Richard J. Leskosky: The art of the cameo

Richard J. Leskosky: The art of the cameo

My previous column talked about films where actors play multiple roles, but that's only one — though probably the most obvious — example of what I call "stunt casting."

There are three major reasons for casting a performer in a movie:

— The aesthetic (because of an actor's talent, versatility and/or looks, he or she can embody the character perfectly);

— The financial (the particular actor's presence in the film will attract more viewers and/or the actor is the best the studio can get for the money it's willing to spend); or

— The pragmatic (the actor will be available when the studio has the production scheduled ... and you'd be surprised how often that's the actual reason a particular actor gets a specific role).

But sometimes filmmakers cast a performer for completely different reasons (which nonetheless can still add to the viewer's enjoyment and/or the film's subtext). Most often that takes the form of a cameo appearance that functions as an in-joke or like an "Easter egg" (the hidden bonus sometimes included on DVDs).

Alfred Hitchcock, the most illustrious practitioner of the signature cameo, did little walk-ons in virtually all his films, beginning with "The Lodger" in 1926. That ultimately backfired, though: Once viewers found out about it, they spent too much time searching for him rather than paying attention to the main action. So Hitchcock began making his appearances both early and obvious.

These days, comic book icon Stan Lee pops up in virtually every movie based on a Marvel character. It's a flat-out gag and a gift to Marvel fans, but I haven't heard of people actively watching for him as viewers did for Hitchcock.

And I doubt anyone even cares that Rob Schneider shows up briefly in every movie by friend and fellow "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Adam Sandler.

The film that really established the cameo role as an attention-getting gimmick, though, was Mike Todd's 1956 "Around the World in Eighty Days" with more than 40 celebrity cameos (some as brief and trivial as someone with his back to the camera turning his head and grinning at the audience). Audiences were so charmed to glimpse stars literally walking through minor parts — or else producers believed they were so charmed (or gullible) — that many big-budget spectacles of the 1950s and '60s featured multiple cameos.

In 1962, John Huston directed one of the more famous examples of stunt casting: the quirky, cameo-laden "The List of Adrian Messenger." The poster for the film challenged viewers to spot Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster under pounds of makeup and fake hair. The film's traditional end credits paused to allow each to pull the putty off his face to reveal his true identity.

The gimmick fit the movie's central conceit of a villain using disguises to pull off a series of murders, but uncredited actor Jan Merlin has claimed he was the one under the makeup during the actual filming and that four of the celebrities only showed up for the credit scene reveal. (Huston himself appears undisguised in a bit part, by the way.)

In addition to his own cameos, Hitchcock executed a daring casting prank in 1960's "Psycho" when (do I really need to put a "Spoiler Alert" here?) he killed off the only genuine star in his cast less than halfway through.

Wes Craven's 1996 "Scream" butchered its then-best-known performer within its first 12 minutes, just to demonstrate that anything could happen and no character was safe.

Walter Hill's 1980 "The Long Riders" surely represents the most breathtakingly complex casting coup, though, with its four sets of real-life brother actors playing real-life Western outlaw brothers.

David, Keith and Robert Carradine play Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, respectively (if there had been a fourth Carradine acting brother, the character John Younger would presumably have remained a Younger brother instead of being relegated to cousin status). James and Stacy Keach play Jesse and Frank James; Dennis and Randy Quaid play Ed and Clell Miller; and Christopher and Nicholas Guest portray Charlie and Bob Ford.

Getting an actor to play himself or herself can be among the trickiest casting feats of all. In 1950, Billy Wilder's "Sunset Blvd." offered a superb example with Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim earning Oscar nominations for playing characters whose pasts mimicked their own and with appearances by Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, Hedda Hopper and Cecil B. DeMille as themselves. The film remains a classic at least partly because of these links to real Hollywood history.

The 1950s saw another huge Hollywood success with an even more intense example of self-portrayal in the 1955 war film "To Hell and Back" adapted from the autobiography of Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II. Murphy, who had already become a leading actor in modestly budgeted Westerns, starred as himself.

Most recent fictionalized self-portrayals, though, show up in comedies. Bill Murray played himself as a zombie-apocalypse survivor in 2009's "Zombieland." Al Pacino as himself earned the only positive comments anyone made about Adam Sandler's 2011 "Jack and Jill." And in just a couple of months, "This Is the End" will hit theaters with an array of young stars, including Emma Watson, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, Michael Cera and Rihanna playing comic versions of themselves partying at James Franco's home when a disaster of biblical proportions strikes.

Then there's Quentin Tarantino's 2012 gag in "Django Unchained" when Italian actor Franco Nero's character talks briefly with Django (Jamie Foxx) about his name. Tarantino cast Nero because he played the title gunslinger in the highly influential 1966 Italian western "Django" by Sergio Corbucci that helped define the genre.

The most fascinating recent stunt casting, however, doesn't involve well-known actors. In "Faces in the Crowd" (2011), Mila Jovavich plays the sole surviving witness who could identify a serial killer. But in escaping his attack she suffers head trauma and resultant prosopagnosia — that is, she can no longer recognize faces. After that, with one or two significant exceptions, when a character appears in more than one scene, he or she is played by a different actor each time. So the audience gets some sense of the heroine's disorientation each time she fails to recognize someone she already knows (including the murderer).

Of course, no discussion of creative casting would be complete without a nod toward the 50-year-old BBC-TV series, "Dr. Who," where every so often the title alien hero undergoes a "regeneration" to emerge with a different look and personality played by a new actor.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

Topics (1):Film

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