The Most Shameless Paycheck Performances in Cinema History


We don’t know about you, but we’ve already got our tickets for Killer Elite, which hits theaters — presumably with a roundhouse kick — this Friday. See Jason Statham kicking ass while tied to a chair! Thrill to the most ill-advised facial hair of Clive Owen’s career! Groove to the straight-faced use of Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane!” (I know we’ve harped on this, but seriously, that’s what makes it the year’s funniest trailer.) And, most of all, calculate how much coin once-respected “actor’s actor” Robert DeNiro pocketed for appearing in this swill!

Actors make movies for many reasons: to stretch their skills, to work with admired co-stars or filmmakers, to help tell a story that they believe has value. And, sometimes, they make a movie for a nice chunk of cheddar. Mr. DeNiro, for one, has certainly had no qualms — particularly over the last decade or so — with lending his well-regarded talents to several projects that were in no danger of contributing to his Oscar shelf; in honor of his latest payday performance, let’s take a look at ten of his fellow thespians, and the depths to which they’ve traveled for a few extra zeros.

Michael Caine, Jaws: The Revenge

Caine’s supporting work in the fourth — and worst, by a mile — Jaws picture is one of the most notorious paycheck roles of all time, particularly because Mr. Caine has been so cheerfully candid about his motives for taking it: money, as well as a short location shoot in the Bahamas. The downside was that his commitment to the picture kept him from picking up his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters. As for the film itself? “I have never seen it,” Caine wrote later, “but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific!”

Anthony Hopkins, The Wolfman

Like Caine, Hopkins is a well-respected actor who has had no problem cashing in his actorly bona fides for the occasional chunk of change; his post-Silence of the Lambs output has included such dogs as Instinct, Bad Company, Beowulf, and The Rite (not to mention the Silence sequel and prequel). But seldom did the actor phone it in as obviously as in Joe Johnston’s simultaneously dull and overcooked attempt to reignite Universal’s classic horror franchise. Stephanie Zacharek invoked the spirit of another great paycheck-casher in Salon: “Hopkins, with his portly tummy and pointy white beard, conjures the spirit of the ‘We will sell no wine before its time’-era Orson Welles.”

Bill Murray, Garfield

Since the great comedian’s mid-career renaissance as the on-screen muse of Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, and Sofia Coppola, it’s easy to forget that Bill Murray gotta eat too. Slid into his filmography, between such little gems as Broken Flowers and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, is not one but two film spin-offs of Jim Davis’ hasn’t-been-funny-since-the-early-’80s-if-even-then comic strip Garfield, with Murray providing the voice of the creepily computer animated fat housecat who loves lasagna and hates Mondays. (Stand by while I double check — yep, that’s the entire character.) The original 2004 Garfield — in which Murray’s voice shared the screen with renowned thesps Breckin Meyer and Jennifer Love Hewitt — did shocking business, raking in $200 million worldwide and prompting a (thankfully less lucrative) 2006 sequel, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties. (GET IT?!?) Murray’s half-assed line readings could, it must be noted, be his attempt to personify the wise-ass nature of the wry tabby. We’d like to think he was seeing exactly how little effort he could exert for that much money. Years later, when asked if he made the movie just for the dollars, he replied, “I didn’t make that for the dough! Well, not completely.” He also insisted he did the film because he had confused screenwriter Joel Cohen with Joel Coen (y’know, like the brothers) — which would get him off the hook for the first movie. But the second…

Helen Mirren, National Treasure: Book of Secrets

We contemplated including Nicolas Cage on this list, but (as we’ve mentioned) the rundown of his money-grab performances is getting longer than his real ones. Instead, we decided to spotlight his co-star in the terrible 2007 sequel to his terrible 2004 Da Vinci Code rip-off (and, for what it’s worth, if you’re going to duplicate something, for God’s sake aim higher than The Da Vinci Code). The great Helen Mirren presumably had a wealth of opportunities offered after her much-deserved Best Actress Oscar for The Queen; it would seem that she decided to cash in, taking on the role of treasure-hunter Nicolas Cage’s mom. She wasn’t the only respected actor in the cast; Jon Voight and Harvey Keitel reprised their roles from the first film, and were joined here by not only Mirren but Ed Harris. The sequel’s $457 million gross (good Lord) made National Treasure 3 a certainty, and fear not, Helen Mirren’s pocketbook; the actress will reportedly return for another go-round.

