Acting Against Type

Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Directors’ Cameos in Films

For whatever reason, be it a deep-seated desire to act, a lack of a casting budget, or just “if you want something done right, do it yourself”, many directors at some point in their careers have stepped out from behind the camera to act. This is typically in a smaller, cameo role, and often with varying degrees of success: sometimes they’re completely natural and sometimes they bring the film to a screeching halt. And sometimes you’d never even know they were there.

The criteria for the examples below is that for the most part, acting is not their first career, so you won’t see Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, or Rob Reiner on this list. So, in no particular order, here we go…

Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction

Here’s one most people recall right off the bat. Quentin’s few minutes in Pulp Fiction as Jimmie Dimmick (who’s claim to fame was that he just happens to live in the 818 area code) may not be the highlight of the acting performances in this film, but thanks to QT’s sharp dialogue, it’s easily one of the more memorable.

Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver
In this clip from Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) picks up fare Martin Scorsese, who plays a stalking cuckolded husband bent on revenge. Amazingly, Scorsese manages to outcreep even Robert DeNiro! No wonder Travis Bickle went mental!


Martin Scorsese in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

When the great Akira Kurosawa asks you be in one of his films, you say “yes”, regardless of the role. Here’s Scorsese once again, playing Vincent Van Gogh this time, in a segment from Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.



M. Night Shyamalan in Signs

I don’t quite understand M. Night’s motivation to act in his films. By comparison, he’s a much better screenwriter and director than an actor, and the parts he plays would be far better served by nearly anyone else. In this scene from his 2002 film Signs, he plays Ray Reddy, Mel Gibson’s neighbor, who’s wracked with guilt for accidentally causing the death of Gibson’s wife.

Sydney Pollack in Tootsie

Sydney Pollack is in that gray area of qualifying to be on this list, as according to IMDb, he has as many acting credits as he does directing credits, going back to the beginning of his career. However, most know Mr. Pollack as the acclaimed director of The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, and Out of Africa. Here he plays Dustin Hoffman’s harried agent George Fields, in Tootsie, which he also directed.

François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind

François Truffaut is best known of course, as the father of the French New Wave movement having directed films such as The 400 Blows and Jules et Jim, and chief proponent of the auteur philosophy of cinema. He also happened to be Steven Spielberg’s idol. When Spielberg cast him to play ufologist Claude Lacombe (loosely based on actual ufologist Jacques Vallée) in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, legend has it that Spielberg was so intimidated, he couldn’t bring himself to direct him. on a side note, Truffaut’s translator in this clip, Bob Balaban, has since gone on to direct as well.

and speaking of Spielberg…

Steven Spielberg in The Blues Brothers

John Landis is notorious for casting his director pals in cameos in his films. In The Blues Brothers, Steven Spielberg plays a clerk at the Cook County Assessor’s office where Jake and Elwood Blues bring a tax payment to save the orphanage where they were raised.

Oliver Stone in The Doors

Here Oliver Stone plays Jim Morrison’s UCLA film professor in Stone’s 1991 biopic of the leader of L.A. rock band The Doors.



Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now

In Apocalypse Now, Director Francis Ford Coppola plays, appropriately enough, a director, albeit for news journalism, in this clever jab at the treatment of the Vietnam conflict as spectacle.



Roman Polanski in Chinatown

Here’s one of my favorite cameos, Roman Polanski as Claude, a swarthy French gangster who misfigures Jack Nicholson’s nose as a warning to keep his nose out where it doesn’t belong in his 1974 Chinatown. Incidentally, director John Huston has a major role in this film as unscrupulous land developer Noah Cross.

Alfred Hitchcock

And last, but certainly not least, the man who made a cameo appearance in thirty-seven of his own films, mostly in inconspicuous walk-on parts, The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Here’s a compilation of most of his cameos:

Update

Peter Jackson in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Director Peter Jackson was generous enough with cameo appearances that he also gave cameos to Director of Photography Andrew Lesnie, Richard Taylor- Head of Weta Workshop, Gino Acevedo- Prosthetics Supervisor, and producer Rick Porras. See the making of the cameo appearances below:

It’s irresistible sometimes for a director to want to jump in front of the camera and immortalize himself on film. But whether it’s to fulfill a larger role in the plot, or just to walk by as an innocent bystander, it’s even more fun for audiences (who recognize them) to see their favorite auteurs in front of the cameras than behind them– as long as it doesn’t pull them out of the film, that is.

Is there a favorite director’s cameo we forgot? Send us a link to a video online and perhaps we’ll include it in this post.

66 thoughts on “Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Directors’ Cameos in Films

  1. Nice list! The clip from Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams made me want to rent the movie now.

    Anyway, how about Richard Linklater’s cameo, as the dude in the “boat car”, on Waking life. And as the guy in the cab in Slackers?

