Ten Great Acting Roles by Directors (in the Films of Others)

Usually, directors are behind the scenes, spinning their vision into a movie. But they don’t always stay there. Occasionally, they’ll appear on screen. Sometimes, it can be a leading role. Other times, it’s merely a cameo. Here are ten great acting performances by directors in the films of others.

Fritz Lang as Fritz Lang, Contempt
Lang’s films- especially his silent films- are some of the best movies ever made. But before I’d ever seen a single film that he directed, I saw him playing the director in the film within Godard’s film, Contempt. How’s that for post-modern cinema? A director acting in a film in the role of… a director. Making it even more off-kilter, he didn’t even play a fictional director. He played himself, and it was precisely what the movie called for.

Francois Truffaut as Claude Lacombe, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Steven Spielberg has a profound respect for cinema. In particular, he has a profound respect for Truffaut. So is it any wonder at all that when Spielberg needed a French-speaking scientist in one of his best early films, he’d choose Truffaut?

John Huston as Noah Cross, Chinatown
Huston must have had a soft spot for the new group of directors that crashed the Hollywood party in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Huston possessed the same rebellious streak that they did. And so he appeared across from Jack Nicholson in Roman Polanski’s masterpiece. In the end, he wound up playing one of the all-time great villains.

Cecil B. DeMille as Cecil B. DeMille, Sunset Blvd.

Using DeMille gave the film an excellent touch of reality. And his presence allowed us to learn so much more about just how precipitous the fall from grace had been for Norma Desmond. DeMille was one of three actors in the film with directorial credits, along with Buster Keaton and Erich von Stroheim. Choosing one out of the three to include was not an easy task.

Steven Spielberg as Cook County Assessor’s Office Clerk, The Blues Brothers
I hadn’t seen The Blues Brothers for a great long while when I watched it a few years ago. And my jaw just about hit the floor when I recognized the office clerk. Take another look, just in case you weren’t aware of this little bit of cinematic fun.

Orson Welles as Lew Lord, The Muppet Movie

After trekking cross-country in the hopes of becoming rich and famous, Kermit and the gang arrive at the film studio. They finagle their way around the secretary to find… Orson Welles. Upon meeting Kermit, he then instructs the secretary to “prepare the standard rich and famous contract”. If only life were that simple. Mel Brooks, another director, also had a role as Dr. Max Krassman.

Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams
There’s so much makeup and costume around him that you can barely recognize him. But he’s in there. The voice is a dead giveaway.

Victor Sjöström as Doctor Isak Borg, Wild Strawberries

When Ingmar Bergman was a child, the films of Victor Sjöström inspired him to become a filmmaker in his own right. In fact, meeting Sjöström was an integral part of the early development of Bergman’s capabilities. And so Bergman turned to Sjöström to star in his Wild Strawberries.

Roger Corman as FBI Director Hayden Burke, Silence of the Lambs

Corman influenced a great deal of directors. He had such an influence that James Cameron refers to it as graduating from “the Roger Corman Film School”. As such, many of his protegés have given him cameo roles in many of their own films, including everything from The Godfather: Part II to The Howling. Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs is one of the higher profile films on the Corman cameo list.

Peter Jackson as Thief Dressed as Santa (uncredited), Hot Fuzz

It wasn’t much of a role at all. He only appeared for millisecond in the middle of one of Edgar Wright’s brilliant montages detailing Sgt. Nicholas Angel’s career as a policeman. But I burst out laughing in the theater when I saw it, not knowing that it was Peter Jackson. The still image of Santa Claus knifing a cop in the hand gets me every time. I’ve gotten more laughter in my lifetime out of that one image than I have a whole lot of respectably funny films.


Filed under French Film, Ingmar Bergman, Japanese Film, Movies, Swedish Film

24 responses to “Ten Great Acting Roles by Directors (in the Films of Others)

  1. Really clever premise. I like the John Huston one in particular. I gotta give you a hard time about one thing….if you are going to put Welles in, it has got to be for his turn as Harry Lime in The Third Man. He’s only in it for 5 minutes, but the cuckoo clock speech is fantastic.

