Actors usually make good directors because they get a hands-on crack at filmmaking, and know what their fellow actors go through. It works for directors, too, especially those who got their start in acting. For all the directors on the list, acting was always a side profession and not a full-time career. The directors who did find success in acting used acting as a means to make their own films. Many of these directors also acted in their own films in cameo roles, but they also appeared in other people’s projects. Some of the directors even became better known for their acting roles, but at heart, they were/are filmmakers.
10. Kasi Lemmons
Kasi Lemmons started acting in the late ‘70s, in TV movies and soap operas, then went to NYU. Between then and 1997, she acted in Spike Lee’s School Daze, starred with Nicolas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss and appeared on The Cosby Show. She got her big acting break in 1991, when she played FBI agent Ardelia Mapp against Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling. A year later, Lemmons notably appeared in cult horror film Candyman, and then with Jean-Claude Van Damme in the film, Hard Target before deciding to put her acting career on hold and write and direct her own films. Her first feature was the 1997 award-winning family drama Eve’s Bayou, starring Samuel L. Jackson. She’s made four features total, including last year’s Black Nativity. Since moving to filmmaking, she hasn’t acted in many films.
9. Eli Roth
Eli Roth helped create the torture horror genre with his films Cabin Fever, Hostel and Hostel: Part II, but he was an actor before a filmmaker. He had small roles in The Horse Whisperer and The Lost World, before he acted in his own films. A friend of Quentin Tarantino’s, he played ‘The Bear Jew’ in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and had a role in Grindhouse. Roth also made brief appearances in Piranha 3D, Scream 4, Rock of Ages, but now is focusing on directing and producing instead of acting.
8. Sofia Coppola
The youngest acting debut on this list, Sofia Coppola was just an infant when she appeared in her dad’s, Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather. As she grew up, she continued to act in her dad’s films like Peggy Sue Got Married, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish and the Godfather sequels. She made an infamous appearance in Godfather III, where she received terrible reviews for her acting. She never really sought out an acting career, and after the backlash from Godfather, she only made cameos in music videos and in The Phantom Menace. Despite not having a successful acting career, she went on to have an extraordinary filmmaking career: She won a screenplay award for Lost in Translation and became only the third woman to ever be nominated for a Best Director Oscar.
7. Werner Herzog
The documentary and narrative film director, writer and producer, has appeared in some of his films, but he’s mainly opted to act in an array of other people’s international movies. In 1983, he appeared in an Australian film called Man of Flowers and since then, he’s sporadically appeared in movies like Robin Williams’ What Dreams May Come and Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher. Werner Herzog’s also dabbled in lending his voice to animated shows, The Boondocks, American Dad, The Simpsons, and will also do a voice for the upcoming Penguins of Madagascar animated film.
6. Quentin Tarantino
As a teen, Tarantino dropped out of high school and attended the James Best Acting School for a couple of years. His first acting credit came in 1983, when he acted in a movie he also co-wrote and directed, Love Birds in Bondage. He played an Elvis Impersonator on an episode of The Golden Girls, but his big break came in 1992, as Mr. Brown in his film, Reservoir Dogs. From then on, he made cameos in many of his own films and acted in his friends’ films like Sleep With Me, Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado and Spike Lee’s Girl 6. And for some reason, he appeared in Adam Sandler’s Little Nicky.
5. Richard Attenborough
The recently departed Lord Attenborough—who just died a few days shy of turning 91—was a British thespian/director who won two Oscars for his 1983 film, Gandhi. Like many actors, he started out on the stage and segued into film, in the ‘40s. He mainly acted in British films, but his best-known acting gigs happened in Hollywood blockbusters Jurassic Park and The Lost World. In his over fifty roles, he also acted with Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, and portrayed Santa Claus in the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street. He put his acting career on hold to direct Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin, Michael Douglas in A Chorus Line and Denzel Washington in Cry Freedom.
4. Paul Mazursky
For almost 60 years, Paul Mazursky acted in many films, including providing his voice for animated movies like Antz. His first role was in 1953’s Fear and Desire, directed by Stanley Kubrick. He appeared in the Sidney Poitier film, The Blackboard Jungle, the Tom Hanks dramedy Punchline and the Sean Penn/Al Pacino crime film, Carlito’s Way. He also acted in two The Sopranos episodes and five episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Despite all the acting, Mazursky’s true passion was writing and directing. His first film, 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, did bang up business at the box office and garnered him his first of five Oscar nominations. He went on to direct socially-conscious, yet entertaining comedies, like the Robin Williams’ flick, Moscow on the Hudson, Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Moon Over Parador—all of which he acted in.
3. Peter Bogdanovich
In the past 40 years, Peter Bogdanovich’s carved a significant filmmaking career in now-classic movies like The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. But, he’s also acted in a bevy of films, including appearing in his directorial debut, 1968’s Targets. Besides hosting The Essentials on Turner Classic Movies, appearing in How I Met Your Mother, Sofia Coppola’s short film, Lick the Star and an episode of Rizzoli & Isles, he’s best known for his recurring role as therapist Dr. Elliot Kupferberg, on The Sopranos.
2. Sydney Pollack
If Sydney Pollack looks familiar, that’s because he starred in a lot of big movies and shared the screen with some of Hollywood’s all-time greatest actors. He studied acting in NYC and then became a TV director. To breakdown his success, he directed over 20 movies, had over 30 acting roles and produced around 40 films. In 1982, Pollack starred as Dustin Hoffman’s agent in the award-winning Tootsie, which Pollack also directed. He also appeared in movies like The Player, Eyes Wide Shut, played Will’s father on Will and Grace, and won two Oscars for the Meryl Streep/Robert Redford epic, Out of Africa. Besides the incredible acting and directing, he produced popular films like Michael Clayton, Cold Mountain and The Fabulous Baker Boys.
1. John Cassavetes
While living in NYC in the ‘40s and ‘50s, John Cassavetes studied acting, got his start in theater, and then transitioned into TV and film roles. He self-financed his directorial debut, 1959’s Shadows, and then directed a few episodes of a TV show he acted in. Cassavetes played Mia Farrow’s demented husband in the 1968 horror classic, Rosemary’s Baby, but he considered his acting a day job and used the money he made to finance his own indie films, such as Faces and A Woman Under the Influence. His acting far surpassed the amount of movies he made: 12 films to over 60 acting roles. Of the three Oscars he was nominated for, one was for acting.