What are the greatest cameo roles in cinema history?
Everyone in Hollywood loves doing a cameo.
There’s nothing better than spotting a big name in a small role, or a background player who should really be a foreground player. They can be fleeting, an entire scene, or even just a voice. Sometimes, cameos can even receive more acclaim than the main roles.
Cameos are so commonplace that picking a “definitive” list is bloody difficult, but I’ve whittled down my own personal top ten. Please submit your own suggestions below, along with my honourable mentions.
10. Stan Lee in Mallrats (1995)
Kevin Smith’s sophomore effort has faced an uphill battle over the years. On release, it was a box office bomb and a critical punching bag, but Mallrats has amassed a sizeable cult following since. Looking back on it now, with the incessant superhero references, Mallrats seemed to predict the resurgence of comic book movies in American cinema; in particular the work of Marvel legend Stan Lee. In a film full of geek minutia, the sequence where avowed comic collector Brodie (Jason Lee, no relation) comes face-to-face with the publishing icon is the obvious highlight. Despite Stan offering a few pearls of wisdom to the love-struck slacker, all Brodie can ask is if The Thing’s dick is also made of rock. Crude yet thoroughly respectful of Lee’s legacy, his cameo is infinitely better than any of his appearances in Marvel movies.
Factoid: Notice that Lee looks off-camera occasionally? He was using cue-cards as he couldn’t remember Smith’s colourful dialogue.
9. Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Clooney’s directorial début is one of those criminally underrated films that deserve to be seen by more people. A sharp script by Charlie Kaufman and a wonderfully nuanced performance from Sam Rockwell are two reasons to give it a shot. The third is one of the more creative cameos in recent memory… make that double-cameo. Fittingly for a film based on a game show host’s memoirs, the scene takes place on the set of The Dating Game (or Blind Date if you’re British). As a young lady questions three bachelors, the camera pans behind the partition, revealing the contestants to be Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and a whiny, overweight slob. She picks the latter. Short, sweet and wickedly funny.
8. Bill Murray in Zombieland (2009)
There are comedic actors. And then there’s Bill Murray. One of Hollywood’s few respected funny men, his appearance in the zombie comedy that isn’t Shaun of the Dead might be the highlight of the film. Zombieland isn’t original but it is occasionally inspired, and has the decade’s most talked-about cameo. As himself, Murray lets loose in a fantastic homage to his signature role in Ghostbusters and gets one of the best lines. Asked if he has any regrets in life, Murray dryly responds “Garfield maybe.” Classic.
Factoid: The production went through several big names before casting Murray. Alternatives included Joe Pesci, Mark Hamill, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Matthew McConaughey. Also, make sure you stick around after the credits for a bonus scene between Murray and Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson).
7. William Hurt in A History of Violence (2005)
I went back-and-forth on whether or not to include this one. William Hurt isn’t an actor that usually leaves an impression but he shines here in David Cronenberg’s understated thriller. At just under ten-minutes, it’s longer than the average cameo and not only does Hurt receive fourth billing but he was also Oscar-nominated for the part. As sinister gangster Richie Cusack, he exudes a quiet menace and his interplay with Viggo Mortensen is one of the high points of the picture. Like most of Cronenberg’s output, A History of Violence is a polarising film but a significant one in my opinion. It just might be Hurt’s finest work, too.
6. Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder (2008)
Few cameos are as nutty as Cruise’s in Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder. While many people dismissed it as an attempt to rebuild his then-tarnished image, there’s no denying the energy (and laughs) Cruise brings to the part. The Scientologist is almost unrecognisable as tubby studio mogul Les Grossman, buried under prosthetics and a bald-cap. It’s easily his most uninhibited performance since Magnolia, unleashing a verbal tirade on his co-stars that is both hilarious and ridiculously quotable. Despite the outlandish nature of his scenes, you really believe that money-hungry Hollywood producers are exactly like this. It was rumoured that Cruise would be bringing Grossman back to screens in his own feature, an idea that sounds great on paper but is unlikely to make quite the same impact if it ever happens. The miniature movie star may be crazy but he definitely has a sense of humour.
5. Quentin Tarantino in Desperado (1995)
A lot of critics like to dig their claws into Tarantino these days, especially in the acting department. While the Pulp Fiction director will never be mistaken for a real movie star, his brief role in Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi remake is too perfect to leave off the list, hinging on a gag that defines his whole part. This is easily one of the longest onscreen jokes in cinema history and delivered to none other than Cheech Marin.
Factoid: Desperado marks the first collaboration between Rodriguez and Tarantino, which would continue with From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City and Grindhouse.
4. Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
“Fuck YOU! That’s my name!”
Don’t, under any circumstances, piss-off Alec Baldwin. As real estate heavy Blake, Baldwin paints a picture of a man you really wouldn’t want to mess with… or, at the very least, cajole into an argument. There are a few great things about this sequence, the first of which is David Mamet’s cracking dialogue. Baldwin performs these lines as if he was born to say them, and in a scene which includes Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris and Jack Lemmon, he dominates the screen. No small feat. Baldwin wouldn’t be this good again until The Departed.
3. Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction (1994)
There isn’t a bad performance in Tarantino’s masterpiece but weirdo character actor Christopher Walken makes the most of his five-minutes. It’s a simple story of a man who kept a gold watch for safe-keeping in the most unspeakable of body cavities. With sharp comic-timing (“he died of dysentery and gave me the watch”), Walken is at his electrifying best as Captain Koons. I don’t know if Tarantino cast him as a nod to The Deer Hunter but it wouldn’t surprise me. When Walken gets a lifetime achievement award, it’ll be this scene playing in the background.
2. Alfred Hitchcock in EVERYTHING
Yeah, OK, I’m cheating a little bit here, but Hitchcock more or less invented the art of movie cameos. He made a total of 37 appearances in his films from 1927 to 1976. It’s impossible to pick a single favourite from his long filmography, so how about all of them?
1. Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver (1976)
Who knew the “greatest living filmmaker” could also act? Long before he provided vocal support in Shark Tale, Scorsese gave his iconic anti-hero Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) the creeps in Taxi Driver, a masterful slice of urban nihilism brimming with despicable characters. Which includes the director’s short but memorable appearance as one of Bickle’s passengers. He plays a wacko intent on killing his adulterous wife. With one profane, sickening line – “you should see what a .44 Magnum does to a woman’s pussy” – Marty just about convinces. Chilling and indelible, his cameo is all the more remarkable considering it was a last-minute decision; the original actor failed to appear on the night of filming. Just for pure, cocaine-fuelled gusto, Scorsese wins the top spot.
Factoid: It isn’t his only cameo in the film. You can see him admiring Betsy (Cybil Shepard) in her dream-like introduction.
Honourable Mentions: Orson Welles in The Muppets Movie (1979), Martin Sheen in Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993), Samuel L. Jackson in Out of Sight (1998), Gus Van Sant in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts in The Player (1992), Hugh Jackman in X-Men: First Class (2011).