Soldier (Fred Smith): "Well, what did you think of the play?" Boris (Woody Allen): "Oh, it was weak. I was never interested. Although the part of the doctor was played with gusto and verve and the girl had a delightful cameo role." (LOVE AND DEATH, 1975)
A cameo is defined as a "brief appearance of a known person in a work of the performing arts. Such a role needs not be filled by an actor: short appearances by film directors, politicians, athletes, and other celebrities are common" (Wikipedia, of course).
As we all know sometimes one of the only good things in a particular film is a juicy unexpected cameo - not that all these were all unexpected, a number were highly publicised or widely rumoured way in advance. So many movies have cameos that it was very hard to pare down the best from all the multiple Ben Stiller, Austin Powers, and Zucker Bros. genre, but I settled for a nice smattering that doesn't deny those films their cameo cred but includes some overlooked surprise walk-on gems as well.
I decided to not include the many Hitchcock cameos or any other directors who often appear in their own films but made an exception (#18) when a director appeared in someone else's film.
So don't go to the bathroom or blink 'cause you may miss them here goes the cameo countdown:
2. Orson Welles in THE MUPPET MOVIE (Dir. James Frawley, 1979)
THE MUPPET MOVIE and all subsequent Muppet movies have been crammed with cameos (Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, John Cleese, Elliot Gould, Cloris Leachman, etc.) but Welles's appearance is a stone cold classic. Why? Because it introduced generation after generation to a true cinematic genius, at a low point in his career it briefly restored a sense of dignified power by casting him as studio head Lew Lord (based on mogul Lew Grade), and because nobody but nobody could give such an elegant reading to the line "prepare the standard 'Rich and Famous' contract for Kermit the Frog and Company." That's why.
3. David Bowie in ZOOLANDER
(Dir. Ben Stiller, 2001) All of Ben Stiller's movies have A-list cameos but Bowie is the only one who gets his own freeze frame flashy credit and a snippet of his hit "Let's Dance" to frame his intro when he steps out of the crowd to volunteer his services as judge for the crucial walk-off between Zoolander (Stiller) and his rival Hansel (Owen Wilson). With very little effort Bowie shows everyone in the room and in the audience what real screen presence is all about.
4. The Three Stooges in IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (Dir. Stanley Kramer, 1963)
Talk about very little effort! The famous slapstick trio only appear for 5 seconds as firemen at an airport. In a movie that may as way be called Cameo City they just stand there in the middle of the choas saying and doing nothing and are funnier and all the more memorable for it. IT'S A MAD MAD... practically invented the modern celebrity cameo - hence it making this so-called modern movies list.
5. Keith Richards in PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN: AT WORLD'S END (Dir. Gore Verbinski, 2007)
Definitely not a surprise cameo - Richards was supposed to be in PIRATES 2 but had Stones concert commitments so the word was out was beforehand. The joke of course is that because Johnny Depp modeled his Jack Sparrow character on the behavorial nuances of Richards it's apt to have the craggy decadent guitarist show up as Sparrow's father. It's predictable but pleasing how it goes down even if it is the cinematic equivalent of those Saturday Night Live sketches like "Janet Reno Dance Party" or "The Joe Pesci Show" where the real person walks on to stare down their imitator.
7. Roger Moore in CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER
(Dir. Blake Edwards, 1983)
Now, this may be the most ridiculous cameo here. Get this - Roger Moore (sorry, Sir Roger Moore) plays Inspector Clouseau after plastic surgery at the end of the second Panther movie made after Peter Sellers death. It doesn't matter that it doesn't fit at all into the continuity of the series - even at its best there have been character and narrative inconsistencies throughout - it's still a highlight. Moore does a passable Sellers impression and appears to be having a ball. For the first time in the almost 2 hours of this tedious unnecessary sequel we are too.
8. Shirley MacLaine in DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (Dir. Albert Brooks, 1991) When recently deceased yuppie Brooks has to go on trial for his existence it's only fitting that Shirley MacLaine would show up to spoof her reincarnation-obsessed image, isn't it? She nails it as the tour guide at the Afterlife Pavilion that Brooks and his date Meryl Streep attend.
9. Ethel Merman in AIRPLANE!
(Dirs. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, 1980)
When seeing this movie as a kid and naturally thinking every single thing in it was a joke it was even funnier when a friend pointed out "that really was Ethel Merman". In a wartime hospital room flashback Ted Striker (Robert Hays) comments about one of his fellow wounded - "Lieutenant Hurwitz - severe shell-shock. Thinks he's Ethel Merman." Cut to : Merman bursting out of bed singing - "You'll be swell, you'll be great. Gonna have the whole world on a plate. Startin' here, startin' now. Honey, everything's comin' up roses..." As she (he?) is sedated by staff Striker remarks "war is Hell."
10. Rodney Dangerfield in NATURAL BORN KILLERS (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1994)
Presented as a flashback the surreal sitcom satire "I Love Mallory" serves as a commentary on the murderer's memories being corrupted by too much TV, but it's really a showcase for the most savage acting Dangerfield has ever done. As Mallory's (Juliette Lewis) abusive incestuous and just plain gruesome father Dangerfield steals the movie while repulsing us and there's an innocuous laugh track punctuating every line. The most perfectly unpleasant cameo here for sure.
