One of the most ego-boosting privileges of the modern celebrity is seeing your name in glittering lights aboard a marquee, or among the fancy opening credits sequence of a major blockbuster. To some it’s a birthright. Marlon Brando insisted he get top billing for his 20 minute role in Richard Donner‘s Superman, even before newcomer Christopher Reeve. Then there’s the case of The Towering Inferno, where Paul Newman and Steve McQueen not only insisted on equal billing, but also demanded to have the exact same amount of lines of dialogue throughout the two-hour plus disaster flick.
Fame is a drug, it has often been said, and what better high than having the power, wealth and street cred to know that the very syllables that comprise your name may be enough to draw millions of people to a darkened theatre?
But save your envy for the humble, the few brave souls who knew to put art before vanity. To them, the project is a pure, chaste creature and slapping their name over it would only tarnish its intangible beauty. Their appearances in certain films is less distracting and more a pleasant surprise.
15. Kevin Spacey – Seven
The first thing the Zucker Brothers got right when they made their seminal spoof Airplane! was the casting of Leslie Nielsen. Prior to 1980, Nielsen had been a serious actor, appearing in a few straight-laced disaster films like The Poseidon Adventure and The Day of The Animals.
His self-serious presence lead to some of the greatest deadpan lines of the movie, and the Zuckers looked no further than Nielsen for the lead of Frank Drebin, the bumbling detective of the short-lived series Police Squad! and later The Naked Gun.
13. Jason Robards – Crimson Tide
They don’t make submarine thrillers like Tony Scott‘s 1995 Crimson Tide anymore. If they did, they’d be period pieces, which takes a lot of the urgency out of plots involving the threat of nuclear war. Today, as the spectre of terrorism looms, the notion of the world would come to the brink of self-destruction with the push of a red button is far removed from reality. It’s just a different war.
However, during that confusing political period of the 90s, when the U.S. had its pick of the litter of fictional enemies, Hollywood seemed determined to relive the fears of the Cold War.
When the battle subsides, JAG holds an inquiry, and the two must answer to the likes of an unbilled Jason Robards. His lack of credit remains a mystery, though his stature and dulcet tones well-suit him for the role. It’s hard to out-authoritize Gene Hackman, after all.
12. Matt Damon – Interstellar
Christopher Nolan‘s abhorrently overlong, mostly confusing yet strikingly beautiful film caused a rift among fans of the director’s oeuvre. His biggest defenders still shout about its scientific accuracy (still widely debated by celebrity scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson), its detractors point to the fact that, sometimes, there’s no way to make science interesting if one isn’t already invested.
While searching for a habitable planet as the earth suffers its final dust bowl, farmer-somehow-astronaut Mathew MacConaughey and Anne Hathaway run across a previous failed expedition. After the last survivor of said expedition is thawed out, audiences were surprised to see the familiar face of Matt Damon – who almost instantly succumbs to space madness and nearly kills the whole crew. One can’t help but wonder, watching them back to back (should you have 14 hours to kill), how The Martian would have played out had it been the same character.
11. Jack Nicholson – Broadcast News
James L. Brooks‘ Academy Award-winning look at network news in the late 1980s is an unflinching look at ethics, character, integrity and other things about which television news stopped caring. Brooks had worked in the field before becoming a director, and much of the film’s humour and situations are inspired by his days behind the scenes of a news desk.
Jack Nicholson appears as the vain lead anchor in Washington in what seems like a brief cameo. However, after the cast experiences brutal layoffs, Nicholson appears in person to send off the troops. In America circa 1987, during one of the worst economic drops in American history (until recently), two things were certain: layoffs and Jack Nicholson.
10. Robert Duvall – The Conversation
Francis Ford Coppola‘s classic, unnerving paranoid thriller is often cited for its similarities to the real-life Watergate scandal, though the director dismisses the parallels as mere coincidence. His real influence was the 1966 Antonioni art-house film Blowup – a film that would later inspire Brian De Palma‘s Blow Out (which also has connections to a real-life scandal).
