The 4 Greatest Secret Movie Roles of Famous Actors

These people weren't in the trailers or movie posters. They're just doing small but good work, and their presence in the film is a big surprise.
The 4 Greatest Secret Movie Roles of Famous Actors

You ever go to the movies and are surprised to see an actor you had no idea would be in the film? Well, that's called a cameo, but let's be more specific, because there are all sorts of cameos. There are those where some famous person pops up, playing themselves for two seconds, like Mike Tyson in The Hangover. Then there are the movies where they pay a star a lot of money to be in a scene or two and then promote the hell out of it.

Good examples of that would be Marlon Brando in the original Superman or Eddie Murphy in Best Defense. In fact, Murphy is barely in Best Defense. It is Dudley Moore's movie, and just about all of Murphy's lines are in the trailer, which pimps him mercilessly.

This is NOT what I'm talking about. I'm focusing on those times major stars take small but important roles in movies and are not part of the film's publicity. They're not in the trailers or movie posters. They're just doing small but good work, and their presence in the film is a big surprise.

Jack Nicholson in Broadcast News

Did you know being over 35 means having memories of seeing actual movies from the '80s? It's true. Ask your dad. (Or, if you're over 35, just write "Right on!" in the comments below.)

Broadcast News was one of the biggest movies of the '80s, nominated for seven Academy Awards including best picture, best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, and best original screenplay. William Hurt, Holly Hunter, and Albert Brooks play the lead characters, and they're the ones in the movie poster and all the advertising.


No, that's Brooks on the right, jackass.

Despite this central love triangle, there is another important but small character -- TV anchorman/news legend Bill Rorich. Think Dan Rather/Tom Brokaw. Or if you've just started watching television news in the last few years, think Wolf Blitzer but without severe neurological delays. And, playing this character -- seemingly out of nowhere -- is Jack Nicholson.

How Did This Happen?

Nicholson must have taken quite the shine to writer/director James L. Brooks during the filming of Terms of Endearment, because Nicholson did Brooks' Broadcast News for free. He also asked for his name not to appear in the credits, because he didn't want his celebrity status to distract from the central characters of the film. That actually makes a lot of sense, because as big as Nicholson is now, he was basically a cartoon in the '80s -- the decade in which he played an ax murderer (The Shining), Satan (The Witches of Eastwick), and The Joker (Batman). This subdued cameo works shockingly well, because the character he's playing is supposed to be a TV legend. When he suddenly appeared, the audience in the showing I was at gasped, which is great, because the characters in the movie do too. It's almost like the entire cast is saying, "Hey, fucking Jack Nicholson's in this movie!"

The 4 Greatest Secret Movie Roles of Famous Actors

"See, I'm a TV newsman, not an ax murderer or the devil. You can tell because I've combed my hair
and I'm not wearing sunglasses."

Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder

Tom Cruise is one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Also, by all accounts, he is super not funny. I mean, alarmingly unfunny. Go ahead. Try to picture him telling a joke. Can you? I just tried and for some reason got a visual of him stapling a parakeet to a block of wood. Despite all that, Cruise is unrecognizable and hilarious as foul-mouthed, hot-headed, stupid executive Les Grossman in Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder. In a film starring Stiller (in a non-sucky role), Robert Downey Jr. at his funniest, and Jack Black being, well, Jack Black, Cruise is the one that everyone remembers from this movie. And it's not just the novelty of him wearing a fat suit, prosthetic hands, and a bald wig that's so funny. He absolutely commits and owns the role.

How Did This Happen?

Stiller has always been a big fan of Cruise, and they've done bits like this together in the past:

Given that relationship, it wouldn't have been surprising if Cruise showed up in one wacky scene, but the Les Grossman character is more than that, and, shockingly, Cruise played a big part in shaping the role and making it more. Stiller wanted Cruise to take the role ultimately played by Matthew McConaughey, but Cruise suggested a hot-head producer. That's right. Cruise had some funny ideas. It was also Cruise who had the idea to give Grossman large prosthetic hands and to have him dance to Flo Rida's "Low."

