Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Writers as Actors

Actors, it would seem, very often want to be doing something else with their lives. The old joke is "What I really want to do is direct", but often what they want to also do is write, and they don't necessarily want to write screenplays. The actor-as-writer is not really a recent phenomenon -- Shakespeare was an actor, after all -- and even the idea of a movie star writing novels stretches back several decades. Robert Shaw was a respected novelist and playwright, as was Peter Ustinov. Both were prolific enough as writers, in fact, that they could reasonably be said to be both things equally.
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But being both things at once -- the modern version of being a true Renaissance Man -- is kind of a dying art (Stephen Fry, with, I think, five ten books under his belt, is the only guy I can think of who can be said to fit in the Ustinov and Shaw mold) and nowadays we have a lot of actors who dabble in writing. The most prominent of these would probably have to be Ethan Hawke, who has written two novels that apparently nobody likes (I haven't read either, and never will). Other than that, you have Hugh Laurie, whose one novel, The Gun Seller, I have read (and it was darn good, too, until the American Military showed up to play the role of "cartoonishly evil bad guys"), or Michael Palin (one novel also, called Hemingway's Chair, which I plan on reading soon), or fellow Python Eric Idle (two novels, actually, one hard-to-find novel from the 70s called Hello, Sailor, and another, Douglas Adams-esque, except supposedly far less good, SF comedy called The Road to Mars), or David Thewlis (one novel, called The Late Hector Kipling). One day, I'd like to gather up a bunch of these novels, the ones I haven't read (well, except for Hawke's), and plunge in. Maybe write them up as a kind of series. That might be interesting.

But anyway, what about the reverse? What about when writers choose to be actors? It doesn't happen often, because writers tend to be content, if that's really the word I want, with being writers. Still, it does happen, and the results are often surprising, or interesting, or maybe bad and weird. It depends.

First off, I'm going to cheat, because look below:

That still is from Alexander Mackendrick's A High Wind in Jamaica, and the blonde-headed lad is Martin Amis, world-famous and highly-respected as the author of Time's Arrow, Money, London Fields and many others. Obviously, when Amis did this film, he wasn't in the position of moving from the role of novelist to actor, but I've been a fan of Amis for quite a long time, and when I first heard that, as a boy, Amis appeared as an actor in this film, I became extremely interested. I didn't see the film until a year or so ago, after I'd read the source novel by Richard Hughes. The novel is a chilling masterpiece, and the film is, well, not. And Amis, as I remember, has almost nothing to say in the film, even though in the novel his character was pretty chatty. The film is a wash, really, and even if you're a fan of Amis, the novelty of the idea of seeing him in a film isn't actually heightened by actually seeing the film.

Above we have an image from Werner Herzog's remake of Nosferatu. To the right of Klaus Kinski is Roland Topor as Renfield. Topor isn't exactly a household name, but he was, among other things, a Kafka-esque, surrealist writer whose most famous novel, The Tenant, was adapted by Roman Polanski as The Roman Polanski Story (better known as The Tenant). Herzog says he cast Topor because of his laugh, but unfortunately all of Topor's dialogue had to be re-dubbed by another actor (the reasons for this escape me) so you don't even get to hear it. And as much as I love Herzog's film, Topor has always seemed like the weak link to me (well, Topor and whoever dubbed his voice), because he plays Renfield as a scampering cartoon loony, with none of the insectile creepiness that Kinski brings to his role. It always felt like a bad match, to me.

The way I remember hearing it, John Boorman agreed to cast James Dickey in the role of Sheriff Bullard in the film version of Dickey's Deliverance pretty much just to get Dickey off his back. Dickey was notoriously difficult to work with, or drink with, or sit in the same room with, or be a family member of, and it was no less difficult for the cast and crew to have him wandering around, insulting people, lying to them, and then slapping them on the back later as though they were old pals. But Boorman -- and anyone who cares to can correct me if I'm wrong in the comments -- achieved some sort of peace by casting Dickey as the sheriff who, in the last section of the film, suspects that our heroes are hiding something from him. And as it happens, Dickey is terrific in the role, the one roaring success of this kind of writer-to-actor leap I can think of. He brings a great authenticity and sharpness to a small role, and his performance is one of the most memorable in the whole film.

