It’s not about quantity of screentime; it’s about the quality. So the following performers discovered when they stepped on for just a few short moments and ran away with the entire film. A well-placed cameo can revive a career, win new generations of fans or even bag you an Oscar – and here are some of our favourites. From directorial head-nods to in-jokes to celebrities playing themselves, the joy of a well-placed cameo is not to be underestimated…
Movie: The Muppets Movie (1979)
Some of the greatest cameos stem from the ‘sterner’ members of the acting fraternity taking the chance to lighten up, and there’s no better example than Orson Welles’ brief, stoogie-smoking cameo in The Muppets Movie. There are other terrific walk-ons elsewhere in the film, but even Big Bird would bow to the growly magnificence of Welles’s Lew Lord, an affectionate tribute to the man who supported Jim Henson when no-one else would: TV studio head Lord Lew Grade. Better yet was the man Henson recruited to pull it off: Hollywood’s enfant terrible, the troubled genius behind Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Harry Lime himself, sharing screen time with the notoriously method Beaker. Altogether now: “Meep!”
Best line: “Prepare the standard ‘Rich and Famous’ contract for Kermit the Frog and Company.”
Movie: Zombieland (2009)
The momma and poppa of all cameos, Bill Murray’s parlay through Zombieland is so awesome it overshadows an otherwise terrific zom-com. Hard as they tried to keep it as the ultimate Easter Egg under wraps, the secret leaked out, as all the best secrets tend to do. But even if you knew it was coming, it was still one of the best things to grace cinemas since, well, forever. Murray knew what we wanted and provided it in spades, turning up zombified in the biggest mansion this side of Xanadu, recreating Ghostbusters, sending up the clichéd Hollywood lifestyle and sharing his only regret (“Garfield, maybe”). We didn’t think we could love the Murricane any more. We were so wrong.
Best line: “My make-up guy taught me how to do this: corn starch, you know… some berries, liquorice for the ladies. It suits my lifestyle. I like to get out and do stuff.”
Movie: Tropic Thunder (2008)
Les Grossman, a movie mogul so splenetically furious his bald head looks poised to explode at any moment, single-handedly rescues the uneven Tropic Thunder from misfiring completely. Somewhere beneath the prosthetics, wig and jungle of chest hair is Tom Cruise, surprising everyone with his defcon-1-demented studio head (“Now I want you to take a step back… and literally fuck your own face!”), forcing audiences to pinch themselves at arguably the most against-the-grain-casting of all time and revel in the sheer madness of it all. Perhaps the prospect of a spin-off for the sweary, Flo Rida-loving, angry-as-Satan Grossman isn’t such a bad idea...
Best line: “A nutless monkey could do your job. Now, go get drunk and take credit at all the parties.”
Movie: Shakespeare In Love (1998)
Like Sir Sean in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Shakespeare In Love was bookended with a grandstanding royal visit. The role called for an Elizabeth who was believably tough and had little time for all that romantic jiggery-pokery, thank ye very much, with a scarlet wig and Kanye-sized entourage caming fitted as standard. So who better to play her than Judi Dench? No-one, said the Academy, who promptly gave her an Oscar. Yes, it’s only six minutes screentime, but it’s six minutes she utterly owns.
Best line: “Tell Master Shakespeare, something more cheerful next time. The Twelfth Night?”
Movie: Zack And Miri Make A Porno (2008)
When a man hitherto known for sweetly innocent turns in movies like Galaxy Quest, Herbie and Die Hard 4.0 popped up onscreen as a gravelly-voiced gay porn star, it could only have been the work of Kevin Smith. Watching Justin Long camp it up royally as a Brandon St. Randy (try saying it quickly), was so far the best thing in the Zach And Miri, it was like the rest of the film was the cameo. Sure, it took a moment or two to shake off the memory of Alvin And The Chipmunks before we could even begin to wrap our heads around the star of ‘You Better Shut Your Mouth Or I’m Gonna Fuck It”, but, boy was it worth the effort.
