It’s not known who may have said this, but in Hollywood, there seems to be an old-school quote that might still ring true: “Actors really just want to direct.”
Many actors have achieved notable moments as directors with their first films – from the legendary (Orson Welles, Citizen Kane and Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter) to the disappointing (William Shatner, Star Trek V and John Wayne, The Alamo). Then there are those directorial debuts that may come off as surprises – films no one would expect to have certain actors involved in them.
This three-part series on actor-director debuts chronicles films made during the Golden Age of films (1930s to 1970s), and boasts 12 legendary actors. Eight of them went to win Academy Awards for other films, one would go on to star in the biggest motion picture soap opera of all time, another would become one of TV’s great villains worth rooting for, another would gain a reputation as a comic acting legend, and one would become one of Britain’s most respected actors.
To kick off the series, here are four actors who directed (or co-directed) their debuts, and the varying degrees of success they would achieve:
Leslie Howard, Pygmalion (1938); co-directed with Anthony Asquith
For this adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play of manners, Howard was already set to star in the film when he joined Asquith behind the director’s chair. It seemed playing Henry Higgins, a professor determined to turn a Cockney flower girl (Wendy Hiller) into a lady of society, wasn’t enough. He not only co-directed this film, but he was also one of the film’s producers. Howard and Asquith would also get help from a future directing legend – David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) began his film career as an editor with this film. Howard won an Oscar nomination for his acting performance, and by 1939, he would take on his most acclaimed role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. He would direct two more films before his untimely death in a plane crash while on duty for the British in 1943.
Burt Lancaster, The Kentuckian (1955)
The actor was nearly a decade into his film career (with an Oscar nomination for 1953’s From Here to Eternity in tow) before taking his chances behind the camera. He ended up directing this Western about a frontiersman and his son who seek better fortunes – and possibly love – out West, in the form of Texas. Lancaster also got a future Academy Award winner in Walter Matthau to make his film debut, and as the villain no less! The Kentuckian would earn Lancaster some love from the Venice Film Festival, with a Golden Lion nomination. He would direct only one more film, 1974’s The Midnight Man, but his acting career would continue to thrive until his death in 1994.
Anthony Quinn, The Buccaneer (1958)
He had already won two Oscars for his supporting work, but the Mexican-born Quinn found himself in the director’s chair for this action-adventure film starring Yul Brynner, Claire Bloom and Charlton Heston. The biggest reason why Quinn may have taken on this assignment: connections. His then father-in-law was the legendary showman producer Cecil B. DeMille, and Quinn had married his daughter Katherine in 1937. This film was also a remake of DeMille’s own 1938 hit, but the film was ultimately a critical disappointment. Quinn would not direct another film, but he would continue acting in many projects (including a legendary Oscar-nominated role in 1964’s Zorba the Greek) before he died in 2001.
Walter Matthau, Gangster Story (1960)
This is certainly one of the more unexpected – and likely, one of the more unknown – actor-directorial debuts, with the legendary “hang-dog” actor using the world of film noir as his backdrop. It was a typical story you would find in a film noir: a gangster (Matthau) pulls a big job, finds himself on the run from everyone (good and bad), and tries to seduce a woman into his way of life. This film would end up in the world of public domain where forgotten films seem to lie, and Matthau would not direct another film. Yet he would remain high in demand as a stage and film actor with great success (his Oscar win in 1966’s The Fortune Cookie, his partnership with Jack Lemmon, and the original Bad News Bears among them) until his death in 2000.
Coming up in Part Two of this series…a future “Godfather” takes on a film that had two legendary directors attached, a comic actor uses a Japanese film as his springboard, an unlikely directorial effort from a British acting legend, and the other half of the Lemmon-Matthau partnership gets his time to shine behind the camera…