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You don't need to wonder if you're watching an M. Night Shyamalan film. You'll see a film with deliberately slow pacing, (hopefully) unexpected third-act twists, and low-key performances (and an insane one from James McAvoy). Another one of his hallmarks is Shyamalan's love of cameos, specifically his own. Sometimes, the director has a major role, like when he cast himself to play a writer whose work was so important it would literally change the world in Lady in the Water. (That did not work out so well.)
But while Shyamalan’s presence is sometimes more prominent than others, he’s far from the only filmmaker with a predilection for making cameos, either in his own films or in other filmmakers’ work. So with Shyamalan’s new film Glass in theaters now, let’s take a look at some of the very best examples of directors making cameos, either in films they directed or films from other directors.
M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense (1999)
Since the days of Alfred Hitchcock, few directors have been as known for their propensity to appear in their own films as much as M. Night Shyamalan. Though he hasn’t appeared in all of his own movies, Shyamalan’s presence is almost assured every time you see a film bearing his name. (He does appear in Glass, implying that he’s playing both the same character from Split and Unbreakable.)
However, unlike Hitchcock, most of Shyamalan’s appearances move beyond cameos, and showcase one of his weaknesses — he’s not a great, or even particularly good, actor. So the best way to experience his work is in his breakout film, The Sixth Sense, where Shyamalan plays a concerned doctor who may believe that Cole Sear’s mother is abusing him. It’s a nice tie-in to Shyamalan’s family — his parents were both doctors — and an appropriately small dose of his on-screen presence.
Sam Raimi, Miller’s Crossing (1990)
When they were all up-and-coming filmmakers in the '80s, Joel and Ethan Coen and Sam Raimi worked on some projects together, some of which only came to fruition later on. (Raimi had a writing credit on the 1994 comedy The Hudsucker Proxy, as an example.) But by 1990, the Coens at least had become a dual force to be reckoned with.
So in their period Mob drama Miller's Crossing, they were able to sneak in this cameo from the genre director Raimi, as a cop who's willing to kill off a bartender even when he's waving the white flag, literally. But his mordant cheer is short-lived, as he's dead by the end of this thirty-second clip. Violence in this film is gruesome and unforgiving, so Raimi's cameo is brief but memorable.
Curtis Hanson, Adaptation. (2002)
A few years after his genuinely odd comedy Being John Malkovich made a splash, Spike Jonze returned with the mind-bending, metatextual Adaptation, also from writer Charlie Kaufman. In this film, Kaufman becomes a main character played by Nicholas Cage, struggling to adapt Susan Orlean's non-fiction book The Orchid Thief.
Here, Orlean is played by a vivacious Meryl Streep, and in some scenes at her NYC abode, we also see her husband, played by the late Curtis Hanson, the director behind Wonder Boys and L.A. Confidential. (He also directed Streep in the 1994 thriller The River Wild.) It's a brief role, especially once Susan shacks up with the eponymous orchid thief, but a delightful surprise to anyone familiar with the bearded director.
Cameron Crowe, Minority Report (2002)
Some of the best cameos made by directors are almost too short to dub as cameos. Here’s a prime example of that, as Cameron Crowe appears very briefly in a scene in Steven Spielberg’s excellent sci-fi neo-noir, as a passenger on a subway who might recognize that Tom Cruise’s Precrime leader is actually on the run himself for a crime that he's soon going to commit.
This cameo was the second half of a favor; the year before, Spielberg made a super-brief cameo in Crowe’s sci-fi film Vanilla Sky, also starring Cruise. If you keep an eye out in the same scene (and in the screenshot above), you’ll even spot Cruise’s Vanilla Sky co-star Cameron Diaz on the same subway.
James L. Brooks, Modern Romance (1981)
Despite their last names, James L. Brooks and Albert Brooks aren't related. But the latter Brooks had the former Brooks, himself a couple years away from his feature debut Terms of Endearment, in his dark comedy Modern Romance. If you're a fan of Brooks' extremely nebbishy style of humor but haven't checked out this one, you're missing out.
It is, as with a number of Brooks' other comedies, fairly inside baseball regarding Hollywood. Here, James appears as a film director whose film Albert is editing when he's not haranguing the girlfriend he purportedly loves. The cameo is important if only because James paid Albert back a few years later when he hired the comedian in his masterful 1987 film Broadcast News.