Best line: “I will be your sherpa up the mountain of gayness.”
Movie: A History Of Violence (2005)
David Cronenberg’s pulp thriller is chocka with great performances, but William Hurt’s kingpin stands out among them. With a thin veneer of bonhomie and brotherly regard barely covering – and gradually not-at-all covering – his psychotic personality, he’s a soft-spoken, smiling threat. Dewy-eyed as he orders his brother’s death, he turns on a dime a moment later when his minions fail in that simple task, staring for a moment in disbelief before simply reaching for a gun to do the job himself. Hurt’s cast against type and it works well, to Oscar-nominated effect in fact: why on Earth doesn’t this man play more bad guys?
Best Line: “You always were a problem for me, Joey. When Mom brought you home from the hospital I tried to strangle you in your crib. I guess all kids try to do that.”
Movie: Pulp Fiction (1994)
Is there any more terrifying history lesson for a young boy than the one delivered by Christopher Walken’s Captain Koons? Nope. And is there any movie speech less likely to have you skipping off to the watchmakers? Uh-uh. Walken delivers Tarantino’s speech with his usual staccato gravitas and somehow manages to keep a straight face while telling young Butch about the watch’s journey through the business end of several grown men.
Best line: “I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family and now, little man, I give the watch to you...”
Movie: Network (1976)
Long before he scared wee’uns as the voice of cynical plushy Lotso in Toy Story 3, Ned Beatty did likewise to Peter Finch’s fraying anchorman, Howard Beale, in Network. When Beale, suicidal and evangelical, tries to scupper the corporate buy-out of his TV station, he’s summoned to the boardroom for one of the great movie bollockings. Beatty’s exec, looming out of the half-light like a satanic hybrid of Uncle Monty and Rupert Murdoch, spells out the home truths of corporate ecology to his quaking anchor. Result? One Oscar and a justly famous film monologue.
Best line: “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, AND I WON’T HAVE IT!”
A lot of people seem to like the Chuck Norris cameo – but if you ask us it’s all about this Lance Armstrong appearance. Sure, even playing himself he’s not the world’s greatest actor, but his appearance is finely judged to provide an irresistible kick up the arse for Vince Vaughn’s Pete Lafleur. After all, if this man gives you advice on staying the course, you’d probably better take it. He knows whereof he speaks. The juxtaposition of Armstrong’s real-life battle with cancer / cycling overachievement with the idea that he’s a huge fan of ESPN “the Ocho” and its dodgeball tournament is deliciously unlikely – it’s a triumph overall.
Best line: “Once I was thinkin’ about quitting, when I was diagnosed with brain, lung and testicular cancer – all at the same time. But with the love and support of my friends and family I got back on the bike and won the Tour de France five times in a row. But I’m sure you have a good reason to quit. So what are you dying of?”
Movie: This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Which Spinal Tap cameo to chose? Bruno Kirby’s Sinatra-loving limo driver? Fred Willard’s humourless air-force base officer? Anjelica Huston's literal-minded designer Polly Deutsch? The cucumber? All worthy, but we’re plumping for Billy Crystal as Morty, the gloomy Marcel Marceau-alike mime. He’s a morose presence at Denis Eton-Hogg’s Polymer party, handing out canapés and getting quite stressed for a man who's silent for a living. Mimes are a teensy bit scary at the best of times (what’s with all the invisible walls?), but this is the lovely Billy Crystal - in the end you just feel a bit sorry for him. In fact, some of Crystal's best scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, but they’re well worth hunting down on the extras.
Best line: “Mime is money!”
