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Before Chicago actors were stars, they had to pay the rent

Go On - Seas1

Go On - Season 1

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Updated: February 4, 2013 6:40AM

As one of Zooey Deschanel’s roommates on the Fox comedy “New Girl,” Jake Johnson often is the butt of the joke.

It’s something the north suburban native got used to in his old job: selling burritos from a van outside the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

At lunchtime the van’s owner would yell, “Hey guys, our burritos are better than sex!”

When the traders — curiosity piqued — turned around to face the man, he would point to Johnson and his buddy and add the caveat, “With these guys!”

“Arguably the worst job ever,” said Johnson, whose pre-actor resume is both lengthy and entertaining.

Raised by a single mother in Evanston and Winnetka, Johnson dabbled in many an odd job before landing his first paid gig on a commercial at age 27.

He recalls driving around the city with random homeless men his mom hired to help deliver old furniture from the junk shops she owned.

He “disappointed a lot of families” while manning the grill at summer festivals for the Evanston coffee shop that mistakenly thought he could cook a burger.

He also did an ill-fated stint as a waiter at a country club in Wilmette.

“I worked with all Mexican guys,” Johnson said. “We wore name tags, and the people who would go to these weddings and events would only talk to me, even though the Mexican guys were way more skilled than I was and they spoke nearly perfect English.

“These people were so unbearable,” he said about the clientele. “They were like, ‘Jake, Jake, come here. There’s a spot on my spoon.’ ”

Johnson, who sported dark facial hair and a pony tail at the time, decided to try an experiment. He borrowed a co-worker’s name tag. Suddenly Jake was Jose.

“It made the job so much more pleasant,” he said. “They’d be like, ‘Excuse me,’ and then they’d see my name tag and say, ‘Never mind, it’s fine.’ They didn’t want to deal with someone who didn’t speak English. That job didn’t last long.”

Here’s how other Chicago-area actors made their money before they made it big:

Neil Flynn

Prior to donning a janitor suit on “Scrubs,” Flynn did a brief turn as a Cajun cook in Montgomery Ward’s kitchen appliances department.

“I was hired to walk around dressed as a chef,” said the star of “The Middle,” who grew up in Bridgeport and suburban Waukegan. “Someone walked up to me and asked me how to prepare a certain dish. I didn’t — and still don’t — have any idea how to make anything. So I just hid. Any job where you have to kill time is a terrible job.”

Suzy Nakamura

The Second City alum who plays a support-group sycophant on “Go On” used to serve drinks (stage whisper: while underage) at the original Buddy Guy’s Legends.

“I remember when he announced to the entire crowd at Blues Fest, ‘Hey, I just opened a bar! Why don’t you all come by tonight?’ I worked that night, the night he invited the entire city of Chicago to come to the bar. I was like, ‘No, no, no!’ ”

The Lane Tech High School and Columbia College grad later collected a part-time paycheck from Crate & Barrel while moonlighting at Second City.

“Sometimes I’d do a show at Second City on a Monday night and be working in the store Tuesday morning and a customer would say, ‘I saw you in the show last night.’ It must have been a tourist one-two: Visit Second City and Crate & Barrel on Michigan Avenue.”

Andre Braugher

Engineering, not acting, was where this former West Sider’s career was once headed. The St. Ignatius College Prep honor student, who won an Emmy for his role on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” earned an academic scholarship to Stanford University.

“During the summer of 1980 between high school and college I worked at Argonne National Laboratory every day for six weeks to study under the engineers,” he said. Theater ended up seducing Braugher away from science during his sophomore year at Stanford. He went on to get a master’s degree in fine arts from Juilliard in New York City, where he worked as a taxi driver. Braugher was most recently seen driving a submarine in ABC’s now-canceled “Last Resort.”

Jami Gertz

The Glenview native, now starring on “The Neighbors,” got her start in Hollywood early, landing a role on “Square Pegs” while still a student at Maine East High School. But she started working even before that.

“It was an ice cream place called Scoop’s near Maine East and it was awesome because cute boys came in,” said Gertz, whose dad would drop her off and pick her up because she was too young to drive. “I was underage when I did it, but I think it’s closed down now so no one will go after them.”

Echo Kellum

Movies are where this South Side co-star of “Ben and Kate” started out. Sort of. He was an usher, box office cashier and concession stand worker at a theater in Chatham for two years. He also tended bar on the North Side at the Globe Pub.

Before moving to Los Angeles in 2009, Kellum could be found at the Best Buy in Lake View.

“I was on the Geek Squad,” he said. “People would bring their computers in and we’d run diagnostics, switch out hard drives.”

Amy Morton

While working her way up the Chicago theater ladder, Morton sold and repaired Oriental rugs and cleaned houses to pay the rent.

“There’s nothing worse than cleaning somebody else’s filth,” said the Steppenwolf Theatre vet who guest starred on Starz’s political drama “Boss.”

Around the age of 20, she and some fellow thespians were hired for what seemed to be a more glamorous assignment than scrubbing toilets. They had to dress up as mermaids for a lavish party at a Chicago hotel.

“We sat in this huge fountain,” the Lincoln Square actress said. “I remember Essee Kupcinet throwing shrimp at us. Because we had fish tails on we couldn’t walk, so guys would have to come pick us up. It was ridiculous.”

Brett Gelman

“Go On’s” enigmatic Mr. K got his first job behind the counter of a Dairy Queen in his hometown of Highland Park.

“My boss was very serious about his Blizzards,” Gelman said. “He’s like, ‘You’ve got to make them not too smooth, not too chunky, all the ingredients evenly distributed.’ He was our Blizzard sensei. I, however, was not.”

Jeremy Sisto

Before leaving Chicago at age 18, this “Suburgatory” star sold Subway sandwiches in Lincoln Park.

“There’s only one thing you were told not to do: get meatball sauce on the ivory cutting board,” Sisto said. “I did it twice. The third time, we all just knew that I should leave.”

Years later, Sisto still remembers the long list of ingredients workers had to recite to customers.

“I’m a very good Subway orderer to this day.”

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