Majorly minor roles for name actors, or most wasted talent

I know that there are “no small parts, only small actors” (odd that they don’t all pay the same, then) and that Dame Judi Dench received an Oscar for her 8 minute cameo in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, but I’m sometimes shocked when I see a performer that I know is talented take a role that wouldn’t even qualify as a cameo. I wonder sometimes if it’s because they need work or if it’s quick and easy money or if it’s to keep their union membership/health insurance or exactly why.

Examples:

The opening scene of GOSFORD PARK features Maggie Smith’s butler for about 10 seconds. His only line, not at all memorable, is something to the effect of “the car is here milady” and you only see his face if you use the DVD zoom key. However, he’s played by Frank Thornton, a fairly major TV star in UK not too long ago when he was Captain Peacock on the PBS staple “Are You Being Served?”.

In a recent episode of FRASIER, Queer as Folk star Hal Sparks, who has quelle mondo screentime and plotlines on QaF, had essentially an extra’s role as the desk clerk at a spa. It can’t be called a cameo because he was online less than a minute and wasn’t the focus of the show, yet it was clearly Hal Sparks.

A couple of years ago I was watching the pilot episode of a thankfully shortlived and absolutely dreadful sit-com in which the main character was a genie (or more specifically a jinn- looked like a younger and less dead Doug Hening) who is unleashed by a woman buying a used rug. The junk dealer she buys the rug from, on screen for only a moment, was John Rhys Davies. While admittedly he’s one of the regents of the "John Houseman ‘Anything for a Buck’ School of Acting, it was incredible seeing a man who appeared in large character roles in several blockbusters slumming in a genie show (only about two notches above porn).

While these aren’t “degrading” roles like those in other threads, they do make me wonder why they took them. None of these people could exactly have bought a house or even a sofa on what they were paid for these roles.

Who are some actors you’ve seen in similar roles?

Bela Lugosi, big star in Hungary, big star worldwide with “Dracula”, reduced to membership in the Ed Wood repertory.

James Earl Jones in Meteor Man. A movie that was called “a magical inner-city fairy tale” in the official studio press releases. :twitch:

Por quuuuuuuuué!?

Wasn’t Lugosi dead at the time he did Ed Wood?

[Ed Wood]No, he’s very much alive. Well, sort of. [/Ed Wood]

One came up in conversation yesterday. Vince Vaughn played Zoolander’s brother. Jon Voight was his father. Jon Voight had a bunch of lines; none of us remembered Vince Vaughn saying a thing.

Although this may have just been a tongue-in-cheek cameo.

I always thought Martin Scorsese had the potential to be as potent an actor as he is a director. His tiny role in Taxi Driver and starring role in one of the vingettes in Akira Kurosawa’s dreams always reaked of potential, but he never seemed to follow up on them. Now, we’re stuck with flicks like Gangs of New York, and The Age of Innocence.

Well I guess it was bigger than a cameo, but I keep remembering Sir Laurence Olivier in Neil Diamond’s remake of the Jazz Singer. (Someone forced me to watch it, and I’m not joking). Gawd, where’s a worst movie ever thread when you need one?

Anyone remember the drunk at the bar in Earthquake? You also see him just for a moment in the undeground parking garage of a hospital. No lines, he just licks his lips once when he sees the tight T-shirt on a busty girl. Walter Matthau. Wasn’t even in the credits.

Well there are lots of people, like Cervaise, who can give answers based on facts instead of things they’ve picked up from magazines over the years, but what the heck, I’ll have a go until they get here.

There’s probably no one single reason. In some cases, the part may actually have been a significant one in the script, then got knocked down to 5 seconds on the cutting room floor.

In other cases, the slumming actor may be a buddy of the director, producer or lead, and be doing a favour by showing up for the afternoon. Or maybe he’s got a little money invested in the production, and is trying to boost its marketability by being in the credits, or save it a little money by not making them hire any more actors than necessary.