Tim Robbins is a name associated with a number of left-wing causes: he’s into raising AIDS awareness, he’s anti-globalisation and he campaigned against the Iraq War. So it makes sense that, come Anchorman, he’d play an anchorman from the Public News channel. What came as more of a surprise, however, is that his tweed-sporting, pipe-smoking, curly-haired presenter is a vicious bastard and a mean hand with a machete. After all he is the man responsible for chopping Luke Wilson’s arm off, and even goes so far as to shove Christina Applegate’s Veronica Corningstone into a bear pit, the cad. Just goes to show: never trust a man with patches on his elbows. In a film packed with great cameos (see also: Ben Stiller, Jack Black), he somehow still outshines them all.
Best line: “No commercials, no mercy!”
This is another comedy that’s stuffed with celebrity cameos – big shout to David Bowie, Natalie Portman, David Duchovny and co. – but standing out among them, pate gleaming in the light, is Billy Zane. Zane crams the sense of a long-standing friendship into a couple of lines here: there’s the easy banter of his questions about Magnum, followed by the concerned effort to restrain Zoolander from a dangerous walk-off, and finally his resigned acknowledgement that his male model buddy must walk his own path, however perilous that might be. How the Academy overlooked it we’ll never know. Also, bonus points for allowing Derek to direct some personal abuse towards him, and taking it like a man.
Best Line: “It’s a walk-off.”
Movie: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
It took some acting chops to outshine one of the greatest ensemble casts ever ensembled, but Alec Baldwin pulled it off in seven minutes flat. His alpha salesman Blake sweeps into the offices of Mitch and Murray and starts unleashing home truths to the nervy realtors (“Always be closing!”) like a cyclone in a suit and tie. Mamet wrote the character for Baldwin – Blake didn’t appear in the original stage version – which is surely a backhanded compliment considering just how much sweary charmlessness he packs. Baldwin, in turn, repaid him by delivering a barnstorming speech with Oscar-winning charisma.
Best line: “Third prize is you’re fired.”
Movie: Toy Story 3 (2010)
Pixar’s cross-movie cameos are legion - Luxo Jr. is a particularly regular walk/bounce-on – but there was special joy to be had from laying our peepers on a furry friend from the Ghibli stable in Toy Story 3. Totoro, star of anime masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro, was prominent in several of the scenes at Bonnie’s house, gazing on serenely in that cuddly way of his as Woody flaps about his missing friends. John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki are practically best buds (the Disney CEO helped arrange the voicecast for the US version of Ponyo), so Totoro’s appearance shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Luckily for Bonnie’s mum and her vacuum cleaner, the soot spirits didn’t make the journey.
Best Line: It's another non-speaking part for the forest spirit.
Movie: Wayne’s World
Alice Cooper is known for his leather wear, heavy eyeliner and rock-out hair do. What he is not generally known for is his passion for the history of the American Midwest, but it is that Alice Cooper who gets a chance to shine here, explaining the origins of the city of Milwaukee and its importance as a trade centre. This all done while hanging out backstage following his show, and surrounded by other poodle-haired rockers anxious to contribute to the debate. Does this guy know how to party or what?!
Best Line: “In fact, it's pronounced "mill-e-wah-que" which is Algonquin for "the good land.”
Movie: Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993)
Ah, for the days when Charlie Sheen was known for being funny and a little surreal on purpose. In this amped-up sequel to the Top Gun-spoofing original, there’s a great little moment when Charlie’s Topper Harley is travelling by riverboat and musing – via voiceover – on the mission that lies ahead. A competing voiceover interrupts, and he looks up to see his pappy, Martin Sheen, dressed in his old Apocalypse Now duds on a boat headed in the other direction. The pair stand, and greet each other with the line below – and pass on on their respective ways. Genius.
Best Line: “I loved you in Wall Street!”
Movie: Maverick (1994)
Given that it was directed by Richard Donner and starred Mel Gibson, we probably shouldn’t have been surprised when Danny Glover showed up in Maverick for a quick visit. But there’s a twist! Rather than the cop he plays opposite Gibson, this time he’s a robber! It’s a complete turnaround! There’s a nice little moment when the erstwhile partners seem to recognise each other (the Lethal Weapon theme music playing in the background might help) before shaking their heads and going about their business. And just in case you didn’t get it (this is a knockabout comedy, after all) Glover even delivers his immortal and character-defining Roger Murtaugh catchphrase as he runs out of the bank he’s robbing.