And then Salman Rushdie played himself in Bridget Jones' Diary. I don't remember anything about the film, or even what Rushdie did or said in his small amount of screen time, but I do remember thinking, "Well. That's kind of odd, isn't it?"

So who am I forgetting? Any other writers who made a brief foray into film acting that deserve a mention here? Let me know.

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Update:

Where do I begin? In the comments section, many, many, many other examples of writers-as-actors have been pointed out to me, many I simply didn't think of, others I had no idea about. And now I feel mighty embarrassed, but oh well. I asked, didn't I? So, from the likes of Marilyn (who's probably mad at me), Mariana, Greg F., Pat, ND, here's some more...

Sam Shepard in a whole shitload of movies, most notably The Right Stuff and Days of Heaven

Norman Mailer in Ragtime, as well as some of his own films

Marshal McLuhan in Annie Hall

Robert Benchley in a whole lot of stuff

While I'm at it, Peter Benchley in Jaws

Paul Auster in The Music of Chance (that one was mine!!)

Stephen King in Creepshow, Sleepwalkers, Knightriders, Creepshow 2, and etc.

Truman Capote in Murder by Death

William S. Burroughs in Drugstore Cowboy

Colin McCabe in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid

Jerzy Kosinsky in Reds

George Plimpton in Reds, Good Will Hunting, and etc.

Antonin Artaud in The Passion of Joan of Arc

And, it just occurred to me, Saul Bellow and Susan Sontag are both in Zelig.

55 comments:

Greg said...

How about Norman Mailer and Sam Shepherd. And Shepherd's been nominated for an acting Oscar even.

bill r. said...

D'oh! I can only remember Mailer getting shot in the back of the head in Ragtime (may he rest in peace, I suppose, but he was a dick, so I liked that scene), but Shepard was an obvious miss on my part. I guess because he does so much acting, he's not really a one-off, and it was the one-offs I was trying to remember. Still, my bad.

Rick Olson said...

Was Robert Shaw an actor before he was a playwright?

bill r. said...

Yes, and he was a novelist before he was a playwright. His first film roles were in the early 50s, his first novel came out in 1960, and his first play was in 1968.

I have one of his novels, A Card from Morocco, but I've never even cracked it. And now that I've just learned that it's part two of a trilogy, I'll have to wait until I pick up at least the first part, and read that, before I do.

Ryan Kelly said...

And in terms of actors as writers, Steve Martin is pretty wonderful. Not to mention, he's funding a production of his own play somewhere because a local college banned it.

Excellent post on a niche topic.

Greg said...

Was Robert Shaw an actor before he was a playwright?

Yes, and he was a novelist before he was a playwright.


He was also a mason before he was a novelist, a painter before he was a mason, a farmer before he was a painter, a magician before he was a farmer and finally, a flapper girl before he was a magician. He was pretty damn versatile.

bill r. said...

Ryan - Other than Martin's humor essays, the only book of his I've read (and I can't believe I didn't think to mention him in the post) is his memoir, Born Standing Up. But it was excellent, you're right. I love when he describes his girlfriend (daughter of Dalton Trumbo) leaving him for John Frankenheimer, and then points out that, some years later, Frankenheimer tried to seduce Martin's then-wife Victoria Tennant. Martin then says something like, "Incidentally, Frankenheimer passed away a few years ago. It was not I who killed him."

Greg - And he was a circus clown before he was even born. So, you know. Pretty impressive.

Marilyn said...

Robert Benchley

And Louise Brooks became a prolific film critic and essayist.

Marilyn said...

Marshal McLuhan

bill r. said...

Yeah, Benchley, but I don't know his film work, unfortunately. And Louise Brooks would be traveling in the opposite direction, from actress to writer.

McLuhan only has that cameo in Annie Hall, right? But I guess if I'm going to put Rushdie in there, McLuhan fits, too. I also forgot Paul Auster's small role in the adaptation of his novel The Music of Chance. He's terrible, and the ending of the film is, I think, a corruption of his novel, so that one's pretty odd. I should have used it...

Marilyn said...

According to IMDb, McLuhan actually acted in a couple of movies, not playing himself. I was just giving an example of an actress to writer, since you have a woeful absence of women in this exercise going in either direction.

Marilyn said...

I'd also like to nominate Melvin Van Peebles as a Renaissance Man.

bill r. said...

woeful absence of women in this exercise going in either direction.

