sex and the City was HBO’s first bona fide hit in 1998, so what do I know. Parker’s high point is unquestionably playing Carrie for six years and two unbelievably lucrative movies. (I’m a Charlotte though; are we still making that reference?)
Low Point: Did You Hear About the Morgans? I pray you did not.
A Role Worth Revisiting: It’s easy to forget SJP appeared in an intriguing run of films in the ‘90s, working with Tim Burton and David Mamet. All due respect to Ed Wood, Parker is terrific in Mamet’s little-remembered State and Main as the Hollywood sex symbol who develops a self-conscious streak mid-production of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s movie “about the quest for purity.”
Did Her Career Survive the ‘90s? The two Sex and the City movies (2008 and 2010) grossed almost three-quarters of a billion dollars.
Was the Name Triad a Net Positive or Negative? Tough to say! The name Sarah Parker, while ordinary, actually packs a nice four-syllable punch. It’s simple, almost deceptively simple, like Amy Adams or Julia Roberts.
Was There Any Good Reason to Go by Three Names? I don’t know, man. I like the name Sarah Parker!
How Much of Her Name Could We Fashion from Gift Shop Keychains? 2/3.
Did She Ever Act with Another Three-Name Actor? Nobody from this list, but she did star with Thomas Haden Church in her HBO return, Divorce. Those two have enough names for another whole person! Jessica Haden. I’d watch her HBO show.
How Much Can We Improve the Full Name by Changing One Part? The only glaring flaw of “Sarah Jessica Parker” is that it can never live up namewise to “Carrie Bradshaw.”
You Know Her From: Explaining it all and talking to that cat puppet for six years of her life.
High Point: Melissa Joan Hart is not exactly Daniel Day-Lewis, but she did manage to pull off the transformation from Pearl Jam fanatic to Britney Spears fanatic over the course of her two hit TV shows. Although if you watch that Clarissa clip, it’s unlikely she’s ever actually heard Pearl Jam.
Low Point: Clarissa, do you need me to explain to you why you shouldn’t be in the God’s Not Dead films? MJH plays the lead in God’s Not 2: Didactic Boogaloo — a history teacher who’s punished by the godless liberal bureaucracy for encouraging one of her students to read the Bible.
A Role Worth Revisiting: Unfortunately, MJH’s filmography is kind of a wasteland of cable movies and Sabrina spin-off projects. So maybe we just hand this honorific off to a montage of Salem the Cat.
Did Her Career Survive the ‘90s? Basically no. Once Sabrina the Teenage Witch was done in 2003, so was MJH.
Was the Name Triad a Net Positive or Negative? The big problem with the name “Melissa Joan Hart” is that it’s one of the few ways you can make someone named “Melissa” sound like she’s 85 years old. I can’t imagine that helped her career. On the other hand, Wikipedia says her father was — wait for it — a “shellfish purveyor” when she was growing up? Mad respect. All shellfish purveyors have the right to make their kids’ names sound old as the mighty sea itself.
Was There Any Good Reason to Go by Three Names? None. Melissa Hart is a better name.
How Much of Her Name Could We Fashion from Gift Shop Keychains? 2/3
Did She Ever Act with Another Three-Name Actor? In fact, she played the uncredited part of “Yearbook Girl” in Can’t Hardly Wait with Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sean Patrick Thomas. This girl is deeply into yearbooks.
How Much Can We Improve the Full Name by Changing One Part? Shellfish-Purveyor Joan Hart
You Know Him From: Teaching Julia Styles how to break dance in Save The Last Dance (2001) and/or teaching Selma Blair the cello in Cruel Intentions (1999). Sean Patrick Thomas just has a teaching spirit.
High Point: It’s this scene in Cruel Intentions where SPT goes toe to toe with Christine Baranski in a darkly comedic showdown of racial malice and cluelessness. He gets canned as the in-house cello tutor, and then Muhammad Ali-style chants his way down a penthouse hall that is ironically decorated with what look to be African carvings and busts.
Low Point: He’s impaled through a door by Michael Myers in 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection. Considering Busta Rhymes receives the distinct honor of engaging Myers in open hand-to-hand combat just minutes later and survives, let’s call this Thomas’ nadir.
A Role Worth Revisiting: He’s a competent and undersung straight man in the first two Barbershop films. It’s critical role in movies defined by their outsized performances.
Did His Career Survive the ‘90s? The last 10 years have been lean, but Barbershop: The Next Cut had him in a near-starring role as recently as 2016.
Was the Name Triad a Net Positive or Negative? Probably negative. Thomas may have his subtle charms, but he’s ultimately a generic character actor. Having the most generic name on this list couldn’t have helped.
Was There Any Good Reason to Go by Three Names? “Sean Patrick Thomas” is no better or worse than “Sean Thomas.” This is a rough one.