11. Bruce Springsteen in HIGH FIDELITY (Dir. Stephen Frears, 2000)
Like Keith Richards, Springsteen had never acted in a movie so it's pretty cool that the Boss would appear in a day dream of protagonist Rob Gordon (John Cusack). Plucking some notes on the gee-tar he inspires Rob to hunt down his ex-girlfriends. "Give that big final good luck and goodbye to your all time top-five and just move on down the road" Springsteen advises. Sigh - just like one of his songs.
12. Elvis Costello in SPICE WORLD (Dir. Bob Spiers, 1997)
As a bartender and credited as 'Himself' Costello plays a nice tongue-in-cheek note as the Girls talk about their possible flash-in-the-pan prospects. It should also be mentioned that Costello also made cool cameo appearances in AMERICATHON, STRAIGHT TO HELL, 200 CIGARETTES, TALLADEGA NIGHTS, and AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME.
13. Gene Hackman in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (Dir. Mel Brooks, 1974) Great uncredited cameo in which Hackman plays a bearded blind man named Harold who gets a prayed for visit by Frankenstein's monster (Peter Boyle). Harold serves the monster soup, wine, and cigars but fails to teach him that "fire is good" prompting a sudden exit. Harold exclaims - "Wait! Where are you going....I was gonna make espresso!"
14. Marshall McLuhan in ANNIE HALL (Dir. Woody Allen, 1977)
The best example of one upmanship in a cameo that I can think of. At a theater in Manhattan (where else?) Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is annoyed by the loud mouth pretensious rantings of the pseudo intellectual (Russell Horton) behind him and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) in line. Alvy argues with the guy - "...and the funny thing is - Marshall McLuhan, you don't know anything about Marshall McLuhan." The guy responds "really? I happen to teach a class at Columbia called 'TV, media and culture' so I think my insights into Mr. McLuhan have a great deal of validity." Alvy then says "I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here" and presents him from offscreen. McLuhan eyes the guy and says "I've heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work..." Alvy looks at the camera and says "boy, if life were only like this!"
15. Kurt Vonnegut in BACK TO SCHOOL (Dir. Alan Metter, 1986) Overage college student Rodney Dangerfield enlists Kurt Vonnegut to write his term paper on - yep, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut shows up at Dangerfield's door and has only one line which is just introducing himself but for our purposes that's all he has to do. When Dangerfield's paper gets an F (teacher Sally Kellerman : "whoever did write it doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut") he curses the famous author over the phone and adds "next time I'll call Robert Ludlum!"
16. Jim Garrison in JFK (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1991) The definition of an ironic cameo. New Orleans District Attorney and controversial conspiracy theorist Garrison (who is portrayed by Kevin Costner in the film) does his only acting ever * as his chief rival Chief Justice Earl Warren. As the entire movie is an elaborate rebutal to the Warren Report's conclusions on the assassination and largely based on Garrison's book (On The Trail Of The Assassins) this is pretty juicy indeed.
* Wait! I'm wrong - he did a cameo in THE BIG EASY (1987). My bad.
17. Stan Lee in MALLRATS (Dir. Kevin Smith, 1996) The Spiderman creator and Marvel Comics main-man has done cameos in many comics adapted or related movies (SPIDERMAN, THE HULK, X-MEN, FANTASTIC FOUR, etc.) but this one set the standard for the Stan Lee cameo. He plays himself so he's treated as a God by comic book collector geek Brodie (Jason Lee) and as such he rises above the base level humour even when saying lines like "he seems to be really hung up on super heroes' sex organs."
18. Martin Scorsese – THE MUSE (Dir. Albert Brooks, 1999) In a movie in which TITANIC director James Cameron also cameos and a number of Hollywood folk play themselves Marty sure has a nice bit - blabbing to struggling screenwriter Brooks - "I want to do a remake of RAGING BULL with a really thin guy. Not just thin, but REALLY thin. Thin and angry, thin and angry, thin and angry. Can you see it?"
19. Spike Milligan in MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN (Dir. Terry Jones, 1979) Like the 3 Stooges this is a blink and you miss it cameo. While filming in Tunisia the Pythons found Milligan vacationing and got him to do a scene. For those of you readers who don't know Milligan - he was a huge influence on Python as a member of the Goon Show (which also featured Peter Sellers) and various other radio and TV programs. When the crowd following the reluctant Messiah Brian (Graham Chapman) flocks off into the hills, Milligan's character, named Spike in the credits, walks off shot not following them. He never was one to follow the latest trends.
20. Frank Sinatra in CANNONBALL RUN II (Dir. Hal Needham, 1984)
Without a doubt the worst movie on the list but one that made it because it's the Chairman of the Board we're talking about here! I'm highly amused at this cameo 'cause it's so cheap and cheesy how it's done. Roger Ebert described it best in his original '84 review: "There isn't a single shot showing Sinatra and Reynolds at the same time. Also, there's something funny about Sinatra's voice: He doesn't seem to be quite matching the tone of the things said to him.
That's the final tip-off: Sinatra did his entire scene by sitting down at a desk and reading his lines into the camera, and then, on another day, Reynolds and the others looked into the camera and pretended to be looking at him. The over-the-shoulder shots are of a double. This is the movie equivalent to phoning it in." - Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times Jan. 1, 1984)
Robert Altman's THE PLAYER was left off the list despite (or maybe because) it being almost completely constructed around cameos by countless celebrities but for the record my favorite cameo in it is Buck Henry as himself pitching "THE GRADUATE PART II" to Tim Robbin's slimy studio exec character. Send your cameo ommisions to: firstname.lastname@example.org