A movie director’s job usually takes place behind the camera, but sometimes, they get in front of the lens. Some directors, like Woody Allen, are involved in the majority of that process, and write, direct, and star in their own films. Others, like Alfred Hitchcock or John Landis, add playful little cameos—sometimes themselves, or sometimes other filmmakers who happened to be on set that day. But what happens when well-known movie directors don’t do any directing at all, and star in other directors’ films in major roles that are more than simple cameos? Here are a few examples.
1. Werner Herzog in Jack Reacher
The first director on the list is German weirdo-auteur Werner Herzog, responsible for films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Fitzcarraldo; and the documentary Grizzly Man. Herzog has done his fair share of acting over the years, playing a fictional version of himself in the mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness or the father in the equally weird auteur Harmony Korine’s 1999 film Julien Donkey-Boy, but his most recent acting stint as the villain in last year's Jack Reacher is his most devious role yet.
Herzog plays a shadowy and sadistic Siberian baddie called “The Zec” who has one ominously cloudy eye and, as explained by the character, is missing multiple fingers that he chewed off while in captivity to avoid gangrene from complications of frostbite. If that doesn’t win you over, the villain's ridiculous lines—delivered in Herzog’s iconic accent—definitely steal some scenes.
2. François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Nouvelle Vague pioneer François Truffaut had helmed 15 films of his own—and starred in two—before he stepped into the role of Claude Lacombe, the scientist trying to get to the bottom of all the UFO activity in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Though he was the lead in his own directorial efforts The Wild Child and Day for Night, Truffaut had never acted in an American film, and had a tough time with his lines in English while filming. When he was to deliver the line “They belong here more than we,” his thick French accent confused Spielberg and costar Bob Balaban into thinking he said “They belong here Mozambique.” The two then had shirts made with the Mozambique line and distributed them to the crew as a prank on the 400 Blows director. His performance, however, was no joke; it would earn Truffaut a BAFTA nomination for best supporting actor.
3. Victor Sjöström in Wild Strawberries
Swedish director Victor Sjöström worked primarily in the silent era, making early cinema classics like The Phantom Carriage—with himself in the lead role—and The Wind—starring notable silent film star Lillian Gish—that influenced such directors as Stanley Kubrick and David Lean.
Despite his long and storied career, perhaps his best effort in front of the camera is as the aging college professor Isak Borg, who ponders the beauty of life and death while travelling through Sweden to receive an honorary degree in director Ingmar Bergman’s heartbreaking 1957 film Wild Strawberries. Though it wasn’t the first time the two worked together—Sjöström appeared as a good-natured orchestra conductor in Bergman’s little-seen 1949 film To Joy—Bergman sought to truly immortalize his mentor with his role as Borg. The two first met when the Swedish production company Svensk Filmindustri brought on the veteran to oversee the young Bergman’s 1946 debut film Crisis, and the two hit it off so well that Sjöström would remain a father figure to Bergman for the rest of his life.
4. John Cassavetes in Rosemary’s Baby
Cassavetes was revered as the father of American independent cinema for directing groundbreaking films like Shadows and Faces, but he was also a fine actor in his own right. He cut his teeth in smaller acting roles for other directors, including Don Siegel’s version of The Killers and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen—which garnered him an Academy Award nom for best supporting actor—and would later feature in quite the explosive role in Brian DePalma’s The Fury (if you’ve seen the film, you’ll get the joke). But his leading man status was cleverly tested as Mia Farrow’s husband Guy in Roman Polanski’s 1968 creep-out film Rosemary’s Baby.
The character was originally meant for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American à la Robert Redford, but Polanski—who himself has acted in his own films, including Chinatown and The Tenant—intentionally cast against type with the shifty looking Cassavetes. The film ended up a rousing and terrifying success, but the two apparently never got along on set. Polanski questioned Cassavetes’ acting ability, saying, “He knows how to play himself best,” while Cassavetes slyly called into question Polanski’s merit with the retort, “You can’t dispute the fact that he’s an artist, but yet you have to say Rosemary’s Baby is not art.”
5. John Huston in Chinatown
Six years after Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski continued the practice of casting directors as actors in his films by giving the devious role of wealthy land baron Noah Cross to the legendary John Huston. Like the other directors on this list, Huston dabbled in bit parts in other films prior to Chinatown, including a role in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal or as “The Lawgiver” in 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, but, in terms of his acting, the director of The African Queen is best known for this neo-noir classic.