Steven Spielberg, The Blues Brothers (1980)
A number of the cameos on this list, at least those made by directors appearing in someone else's film, were some kind of favor to either a director or an actor. In the case of the wild and manic comedy The Blues Brothers, and the appearance of none other than directing icon Steven Spielberg, it's a case of director John Landis keeping things all in the family.
Landis and Spielberg would work again in the 1980s, on a film we'll discuss shortly that also features one of this film's stars. But by this point, Spielberg had already worked with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, the Blues Brothers themselves, on the splashy comedy 1941. So his appearance as an Illinois county tax assessor is a nice way to pay back his stars.
Roman Polanski, Chinatown (1974)
Some of the directors on this list have such minor roles that they don’t really have a huge impact on the overall film. But Roman Polanski in his noir Chinatown isn’t one of those examples. Though Polanski, credited only as Man With Knife, doesn’t give himself a character name, he leaves quite the literal mark on hard-bitten detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). You may not even realize you’ve seen Polanski, but if you’ve seen Jake get his nostril slashed early in an investigation that turns into a wide-ranging conspiracy, you’ve seen the director act. ("You know what happens to nosy fellows?" is a particularly ominous threat when you think about it.) Considering how Polanski treats his leading man in this scene, it’s a remarkable casting choice.
Mel Brooks, Blazing Saddles (1974)
Mel Brooks is, of course, no stranger to acting, and he plays multiple characters in his boisterously hilarious film Blazing Saddles, including a wildly corrupt governor and a Native American chief who makes no bones about his confusion regarding the family of the little boy who would become the heroic Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little).
Brooks’ best part in the film is that of Governor William J. LePetomane, a drunken, leering horndog of a politician. (So, y’know, a real stretch of the imagination.) Brooks wisely doesn’t even give himself the best line about the character; when he’s struggling to put a pen back in its holder, his adviser Hedy — sorry —Hedley/em> Lamarr (Harvey Korman) gently says to him, “Think of your secretary.” And boy, does that do the trick.
Albert Brooks, Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
If most of the directors on this list have a penchant for making brief appearances in their own films, or sometimes films from other filmmakers, John Landis is truly the king of getting directors to make cameos in his films. For example, in his 1985 film Into the Night alone, there are cameos from Paul Mazursky, Lawrence Kasdan, Jim Henson, Jonathan Demme, David Cronenberg, and more. Twilight Zone: The Movie has four directors — alongside Landis, there’s also Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller. Landis handles a larger segment, but also the prologue, featuring Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks, an accomplished filmmaker as well as a brilliant stand-up comedian and actor, on a long drive in the middle of the night.
Aykroyd and Brooks go back-and-forth about old TV theme songs, before landing on The Twilight Zone, and then Aykroyd asks if Brooks wants to see something really scary. And then... well, it’s a suitably creepy ending, but before that, the byplay between Aykroyd and Brooks is just a lot of fun.
David and Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams, Airplane! (1980)
It’s one of the greatest comedies of all time, but you can’t be blamed for not recognizing the three directors of Airplane! when they make their brief cameos. This all-timer comedy has the specific style of throwing as many possible jokes at the audience and hoping most of them stick, and the ZAZ writing/directing team — David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker — insert themselves in possibly without you noticing. Early in the film, there’s a brief gag where two air traffic controllers fail to correctly guide a plane from the right runway; those are the Zuckers. (And the image above is the product of those two air traffic controllers falling down on the job.)
Abrahams shows up as one of the many religious zealots portrayed at the airport. Since all three men are part of two of the jokes that do stick, it’s hard to keep them off this list.
Terry Gilliam, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
I know what you’re thinking, but hang on. Yes, Terry Gilliam was a part of the Monty Python comedy troupe from the word go. And he’s only one of two directors in the best comedy of all time, with Terry Jones the other half (and he’s on screen a lot here). But I want to call out a very specific Gilliam cameo, not his performance as King Arthur’s trusty right-hand man Patsy. No, I want to highlight a brief moment near the end of the film, as King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table face off against the Black Beast of Arrrrrrgggghhhhh (or something like that), an animated beastie attacking them left and right. The only thing that saves our heroes, in fact, is when the man animating the creature gets a heart attack and dies, mid-drawing. You get three guesses who the animator, seen in a super-quick cutaway, is and the first two don’t count.
