The Best Directorial Debuts by Famous Actors

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This was a big week for actors we never thought would venture into the directing pool. Keanu Reeves will debut Man of Tai Chi in China this summer, honoring his Matrix martial arts trainer, Tiger Hu Chen. Michael Cera’s short film Brazzaville Teen-Ager, starring “Milkshake” singer Kelis and Charles Grodin, saw its YouTube premiere. Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock was just a little hasty when he recommended that all actors should be treated like cattle.

Acclaimed for their antics under the glare of the kino-eye, film’s performers do occasionally vault the fourth wall to take up the directorial reins — with no little success. Hollywood A-listers such as Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner have reaped critical and cash plaudits for their blockbusting efforts, but there are numerous others whose contributions have helped to pioneer cinema, both as art form and independent business. Here are ten stars whose stellar cinematic debuts have irrefutably enriched the medium — if not always the box office.

Charles Laughton — The Night of the Hunter

When Charles Laughton directed the outstanding Robert Mitchum singing a haunting lullaby in The Night of the Hunter, he was already a prolific stage actor and director. He had also appeared in a series of wide-ranging Hollywood roles, and cut his teeth behind the camera in pal Burgess Meredith’s 1949 film, The Man on the Eiffel Tower. Laughton shot the scenes in which Meredith appeared. Night of the Hunter became Laughton’s biggest success — sadly, after his death. His mesmerizing use of expressionistic shadows and clever camerawork created a taut, emotional nightmare that felt like a page from a child’s twisted fairy tale. The 1955 film was a commercial failure, which disappointed Laughton so much that he vowed to never direct again. The film has since been hailed as a southern gothic masterpiece.

Vincent Gallo — Buffalo ’66

Before Vincent Gallo publicly proclaimed he would no longer share his movies with us and alienated audiences by having oral sex with Chloë Sevigny on film, he gifted us with Buffalo ’66. Gallo also wrote the film, created original songs for the soundtrack, and starred in it. Before Roger Ebert’s damning review of Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, he delighted in Buffalo’s “astonishing” performances, Gallo’s ability to “work steadily and well in challenging and original films,” and the actor-director’s unconventional approach. The 1998 movie was the first to establish Gallo as a powerhouse talent, willing to plumb the depths of his own pain for lowly serfs like us.

Dennis Hopper — Easy Rider

A late ‘60s touchstone for the counterculture, Dennis Hopper’s biker opus became a box office hit and helped usher in the New Hollywood era of filmmaking. Hopper, and co-writers Peter Fonda and Terry Southern, defined a generation and uncovered the truth behind the American dream: “We blew it.” The film launched Jack Nicholson’s career and proved that cinema could be critical of the mainstream and still be successful.

Orson Welles — Citizen Kane

After Welles’ frighteningly convincing radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, with several years of screen and stage experience behind him, Hollywood courted the studio outsider. He was given the keys to the castle for his directorial debut, Citizen Kane. The precocious Welles broke the rules and created an innovative masterwork, lauded for its technical prowess, brilliant score (Bernard Hermann), and unique narrative structure. It was a commercial failure, but a critical success and has since been regarded as the finest film in cinema. Not a bad accomplishment before you turn 30.

Clint Eastwood — Play Misty for Me

The man that talks to chairs created (and starred in) a 1970’s erotic thriller that became a precursor for films like Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction. Eastwood had played the movie toughie for over a decade before he stepped behind the camera and surprised studio execs when his tale of obsession won big at the box office. It’s a straightforward story, but well-crafted and filled with suspense. “After seventeen years of bouncing my head against the wall, hanging around sets, maybe influencing certain camera set-ups with my own opinions, watching actors go through all kinds of hell without any help, and working with both good directors and bad ones, I’m at the point where I’m ready to make my own pictures,” Eastwood remarked about his debut. “I stored away all the mistakes I made and saved up all the good things I learned, and now I know enough to control my own projects and get what I want out of actors.”

John Cassavetes, Shadows

Considered “a watershed in the birth of American independent cinema,” Cassavetes’ 1959 film grew from a series of acting improvs and was cast with unknowns. Shot with a handheld camera on the New York City streets, the actor-turned-director painted a cinéma-vérité portrait of interracial relationships during the Beat era with an unprecedented rawness and honesty. In its formlessness, Cassavetes defined a new truth in cinema.

Barbara Loden — Wanda

The Splendor in the Grass actress only made one feature film before her untimely death at 48, but it’s a commendable milestone. We’ve celebrated Loden’s Wanda previously, and it undoubtedly deserves reappraisal here. Her portrait of a drifting woman in a coal-mining town is an essential vérité work that heralds the advent of independent cinema, becoming one of the first American movies directed by a woman to achieve theatrical release. Loden not only wrote the screenplay, but also starred in the film. Recipient of the Venice Film Festival’s International Critics Prize for this startling first work, her legacy has inspired countless female successors.

Peter Lorre — Der Verlorene

Lorre experienced a lull in his Hollywood career after the war, and the wide-eyed actor — who was struggling to rid himself of a morphine addiction — co-wrote, directed, and starred in Der Verlorene (The Lost One) in 1951. He played a Nazi scientist overcome with guilt for murdering his wife, but the film was an uncomfortable reminder of the tragedies that crippled a nation. It was quickly pulled from theaters. Lorre’s haunting performance, and Der Verlorene’s visual style was a heightened blend of every shadowy character and noir narrative that the actor had ever performed, but showed surprising originality in its framing.

Timothy Carey — The World’s Greatest Sinner

“I was tired of seeing movies that were supposedly controversial. So I wanted to do something that was really controversial,” Carey once said. That film was The World’s Greatest Sinner, which featured a score from a then-unknown Frank Zappa. The movie, about an insurance man who quits the corporate life, starts a cult, and appoints himself God, combined the unthinkable: religion and politics. And this was before the tragedies associated with Jim Jones and Charlie Manson had gripped Hollywood. Carey had the unique opportunity to work with esteemed directors like Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes before he became an underground legend, and his oddball debut paved his way to the annals of cultdom.

Takeshi Kitano — Violent Cop

Battles filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku was originally slated to direct the 1989 yakuza film, but fell ill. The reins went to lead actor Takeshi Kitano, who heavily reworked the script (a comedy) and created a story that lived up to its title — about a violent police officer, often described as the Japanese Dirty Harry. The movie could easily be mistaken for any number of generic American flicks featuring brooding and broken characters gone wild. Kitano toys with some of those tropes, but his unique directorial style — filled with long takes and reflective moments — is distinctly Japanese and uniquely his. He transcended American action cinema’s blow ’em up attitude with a starker, cerebral brand of violence. Japanese cinema hasn’t been the same since.