We’ve chosen ten actors who went on to become important filmmakers. (Some ostensibly obvious choices, such as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, are absent because they really got their starts as writers, not actors.)
1. Charles Laughton
Laughton only directed one film, but what a film it is. Night of the Hunter, a hallucinatory, noirish adaptation of David Grubb’s novel, has the air of a fairytale and the expressionistic aesthetics of a German silent film. Set in West Virginia, the film depicts a serial killer posing as a preacher, played with dizzying charisma by the inimitable Robert Mitchum. Mitchum’s preacher seduces a young widow, whose recently departed husband, Mitchum learns, has hidden stolen money somewhere at his home. The film lulls you into a gaze with Mitchum’s dolorous sense of restraint, his charm, and his tranquil niceties, and slowly slips deeper into a strange, nightmarish realm where shadows jete across walls with menace and only two colors exist: black and white.
2. Robert Redford
Redford was known for two things: being Robert Redford, and his gorgeous hair. Not that Redford is a bad actor — not at all. He was nominated for Best Actor for his turn in The Sting opposite the forever underrated Robert Shaw. But Redford was the Brad Pitt of his time, a pretty face and a marquee name whose acting talents mattered less than the beauty of his eyes. When Redford released Ordinary People, audiences were shocked by the dark, somber, profound depiction of depression suicide and familial disintegration unfolding on screen. The film will always be (unfairly) remembered for “robbing” Martin Scorsese of his Oscar for Raging Bull, but Redford changed the landscape of movie stars becoming directors.
3. Terry Gilliam
Gilliam is perhaps the most jarring career change of all the filmmakers listed here. From absurdist Monty Python sketches to absurdist surreal dramas — well, maybe it’s not such a drastic change. Gilliam’s career has had its ups and down, more downs than ups recently, but his vision remains unique. His world is always trippy, his camera seemingly nursing a broken leg as it rarely aims straight at anything. Low-angles, high-angles, Dutch-angles — all are used to create an alien world, at once visually similar to but somehow distant from our own.
Brazil is his best known film, but 12 Monkeys is perhaps Gilliam’s best film. Anchored by a committed performance from Bruce Willis (who can be so good when he cares), and up-ended up a manic turn by Brad Pitt (arguably his first great performance), the film is a rare example of an enigmatic, augury thriller with a final twist that doesn’t feel like a cheat.
4. Rob Reiner
You may recognize Reiner as Leonardo DiCaprio’s dad in The Wolf of Wall Street (which should have gotten Leo his first Oscar, but alas.) That face and that beard have been around for a long time. Reiner gave us such classics as This Is Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally, Stand By Me, Misery, and A Few Good Men. Reiner hasn’t had a critical success in a while — the 1994 bomb North derailed what was an amazing ten-year stretch, during which time all the aforementioned films were released — but his supporting role in The Wolf of Wall Street was a delightfully vulgar reminder of Reiner’s comedic chops.
5. Takeshi Kitano
Western audiences came to know him for his role in the David Bowie drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, but Kitano’s legacy will be his violent revenge dramas. Kitano filled in as director for Violent Cop in 1989, and he hasn’t looked back. The Yakuza drama Sonatine is a classic of Japanese cinema, and Kitano’s surrealist autobiographical film Takeshis‘ unveiled a different, more comedic side of the filmmaker.
6. John Cassavetes
Cassavetes was perfectly cast as the down-on-his-luck actor-husband who betrays his wife in Rosemary’s Baby. He had that mix of devilishly handsome looks, masculine stubbornness, and thriftiness, selling lies like a door-to-door salesman. But acting was just a means of funding his indie dramas for Cassavaetes. His legacy will always be his revolutionary indies. Faces, Shadows, and A Woman Under the Influence are certifiable classics, though their slow pace and (purposefully) understated aesthetics may not appeal to modern viewers (they didn’t really appeal to contemporary viewers in the ’60s, either; he’s always been a cinephile favorite.) Cassavetes was just 59 when he died, but his impact on independent film is ineffable.
7. Elia Kazan
He’s unfairly remembered and maligned for cooperating with the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare but, as Richard Schickel’s loving biography attests, Kazan gave the names of already blacklisted artists and those who were already known for being “Communists” — “Communist” meaning “not conservative.” He saved his own career, as did many other, less famous filmmakers, and he defended his actions with the classic On the Waterfront. Kazan, who began his career as a stage actor before becoming a renowned stage director, is sometimes proclaimed to be the best actor’s director in history. It’s hard to argue with that after seeing Brando’s performances in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, and James Dean in East of Eden.
8. Clint Eastwood
The archetypal actor-turned-director, Eastwood began his career as a stone-faced, stoic muscle man and cowboy. His roles in The Man With No Name Trilogy (his character does have a name, a different name, in each film — but whatever) are iconic examples of screen presence making up for lack of acting abilities, and Dirty Harry revived the anti-hero character after a drop-off during the counter-culture years, and ushered in a new era of violence in movies. The sequels undermine the mean, New Hollywood cynicism of the original, turning Harry into a pure hero instead of an unrepentant killer who happens to have one foot on the right side of good and bad. Eastwood learned his craft from Don Siegel, who directed Eastwood in five films, including Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz. Eastwood’s bad dream western High Plains Drifter remains a singular vision in the western genre, adding a touch of the supernatural to the dark, vengeful genre. He then “killed” the western with Unforgiven, which earned him a Best Director Oscar.
9. Charlie Chaplin
According to contrarian extraordinaire and amateur psychologist David Thomson, Chaplin’s films are steeped in a pathological, egotistical loneliness, self-importance, and a sad, troubled childhood that infiltrates every film in his body of work. That may be a tad assumptive, and more than a tad portentous, but Thomson has a sort of point: Chaplin was egotistical and lonely, and that is evident in his greatest films. Chaplin could command the screen by himself for long stretches, sitting on pies, falling into whirring cogs, hanging from clocktowers. But he wasn’t looking for pity — oh, no — he was exorcising his demons, in a way. His childhood was troubled, and he never really knew who his father was (according to Thomson, it could have been anyone — and likely was everyone, in a metaphorical sense.) Chaplin’s films exhibit an idea of a “man” as nebulous, an idea of society as opaque. His was a preternaural talent, but he was a working stiff his whole life, or so he claimed. A bit like Orson Welles, Chaplin was mysterious, his word not entirely reliable, which only casts more awe upon his legacy.
10. Buster Keaton
Known as the saddest face in the history of movies, Buster Keaton changed the silent film. He took slapstick comedy and visual storytelling to new extremes with Sherlock Jr, Steamboat Bill Jr, and The General. Like a proto-Jackie Chan, Keaton employed a dazzling, protean mix of stunt work captured with long takes. Whereas most films simply captured the comedian’s act, even in the case of a majority of Chaplin’s films, Keaton composed beautiful photography and scenes and interwove his stunts, his comedy. Words don’t really do Keaton justice, as his was a visual style; he captured emotions and spurred emotions in ways that remain ineffable.