How Much of His Name Could We Fashion from Gift Shop Keychains? 3/3! You can’t teach that.
Did He Ever Act with Another Three-Name Actor? Quite famously with Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions.
How Much Can We Improve the Full Name by Changing One Part? Anything would help. Maybe “Sean Patrick Flannery” if that’s not taken?
You Know Him From: Making the unilateral decision to change the tempo of “That Thing You Do” at the Mercyhurst College talent show, and the rest is fake history.
High Point: There’s not an entry in this guide that hinges on a single work more than Tom Everett Scott playing Guy Patterson in 1996’s That Thing You Do! During the right rewatch, it’s still hard to believe that successfully capturing the charm and innocence of a young Tom Hanks in a movie directed by Tom Hanks didn’t launch him to stardom. But then there’s this: One of the most impressive things about Tom Everett Scott is that he earnestly and repeatedly lets Guy Patterson play the fool. The character is humbled by the cold ways of capitalism, adulthood, and pop culture, and Scott’s ability to act like a disappointed bobblehead isn’t exactly the kind of fast-talking righteousness that tends to mint young male stars.
Low Point: Scott had a worthless part in the worthless movie Van Wilder (2002). TES is the editor of the university newspaper who assigns Nicole Richie’s character a profile of Van Wilder (Ryan Reynolds), the coolest dude on campus. Find me the cynical, sleep-deprived aspiring college journalist who thinks Van Wilder is hip; I’ll wait.
A Role Worth Revisiting: He played Emma Stone’s husband in the setup to La La Land’s climactic, what-might-have-been fantasy. The only reason this stands out is because Scott visits Ryan Gosling’s jazz club, and enjoying jazz clubs is paramount to his character in That Thing You Do! Just hypothetically, if you were to make this joke to Scott on Twitter in December 2016, he would be very chill about it.
Del Paxton at a booth in the corner… https://t.co/XLLLWVzKpi
— Tom Everett Scott (@TomEScott) December 18, 2016
Did His Career Survive the ‘90s? Like numerous folks mentioned here, Scott ended up on network procedurals after he stopped being cast in studio films in the early 2000s. It bears mentioning he played a recurring role as a governor on Law and Order. Probably a governor up to no good. Hard to imagine an ethical governor recurring on Law and Order.
Was the Name Triad a Net Positive or Negative? If you’re searching for reasons his career didn’t pan out, the name probably didn’t help. It’s a backup quarterback’s name for sure.
Was There Any Good Reason to Go by Three Names? The name “Tom Scott” is a great reason to sandwich “Everett” into the middle.
How Much of His Name Could We Fashion from Gift Shop Keychains? Almost certainly 2/3. We could maybe go 3/3 with “Everett” if it was an Alabama gas station in 1970.
Did He Ever Act with Another Three-Name Actor? He appeared in a 2005 episode of Criminal Minds with Jennifer Love Hewitt. Also, he was in an Inherit The Wind television remake with the great George C. Scott, who I have to believe was Tom Everett Scott’s father. I refuse to look up whether this is true. (It is not true.)
How Much Can We Improve the Full Name by Changing One Part? It’s the “Scott” that’s the problem here. “Tom Everett McCauley” sounds sophisticated. Or he could go “Tom Cat Scott” and no one would forget his weird ass ever.
You Know Him From: Taking every bro role Vince Vaughn discarded from 1997 to present and from playing Stifler four times.
High Point: For me, it’s Role Models, the 2008 David Wain comedy that managed to age Scott’s manchild persona into something both sincere and absurd.
Low Point: Balls Out: Gary The Tennis Coach is probably the Stifler shtick at its thinnest. Here’s the synopsis of this 2009 non-theatrical release: “A high school janitor has not recovered from his failed career as a tennis pro. He begins coaching his beloved sport to a group of misfits and leads them to the Nebraska State Championships.”
As a native Nebraskan, I’m vaguely insulted on behalf of our proud Andy Roddick-led state history with tennis. As a native of this world, this movie should not exist.
A Role Worth Revisiting: In a Season 9 episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Scott plays “Country Mac” — the soulful, easy-going, unselfconscious bro that the gang all wishes “City Mac” actually was. He’s brilliant. Between this and the Goon movies, Scott deserves credit for working through some alternating shades of the dude who loves his beers and biceps.
Did His Career Survive the ‘90s? For sure. American Pie was 1999, but the bulk of his other work came in the early 2000s. And just this year, Scott took over the white-guy role in TV’s Lethal Weapon. This apparently outraged some fans of TV’s Lethal Weapon, and I will be glued to the Nielsen ratings this fall to find out if they come around on Seann.
Was the Name Triad a Net Positive or Negative? His body of work makes me feel like Scott’s name should be Roy Hendricks or Derek Dinwiddie. “Seann William Scott” likely did little for his career.