In other cases, maybe he’s past his prime, can no longer get leading man parts, but still likes to work/make his house payments/keep up union membership (as mentioned in the OP).
I think in a lot of cases, like later Olivier, this scenario comes out of aging actor with young trophy wife and new family suddenly becoming obsessed with leaving them a decent inheritance.

Now returning you to people who know what they’re talking about.

He has a fairly sizeable supporting role in Guilty by Suspicion , a movie about the McCarthy blacklists that starred his bud DeNiro. He plays an openly Communist producer who goes into self imposed exile and was actually really good. (The movie also has character actor [and Hee-Haw alum] Gailard Sartain in a playing against type part- he’s a vicious ideologue southern senator rather than the bumbling lovable redneck he usually plays.)

This doesn’t exactly count, because it was made before she was a name, but: there is a movie in which Audrey Hepburn lights a character’s cigarette. I can’t remember what film; I think it might have been Hitchcock.

Gosford Park was directed by Robert Altman, who is legendary for his work with actors. His movies aren’t for all tastes, and I’m counting the minutes until somebody comes in to tell us that a movie my wife and I loved was a complete waste of time… but as far as actors are concerned, Altman is one of those guys people will do anything to work with. So when he comes to the UK and is looking for character actors, the line goes around the block, and Altman gets his pick. Note that Richard E. Grant and Derek Jacobi, among several others, were barely featured in their roles as well. For actors of a certain mindset, it’s just a privilege to be on the set.

Along the same lines, the relationship between actor and director can make a big difference. Julia Roberts had such a good time working with Steven Soderbergh on Erin Brockovich that she basically said, “I’ll work with you any time.” Had another director been in charge of Ocean’s Eleven, there’s no way she would have been willing to take on that rather thankless girlfriend part, where all she has to do is walk around and be an alluring prize the men are competing for. But because it was Soderbergh, she knew she’d enjoy the time, and she accepted the role. (Then she also enjoyed working with George Clooney, and took another supporting role in his Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.)

There’s another reason actors take roles, also, that has nothing to do with the material: Frequently, they’ll contact their agent, and say something like, “I’m going to be in San Francisco doing this play from such-and-such a date for eight weeks, and then after that I’m committed to this other movie starting two weeks later in Vancouver, so see if you can get me something on the West Coast during that two weeks.” The agent puts out some feelers, and comes back with half a dozen prospects: This one’s shooting from X to X, this other one is X+1 to X+2, the first one pays A, the second pays B, and so on. In other words, the actor may not particularly care for the material, but is just filling a hole in his or her schedule, taking advantage of an easy opportunity for a few more bucks.

And if the shoot happens to be scheduled for a nice location, so you can get what is in effect a paid vacation, hey, that’s a bonus. This would explain, I suspect, why Joe Pesci and Danny Glover were willing to sign up for the unbelievably bad buddy comedy Gone Fishin’ — it was a relatively short shoot they could squeeze in between other projects, and they got paid to go boating in Hawaii. Nice work if you can get it, eh? (No, those aren’t supporting cameos as described in the OP, but the principle holds: While Pesci and Glover weren’t playing minor parts in the movie, it was a decidedly minor film. The point is, sometimes parts are chosen more for opportunity and side benefits than for any satisfaction of the actor’s artistic urge.)

Jack Palance in Gor and Gor II

He was in the first one about five minutes at the end. I don’t know how long he was in the second one. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it.

Of course, some actors appear in miniscule roles as a favor to the director or show’s creator.

DeNiro wanted to be in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in the lead role. Gilliam had written the role especially for Jonathan Price so DeNiro took the role of the rogue repairman instead.

OMG, I had no idea that movies had been made about Gor. We’re going to hell in a handbasket I tell you.

Laurence Fishburne’s small and peculiar turn as the orderly in the mental hospital in “Nightmare On Elm Street, Part III.”

Exhibit A in the “How I Paid The Bills Before I Became Famous,” exhibit…

You want Laurence Fishburne in “small and peculiar,” check out his work as the breakdancing rapist in Death Wish II.