Peter Jackson, Hot Fuzz (2007)
You are forgiven for not recognizing Peter Jackson in Edgar Wright’s incredibly funny action-comedy riff on '80s and '90s action movies, Hot Fuzz. But he’s right there! Admittedly, Jackson’s only in Hot Fuzz super-briefly, but recognizing him adds to the delightful gag in which he appears. For the uninitiated, the setup for Hot Fuzz is that London cop Nick Angel (Simon Pegg) is just too good for London, to the point where he makes his colleagues look bad. In an early scene, we see proof of Angel’s superior police work when he tries to take down a criminal dressed as Santa Claus and the bad guy stabs him in the hand. And who is that nefarious Father Christmas? None other than Jackson himself, a fan of Wright’s first film Shaun of the Dead. Don’t make this Santa mad.
Alfred Hitchcock, North By Northwest (1959)
It would be, if not impossible, heretical to not include an Alfred Hitchcock cameo on this list. Few filmmakers are as distinct as the iconic Brit when it comes to making appearances in his own films. Sometimes, Hitchcock would find particularly sneaky ways in which to insert himself; in his '40s-era thriller Lifeboat, which takes place entirely on... well, a lifeboat, he can be seen in a photo in a newspaper on the raft. But the choice here is just funny, 60 years later. It’s at the very beginning of the classic thriller North by Northwest, just after the opening credits come to a close. Hitchcock, as was usually the case, didn’t speak; he just plays a man trying and failing to get onto a bus, whose doors slam in his face at the same time that the credit “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock” sails past the screen. Cheeky, Hitch.
John Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
John Huston, of course, was no stranger to acting; the classic film Chinatown, called out earlier on this list, features one of his most fearsome performances. But he also made an appearance in one of his earlier directorial efforts, the all-timer The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Early in the film, the down-on-his-luck bum Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart, in his best performance) is desperately hounding a well-dressed American for some money before embarking upon the journey into the heart of greed and darkness that will consume him, only to be chided by that American that Fred has already bothered him for cash that day. And who else is that American than Huston himself? It’s a short cameo, but the kind that stands out over 70 years later.
Martin Scorsese, Taxi Driver (1976)
There’s something to be said for Travis Bickle being unnerved by someone in his cab through the dirty New York City streets. But that’s what happens at one point in the grim masterpiece when the director of the film, Martin Scorsese, plays a passenger with a particularly homicidal point of view. The passenger has Bickle stop near an apartment building, through which we can see the silhouette of a woman the fast-talking man says is his wife. Then he goes on to describe the various violent, misogynistic acts he’d like to perform upon the woman; Robert De Niro’s reaction shots as Bickle are more than enough to communicate how creepy this man is. And if Travis Bickle finds you creepy, that says something not entirely good about you.
James Frawley, The Muppet Movie (1979)
By sheer coincidence, the best of all Muppet movies was directed by someone who wasn’t part of the Muppet team, such as Jim Henson or Frank Oz. Instead, the first feature with these felt creations, The Muppet Movie, was directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker and sometimes actor James Frawley. Though there’s since been implications that the set wasn’t exactly harmonious, the final film is utterly wonderful, and Frawley’s cameo as a bartender at the El Sleezo Cafe fits into the film’s comic sensibility. His deadpan reading of one of the film’s running gags — “Maybe he should try Hare Krishna” — is perfectly in keeping with the film’s tone.
David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Our top pick is also one of the more apocryphal tales of a director appearing in his own film. For myriad reasons, Lawrence of Arabia is one of the greatest films ever made. Director David Lean was no stranger to epic-length films of massive scope, but he managed to balance the vast expanse of the Middle Eastern deserts with the off-kilter character study of British soldier T. E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole). And in one of the film's key moments, so it's said, Lean himself offered a vocal cameo as a motorcyclist riding near the Suez Canal and shouting at Lawrence a key question the hero himself couldn't always answer: "Who are you?" The impact of the question is incalculable especially if the stories are true and Lean himself was the one asking.