Was There Any Good Reason to Go by Three Names? This one’s for the best. “Seann Scott” by itself is bizarre. The “William” is a suitable buffer.
How Much of His Name Could We Fashion from Gift Shop Keychains? 2/3, unless there was a misprint at the Sean factory.
Did He Ever Act with Another Three-Name Actor? Southland Tales (2006) with Sarah Michelle Gellar, but that’s not nearly as weird as The Rock being in Southland Tales.
How Much Can We Improve the Full Name by Changing One Part? I present to you “Seann Williamm Scottt.”
You Know Him From: Being on the cover of every issue of Tiger Beat magazine between 1994 and 1998.
High Point: There exist multiple, multi-part montages from different YouTube accounts of “cute” Randy Taylor moments, so Home Improvement is the answer.
Low Point: Just now when I discovered he didn’t do Young Simba’s singing in The Lion King (1994). I was going to give him so much credit for the indelible vocal leap in “just can’t WAIT to be king.” Now that credit goes to singer and voice actor Jason Weaver.
A Role Worth Revisiting: Sometimes the most compelling moments in these actors’ IMDb narratives is when they try to step into more adult parts. That’s when it becomes as clear as a blonde streak through a middle part that it’s just not happening. That moment for JTT is in Speedway Junky (1998), in which he plays a street hustler named Steve. You can watch this clip for the instant recognition that that baby face and that permanently pubescent-sounding voice are not going to take up River Phoenix’s mantle.
Did His Career Survive the ‘90s? Not really. It also doesn’t seem like JTT especially wanted to be an actor as he got older, as is his right. In recent years, he’s worked only on Tim Allen-related projects, appearing a few times on Last Man Standing. What a life.
Was the Name Triad a Net Positive or Negative? Jonathan Taylor Thomas is the quintessential three-name ‘90s actor because his is the only appellation here that sharply communicates something with all three parts. Say it slowly: “Jonathan Taylor Thomas” evokes someone very adorable, very white, and who almost certainly has a stage parent herding him to his next engagement.
Was There Any Good Reason to Go by Three Names? Seventy percent of boys in the ‘90s were named Taylor. Is that a reason?
How Much of His Name Could We Fashion from Gift Shop Keychains? 3/3 with a bullet.
Did He Ever Act with Another Three-Name Actor? Nope. It’s your life, JTT, but you shouldn’t have quit acting before squaring off with another three-namer. Jennifer Love Hewitt could have done Nala’s singing voice in a straight-to-video Lion King sequel or something.
How Much Can We Improve the Full Name by Changing One Part? If you were trying to engineer from scratch a cute little blond boy who never acts meaningfully past the age of 16, you name that kid Jonathan Taylor Thomas. There’s no other name.
You Know Him From: Doogie Howser M.D., Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, and that distant friend of yours who still thinks it’s cool to drop a “Legen … dary.”
High Point: It’s a safe pick, but Harris playing Barney Stinson for a decade on How I Met Your Mother, 10 years after Doogie Howser, is akin to Ron Howard doing The Andy Griffith Show and then Happy Days. It’s a kind of TV stardom continuity we may never see again in the splintered age of streaming.
Low Point: Tough one. I think you have to go looking not just for the worst work, but the moment in his career where the child actor phase threatened to sink him. Let’s go with Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, where NPH’s cameo is downright Hasselhoff-esque. The “remember this guy!?” joke is merely that the fresh-faced kid who played Doogie Howser is partying through the night and stealing cars.
A Role Worth Revisiting: Starship Troopers (1997) is a brilliant (and so early!) use of Harris’ ability to turn his golden-boy shtick unsettling and ironic. It’s the first film to forecast there’s uncannily short distance between awards-shows NPH and making-fun-of-hosting-awards-shows NPH.
Did His Career Survive the ‘90s? The man is currently playing Count Olaf on Netflix, so you tell me!
Was the Name Triad a Net Positive or Negative? A resounding positive. The name perfectly hinted at his turn toward the theater. “Neil Patrick Harris” looks great on a playbill.
Was There Any Good Reason to Go by Three Names? The Patrick is needed. “Neil Harris” sounds like someone who plays desk sergeants in cancelled cop dramas.
How Much of His Name Could We Fashion from Gift Shop Keychains? 2.5/3. Harris as a first name? Dicey.
Did He Ever Act with Another Three-Name Actor? NPH played a dance-off host in American Reunion (the fourth American Pie movie), which also has Seann William Scott in it, of course. It was probably a nice paycheck and also speaks to Harris’ ability to be cheeky enough that lousy material never sticks to him.
How Much Can We Improve the Full Name by Changing One Part? I would say Neil Patrick Howser, but then I’m sure people actually slipped up and called him that in the’ 90s.