And then Stiller and Cruise kept it a secret. Paramount refused to release any pics of Cruise in costume. But, of course, Inside Edition got copies and ruined the surprise, but here's the great thing: only for the scum who watch crap like Inside Edition. It was still a fun surprise for those of us with functioning brains who went to see the movie.

The 4 Greatest Secret Movie Roles of Famous Actors

Kurt Russell in Vanilla Sky

Kurt Russell was a big star when I was a kid. If you've ever seen Escape From New York, you'll know why. Of course, if you've ever seen Escape From L.A., you'll be super confused right now.

The 4 Greatest Secret Movie Roles of Famous Actors

This would not look more convincing if you saw the full clip.

But Russell has certainly had a long and full career, typically playing leading characters. He also starred in The Thing, Captain Ron, Tombstone, Backdraft -- not all great movies, but many of them successful. He was also nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of Elvis Presley. But all that big-star glitz is nowhere to be seen in Vanilla Sky.

The 4 Greatest Secret Movie Roles of Famous Actors

"So Tom, have you considered my idea about his doctor having long hair and an eye patch?

And, speaking of nowhere to be seen, there are no pics of him on the film's DVD cover.

WIDESCELEEN COLLEECTION o2. AornilooVIimoawinw TOM CRUISE ILLA NE 3 6 ROM CRUISE IVANILLA SKY AmorodloSogniVitaLavorogiicoAmiclzlasesso

You're still double-checking, aren't you? Have a little faith in me!

Vanilla Sky stars Russell in the important but minor supporting role of Tom Cruise's psychiatrist.

How Did This Happen?

Well, this one is kind of sad, because as far as I can tell, there really is no reason to technically call this a cameo. There's nothing tricky going on. Despite a string of starring roles in the preceding 25 years, Russell's career was not at a high point. Let's blame, in part, 3000 Miles to Graceland -- that awful Elvis-impersonator heist movie co-starring Kevin Costner. From all accounts, it seems like Russell just auditioned for a lesser role because that was where his career was at at the moment and he was enough of a professional to take a good smaller role, rather than star in some other piece of crap. And the PR people had Cruise, Cameron Diaz, and Penelope Cruz at the the height of their star power, which meant they didn't need to promote Russell. So it just turned out to be a surprise where a leading man turns in a small, quality supporting performance.

Bill Murray in Zombieland

Hey, remember a few years ago when people weren't completely sick of zombies? Yeah, me neither. I was sick of them then too. But despite the inevitable backlash, one more zombie movie found success just before the house of zombie sand started crumbling. And that movie was Zombieland. It's a movie about a kid who's so upset about having to write a million-dollar check to the Winklevoss brothers, he sets out on a road trip with Woody from Cheers and must kill zombies while looking for an ending to the film that doesn't suck.

OK, that might not be the exact plot, but that's how I remember it because, y'know, it kind of feels more like a TV show than a movie. That's probably because it was supposed to be a TV show. But a movie it was, albeit a meandering one that suddenly finds closure in an amusement park like so many divorced dads do with their kids on visiting weekends. But before the zombie-killers reach the end, there's a wacky celebrity cameo: Bill Murray, who's playing himself, staying alive by pretending to be a zombie. I didn't want to include this entry in the list because it also fits into the "actor playing himself" category (and therefore feels less humble than the other entries). But it is pretty incredible that anyone could promote a zombie comedy and refrain from telling people that Murray is in it. So it was a neat and sizable surprise.

The 4 Greatest Secret Movie Roles of Famous Actors

Surprising, but still not as surprising as him voicing those Garfield movies.

How Did This Happen?

Apparently there was always going to be a surprise cameo -- a celebrity playing a zombie -- in the movie. The writers tossed around names like Patrick Swayze and Sylvester Stallone but hadn't landed on anyone and were considering rewriting the script without the cameo. But first they asked Harrelson if he had any ideas. Perhaps thinking of his old Kingpin co-star, or perhaps just having an acid flashback, Harrelson suggested Murray. Murray liked the script but wanted more to do. He suggested instead of him playing a zombie, maybe he could just be acting like a zombie to stay alive. The filmmakers rewrote the draft and Murray was in. Maybe Murray had seen the superior Shaun of the Dead, in which the characters do the same thing. Hard to say.



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