Actors turned directors - a quick look at actors who have stepped behind the camera
Updated: Mar 3, 2022
When actors step behind the camera, are they simply fulfilling an egocentric vanity trip, are they taking on projects too personal to be handled by anyone else, or are they simply wishing to expand into and learn other aspects of the craft. Whatever the reason, some actors make the transition into directing smoothly, even effortlessly, and they become just as well known for their work behind the camera as well as in front. Two names come up in that regard, Clint Eastwood and more recently, Ben Affleck; their work no doubt informed by what they experienced and learnt as actors. However, there are some actors who also had the opportunity to direct but whose oeuvre is either forgotten or just not that well known for a plethora of reasons. Here are several famous actors who thought they had what it takes to become auteurs but whose directorial work isn't nearly as visible or well known as some of their fellow thespians...
Charles Laughton - Night Of The Hunter (1955)
Charles Laughton's stunning directorial debut was sadly also his one and only effort behind the camera. So dismayed was he by the critical and commercial failure of the film, that he vowed never to make another movie again. More's the pity; Night of the Hunter, derided as it may have been in its day, is now considered a classic of black and white cinema, as well as one of the best films of the 1950s, and rightly so. Blending surrealism, film noir and even fairy tale elements, Night of the Hunter features Robert Mitchum in the role of the evil Reverend Harry Powel (a serial killer masquerading as a preacher), who comes to the town of Cresap's Landing in West Virginia (by the Ohio River) in search of $10.000 he believes the children of his former prison cell mate are hiding. To say more would be to spoil the film; it's just a shame that Laughton never got to see the heap of awards and praise that has since been lavished on the film. Do yourself a favour and watch this. You will not be disappointed.
Dustin Hoffman - Quartet (2012)
After decades of giving us unforgettable performances in films such as The Graduate, Tootsie, Straw Dogs and Rain Man (to name but a few), Dustin Hoffman finally decided to step behind the camera to direct Quartet, starring a crop of well-known British thesps, among them Maggie Smith and Tom Courtney. This is not Hoffman's first foray into directing. In 1978 he was slated to direct a film called Straight Time, in which he would also star; however, he decided that doing both jobs would be too difficult, and so passed the reins over to another director. Quartet is his first completed film as director, and as it stands, it has charm and humour aplenty. The quartet of the title refers to the four main leads, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly), Reginald Paget (Tom Courtney) and Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins). The residents of Beechman House are gearing up for the October 10th annual gala to celebrate Verdi's birthday and all seems to be going smoothly until Jean arrives at the retirement home for gifted musicians. Years ago, Jean used to be married to Reggie but the whole thing ended badly and now Reggie can't stand his former wife. Meanwhile the annual gala is looming large... That's really it as far as the plot goes; it's sweet, predictable but awfully good fun. Maggie Smith (more subdued here than in her Downton Abbey role) is good to watch as usual. Connolly is great to watch here but the standout is here is actually Michael Gambon as concert organiser Cedric Livingstone. Tom Courtney has the unenviable task of playing the straight man to the others' shenanigans. Hoffman shows great restraint and behind the camera and subtlety with regards to directing his actors; often he lets it linger on them as they do their thing onscreen and it makes for clean, unobtrusive watching.