Well pardon me all to pieces! I know what I know, all right??

How is Melvin Van Peebles a Rennaisance Man, by the way? That used to mean that someone was, more than likely, a painter, historian, musician, writer, doctor, scientist... Now it means that someone acts AND directs AND sings! I stick to the old definition.

Marilyn said...

Well, he wrote books, wrote/directed/acted in movies, wrote and produced Tony-nominated plays/musicals, got his broker's license and practiced on Wall Street, recorded one of the first rap record.

Marilyn said...

You redefined Renaissance Man yourself:

"But being both things at once -- the modern version of being a true Renaissance Man -- is kind of a dying art "

bill r. said...

It's not that that's not an impressive list of accomplishments, but, outside of the broker's license, it's all related to the arts. Traditional Renaissance Men were people who set their minds to all, or most, fields of human thought and endeavor. The term is thrown around freely these days, but I like the original definition.

bill r. said...

You redefined Renaissance Man yourself

No, I said that was the "modern version", which, unfortunately, it is. I don't consider people who act in movies AND write books to be Renaissance Men, but that's what passes for it these days.

Marilyn said...

Well, fine, but the premise of this post seemed to be about your modern Renaissance Man.

bill r. said...

No, the premise was supposed to just be about well-known and respected writers who have done a little acting. And since I wanted some sort of lead-in, and have been thinking about reading books written by actors as a kind of side project, I thought I'd go with that, but I'll admit that section got away from me a little bit.

Janet Leigh wrote several books, by the way! I just remembered that.

Marilyn said...

Lots of actresses wrote books but they're the "unimportant" kind - children's books.

bill r. said...

Well I never said children's books are unimportant, you know.

Greg said...

So how's that hole coming Bill?

bill r. said...

I dug no hole. Where's the hole? Show me. I dare you.

Greg said...

I'm pointing to the hole right now but you can't see where I'm pointing because this is being typed into an blog comment frame.

Anywho, Jean Harlow wrote a book called Today is Tonight and Mae West wrote lots of scripts but I thought we were just talking books.

bill r. said...

That's right, we were, but only important ones, so I don't wanna here about any of that Dr. Seuss crap.

Mariana said...

Stephen King has popped up in movies based on his books (I remember him in Sleepwalkers, and in the tv version of The Shining), and Truman Capote had a part as the villain in Murder by Death.

nd said...

Artaud in The Passion of Joan of Arc comes to mind. And William Burroughs, notably in Drugstore Cowboy.

In terms of cameos, Colin McCabe makes a brief appearance in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, during Sammy's list of his favourite moments with Rosie (a lecture where, if memory serves, McCabe ends up pondering the semiotics of a bag of crisps). Not a film I'd recommend, for that or any other reason.

bill r. said...

Hm. So clearly, what you're all saying is, my list could have, and indeed SHOULD have, been a lot more interesting.

I see.

Pat said...

Bill -

I saw "High Wind in Jamaica" on TV about a bazillion times as a kid, never knew that Martin Amis was in it. You learn something new every day.

Salman Rushdie also plays Helen Hunt's gynecologist in "And Then She Found Me," which Hunt also directed. (If you haven't seen it... don't bother.)

Has Stephen Fry written anything lately? I enjoy his books, try to get them as soon as they're published in the US. The last one I read was several years ago, I think it was titled "Revenge" in the US(although I got my copy on a trip to Ireland where it had the title "The Star's Tennis Balls.") It was loosely based on "The Count of Monte Cristo."

Pat said...

And not to pile on here ('cause I really enjoyed your post), but Jerzy Kozsinski (not sure of spelling) and George Plimpton have small roles in "Reds."

bill r. said...

Salman Rushdie also plays Helen Hunt's gynecologist in "And Then She Found Me"

Look at how much I don't know about this topic that I just confidently posted about! It's really pretty staggering.

Revenge appears to have been Fry's most recent novel, though there have been a couple of more recent works of non-fiction that I didn't know about (I'll change the post now!). The only one I've read is The Hippopotamus, which I read years ago and remember liking pretty well, but the story was just insane. A little too insane, probably, but a funny book anyway.

Greg said...

Also Mark Twain played the role of starving woman number three in Tillie Takes out the Trash (1902) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky played silhouette with beard on a Magic Lantern series of slides entitled Night Fairy Lullaby (1867), sold through the Sears catalog.