  2. By the way…thanks for not putting in Woody Allen from Scenes From A Mall!!!

  3. As soon as I saw the title of this post, I thought about Scorsese in Kurosawa’s Dreams. I thought for sure you’d skip it, but then again, we are talking about Scorsese afterall.

    I’m with Keith on the John Huston/Noah Cross role. Chinatown is a perfect film (script, acting, cinematography, score, and so much more…) and John Huston is delightfully creepy in it.

    Great post!

  4. No Ron Howard and Richie Cunningham?

  5. Dan

    Some excellent choices here. I always like seeing Scorsese – I think the guy has some skill as an actor but it would be hard to find a better acting-director than Orson Welles. Excellent list.

    • If I was doing a list of directors in their own movies, his bit in Taxi Driver definitely would’ve gotten the nod.

      • Agreed! His bit in Taxi Driver was hilarious in a very creepy way. Which reminds me, I haven’t seen that film in a really really long time. The DVD I own has a really cool documentary about the making of it, though I’m sure you’ve seen it. 🙂

  6. Stu

    I have to agree with Keith on Orson Welles. Also, I know he never was much of an actor, but I enjoyed Woody Allen films so much more when he was an on-screen player.

  7. Don

    So give us some insights here. Do you think they just get the itch to get in front of the camera? Or are they such good actors because they see good actors playing their roles. Or perhaps they see what actors do and say “I could do that”, so they try their hand at acting? What fuels this fire?

    • If I were to guess, in a lot of these cases anyway, it’s a matter of them helping out a peer, someone whose work they respect. Also, I think they probably enjoy hamming it up in front of the camera. They’re usually behind the camera where they have to take everything so seriously. In front of it, they aren’t responsible for all of the things they would be behind the camera.

      I think in the case of Jackson/Edgar Wright, it was two friends talking to each other, Jackson telling him how much he’d enjoyed Shaun of the Dead, and then the cameo (must have) come up.

      In Scorsese’s case, I’d venture it was something similar- two titans of filmmaking having a conversation about something and then Kurosawa says “Hey, you know, I have the perfect role for you…”.

  8. rtm

    Ha! I remember that Peter Jackson cameo in Hot Fuzz, though it’s hard to spot him under that santa suit.

  9. Vince

    Hey John,

    Wondering if you’ve seen the films of Jodorowsky? I’ve only seen parts of the early films (I’ve seen Santa Sangre) but they seem crazy interesting and I believe he stars in them as well… I’ve been meaning to get the box set – they’ve been out of print for decades.

    • I’ve seen two- El Topo, and Holy Mountain. They’re really a sight to behold- very, very challenging cinema. I enjoyed both, and probably enjoyed El Topo a little more. IIRC, those films were funded by Lucy in the Sky-era John Lennon. I could definitely be wrong about that, though. It says a lot about the movies if true.

      • Vince

        The set’s going for $17 or so on Amazon so I’ll probably pick it up soon – just seemed something up your alley novelty-wise. Good post btw – my favorite is Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Blvd and Truffaut in Close Encounters. 2 great directors who are not bad actors.

        • I loved von Stroheim in Grand Illusion. If not for my profound love of Sunset Blvd., Grand Illusion would’ve made the list instead.

          Great tip on Jodorowsky. Thanks!

  10. I want to be Alejandro Jodorowsky when I grow up.

  11. @da_Rhettster

    I have watched The Blues Brothers probably 50 times. It’s one of the seminal movies of my childhood. I STILL get pumped when I play the soundtrack and they’re a karaoke staple but I NEVER knew…. never had an INKLING that Spielberg was that guy. It just never occurred to me. Thanks for that.

  12. Victor Sjöström really does a great part in Wild Strawberries and it really became a passing the torch moment between two of the greatest directors in Sweden (I still hold Bo Widerberg as no 1).

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