Robert Duvall - The Apostle (1997)
Perhaps best known for his work as Tom Hagen in the Godfather series, Robert Duvall has been bringing us memorable performances in films such as Colors, Falling Down and Deep Impact. In 1997, he decided to step behind the camera to direct The Apostle, which he also wrote. Robert Duvall gives a tour de force performance in the part of charismatic Texan Pentecostal preacher Euliss 'Sonny' Dewey. At the start of the film, Sonny seems to have it all: his own ministry, a beautiful wife (Jessie, played by Farrah Fawcett), and a wonderful family. Then, slowly, his world starts to fall apart. His wife reveals that she has started a relationship with a junior minister of the church, Horace, and uses the church's bylaws to oust Sonny from power. Eventually Sonny flips during a little league baseball game that his son is involved in, hitting Horace with a baseball bat, killing him. Sonny then flees to Louisiana to start a new life as E.F, eventually becoming known as the Apostle of the title. As a character study, The Apostle works wonderfully. Despite his flaws and philandering ways (which got him into trouble in the first place), Sonny comes across as sincere in his religious devotion and fervour; his energy and almost naïve enthusiasm are infectious. He seems to genuinely want to help, wants to do good, and always strives for the light; a series of impassioned speeches and sermons (his last one is particularly powerful) show what a wonderful actor Duvall is, and his portrait of a flawed man who seemed to have it all, lost it, and is clawing his way back towards redemption is never short of fascinating. Make no mistake, this is his film.
Bill Paxton - Frailty (2001)
Yes, he of Terminator and Aliens fame. The now sadly lamented Bill Paxton made his directorial debut with Frailty, a highly entertaining and original crime thriller story. The story setup is this: Fenton Meiks (played by Matthew McConaughey, in a welcome break from all his rom-com roles of the time, tells the strange story of his family to FBI agent Wesley Doyle, played by Powers Boothe. He reveals to Doyle how in the 70s, his father (known only as Dad and played by Paxton himself) became convinced that God had set him the holy task of destroying Hell's demons on earth, the result of which was a killing spree embarked with his two sons, Fenton and younger brother Adam. You might be asking yourself, this is all well and good, but could Bill Paxton direct? He certainly could, and did a great job behind the camera as well as in front. There is a great sense of mood and atmosphere in this film, aided by a great score and some suitably creepy performances by the leads. The film cuts between the present day and the 70s as Fenton Meiks' story unfolds; each transition is handled cleverly (one particularly memorable one where a rain soaked windscreen in the present transitions into static on the TV screen in the 70s comes to mind). Highly recommended.
David Schwimmer - Run Fatboy Run (2007)
David Schwimmer may be best remembered as the bumbling but lovable Ross Gellar in the TV sitcom, Friends, but in 2007 he proved that he had some ability behind the camera when he directed Run Fatboy, Run. Starring Simon Pegg and Thandie Newton, Run Fatboy Run tells the story of Dennis who having left his pregnant bride Libby (Newton) standing at the altar some years previously, has come to regret it, especially after he sees his ex-fiancée hook up with a rich, successful American financier (played rather straight-faced by Hank Azaria of The Simpsons fame). He decides to shape up before he ships out by running his first marathon. A story about growing up, taking responsibility and finally doing something with your life, the film is both sweet and comedic and chock full of great performances. Dylan Moran as Libby's cousin Gordon is a standout, while Pegg riffs off his Shaun of the Dead persona. And Schwimmer has definitely studied his British comedies and emulates them with considerable success here (aided by a likeable script co-penned by Pegg), so the whole enterprise comes off as Edgar Wright-lite fare; not a bad thing necessarily (I thoroughly enjoyed the film) though it certainly has a "been there, done that" vibe.
Al Pacino - Looking For Richard (1996)
Legendary actor Al Pacino, best known for his role as Michael Corleone in the Godfather series and Tony Montana in Brian De Palma's bombastic Scarface, made his directorial debut with the 1996 Looking for Richard; not a film per se but more of a docudrama. A personal (some would say vanity) project for Pacino, it's a rumination of the relevance and significance of Shakespeare in the modern world, told through interviews with scholars and actors, and a filmed performance of the play Richard III itself. Recommended for fans of Pacino (whose love of Shakespeare shines through and gives a great performance as Richard III), or those who are starting to take an interested in Shakespeare's works; the film doesn't delve too deep beneath the surface (how could it with its running time) but serves as an excellent introduction to the Bard, his times and his plays.