Greg said...

Hey, Bill, you should do a post on vector calculus next. You know, as long as your posting on stuff you have no knowledge of.

Pat said...

"The Hippopotamus" is a little goofy, but it made me laugh out loud several times. I think it's my favorite of Fry's novels. I'd also recommend "Making History," a "what if?" story, in this case "What if Hitler had never been born?"

Greg said...

I can't believe you left Twain and Dostoyevsky off of your update. And I gave you that information out of the goodness of my heart. Well!

And Marilyn's not mad, she's offended. Boy, get our neurosises right will ya?

bill r. said...

"Neurosises?"

I left Dostoevsky and Twain off because you're a filthy, stinking liar. I looked up Tillie Takes Out the Trash, and that wasn't Mark Twain, it was Henry James! And that was Tolstoy in Night Fairy Lullaby!! So you're either a liar, or even dumber than me!

Greg said...

Oops, that should be neuroses, the correct plural form I just looked up to make sure. Yeah, whatever. You're wrong about James and Tolstoy, those losers never did anything in the movies.

But who cares, the good news is Tillie Takes out the Trash is finally going to get the Criterion treatment, in all of its seven minute running time nickelodean splendor! I think I speak for all cinephiles when I say, "It's about time!"

bill r. said...

"Nickelodean"?

Greg said...

Oh, so an "a" instead of an "o". Hey, at least I didn't put up a post in which half the blogging community stepped in to correct the multiple omissions on my part. So there!

bill r. said...

Hey! I never said, "Only four writers have ever acted"! I just listed four, and asked for other examples! Jack-hole!

Greg said...

"Only four writers have ever acted"!

That's a direct quote from you. I just got it from your last comment. So, wiseguy, I guess you DID say it!

Greg said...

And by the way, punctuation goes inside quotation marks.

Ah, sweet poetic justice.

bill r. said...

I don't believe that, in this case, the punctuation would go inside, because the punctuation was to the sentence, not the fake quote. There's probably a rule about that somewhere.

Either way, at least I can spell.

Greg said...

Can't even take defeat like a man. How sad.

bill r. said...

You know what's sad? You're stupid face.

Greg said...

Know what else is sad - the last twelve comments are just you and I trading insults.

I'm bored with this. Write another post with lots of glaring omissions I can comment on.

Fox said...

Jonathan Lapper was my favorite writer/actor.

Why is Marilyn mad at you?

(I need to read the comments now...)

Fox said...

Hey! Where'd everyone go?!?!?

So. I watched Howard the Duck last night. Anybody wanna talk about it??

Ed Howard said...

Norman Mailer also has a critical role in Godard's King Lear, in which he basically says that the whole film is a piece of shit and then quits -- which is of course what he did on the real film as well. Godard's revenge: implying an incestuous relationship between Mailer/Lear and his daughter/Cordelia. Pretty hilarious.

Fox said...

Ed-

What... no thoughts on Howard the Duck?!?

WHAT IS WRONG WITH EVERYONE??? ... or is it me? Hmm.

bill r. said...

Sorry, everyone, I was out getting a root canal. Truly! It's all over now, and that nasty tooth you guys always made fun of me about is now pretty again.

So what's going on? Howard the Duck? Doesn't that feature duck boobs?

Fox said...

YIKES! I hope you have feeling in your lips back by now! I've had a root canal too, so now we can be The Dead Tooth Brothers!

And yessir! There are duck boobs in Howard the Duck. There is also some almost creepy bestiality when Lea Thompson flirts heavy with Howard in her 80's panties. It was weird, but then Chuck Heston kissed an ape... so.

nd said...

A little hunting on IMDB reveals two very interesting instances of writers as LEAD actors: Richard Wright starred in an adaptation of his own Native Son, and Mickey Spillane was Mike Hammer in The Girl Hunters.

bill r. said...

I had no idea about Richard Wright, but I did know -- though I obviously forgot when it counted -- about Mickey Spillane. I think he played Hammer more than once. Anybody see those? Are they any good?

nd said...

Just realized I forgot a favourite one (& a major role, not just a cameo): John Osborne as Kinnear in Get Carter.

Revisiting this thread because of this post by David Cairns which notes film appearances by Edna O'Brien and Germaine Greer.

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