  2. Nice list! The clip from Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams made me want to rent the movie now.

    Anyway, how about Richard Linklater’s cameo, as the dude in the “boat car”, on Waking life. And as the guy in the cab in Slackers?

  3. For me, the ultimate and most brilliant of all the director-in-their-own-movie cameos is David Lynch appearing as Agent Cooper’s boss, Gordon Cole, in Twin Peaks. The coolness of that part just cannot be denied.

  4. For me, the ultimate and most brilliant of all the director-in-their-own-movie cameos is David Lynch appearing as Agent Cooper’s boss, Gordon Cole, in Twin Peaks. The coolness of that part just cannot be denied.

  5. best Quentin Tarantino cameo ever is in “Sleep With Me” (1994), specifically his gay Top Gun monologue:

  6. best Quentin Tarantino cameo ever is in “Sleep With Me” (1994), specifically his gay Top Gun monologue:

  7. I have to be a nerd and say that the character Claude was the guy holding gittes in that scene. Roman Polanski is credited as “Man with Knife” and he certainly is.

  8. I have to be a nerd and say that the character Claude was the guy holding gittes in that scene. Roman Polanski is credited as “Man with Knife” and he certainly is.

  9. You’re missing a meta-of-metas addition to this list. In Contempt, Fritz Lang (M) plays himself throughout the whole movie, since the plot is ostensibly about Lang selling out and making a movie for Hollywood Exec Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). (Incidentally, this is exactly what Godard was doing by signing on to make Contempt.) So, Lang is not only in the movie, he is himself, a director, in the movie and does a great job, actually.

    But, at the very end, the Assistant Director who yells “quiet on the set” of the movie within the movie, is Godard! So, in this one movie, there’s a famous director playing a version of himself, and another famous director, in fact, that very movie’s director, playing his assistant. Awesome.

  10. You’re missing a meta-of-metas addition to this list. In Contempt, Fritz Lang (M) plays himself throughout the whole movie, since the plot is ostensibly about Lang selling out and making a movie for Hollywood Exec Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). (Incidentally, this is exactly what Godard was doing by signing on to make Contempt.) So, Lang is not only in the movie, he is himself, a director, in the movie and does a great job, actually.

    But, at the very end, the Assistant Director who yells “quiet on the set” of the movie within the movie, is Godard! So, in this one movie, there’s a famous director playing a version of himself, and another famous director, in fact, that very movie’s director, playing his assistant. Awesome.

  11. How about Harold Ramis as Dr. Betts in As Good as it Gets, and Lawrence Kasdan as Dr. Green the psychiatrist in same movie.

    Harold Ramis in Groundhog day (psychiatrist).

  12. How about Harold Ramis as Dr. Betts in As Good as it Gets, and Lawrence Kasdan as Dr. Green the psychiatrist in same movie.

    Harold Ramis in Groundhog day (psychiatrist).

  13. How about Lawrence Kasden in Grand Canyon in the scene where Steve Martin is reviewing a movie and says “you took out the money shot!” That’s Kasden and his wife Meg in the back.

  14. How about Lawrence Kasden in Grand Canyon in the scene where Steve Martin is reviewing a movie and says “you took out the money shot!” That’s Kasden and his wife Meg in the back.

  15. Oliver Stone plays himself in one of the many cameos in Ivan Reitman’s Dave (1993). Interviewed by Larry King, Stone presents a conspiracy theory that’s also the plot of the film.

  16. Oliver Stone plays himself in one of the many cameos in Ivan Reitman’s Dave (1993). Interviewed by Larry King, Stone presents a conspiracy theory that’s also the plot of the film.

  17. Spike Lee:

    3 A.M. (2001)….Filmaker
    Summer of Sam (1999) …. John Jeffries
    Girl 6 (1996) …. Jimmy
    Clockers (1995) …. Chucky
    Crooklyn (1994) …. Snuffy
    Malcolm X (1992) …. Shorty
    Jungle Fever (1991) …. Cyrus
    Mo’ Better Blues (1990) …. Giant
    Do the Right Thing (1989) …. Mookie
    School Daze (1988) …. Half-Pint
    She’s Gotta Have It (1986) …. Mars Blackmon

  18. Spike Lee:

    3 A.M. (2001)….Filmaker
    Summer of Sam (1999) …. John Jeffries
    Girl 6 (1996) …. Jimmy
    Clockers (1995) …. Chucky
    Crooklyn (1994) …. Snuffy
    Malcolm X (1992) …. Shorty
    Jungle Fever (1991) …. Cyrus
    Mo’ Better Blues (1990) …. Giant
    Do the Right Thing (1989) …. Mookie
    School Daze (1988) …. Half-Pint
    She’s Gotta Have It (1986) …. Mars Blackmon

  19. Curtis Hanson, for no apparent reason, is at a dinner party with Meryl Streep in “Adaptation.” David Cronenberg has an unforgettable cameo at the end of “To Die For.” And of course, John Landis cast dozens of directors in supporting roles in the films immediately following the “Twilight Zone” disaster, I guess to demonstrate solidarity or something.

