Nine Directors’ Famous Onscreen Performances

François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I believe every filmmaker should, at least once, experience life in front of the camera, to better understand actors' needs and issues. But the director-actor crossover field is a large and varied one: you have actors who quit to become directors (Ron Howard, Penny Marshall), actors who also direct (Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford), director-actor auteurs (Woody Allen, Spike Lee), and too many directors' cameos to mention. This list, however, is about those who establish themselves first as directors and then, somewhere down the line, play key roles in major films, delivering surprisingly strong performances.

  1. FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The French New Wave icon appeared in many of his own films, but this is the only time he performed under someone else's direction – Steven Spielberg's, no less. It seemed an ill fit for Truffaut, but he carried it off.
  2. OTTO PREMINGER, Stalag 17 (1953). The German-born producer-director was the Oliver Stone of his day, making one "controversial" Hollywood movie after another in the 1950s. Alas, like Stone, many of Preminger's films have not aged well. (Anatomy of a Murder holds up.) But his portrayal of a gleefully sadistic POW camp commandant in Billy Wilder's World War II comedy/drama is unforgettable.
  3. SYDNEY POLLACK, Husbands and Wives (1992). Pollack, whose own output as a director has become increasingly boring (how do you go from Tootsie to Random Hearts?), has, ironically, grown into a very interesting actor. Woody Allen was the first to exploit this in Husbands and Wives, and although Pollack has only acted sporadically since then, he's consistently good.
  4. EMIR KUSTURICA, The Widow of St. Pierre (2000). The Serbian director known for a string of great art films (When Father Was Away on Business, Time of the Gypsies, Underground) acted for France's Patrice Leconte as a condemned man saved by Juliette Binoche in this period drama.
  5. SPIKE JONZE, Three Kings (1999). Though Jonze is still young, he's already proven his mettle with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, as well as scores of videos and commercials. In the middle of all this, he effectively played a slow-witted but likable private in David O. Russell's Gulf War flick.
  6. ROMAN POLANSKI, A Pure Formality (1994). Polanski appeared in several of his own films – he even starred in The Tenant – but it was his performance as Gerard Depardieu's interrogator in Giuseppe Tornatore's suspenser that proved he could take direction as well as the next guy.
  7. JOHN HUSTON, Chinatown (1974). Speaking of Polanski, one of his best films gave us one of cinema's most memorable villains, played by one of America's greatest directors. As Huston aged, he began acting more frequently, but none of his other parts holds a candle to his sinister water magnate Noah Cross.
  8. DAVID CRONENBERG, Night Breed (1990). Although Clive Barker's Night Breed won't go down as a classic, it still showed Cronenberg (The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, etc.) to be a good sport who doesn't mind hamming it up in cheesy movies from time to time. (He did star in one decent film: the Canadian end-of-the-world drama Last Night).
  9. MARTIN SCORSESE, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990). Scorsese routinely cameos in his own films, and has popped up in others such as Quiz Show and Guilty By Suspicion. Though no great actor, and though he has yet to land a central role like the other eight filmmakers on this list, his turn as Vincent Van Gogh(!) in Kurosawa's late-career epic is worth a mention for such unlikely casting.