Watergate-inspired or not (unlikely, as it was shot beforehand), it holds a spiritual connection to a series of paranoid thrillers released in the 70s including All The President’s Men, The Parallax View and Three Days of The Condor.
Gene Hackman plays an agoraphobic surveillance expert hired to record a mysterious, ambiguous conversation. Robert Duvall appears as The Director, a vague, oddly menacing character who may or may not be planning on murdering his unfaithful wife.
9. Kathleen Turner – Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Robert Zemeckis‘ 1988 film noir-comedy was not only a breakthrough for special effects (like much of the director’s work, for better or worse), it also made people feel strangely comfortable ogling a buxom cartoon character.
There’s a lot of trivia regarding the production of the film. The novel it was based upon, Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, is drastically different. In it, Roger and his cohorts are comic strip characters, and Roger is brutally murdered early on leaving only a word bubble behind as a clue. Rather, the script is derived from an un-produced sequel to Chinatown known only as Cloverleaf. Screenwriter Robert Towne initially intended the 1974 classic to be a trilogy focusing on the holy trinity of L.A. corruption – Water, the public transit system vs. the freeway, and finally oil; the last of which was made in 1990 as the Nicholson helmed-flop The Two Jakes.
Instead of Towne’s gritty realization, they added cartoon characters. The most memorable to some was that of Roger’s wife, Jessica.
Kathleen Turner performed the role as a favour to Zemeckis while she was nine months pregnant.
8. Edward Norton – Kingdom of Heaven
Ridley Scott‘s Kingdom of Heaven is known as having one of the most significant director’s cuts ever released. The theatrical cut of the film was reviled by critics and audiences alike. Nevertheless, both cuts feature the cast of the failed epic it wanted to be. Disregard Orlando Bloom (like we all do now anyway) and any major or well-known UK actor shows up somewhere in the film’s three-hour run time.
One notable exception is Edward Norton. His role of the leper King Baldwin IV is entirely obscured by a mask, thus his performance is given exclusively through emotive, soulful eyes. As such, the actor refused credit on the initial theatrical run.
7. Johnny Depp – 21 Jump Street
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s reboot of the bafflingly well-liked 1980s police/high school drama impressively manages to be self-aware without grating on the nerves. It was also the first indication that Channing Tatum may not simply be the meathead he appears, but has a pretty decent sense of humour (subsequent interviews with the actor have confirmed this).
The original show was the first to put the FOX network on the map and was integral in launching Johnny Depp‘s career both as a teen idol and serious actor. Shortly after leaving the show in 1990, he was quickly headlining major motion pictures.
Any audience assumed a film as self-aware as the reboot would have its original lead cameo at some point. After all, he granted similar thanks by appearing briefly in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (Wes Craven‘s first Elm Street was his “and introducing” credit). As Jump Street comes to an end, we get our Depp appearance – only it wasn’t a cameo. Lord and Miller pulled the rug under audiences by revealing he had been there the entire time in heavy prosthetic make-up.
6. Kenneth Branagh – Swing Kids
Swing Kids, despite the critical bashing it took, holds a special place in the hearts of 90s kids as the most uplifting holocaust-themed film this side of Life is Beautiful. Also, along with The Princess Bride, it was the film your teacher put on whenever she ran out of curriculum.
The film’s young stars all went on to bigger and better things: Christian Bale (who, between this and Newsies reigns supreme on sad dance films), Robert Sean Leonard, and character actor Frank Whaley have established comfortable careers.
Kenneth Branagh appears as the unflinchingly brutal head of the local Hamburg SS Herr Knopp. Reportedly, he refused to be billed in order to allow the younger cast their chance to shine. In a way, we have Kenneth Branagh to thank for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. We also have him to curse for Terminator: Salvation.