Best Line: “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit.”
Movie: Out Of Sight (1998)
With Nick Fury using Captain America and Thor as a recruitment drive for The Avengers, and appearances in Iron Man (1 & 2) and Kill Bill (2) behind him, Samuel Jackson is every fanboy’s pinch-hitter of choice. That post-credits appearance in Iron Man made us stupidly excited, but it’s his less heralded appearance at the end of Out Of Sight that gets the nod here. He’s brilliantly inscrutable and stony-faced as serial prison-breaker Hejira Henry, the con-panion Karen Sisco contrives to accompany Jack Foley on his long drive back to prison. As a plot device it doesn’t make a lot of sense (surely if Jack breaks out again Karen will just be stuck with the same quandary?), but it’s still strangely satisfying. Look out too for another great walk-on in Soderbergh’s classy noir, with Michael Keaton reprising his role as Jackie Brown’s doofus DEA agent Ray Nicolette.
Best line: “You broke out?”, “I prefer to think of it as an exodus from an undesirable place.”
Movie: Eurotrip (2004)
In the official year of Matt Damon – yes, it’s now official – no list of cameos is complete with one of his many terrific walk-ons. He’s cameoed alongside Brad Pitt as a floppy-fringed gameshow contestant in Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, popped up with Ben Affleck in Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back as a gun-toting version of Will Hunting, made an uncredited appearance in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth and turned up as a spook in Soderbergh’s Che. Our favourite? Eurotrip’s Donny. He’s the lead singer of a Blink-182-like college band, who boasts long and loud about sleeping with the lovelorn Scotty’s (Scott Mechlowicz) now ex-girlfriend, Fiona. In song. With Fiona on backing vocals. It’s a tough moment for Scotty, but if you’re going to be owned it may as well be Jason Bourne doing the owning.
Best line: “I can’t believe he’s so trusting/while I’m right behind you thrusting.”
Movie: Mallrats (1995)
It’s a fine tradition in Marvel movies to insert a Stan Lee cameo somewhere, whether it’s in a riff on the comics (trying to crash the Fantastic Four wedding in the sequel) or in a quick throwaway gag (being mistaken for Hugh Hefner by Tony Stark). But the high mark for Stan Lee remains his turn in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, playing the sage relationship advisor and voice of wisdom to Brodie (Jason Lee - no relation). His debonair appearance and maturity just emphasises the intense childishness of everyone around him - and reminds us that comic-book creators aren’t necessarily stunted adolescents.
Best line: “You know, I think you ought to get him some help. He seems to be really hung up on super heroes' sex organs.”
Movie: Sunset Boulevard (1950)
One of the greatest stars of the silent era, who could be better to pop up in Sunset Boulevard as one of Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) bridge-playing acquaintances than Buster Keaton? He sits with typically deadpan demeanour alongside fellow silent movie notables, Anna Q. Nilsson and H. B. Warner, a crestfallen presence in the middle of Billy Wilder’s great Hollywood tragedy. It delivers a lot more pathos than your average movie cameo, that's for certain, with the advent of talkies leaving Keaton in the Hollywood boneyard. Starring roles were a thing of Keaton’s distant past, so the scene laid pretty bare his and his fellow silent stars' demise. It must have been tough to do, even before his character is dismissed as a “waxwork”.
Best line: He only gets one word – “Pairs” – although obviously that’s one more than The General.
