Hundreds of actors have tried their luck at directing – some have great luck with it (notably Clint Eastwood), some have mixed luck, and many others just don’t bring anything new or exciting to the job.
In this Classic Cinema Examiner series, this is a look back at 12 unlikely actor-director debuts – featuring Oscar-nominated & winning performers, a TV legend, and a director who started out as a “TV sitcom child.” In Part 1, Leslie Howard channeled G.B. Shaw before taking on a Civil War epic (he co-directed Pygmalion), Walter Matthau took on film noir (Gangster Story), Anthony Quinn helped out his then father-in-law with a swashbuckler (The Buccaneer), and Burt Lancaster was directing himself in a Western (The Kentuckian).
In this part, here are four more unique directorial debuts from actors who would gain highly-regarded reputations in front of the cameras – but what about behind the camera?
Marlon Brando, One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
This Western already had Brando locked in as the leading man, and Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) had been involved in the scriptwriting process. Yet not one, but two – TWO – directors were originally attached to this project before the Oscar winner took the reins himself.
Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) was first brought in to rework Serling’s script, and possibly direct. Yet his services were not locked in, so Brando and the film’s producers hired Stanley Kubrick in what would have been his follow-up to the smash hit Spartacus (who replaced Anthony Mann on that film). Yet Kubrick would not stick around, which led to Brando helming this Western about a bandit seeking revenge on his partner (Karl Malden) who wronged him while falling in love with his stepdaughter.
While Jacks received an Oscar nomination for its cinematography and was a reasonable hit, it would be the only film Brando would direct. He would continue acting on-and-off, with notable film roles in The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris and Superman, before his death in 2004.
Woody Allen, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)
He had been a highly-regarded comedian and TV writer for Sid Caesar, before Allen decided to look to Japanese films for his debut. And how he used Japanese films – Allen took two spy thrillers, took out the original sound, and created new dialogue (with the assistance of Louise Lasser, years before becoming Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman). In Allen’s hands, the spy film mixture became a comedy about a detective seeking out the ultimate recipe…for egg salad.
Allen’s madcap idea would be inspiration for several films and TV shows in the decades following – from the cable series MXC (Most Extreme Elimination Challenge) to the 2002 Steve Oedekerk comedy Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. Yet Allen wouldn’t need to dub over other actors’ words to channel a highly-acclaimed career as a writer-director. By the beginning of the 1970’s, he would write and direct Take the Money and Run, Bananas and Sleeper – early comic masterpieces before going to his next chapter of jumping between comedy and Bergman-inspired dramas.
Albert Finney, Charlie Bubbles (1967)
This is quite a unique entry in the legendary British actor’s filmography, with five Academy Award nominations included (for films such as Tom Jones, Under the Volcano and Erin Brockovich). Yet he looked to the British-born genre of the “kitchen sink drama” to channel his energy into directing. Finney also starred in this film as the title character, a man who rises to being a successful writer – only to realize a few things about his current existence: the immense boredom with the life he has, the wife (Billie Whitelaw) he lost along the way, and how significant his hometown has changed without him.
Despite getting named in a song by the legendary band The Kinks, its planned appearance at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival was doomed by the riots in that country. It would also be Finney’s first and last work as director, though he would continue his acting career over the next 40+ years.
Jack Lemmon, Kotch (1971)
11 years after his long-time co-star and friend Walter Matthau attempted directing with the low-budget noir Gangster Story, Lemmon decided to take his chances behind the director’s chair with this comedy-drama – and no surprise, Matthau was there as his leading man.
Matthau starred as Joseph Kotcher, a retired man who finds himself facing the possibility of living out his remaining days in a nursing home – until he meets a young girl (Deborah Winters) brought in to babysit his grandson. Yet this leads to a friendship between the two that changes them.
While this was the only film Lemmon would direct (matching Matthau’s career as a director), he directed Matthau to an Oscar-nominated role in this film. It also won three other Oscar nominations, and a Golden Globe win (for the song “Life is What You Make It.” Lemmon would spend the next 30 years continuing his acting work (with a few more films with Matthau) before his death in 2001.
Next time for Part 3…the actor with the great devil smile “drives” for his debut, a TV actor takes on a “blob” of a horror sequel, a comic actor follows a successful year with Sherlock Holmes (sort of), and Opie steps behind the camera for some car chases…