Twenty years ago this week, David Fincher’s breakthrough film Seven slithered its way into theaters, and into the consciousness of an unsuspecting public. But its ingénue’s head in a box wasn’t the only surprise the grisly picture had in store (oh, um, spoiler warning? With more to follow?); the third-act appearance of Kevin Spacey as killer John Doe blindsided opening weekend audiences, since Spacey was unbilled on posters and in the opening credits, and unseen in the trailers and TV spots. It’s a good trick — and part of a long-running tradition of surprise, unbilled appearances by actors and actresses of note.
Kevin Spacey (Seven)
What made Spacey’s chilling turn as John Doe particularly successful is a bit of carefully engineered (or, perhaps, entirely accidental) timing: Seven hit theaters just as Spacey’s showcase (and eventual Oscar-winning) The Usual Suspects had gone from limited to wide release. So when his voice is first heard in Seven, moviegoers were cocking their heads and listening closely — he wasn’t yet a marquee name, but that voice sure did sound familiar. And when he showed up, he brought the baggage of Keyser Soze with him; anyone who’d seen Suspects knew this guy was capable of anything.
Bill Murray (Tootsie)
Murray’s unbilled appearance in Sidney Pollack’s 1982 classic seemed a bit peculiar at the time; after all, he had transitioned out of Saturday Night Live and into genuine movie stardom with hits like Meatballs and Stripes. But he was already itching to do more than broad comedy vehicles, so he leapt at the chance to do a few days’ work on Tootsie, playing Dustin Hoffman’s playwright roommate, improvising much of his deadpan dialogue — and when it was done, he reportedly declined billing, to make sure audiences didn’t confuse it with a “Bill Murray movie.” His sly supporting work foreshadows his future inclination towards ensemble pictures like Ed Wood, Wild Things, Cradle Will Rock, Hamlet, and his many collaborations with Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch; he’s also done plenty of surprise cameos, including Zombieland, Get Smart, and Parks and Recreation.
Robin Williams (Dead Again)
Williams was also no stranger to the unbilled cameo appearance, with quick turns in Too Wong Foo, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Shakes the Clown, Noel, and The Secret Agent. But his most substantial turn of this type comes in Kenneth Branagh’s wonderful, underrated 1991 film noir homage, Dead Again. The unbilled Williams pops up in a handful of scenes as Cozy Carlisle, a disgraced psychiatrist now working as a stocker in a small grocery store. Initially a target for Branagh’s private eye protagonist, he becomes his unofficial psychiatric adviser, helping him delve into a mistaken identity case that turns into an exploration of past lives, and murders committed during them. Though he gets a few laughs, Williams mostly plays it straight; he was still making a case for himself as a dramatic actor via vehicles like Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society, and his turn as Cozy shows him dabbling in a darkness that would reappear in films like One Hour Photo and Insomnia.
Bruce Willis (Nobody’s Fool)
Willis has also done his fair share of unbilled work: Four Rooms, Loaded Weapon 1, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, The Astronaut Farmer, Nancy Drew, and the first Expendables. Many of these were cameos, uncredited to preserve the element of surprise; his work in the 1994 drama Nobody’s Fool was more of the Tootsie order, a supporting role kept quiet to keep focus on the star, Paul Newman. But Willis is no slouch in his key role, underplaying his mostly unlikable character without making him an obvious villain. “Bruce Willis is the best I’ve ever seen him,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, “smirkless, calm, just good.”
Jack Nicholson (Broadcast News)
Jack won his second Oscar for his marvelous turn in James L. Brooks’ directorial debut Terms of Endearment, so it wasn’t surprising that he came along for the writer/director’s sophomore effort, a newsroom comedy/drama/romance starring Holly Hunter, William Hurt, and Albert Brooks. But director Brooks used him ingeniously, casting the iconic actor as Bill Rorish, the Cronkite-esque face-of-the-network anchorman — connected to the DC newsroom only via satellite, the Oz on high whom they’re all trying to dazzle from afar. Nicholson took no billing in ads and opening credits, as well as (rumor has it) no pay for the role.
Sigourney Weaver (The Cabin in the Woods)
Surprise appearances are increasingly difficult to pull off here in the Internet age, which is a shame; can you imagine how delightful it would’ve been for Bill Murray and Annie Potts and Ernie Hudson to have just shown up in the Feig Ghostbusters? (Get off my lawn!) Anyway, the trickiness of such treats was underscored back in 2012, when Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s horror/comedy Cabin was released, including a huge third-act twist, accompanied by a surprise appearance by Sigourney Weaver, returning to her Alien genre roots. Your film editor remembers getting a note at the press screening, practically begging us to keep that twist and Weaver’s appearance under our hats; most did so, though of course good ol’ Rex Reed blew the whole thing in a notoriously incoherent series of sentences that could only be called a “review” via an act of charity.
Sean Connery (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves)
More of a by-definition cameo than any of the rest, but still absolutely worth noting; I can still recall the cheers — actual, out-loud cheers — that went up among the opening-weekend moviegoers, bored into slack-jawed befuddlement by director Kevin Reynolds’ ill-conceived take on Nottingham, when Sean Connery trotted in to the last scene as King Richard. Roger Ebert reported a similar reaction: “It gets a shout of joy from the audience — the most relaxed and sincere cheer in the whole film. Maybe that’s because by his very presence Connery suggests the kind of acting note that is appropriate in any film with Robin Hood in its title.” Part of this is simple fact of filmography: Connery played Robin Hood himself (an aged, out-of-shape version, even) in Richard Lester’s wonderful 1976 film Robin and Marian. Here, he provides a much-needed lift to the final scenes of an otherwise unmemorable Kevin Costner vehicle.
James Earl Jones (Star Wars)
Mr. Jones — who struggled with a stutter as a child — has one of the best-known voices in popular culture, primarily due to his iconic voice work as Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy. But he took no credit for that performance in Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, reportedly because he felt his contribution (legend has it he banged out all the audio for the first film in a single day) wasn’t significant enough for onscreen credit. But he was named and praised from the very first reviews, and would finally relent and take a credit for Return of the Jedi.
Sissy Spacek (The Man with Two Brains)
Oscar winner (and five-time nominee) Spacek has never really been known for her comic chops — perhaps partially because she didn’t take credit for her funniest screen work to date. Like Jones, it was for a voice role; in director Carl Reiner’s 1983 send-up of ‘50s sci-fi pictures, she gives voice to the brain which title character Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (co-writer Steve Martin) falls in love with, a role just as bizarre and amusing as it sounds.
Gene Hackman (Young Frankenstein)
Another, earlier satire of sci-fi/horror flicks put the comic spotlight on another mostly serious actor: Gene Hackman (like Spacek, a recent Oscar winner), who turns up in disguise in Mel Brooks’ 1974 film as a blind hermit who gives refuge, sort of, to Peter Boyle’s Monster. Hackman talked his way into the role via his friendship with star — and Bonnie and Clyde co-star — Gene Wilder, taking no billing and ad-libbing his last line (“I was gonna make espresso!”), resulting in one of the funniest scenes in the picture — which is saying something. (Thirty-some years later, Tom Cruise would pull a similar move, with an unrecognizable supporting role in Tropic Thunder that pretty much stole the movie.)