Movie: The Hangover (2009)
Heavyweight champions, Phil Collins and tigers are not necessarily elements you’d put together to create comedy. And yet here we are, and one of the biggest laughs in The Hangover involves our hapless, hungover heroes attempting to negotiate with Mike Tyson after discovering that they have drunkenly stolen his big cat. But that is a mere shadow behind the impact of seeing Tyson, seated at a grand piano, singing along to Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight. Aside from the fact that (as we see in the full version in the trailer) Tyson can barely carry a tune in a bucket, the sheer incongruity makes it one of the most startling appearances in recent movie history.
Best line: “We all do dumb shit when we’re fucked up.”
The Movie: Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End (2006)
Cap’n Jack Sparrow had one of the greatest introductions in movie history, stepping off his sunken ship onto the quayside without so much as getting his feet wet. But it’s a trick he clearly learned from his old man, as Keith Richards’ Captain Teague first appears shooting someone from off-screen and then coolly blowing the smoke from the barrel of his pistol. Since Depp based his performance, at least in part, on the indefatigable rocker, it’s only fitting to have him pay tribute onscreen as Richards appears in this cameo - and while as an actor Richards makes a great guitarist, it’s an enjoyable little scene.
Best line: “It's not just about living forever, Jackie. The trick is still living with yourself forever."
The Movie: Spaceballs (1987)
Spaceballs gets a lot of stick, but it deserves a little bit of love just for this scene, wherein John Hurt replays his none-more-iconic chestburster scene in Alien for laughs. He’s wearing almost the same outfit, and he’s just enjoying a quiet meal when things go, well, explodey. This little xenomorph doesn’t just come out and run off to grow up into a acid-blooded killing machine; he performs a quick tap number on his way out the door. Great high-kicks too.
Best line: “Oooh no! Not again!”
The Movie: The Player (1992)
In a film crammed to the rafters with amazing cameos, it’s Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis that get the biggest laughs, appearing in the finally-produced movie-within-a-movie Habeas Corpus. She’s the woman sent to death row for a crime she didn’t commit; he’s the prosecutor who sent her there but who has nevertheless fallen in love with her. The scary thing about this little scene is that you can easily imagine this film being made, and you know that you’d probably go see it if it was.
Best line: “What took you so long?”; “Traffic was a bitch.”
The Movie: ALL of them
Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos varied from the blindingly obvious (North By Northwest, To Catch A Thief), to the subtle (The Trouble With Harry, Dial M For Murder) to the stupendously cunning (Rope, Lifeboat). Other directors have popped up in their own movies – M. Night Shyamalan, Michael Bay, Lewis Milestone’s hand, to name a few – but none as diligently, or consistently, as Hitch. He launched his cameoing career with blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em appearances - a shadowy silhouette here, a man in a lift there – but by the time he was done he was practically waving at the camera. The silliness of the cameos reached their highpoint in Topaz when leapt out of a wheelchair like Little Britain’s Lou, before wandering merrily off camera.
Best line: No talking, plenty of walking.
Movie: The Hurt Locker (2009)
Much as we loved Ralph Fiennes and his crew of hardnut mercenaries in The Hurt Locker, they were no Expendables. First they’re nearly mown down by William James’s (Jeremy Renner) US squad, then an insurgent sniper finishes the job. This would never have happened to Randy Couture. Still, Fiennes is a typically robust presence in a nerve-stretching scene that didn’t require him to do more than run around shouting “Sniper!” a lot and get shot in the chest. Behind that headscarfed and flak-jacketed exterior was an unshowy turn of the highest calibre. Props to Guy Pearce, too, for his bomb disposal expert, even if it was tricky to pick him out beneath that bomb suit.
Best line: “We’re on the same fucking side, you guys.”
Movie: The Thin Red Line (1998)
Masterful as his WW2 epic is, had Terrence Malick been in charge of the actual Pacific Campaign it’d still be going on. They’d be rounding up troops who’d wandered off to look at butterflies and scouring the place for Marines who’d been storming hills one minute before vanishing without a trace the next. A fair few of them would have turned up on the floor of Malick’s editing suite. George Clooney was the most notable of the A-listers all but culled from the final cut, but he was in good company: Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen and a host of others didn’t make the finished film. Those that did – Jim Caviezel’s lovelorn soldier aside – didn’t have a whole lot of screentime to show for it, but, as Malick would argue, such is the nature of war. We think some of them may still be out there.