Judi Dench, The Chronicles of Riddick

Since her American breakthrough as “M” in the Bond series (starting with 1995’s Goldeneye), Dame Judi Dench has balanced marquee roles in big-budget pictures with her work on stage and in small movies. But her participation in The Chronicles of Riddick — the 2004 sequel to the Vin Diesel vehicle Pitch Black — is downright inexplicable. Diesel (whose co-stars are usually around the Paul Walker level) claimed to have flown out to London himself to beg her to do the film. “I started courting her,” he said. “Just begged and pleaded and said, ‘You know, this character was written for you, and you are this character. This is how we want to play.’ And she was so into it.” We’re willing to bet that she was also into that Universal Pictures payday. Not that the shoot didn’t offer other pleasures: According to Diesel, “No one would ever expect that [she] and I would have a conversation that is so fantasy-based. A conversation you might have had with a friend after watching Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, you know what I mean? … Really, really, really cool.” Okey dokey.

Samuel L. Jackson, xXx

Diesel’s previous prestige co-star wasn’t such a stranger to a high-paying job in a less-than-stellar picture; in fact, like Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson has done so many “only for the money” turns that his inclusion on a list like this seems a foregone conclusion. But mention must be made of his work in xXx, a blow-shit-up epic so spectacularly dopey that even Vin Diesel didn’t return for the sequel. Neither did director Rob Cohen, whose stunningly incompetent filmography also includes such gems as The Skulls, The Fast and the Furious, and Stealth. But you know who did come on back? Yep, Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson, who never met a paycheck he didn’t like. As long as they’ll keep paying him to glower and yell, it seems Sam will keep on showing up.

Marlon Brando, The Island of Dr. Moreau

The great Brando helped usher in the age of the Method actor in Hollywood; he also helped bring about the rise of the paycheck performance, when he was paid an astonishing $3.7 million, plus 11.75% of gross profits for his 13 days of work as Jor-El in Superman; he also got top billing for the role, which amounts, in screen time, to little more than a cameo. However, it’s hard to put Superman on this list since (for reasons having little if nothing to do with Brando) it’s a genuinely good movie. The same can’t be said of The Island of Dr. Moreau, the notorious 1996 boondoggle starring Brando and Val Kilmer. The legendary actor had struggled for years with his inability to memorize his lines; in previous films like The Godfather and Superman, cue cards and little notes were placed throughout the set to prompt him. By the time of Dr. Moreau, he had gone one better: a small receiver, roughly the size of a hearing aid, was placed in his ear, and an assistant fed his lines to him. This led to some amusingly blown takes, according to co-star David Thewlis: “He’d be in the middle of a scene and suddenly he’d be picking up police messages and Marlon would repeat, ‘There’s a robbery at Woolworths.'”

Faye Dunaway, Supergirl

TriStar Pictures’ 1984 flop attempted to replicate the formula of the 1978 Superman, right down to the Brando-style well-paid, top-billed prestige star. Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn, and Dolly Parton all reportedly turned down the $7 million offer to play Selena, the villainous witch taken on by Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater), aka Supergirl. But Faye Dunaway, whose career was still on shaky ground after the debacle of Mommie Dearest, was more than happy to step into the role. She wasn’t the only big star who slummed it in Supergirl; Peter O’Toole and Mia Farrow also appeared in this (justifiably) long-forgotten footnote to the franchise.

Jeremy Irons, Dungeons and Dragons

God only knows what compelled Jeremy Irons — Old Vic-trained Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons — into taking third billing behind Marlon Wayans and Justin Whalin (who?) for New Line’s 2000 adaptation of the role-playing game (and girl repellant) Dungeons and Dragons, but we’re guessing it was a nice fat check, since there may as well be a price-tag hanging of the actor’s tunics in this mind-numbingly terrible fantasy snooze. And bless him, he came back for more; though Irons didn’t appear in the 2005 straight-to-DVD D&D sequel, he turned up in another sword-and-sorcery fantasy in 2006, the equally panned Eragon.

Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, Righteous Kill

Not to spend too much energy and space beating up on Robert DeNiro here, but we would be remiss if we didn’t pause to acknowledge his contemporary Al Pacino, and as long as we’re doing that, we might as well take the opportunity to mention their unwatchable pairing in Righteous Kill. At first, we were as excited as anyone about this 2008 cop thriller — particularly since it was breathlessly advertised as a full-on co-starring effort, as opposed to their previous collaborations The Godfather Part II (in which they shared no scenes) and Heat (in which they shared only two, and only one of those with dialogue). Alas, Pacino brought along a more troublesome earlier associate: director Jon Avnet, who helmed Pacino’s 2007 effort 88 Minutes — perhaps the worst of the actor’s recent sleepwalking turns. Under Avnet’s shaky hand (and saddled with a gimmicky, secondhand script by Russell Gerwitz), the duo folded; instead of their electrifying duet in Heat, in which the two actors brought out each other’s best, Righteous Kill features the once-legendary thesps at their very worst, seemingly engaged in a secret competition to see who can half-ass their way to the film with less effort.

Those are our picks—what are yours? Which actors have clearly been slumming it for a nice payday?