In the last two articles of the National Classic Cinema Examiner, eight actors have been showcased for their work behind the camera. Some actors have found success as directors (Orson Welles, Robert Redford) while some may be just better left to face the camera to deliver a good scene (William Shatner, Eddie Murphy).
These four directors have also had some measure of success and/or disappointment when they decided to direct – and all of them continued to work behind the camera at various points in their careers. These four also wrap up this series on unusual directing debuts for actors:
Jack Nicholson, Drive, He Said (1971)
For the legendary actor with the devilish grin, this was technically his first credited film as a director. Nicholson did have earlier experience behind the camera, helping Roger Corman direct his 1963 thriller The Terror (unbilled). He also wrote the scripts for the 1967 film The Trip (starring Peter Fonda) and The Monkees’ 1968 film Head.
But in this comedy-drama, Nicholson chronicled a basketball star (William Tepper) whose actions on the court are only matched – or even surpassed – by his activities in bed. Nicholson enlisted the help of actors Karen Black and Bruce Dern in supporting roles, and uncredited help from Robert Towne (who also appears) & Terrence Malick (pre-Badlands) on the screenplay.
Despite mixed reviews, Nicholson’s work earned the film a trip to the Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Golden Palm. Besides his hugely successful acting career (which included 3 Academy Awards), Nicholson would take two more trips to the director’s chair – for the 1978 Western Goin’ South and the disappointing Chinatown sequel, 1990’s The Two Jakes.
Larry Hagman, Beware! The Blob (1972)
This could be one of the more odd directing debuts known in Hollywood, from an actor or otherwise. Hagman was coming off of the successful I Dream of Jeannie and the canceled sitcom The Good Life when he decided to direct the sequel to the 1958 classic The Blob (featuring Steve McQueen in his debut).
It almost comes off like your typical low-level, B-movie horror fare: a mysterious substance emerges from a North Pole oil field, gets taken to Los Angeles for testing, develops into a menacing creature, and goes off eating anyone and anything in its path. This film, remarkably, also featured Hagman acting alongside Burgess Meredith (four years before his legendary turn as Mickey in Rocky), Cindy Williams and Dick Van Patten!
Hagman would not direct another film, but when he became the villainous J.R. Ewing on Dallas, he would also go on to direct several episodes of the popular soap opera. When this film saw any form of re-release, Hagman’s popularity on Dallas was used as publicity – with some calling this “the film J.R. shot.”
Gene Wilder, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)
By the time he worked on this film, Wilder was coming off two big blockbusters – Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both with long-time friend and collaborator Mel Brooks). In this comedy adventure, Wilder uses the legendary sleuth created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and decides to create a younger brother.
When Sherlock is unavailable, Sigerson Holmes (Wilder) goes on the case with a Scotland Yard clerk (Marty Feldman) and a singer (Madeline Kahn). Feldman and Kahn appeared alongside Wilder in Young Frankenstein, and even Mel Brooks was also involved – in an unbilled role as a lion tamer.
Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is more of a forgettable vehicle from Wilder, but he never gave up on directing films. He would direct his 1977 comedy The World’s Greatest Lover, the 1984 romance The Woman in Red and 1986’s Haunted Honeymoon (with the last two films featuring his legendary love, comedienne Gilda Radner).
Ron Howard, Grand Theft Auto (1977)
Before Grand Theft Auto became known as a hugely-popular video game franchise, there was Grand Theft Auto the movie. And Ron Howard (a.k.a. Opie…or Richie Cunningham) was at the helm for this car chase epic.
Howard was taking a break from Happy Days to direct and star as a man who falls in love with a woman (Nancy Morgan) being set up by her rich parents to marry a rich young man. Of course, Howard’s character is from the wrong side of the tracks and is madly in love with her – so he kidnaps her and takes her on a wild ride, complete with chases, angry parents, dogged lawmen, and the media following their every move.
Grand Theft Auto proved to be a big hit for Howard as a director, and this would set the stage for the bigger blockbusters to come – Splash, Cocoon, Apollo 13 and his 2001 producing & directing wins for the biopic A Beautiful Mind.