Though he appears in only three scenes in the entire film, his unforgettable performance is the glue that holds the shocking mysteries of the film together. At the time of filming, star Jack Nicholson was in a relationship with Huston’s real life daughter Angelica, which must have given some added tension to the scene where Huston as Cross asks Nicholson as sleuth Jake Gittes “Are you sleeping with her?” in regards to his onscreen daughter Evelyn, played by Faye Dunaway.
6. Spike Jonze in Three Kings
Before he was twice nominated for Best Director for his films The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, director David O. Russell made the underrated 1999 satirical war film Three Kings. He recruited A-list talent like George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg and off-the-beaten-path stars like rapper Ice Cube for the film, but he rounded out the cast with an unorthodox choice—Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze. Since Being John Malkovich and Three Kings were both released in October of 1999, Jonze was primarily known at the time as the genius behind music videos like the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” and more, but his role as the naive man-child Conrad Vig in Russell’s film added acting to his unique legacy. Jonze would go on to direct three more films—including Her, which will be released this year—and act in smaller parts in films like Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, but never in as major a role as in Three Kings.
7. Orson Welles in The Third Man
The renowned director of Citizen Kane eventually went on to have a long and storied acting career—he even had a particularly memorable turn as the voice of the planet-sized robot Unicron in the 1986 animated film The Transformers: The Movie—but his most indelible appearance in another director’s film was as the enigmatic character Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man.
Much like John Huston’s Noah Cross, Welles’ character only appears in a few scenes in the entire film, yet his character is the driving force behind the overall plot. His most famous scene, where Harry Lime meets Joseph Cotten’s character Holly Martins on the Wiener Riesenrad in Vienna’s Prater amusement park, includes the famous “Swiss cuckoo clock speech” that was largely improvised by Welles: “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Unfortunately for Welles, cuckoo clocks are, in fact, from Germany.
8. Sydney Pollack in Eyes Wide Shut
Prior to Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Tootsie director Sydney Pollack’s feature acting credits included a rarely-seen 1962 war film called War Hunt and as the rational best friend of Woody Allen’s usual neurotic lead character in 1992’s Husbands and Wives. But the director's most haunting and complex character was the intimidating Dr. Victor Ziegler in Eyes Wide Shut, a role that was originally meant for Harvey Keitel until Pollack stepped in to replace him at Stanley Kubrick’s request.
Despite his friend Kubrick’s notorious reputation for demanding numerous takes when shooting ostensibly easy scenes, Pollack estimated that he would be able to complete his own scenes within one week. His first scene wrapped in mere hours but his second scene, which required him to simply walk across a room and answer a door, went on for two days of takes without satisfying Kubrick. When Pollack finally finished a take that was accepted by the director, Kubrick cryptically told him, “I wondered how much longer it would take you.”
9. Quentin Tarantino in From Dusk till Dawn
In 1994, director Quentin Tarantino rewrote the book on American independent cinema with his modern classic, Pulp Fiction. Despite dabbling in acting in his own films before—he played Mr. Brown in his first feature, Reservoir Dogs, and was the frantic husband Jimmie in “The Bonnie Situation” chapter of Pulp Fiction—his first major role in another director’s film was in his friend Robert Rodriguez’s 1996 horror flick, From Dusk till Dawn, which Tarantino also wrote.
Tarantino and George Clooney starred as the Gecko Brothers, two crooks on the lam who seek refuge with their hostages in a strip club populated by vampires. The film was originally supposed to be his directorial follow up to Pulp Fiction, but Tarantino instead decided to focus on the screenplay and perfecting his acting chops for his role.
10. Fritz Lang in Contempt
Almost all of director Jean-Luc Godard’s movies are self-contained film schools, each playing with the ideas of what a movie itself can be. Godard was always eager to put his heroes in his films (American hard-boiled director Samuel Fuller had a brief cameo in Godard’s 1965 flick Pierrot le Fou, for example), but in his 1963 film Contempt, he decided to go bigger. Godard cast one of his idols, Austrian director Fritz Lang, who played a version of himself—a film director torn between adapting Homer’s The Odyssey from a small art film to an overblown studio epic.
Lang was the director of such masterpieces as Metropolis and M, and was allegedly the only person that the cantankerous Godard got along with on set. Actor Jack Palance, who played the pompous studio producer who hires a new screenwriter to rework Lang’s Odyssey adaptation, was so miserable working with Godard that he continually called his agent to get him out of his contract for the picture. But Lang, whom Godard worshipped, was made to feel right at home.