Best line: "It's never necessary to tell me that you think I'm right. We'll just... assume it." (Lt. Col. Tall - Nick Nolte)
Movie: Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle (2004)
If there’s one thing odder than seeing an actor play a twisted, sex-obsessed version of themselves, it’s when they were once a precociously gifted 14 year-old doctor with a clipboard and a cherubic smile. Take a bow, then, Neil Patrick Harris. He takes against-type to a whole new level in stoner com Harold And Kumar. We’re sure in real life he’s a mild-mannered man, and we know for sure that he doesn’t spend much time in strip clubs, which only makes the cameo sillier. It was so popular that he got another extended turn in the sequel, where he drives the boys across America in a shroom-fuelled, unicorn-plagued stupor. This gave him the chance to ask the immortal question: “What does the ‘PH’ stand for in NPH?” If you’re wondering: it’s “poon handler”.
Best line: “The Doogie line always works on strippers.”
Movie: Annie Hall (1977)
In an ideal world you'd be able to call expert witnesses for every trivial squabble you get into, thus squashing our adversaries with a giant helping of shut-the-hell-up. Alas, life doesn't work this way, even with ready access to Wikipedia. That is, unless you're in a Woody Allen movie. Witness this scene where Allen's neurotic New Yorker Alvy Singer argues with a fellow queuer, whose theories about media theorist Marshall McLuhan he disproves by producing... yup, Marshall McLuhan. No, we didn't know who he was either, but we still love that he just happened to be lurking behind a poster in that cinema lobby. Derr, winning.
Best line: "How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing."
Movie: Young Frankenstein (1974)
As Popeye Doyle, Gene Hackman was used to the odd undercover op but his appearance in Young Frankenstein - a blind man with eyebrows like rhododendron bushes - was taking things a step sillier in the costume department. His vignette parodied a scene in James Whale's Bride Of Frankenstein, but in Whales' version, there's much less comic play made of the lonely old man's clumsy attempts at hospitality when Frankenstein - sorry, Fronkensteen - comes knocking. Mel Brooks's interpretation has Hackman obliviously scolding him with soup before setting fire to him, and Hackman is clearly having a ball doing it.
Best line: "Wait. Where are you going? I was going to make espresso."
Movie: Desperado (1995)
Quentin Tarantino is a bit of a motormouth. He talks fast, he talks a lot, and he’s a pretty engaging speaker to boot. Here, he launches into a lengthy anecdote about piss, which, judging by the look on Cheech Marin's face, is rapidly shaping up to be his last. It's got to be a good 'un then - with stakes that high, a cracker gag about plaice would probably have seen him drilled between the eyes - but he delivers in spades with a belligerently expressive gag-stroke-tirade. QT's finest moment in front of the camera.
Best line: "See those guys over there? I just bet them $500 a piece that I could piss on your bar, piss on your floor, piss on your phone, and piss on you, and not only would you not be mad about it, you'd be happy."
Movie: The Wedding Singer (1998)
Awkward wedding moments are two-a-penny in movies, but most of them pale into red-tinged insignificance alongside Steve Buscemi's cameo in The Wedding Singer. He's Dave Veltri, the angriest best man in cinema history, whose rage is fuelled by booze and daddy issues that would defeat Sigmund Freud himself. The result? A gleefully bitter speech that couldn't be more hysterically inappropriate if it had been delivered by Mr. Pink. Buscemi is a regular walk-in in Adam Sandler movies, mind, so look out for him in a full body cast in Grown-Ups. Actually, don't. That would mean watching it.
Best line*: "When my brother asked me to best man, I said, 'Of course, man, because you've always been there for me. Like when I was in rehab, or the time I couldn't find my car.'"