Celebrities have appeared "as themselves" in feature films since the silent era, typically in brief, jokey cameos. But whereas real actors have been known to play themselves in leading roles – from autobiographical ego-fests (as Joan Rivers and Shirley Maclaine have done in TV movies) to intentionally fictionalized versions of their lives (John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich, Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold and Kumar franchise) – here are nine unusual cases where people with absolutely no acting background wound up starring as themselves in big screen biopics. These are not documentaries, they are all scripted narrative features with otherwise professional casts.
- PANCHO VILLA, The Life of General Villa (1914). During the early days of cinema, the infamous Mexican revolutionary did in fact play himself in this saga of his adventures. How it turned out is anybody's guess; like many films made during this era, the footage has disappeared. However, the 2003 HBO TV movie And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is a moderately accurate account of the making of this lost curio.
- BABE RUTH, Headin' Home (1920). Baseball great Ruth was a legend in his own time, and Hollywood sought to capitalize on his enormous following. However, this hourlong vehicle – more tall tale than authentic biopic – flopped, thanks to Ruth's wooden acting.
- JACKIE ROBINSON, The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). This dramatization of a baseball legend's life was more successful on all fronts. Robinson never acted again, but he acquitted himself well in reliving the events that led to his becoming the first black player in Major League Baseball. Perhaps he was comfortable around film sets, having grown up in Pasadena.
- AUDIE MURPHY, To Hell and Back (1955). American WWII soldier Murphy became a national hero in 1945 when his tales of killing 240 Germans landed him on the cover of Life magazine. With his matinee idol looks, he was soon courted by Tinseltown. After starring in several B pictures, Murphy reluctantly agreed to play himself in the big screen adaptation of his (ghost-written) memoir To Hell and Back. The film was a hit, and Murphy's acting career (mostly in Westerns) remained strong until he died in a plane crash in 1971. (We can't honestly say that Murphy was a "non-actor" by 1955, but you get the idea.) Quentin Tarantino spoofed the soldier's unlikely stardom by creating a Nazi version of Murphy for Inglourious Basterds.
- THE BEATLES, A Hard Day's Night (1964). Elvis Presley starred in over 30 features, but he never played himself. You can't say that about John, Paul, George, and Ringo, who headlined this endearing farce about the Fab Four and their fictional adventures. The success of A Hard Day's Night led to a slew of other '60s rock star comedies, starring the likes of Herman's Hermits, The Monkees, and the Dave Clark Five. The Beatles, of course, would play themselves again in Help!
- ARLO GUTHRIE, Alice's Restaurant (1969). Folk singer Guthrie, son of Woody, wrote an epic monologue based on his own experiences with the American justice system, and called it "Alice's Restaurant Massacree". In that strange, post-Easy Rider era, when Hollywood was desperate to appeal to the youth audience, it wasn't unusual that Guthrie would be asked to play himself in this counterculture comedy.
- MUHAMMAD ALI, The Greatest (1977). In the 1970s, Ali was as famous for his outsize ego as he was for his boxing victories. So it was inevitable that the champ would play himself in a dramatization of his career. The movie is no classic, but it did introduce the song "Greatest Love of All", recorded for the film by George Benson but a #1 hit for Whitney Houston eight years later.
- HOWARD STERN, Private Parts (1997). You can see that, over time, movies with celebrities playing themselves became less about Hollywood forcing them into autobiographies and more about said celebs being the catalysts for their big screen breaks. To wit: Private Parts, in which radio shock jock Stern and several of his real-life cronies performed alongside actual actors such as a pre-fame Paul Giamatti and Allison Janney.
- WERNER HERZOG, Incident at Loch Ness (2004). At some point during the last 15 years, Werner Herzog morphed from challenging German filmmaker into amusing pop culture icon, due to a distinctive accent and clipped speaking style that has made him fodder for countless impersonations. In the midst of this is his role in Zak Penn's low-budget mockumentary, where Penn and Herzog lead a team of "scientists" and "filmmakers" to Loch Ness in order to document its mythical monster.