5. Gary Oldman – Hannibal
Ridley Scott’s 2001 adaptation of Thomas Harris’ eponymous novel is remembered for a particularly gruesome dinner climax…and not very much else. Fans of the novel disliked that the film did not go far enough, while the uninitiated felt it went to far. David Mamet’s script was over-the-top, and audiences felt that Anthony Hopkins‘ portrayal of Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter was something best taken in small doses rather the hammy lead role here.
Gary Oldman played Mason Verger, the only victim (and pedophile) of the good doctor who lived albeit horrifically deformed and wheel-chair bound. He’s all but unrecognizable in the role. Originally, Oldman had requested to share top-billing with Julianne Moore and Hopkins. When the studio refused, he decided he remain under the make-up.
4. Bill Murray – Tootsie
Sydney Pollack‘s actor-in-drag farce reportedly had more laughs on set than the plentiful ones in the film. Star Dustin Hoffman would often play tricks on ordinary people, dressing as his female alter ego at parent-teacher conferences, in elevators pretending to be a great fan of other actor’s work as well as randomly on the street. So convincing was Hoffman, no one suspected a thing.
Bill Murray‘s career in 1982 was at a high point. Caddyshack had come and gone, providing 14-year-olds nationwide with endless quotes and inside jokes to make on playgrounds. Meatballs was a major success. He hadn’t hit a sour note yet (that would come two years later with his underrated remake of The Razor’s Edge). The studio decided not to credit his performance as Hoffman’s roommate in the opening credits for fear audiences might mistake the film for “a Bill Murray movie.”
3. David Hyde Pierce – Hellboy
As far as director Guillermo Del Toro and comic creator Mike Mignola were concerned, no living actor was more suited to play the hulking, red demon-cum superhero than Ron Pearlman. There are few roles suited to Pearlman’s grizzled masculine features that lend themselves to a lead (for this writer’s money, cast him as Tom Waits now).
The strange, faithful adaptation may not be the best, but given it’s 2004 release date, it’s among the first serious comic films before Marvel Studios ruled Hollywood. Pierce’s gentle, polite tone perfectly encapsulates the role of Hellboy’s psychic fish-man sidekick Abe Sapien, granting him a humanity that otherwise could have been lost. The physical role was played by motion capture legend Doug Jones.
David Hyde Pierce, reportedly every bit the gentleman of Niles Crane, demanded he be unbilled – claiming that the brilliance of the role belonged entirely to Jones. In the film’s sequel, his voice was gone and Jones was allowed to use his own – turning in an acceptable substitute.
2. Robin Williams – Dead Again
Robin Williams was one of the most beloved actors, comedians and all-around decent people to ever come out of Hollywood. To this day, he is celebrated by many for his iconic work in such films as The Fisher King, Good Morning, Vietnam and Awakenings.
But there’s no question that he can be a bit of a distraction. This is in part thanks to jarring trailers that signify his appearance by blasting Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” to tell you that, yes, Robin Williams is coming to shake up your milquetoast existence and life lessons will be learned.
It was William’s decision to not be credited for his role in Kenneth Brannaugh’s excellent, Hitchcockian 1990 thriller as a bitter, disgraced psychiatrist who helps Emma Thompson‘s amnesiac.
1. Mel Brooks – The Fly and The Elephant Man
Unlike other roles on this list, Mel Brooks‘ non-credit comes from behind the camera. When the master of the spoof genre’s wife Anne Bancroft wanted to expand her career into more dramatic roles, Brooks quickly became enamoured with the story of Joseph Carey Merrick (“John” in the film), a hideously deformed circus performer later displayed as a living example of the brutality of nature.
Brooks left his name off the film, fearing audiences might accidentally think it was a comedy. But his influence ranged from casting to even the choice of director, David Lynch (Brooks had seen his bizarre first film, Eraserhead). When the studio wanted to take out some of the more dreamlike moments in Elephant Man, Brooks responded with, “We screened the film for you to bring you up to date as to the status of [our business] venture. Do not misconstrue this as our soliciting the input of raging primitives.”
Brooks left his name off David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly for similar reasons.
Sources: Wikipedia, IMDB, Wegotthiscovered