Bill Murray - Quick Change (1990)
Funnyman and SNL alumni Bill Murray is perhaps best known for his comedic roles in films such as Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, but the man is one mean dramatic actor as well (look no further than Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers for evidence of this; the man has simply matured with age like fine wine). In addition to this, Murray also helmed (co-helmed, really) 1990's Quick Change, about a trio of bank robbers who are attempting to flee New York City after a job. What the film lacks in technical proficiency behind the camera (the camera work mostly feels purely functional and the film looks like it was made in the 70s) is a trio of great performances by Murray, Geena Davis and Randy Quaid and a superb manic, madcap comedy caper script that has our intrepid anti-heroes being chased by grizzled police chief Rotzinger (Jason Robards, Philadelphia) as they hilariously struggle to flee New York City. Oh, and Tony Shalhoub (the future detective Monk) is a riot here.
Gary Oldman - Nil By Mouth (1997)
We all know Gary Oldman can act: the more perverse, nasty and eccentric the role, the better he gets (Sid and Nancy, Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element); on the flip side Gary Oldman can also do good and decent pretty well (Harry Potter series, Dark Knight trilogy). Yet another thing Gary Oldman is adept at is directing, if his debut Nil by Mouth is anything to go by. This gritty (sometimes harrowing) drama, written by Oldman himself (the film is based in part on his own real-life experiences) is slight on plot; the film plays more like a nihilistic snapshot into the life of a dysfunctional working class family in a South East London council estate: violent and short-tempered husband Raymond (Ray Winstone), put upon wife Valerie (Kathy Burke), her drug addicted brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles, The Fifth Element), their mother Janet (Eastenders' Laila Morse), matriarch Kath (Edna Dore), as well as an assortment of other characters, very few of which are actually pleasant. Oldman's guerrilla documentary style of filmmaking actually suits the story extremely well, and he manages to get marvellous performances out of his talented cast. Ray Winstone is suitably brutal and vicious as Raymond, but the real standout here is Kathy Burke, who sells every emotion, every look, and every line of dialogue effortlessly. The film is aided by a brilliant score by Eric Clapton, while artist Frances Ashman contributes a couple of heart breaking songs as well. Worth a look-in if you're a fan of Oldman's work, but those looking for more story-driven, less pessimistic fare would do well to look elsewhere.
Marlon Brando - One Eyed Jacks (1961)
What is there to say about Marlon Brando that hasn't been said before: Hollywood legend, notorious hellraiser, serial mumbler, difficult to work with, method actor... and director. Yes, in 1961 Marlon Brando took up directing duties on a film called One Eyed Jacks after plans for Peckinpah and Kubrick to do so fell through. Brando quickly realised he was in over his head - "I didn't know what to do", he wrote in his 1994 autobiography. He kept cast and crew languishing around while he pondered camera setups; at other times Brando would wait for hours on end looking out at the ocean, waiting for the waves to be perfect before shooting. By the end of the shoot, Brando had shot around a quarter of a million feet of film; the original cut run around five hours, and Brando, sick of the whole thing, turned the editing over to the studio, who trimmed the film down to a more manageable 141 minutes. Brando never directed again. Overblown and over budget (it soared from $1.8 million to $6 million during the course of shooting, no mean sum in 1961), the film was regarded as little more than a melodramatic tale of revenge in its day, though its reputation has enjoyed something of a rehabilitation in recent years. It's true that the tone veers from soapy melodrama in the more amorous scenes to gritty and realistic during the fight sequences (which are well done and enjoyable), but it is never all that jarring. The film also enjoys great cinematography, whether it's Brando lying on a ridge during a sandstorm, scenes of waves crashing against the sea or just shots of the Mexican landscape as the camera pans around. Also memorable is the opening where the camera starts by looking at a wall; it then turns and moves through a window onto a bank robbery scene. Unfortunately the print I watched wasn't in great shape. Thankfully there seems to be a fairly recent (from 2017 in fact) Blu-Ray transfer from the ever reliable Criterion Collection that seems to give the film the high def restoration it deserves. Whichever way you watch the film though, it's still worth it, especially if you're a fan of Brando's or a Western aficionado.