  20. Curtis Hanson, for no apparent reason, is at a dinner party with Meryl Streep in “Adaptation.” David Cronenberg has an unforgettable cameo at the end of “To Die For.” And of course, John Landis cast dozens of directors in supporting roles in the films immediately following the “Twilight Zone” disaster, I guess to demonstrate solidarity or something.

  21. John Waters appears in his “Hairspray” as a quack hypno-therapist; in the musical remake (which he did not direct) he appears as a raincoat-wearing flasher. Both brief, witty, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.

    I would have included Spike Lee’s on-screen appearances in the same category as M. Night Shyamalan’s pointless, wooden cameos.

  22. John Waters appears in his “Hairspray” as a quack hypno-therapist; in the musical remake (which he did not direct) he appears as a raincoat-wearing flasher. Both brief, witty, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.

    I would have included Spike Lee’s on-screen appearances in the same category as M. Night Shyamalan’s pointless, wooden cameos.

  23. Oh, yeah! That Cronenberg cameo at the end of “To Die For” is one of my favorites. I think he was perfectly cast in that little part.

    How about voice-only cameos? I’m pretty sure there’s a scene in Young Frankenstein where you hear (but don’t see) director Mel Brooks shout a line. Of course, he also provided the sound of the cat yowling during the dart game between Frankenstein and the police commandant. And Harold Ramis directed National Lampoon’s Vacation, but doesn’t appear in it – except at the end, when the family is being arrested at Wallyworld. He (playing one of the cops) shouts something from off-screen.

  24. Oh, yeah! That Cronenberg cameo at the end of “To Die For” is one of my favorites. I think he was perfectly cast in that little part.

    How about voice-only cameos? I’m pretty sure there’s a scene in Young Frankenstein where you hear (but don’t see) director Mel Brooks shout a line. Of course, he also provided the sound of the cat yowling during the dart game between Frankenstein and the police commandant. And Harold Ramis directed National Lampoon’s Vacation, but doesn’t appear in it – except at the end, when the family is being arrested at Wallyworld. He (playing one of the cops) shouts something from off-screen.

  25. There were a ton of cameos in Spies Like Us. Joel Coen, Michael Apted, Sam Raimi, Larry Cohen, Martin Brest and BB KIng (ok, not a director) were guarding the Drive-In theater.

    Beat That!!

  26. There were a ton of cameos in Spies Like Us. Joel Coen, Michael Apted, Sam Raimi, Larry Cohen, Martin Brest and BB KIng (ok, not a director) were guarding the Drive-In theater.

    Beat That!!

  27. A few random comments:
    Scorsese’s appearance in “Taxi Driver” actually creates something of a continuity error, since you can alse clearly see him sitting in front of the campaign office earlier in the film.

    My favorite director’s cameo comes from Paul Bartel’s car-chase classic “Cannonball”. (Sorry, couldn’t find a clip of it). Bartel plays a gangster in the film and in one scene is shown eating Kentucky Fried Chicken with two rival hoods, Martin Scorsese and Sylvester Stallone.

  28. A few random comments:
    Scorsese’s appearance in “Taxi Driver” actually creates something of a continuity error, since you can alse clearly see him sitting in front of the campaign office earlier in the film.

    My favorite director’s cameo comes from Paul Bartel’s car-chase classic “Cannonball”. (Sorry, couldn’t find a clip of it). Bartel plays a gangster in the film and in one scene is shown eating Kentucky Fried Chicken with two rival hoods, Martin Scorsese and Sylvester Stallone.

  29. nice post….i just love quentin’s cameos, the guy is genius….
    you forgot a big cameo in the movie Quiz Show, where it appears 3 directors: Martin Scorsese, Barry Levinson, and Douglas McGrath….
    very good list

  30. nice post….i just love quentin’s cameos, the guy is genius….
    you forgot a big cameo in the movie Quiz Show, where it appears 3 directors: Martin Scorsese, Barry Levinson, and Douglas McGrath….
    very good list

  31. David Cronenberg as a Buttonface/Decker the psychopathic psychiatrist in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. Spike Jonze as an EMT at the conclusion of David Fincher’s The Game. Horror directors and writers in Sleepwalkers: John Landis Lab technician, Stephen King The graveyard caretaker, Joe Dante Lab assistant, Tobe Hooper Forensic technician, Clive Barker Forensic technician. Peter Jackson as the murderous Santa in Hot Fuzz. Michael Bay as leader of Frat Boys gang in Mystery Men (“Dude, more beer!”). David Lynch as a spice miner in Dune (“Yes–yes, Sire!”). Sam Raimi as the Crazy Gunman in Miller’s Crossing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *