Top 10 Directors Who Played Secondary Roles In Their Own Movies

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Because of the occupational hazards of the job, or because of the Type-A personality required, film directors tend to have famously large egos. Because of this, it’s somewhat surprising that the main creative force behind a film would choose to cast themselves in anything but the title role. Here are examples of directors who cast themselves in lesser roles:

10. M. Night Shyamalan

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Shyamalan, who skyrocketed to critical respectability with his debut, has had small parts in all of his movies, starting with The Sixth Sense where he plays a doctor with five lines in the film. He also plays a stadium drug dealer in Unbreakable. In Signs he accidentally kills the Reverend’s (Mel Gibson) wife by running her over (pictured).

Shyamalan’s critics have noted that, as Shyamalan’s ego and ambition grew, so did his acting parts. He gave himself a juicier role in Signs as Ray Reddy, the veterinarian involved in the death of the protagonist’s wife. In Lady in the Water, he went all out, and cast himself as a writer working on a tome that an enchanted nymph predicted will one day save humanity. Casting himself as a savior was seen as a sign of Shyamalan’s arrogance, and it didn’t help that the movie was nearly despised by critics, with just a 24% showing on Rotten Tomatoes.

In the two films he has released since, Shyamalan has restricted himself to a voice part, and an uncredited role. The films have still sucked, but at least he learned his lesson.

9. Denzel Washington

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When a star like Denzel Washington wants to direct a film, he very often has to appear in front of the camera too, so that his movie is marketable. In the case of Washington ’s two films, Antoine Fisher and Great Debaters, Washington cast himself in the role of the mentor figure to a younger hero. In Fisher, Washington plays the military psychiatrist to the titular Navy seaman, and in Debaters Washington plays the distinguished vagabond debate coach to a group of college students at an historically black college, aiming to dethrone the reigning national debate champs.

Washington has stated that his goal with directing each film was to help pave the way for a new generation of African-American actors; he even went so far as to cast unknown Derek Luke, who was working in the Columbia Pictures studio gift shop at the time. So it was fitting that Washington played the mentor, both on and off-screen.

8. Mike White

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So Mike White isn’t a director per se, but a writer taking various roles is still pretty damn cool. Originally a writer on Freaks and Geeks and Dawson’s Creek, White created some of the most idiosyncratically funny screenplays of the past decade with Orange County, School of Rock, Nacho Libre, and even veered a little toward the dark side with The Good Girl. In all of these films, White plays a supporting role. In Good Girl, he was a Bible-obsessed security guard, and in Orange County, he played an English teacher. In School of Rock (perhaps his biggest role to date,) he was the schlubby substitute teacher Ned Schneebly, whose identity Jack Black assumes.

White started playing small roles in his films because, as a writer and not a director, he didn’t have easy access to the set, yet wanted to be present where his film was. Although White has limited acting skills, his schlubby straight man character often compliments his films as a moral barometer of sorts.

7. Roman Polanski

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Oscar-winning director Polanski cast himself in Chinatown, as a knife-wielding thug who slices Jack Nicholson as he’s investigating a land-grabbing plot. Although it’s not a very big part, there’s a certain symbolism to it that’s been suggested by film scholars. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown was a neo-noir film, or a film in the style of the hard-boiled detective films of the 1940’s. One of the first examples of that is the 1941 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon, which was directed by John Huston. Huston, who also had pretty good acting chaps, is cast as the main villain of the film so, by playing one of his thugs, Polanski is cluing us in that he’s a disciple of the man who invented the genre.

6. Dennis Dugan

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The director behind Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, as well as Saving Silverman and Beverly Hills Ninja, Dugan actually got into directing through his failure as an actor. Dugan was a television actor in the 1970’s appearing on Columbo, MASH, and The Rockford Files. His most famous role was in Moonlighting, as the husband of main character Maddie Hayes.

He is more successful as a director than an actor, but has inserted himself into his films as well. He was the football referee in Silverman, the golf tour supervisor in Gilmore, a neighbor in Big Daddy and, in his biggest role, the dad in Problem Child.

5. Kevin Smith

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Kevin Smith loves to talk. He has a series on TV called “Comic Book Men,” which mostly just consists of him talking to his friends. He’s known for holding arguments and lively debates with his fans, and goes onto the message boards of his own website to continue discussions.

Considering these facts, you might not originally guess that Kevin Smith plays a character named Silent Bob in his films. Although not completely mute (he’s had a couple grandiose speeches), Silent Bob has appeared in Smith’s first five films, as well as Clerks II and an episode of Degrassi alongside hetero lifemate Jay.

In an interview with the Cornell Daily Sun, Smith said that he didn’t originally intend to have Jay and Silent Bob in every film. He just happened to like the characters after seeing how they turned out in Clerks, and thought a good way of keeping continuity to his films would be to have them recur. As to why Bob is silent, he answered, ““I just assumed it was just because of hanging out with Jay. If you’re hanging out with a dude that’s kind of a motormouth, then eventually you probably just give up, because, really, you realize, ‘All I need is an ear to listen.’”

4. Michael Schur

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The co-creator and co-executive producer of The Office (and sister show Parks and Recreation) is Mike Schur, who plays the role of Dwight’s weird cousin Mose. Mose lives with Dwight, and helps him run his beet farm. Mose is also somewhat of a scene-stealer. He proves to be a most irresponsible valet in “The Garden Party,” he takes part in an elaborate heist to steal a DNA sample of Dwight’s supposed daughter in “Free Family Portrait Studio,” and personally delivers a raccoon to Dwight to help haze the new HR manager in “Goodbye Toby.”

3. Spike Lee

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Spike Lee’s roles in his films have varied, from bit parts to being the centerpiece of the entire movie. His small parts include the news reporter John Jeffries in Summer of Sam, and the construction worker in Clockers. In his most important film, however, Do The Right Thing, Lee was in the center of the action as pizza delivery boy Mookie. For the most of the film, Mookie was largely passive to the increasing level of tension, much like a director passively absorbs the action occurring around him. In the film’s final act, Mookie is called to action in the same way that Spike Lee has said he is compelled as a filmmaker to use his stories as a way to comment on racial politics.

Similarly, Lee plays sidekick and confidante in films like Mo Better Blues and Jungle Fever, in roles that also make him out to be the movie’s mouthpiece of sorts. Film analysis 101 aside, what’s also interesting about Spike Lee is that, while he’s not a particularly versatile actor, and mostly plays himself, he plays the part well. The reason his parts usually work so well is that Spike Lee the writer knows how to tailor to Spike Lee the actor, if that wasn’t too mindboggling of an analogy.

2. Woody Allen

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Writer-director Woody Allen is considered one of the most innovative directors in the field of comedy, but he has a surprisingly limited range of characters in his films. For these reasons, Woody Allen films need a very specific kind of character in the lead: Woody Allen.

The problem is that Woody Allen, like all humans, have an expiration date. Allen will turn 78 this year and, as a result, has been casting people to essentially play himself, while he’s relegated himself to being the old man mentor, a la Denzel, in Anything Else and To Rome with Love. He has previously directed romantic films he didn’t star in (Bullets over Broadway and Broadway Purple Rose of Cairo,) but he is now doing it because he has no other option.

1. Alfred Hitchcock

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In the vast majority of his American films, Hitchcock would make a cameo in his films and his fans would eat it up, playing a cinematic game of “Where’s Waldo” with each new release. He often put himself into crowd scenes like in Topaz, Torn Curtain, or Saboteur, daring viewers to pay attention really closely. In more easily-spottable cameos like North By Northwest, he is seen hailing a cab. In The Birds, he’s seen buying a couple birds from a pet shop. In his very last film, Family Plot, his silhouette can be seen through a city office door like his famous TV series.

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Four of his films (including one of his very first in 1927) even include a double cameo. Hitchcock’s biggest challenge was inserting himself into films that shot very tight and limited locations, like The Rope and The Lifeboat. The latter was a film about eight survivors of a ship on sharing a lifeboat, and only had one set throughout the entire film. So how did Hitchcock sneak into the film inconspicuously? One of the characters pulls out a newspaper with Hitchcock on the front page. Cheating? Arguably. Fiendishly clever? Hell yes.


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29 Comments

  1. What about Tarantino? He played in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Inglorious Basterd and Django Unchained.

    • Orrin K (article's author) on

      Mel Brooks could fit, now that I think about it. Honestly I’ve only seen one Quentin Tarantino film from start to finish. Been meaning to watch Django Unchained so that will be two.

  2. Complete FAIL: Not only do I agree with Tarantino and Brooks being misses (as listed above)….Does CLINT EASTWOOD come to mind? Won Best director in films he acted in…and Ben Affleck too.

  3. I thought Tarantino would be #1. Also thought Scorcese deserved a mention particularly in his older films like Taxi Driver

      • This may be just some irrelavent list for our amusement, but it still galls me that he would be mentioned regardless. I guess you are ok with his crimes.

        • That’s ridiculous. The man is a filmmaker. How does acknowledging that fact equate with being ok with his crimes? You’re going to have to talk us through your train of thought here.

  4. I have thought about this one all day. Usually, I do not even comment on my own lists, much less twice on someone elses. I do think that that both Sydney Pollack and Rob Reiner should at least earn some sort of discussion in the comments sections. I actually agree with Polanski and a number one of Hitchcock. I just think that there are a lot more recent mentions on here. Woody Allen was a good selection as well.

    • Orrin K (article's author) on

      Hey, thanks, Jim! Thought provoking is the best reaction I can get. And we’ve done an article together, remember? I’m somewhat limited by what I’ve seen and what I haven’t seen when devising these lists and I’ve seen 5 Sydney Pollack films-Sabrina, Out of Africa, Slender Thread, Tootsie, and The Interpreter-only one of which he appeared in. His best acting roles, like Michael Clayton, were for films he didn’t direct. Rob Reiner’s best acting roles like Bullets Over Broadway or All in the Family wasn’t for stuff he directed either

  5. Most of these aren’t even secondary roles, they’re cameos. Given that, how can you justify having Kevin Smith (who has made arguably one good movie) on this list and not having Martin Scorcese on a list of “top 10 directors…”? What’s the measure of success here? Though I guess we should be thankful Peter Jackson isn’t on the list.

    • Orrin K (article's author) on

      I’ve seen 10 Scorsese films (which I think is a decent number) and he was in zero of those films I saw. I start from my own experiences as a viewer to devise ideas for names on the list. If Scorsese was in none of the films I saw, why would even put his name through imdb to see how many of his own films he’s starred in.

      When I think of Scorsese’s acting career, the first two things that pop in my head are Akira Kurosawa’s film and Shark Tale, neither of which he directed.

      • Taxi Driver is a pretty well regarded, famous film. I assumed somebody writing an article on popular film would have seen it. I guess not.

        • Orrin K (article's author) on

          Not that your criticism is invalid, but this is generally the kind of comment that makes me regret breaking from the standard internet writer practice of not going into the comment section.

          As for you, I’d recommend making less assumptions and you’ll enjoy these lists (or at least this specific one) more or make your own list?

          I could argue that Kevin Smith would be more deserving of Marty Scorsese, That’s not an implication that Smith is a better director but it IS possible to make a top ten list on film that Kevin Smith would be on and Scorsese wouldn’t be on. I think Smith’s insertion into his own films is pretty clever: Especially the irony that he’s a loudmouth in real life and he barely ever talks in his films, not to mention the couple times he does talk, he sounds highly intelligent which I think makes for a nice twist.

          The criteria is two fold: 1) people who impressively inserted themselves into their movies (for me Shamylan fits that bill because he either failed or succeeded spactacularly) and 2) if they make an interesting story. My goal, above all, is to be interesting and
          informative. That’s why Dennis Dugan (whom I thought you would have taken an issue before Kevin Smith), who by all accounts is an awful director, is on this list, because I felt there was a narrative there about how he failed as an actor and stumbled into directing.

          Upon checking imdb, I have now learned that he is indeed in a number of his films in uncredited roles I’ve seen but I don’t see anything particularly impressive about most of Scorsese’s roles that I can directly remember like doing the voiceovers on Color of Money or on Aviator and I see Gangs of New York practically every time it pops up on TV because I love that filmn TV and have NEVER noticed Martin Scorsese’s role as an uncredited “wealthy land owner.”

          I will say this:
          If I magically went back in time and redid this list, Tarantino would be a glaring omission that I would fix. Scorsese’s somewhere in the realm of I’d look into it more and consider it.

          As for Taxi Driver, congratulations, you have uncovered the dark secret that TopTenz does not screen out all writers who have not seen Taxi Driver, the 52nd greatest film in the history of America cinema according to a massive poll conducted by the American Film Institue, before selecting contributors. I would say that I’m qualified to write articles on filmbecuase I’m familiar with Taxi Driver and its historical context and every other notable film in American cinema (filmsite.org, for example, published a list of top 300 and I’m familiar with all of them) so that if I were to make any of the following lists, I would be aware that Taxi Driver belongs on it: Top ten Jodi Foster movies, top ten Robert De Niro movies, top ten movies featuring child actors, top ten Marty Scorse movies, top 1 Cybill Shephard movie, top ten counterculture films of 1976, top ten films featuring taxi drivers, top ten films written by Paul Schrader, top ten lines delivered by Robert De Niro talking to
          a mirror, etc etc etc.

          Congrats on evoking the longest comment I’ve ever written in response to a comment on one of my articles

          I would imagine the one people have a problem with is Dennis Dugan who is a terrible director.

  6. I love this site, but i think that this is a flawed list. Not only is Tarantino a glaring omission but Hitchcock entry is dubious at best as he didnt have roles, but cameos. i guess it depends on what you classify as a “role” . But since he never had any lines, i would say that he should be disqualified. However, this is still one of my favorite sites.. Even Michael Jordan didn’t hit every shot! 😉

  7. Poor, poor list…. How the heck can you call Hitchcock’s cameos “secondary” roles? Woody Allen spent 3 and a half decades writing and making sure the camera was focused on himself. Spike Lee is right there as well. Sheesh, I’d hardly describe the roles those 2 wrote and directed themselves in as being secondary roles. Mike Schur? Really? What “movie” did he direct himself in? I mean, the title of this list is “Top 10 Directors Who Played Secondary Roles In Their Own Movies”, isn’t it? Egad…. What a poor list…

    • Orrin K (article's author) on

      Actually, Mike Schur did direct episodes of Enlightened. I’m not sure why the editor took that out. I recommend you watch Enlightened if you want to understand that decision

  8. You have a great list here! I have always thought the topic of directors playing parts in their own films is underserved in the cinematic and academic world. I’m going to to watch some of these!

  9. Normally I wouldn’t comment on an article whether I liked it or not, but I feel that amidst all of the negative feedback I should say that I found this article rather interesting. As the kind of person that pays way more attention to the actors in a film than the director, it was very interesting to realize that some of the directors of my favorite movies were actually actors IN them.

  10. Twinkie Bandit on

    Just a little correction, Hitch is not buying birds in the pet shop, but walking out with two poodle dogs. He also misses a bus in North by Northwest, not a cab.

    Other than that, interesting list.

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