Cameos are to cinema what whipped cream and sprinkles are to sundaes — fundamentally ornamental, lacking the power to either make or break the films in which they reside. At worst, they’re unpleasantly pointless but temporary distractions, at best, a delightful garnish. That said, it’s hard to deny that a good cameo doesn’t have a certain charm.
Generally ubiquitous across film and television, cameos can be divided into a number of categories. The subject of this list is specifically non-actor cameos — that is, cameos made by anyone and everyone who does not act for a living. Considering the director-in-their-own-movie cameo is such a popular subtype in and of itself, these have been excluded from the running. So have cameo appearances by actor hyphenates, that is individuals who work in multiple fields but ultimately have appeared on screen in larger acting roles, even if they are primarily known for their non-acting endeavors (e.g. David Bowie, Rihanna).
So, without further ado, here are 20 highlights from the wonderfully weird world of non-actor cameos.
Wolf Blitzer in Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Getting real-life news anchors to feature as themselves in fictional media is common enough that it has its own TV Tropes page, and Wolf Blitzer himself has done at least a half-dozen other cameos as his fictionalized self in everything from House of Cards to Skyfall. That said, the Situation Room newscaster’s recent appearance in the latest Mission: Impossible installment is a real standout, and easily the most enjoyable context in which “fake news” is an apt descriptor. Admittedly, some have been questioning if it’s a good idea in our current era of “fake news” controversies to really be doing the whole real-newscaster-fake-news-deal because some people feel that no one should be allowed to have fun anymore, but I digress. See it and judge for yourself. Since screenshots of Blitzer’s scene aren’t yet available, a Fallout red carpet interview with Blitzer is linked above instead.
Will Champion on Game of Thrones
Apart from that one clusterfuck with Ed Sheeran, Game of Thrones has generally proven itself skilled in the art of the blink-and-you’ll-miss it cameo — short, usually non-speaking appearances, most frequently by musicians with the occasional athlete thrown in. One of the most notable (in a good way, that is) is Coldplay drummer Will Champion’s appearance in Season 3’s “The Rains of Castamere.” Yep, that’s right, the Red Wedding episode. Champion is, fittingly, a drummer at the wedding feast, shown just moments before the whole situation goes right to hell.
What makes it particularly noteworthy is the darkly comic thought of the emotional rollercoaster undergone by those few viewers dedicated enough in their Coldplay fandom to recognize Champion on sight, but casual enough for watchers of Game of Thrones to not know what’s waiting for them right around the corner.
Salman Rushdie in Bridget Jones’s Diary
It might not be quite as weird as his cameo as Helen Hunt’s OB-GYN in Then She Found Me, but Salman Rushdie’s brief appearance at a book launch scene in the 2001 romantic comedy (because 95% of people featured in rom-coms work in publishing, which is perhaps why the genre hasn’t been doing too well as of late) is equally delightful, and the overall movie is better. All Rushdie wants to do is engage in an intellectual discussion. All anyone else seems to want to do is to ask him where the bathroom is. Helen Fielding, who wrote the Bridget Jones novels, is a good friend of Rushdie’s and the one who roped him into his cameo appearance. The story goes that she asked him if he wanted to make a fool of himself and, apparently, he must have said, “Yes.”
Shepard Fairey on Portlandia
In 2015, Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the iconic Obama “Hope” poster and the OBEY Giant street art project appeared as an employee of the fictional store Shocking Art Supplies in a Portlandia sketch. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein star in an ad for the aforementioned store, which sells supplies for “edgy,” “urban” art, including such specialty items as pre-smashed televisions, disembodied doll parts, and “upside-down” American flags. Poking fun at the sort of protest art made with the intent of waking up the “sheeple” masses from their capitalist daze (that 99.9% of said masses will never see), Fairey awkwardly lingering in the background of most shots or demonstrating possible doll part combinations provides the skit’s most convincing humor.
Aimee Mann in The Big Lebowski
Two-time Grammy winner Aimee Mann has done a handful of other cameos since, but her first, as a nine-toed German nihilist in the Coens’ beloved 1998 classic The Big Lebowski, remains unmatched. We see her in a diner, ordering late-night breakfast with some anarchist friends who’ve previously appeared to cause trouble for the Dude and co. After her lingonberry pancakes are ordered, the camera tilts down to reveal her bloody, bandaged left foot with green-painted toenails, effectively solving the mystery of where “Bunny Lebowski’s” severed toe came from. A rare cameo that also manages to further along the plot.
Kurt Vonnegut in Back to School
The beloved scribe behind such classics as “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Cat’s Cradle” appears as himself for all of four seconds in the 1986 comedy about a father, Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield), who decides to join his son, Jason (future Vonnegut adaptation director Keith Gordon), at college in an attempt to convince him of the merits of continued education. Once there, Thornton finds that he enjoys partying much more than studying. However, he also has the hots for literature professor Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman), inspiring him to hire Kurt Vonnegut Jr. himself to write his Vonnegut paper for him. Thus, the man himself appears at the door, delivers his one line,”Hi, I’m Kurt Vonnegut. I’m looking for Thornton Melon,” and then disappears once more. Dr. Turner isn’t fooled by deception, realizing at once that Thornton’s paper was written by someone else and inspiring Thornton to give Vonnegut a particularly explicit call to voice his complaints.
It’s a great cameo appearance that would work with a lot of different authors, but the way the whole thing is so contradictory to Vonnegut’s actual persona makes it particularly delightful. After all, this is the man whose brief stint at Sports Illustrated ended after he was assigned a piece about a racehorse jumping a fence in an escape attempt, stared at his typewriter for a while, wrote “The horse jumped over the fucking fence,” and then left.
Patrick Leahy in five iterations of Batman
Dark Knight diehard and Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy has cameos in Batman Forever, Batman: The Animated Series, 1997’s Batman & Robin, two of three Nolan Batman films (The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Leahy basically seems to be a pillar of constancy in all things, as the longest-serving senator (he’s been in the US Senate since 1975) and quite likely the longest-serving Batman cameo-maker.
His appearances in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin were run-of-the-mill face-in-the-crowd appearances, but his Dark Knight cameo is of special note: he’s the guest who tells the party-crashing Joker (Heath Ledger), “We’re not intimidated by thugs.” The Clown Prince of Crime then looks at Leahy like this:
And then proceeds to escalate the situation to this:
Before Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) intervenes. As far as actual acting in cameo roles goes, Leahy deserves some serious props for this one. According to The Japan Times, Ledger didn’t actually know who he was holding at knifepoint — Leahy introduced himself as “Patrick from Vermont.” Michael Caine clued Ledger in afterward.
Madeleine Albright on Parks and Recreation
There are many incredible political cameos in Parks & Recreation, especially in later seasons once the show was properly established as a Big Deal, but Madeleine Albright’s appearance in the finale season takes the cake. The starstruck fangirl energy Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) exudes in most of the series’ other major cameo encounters is fun, but the more blasé tone of Knope’s waffle lunch date with the former US Secretary of State gives it an extra comedic edge — especially once the scene reveals how the two ended up becoming so friendly (hint: Albright really didn’t have much say in the matter).
Her Gilmore Girls cameo is also pretty great.
Ian Brown in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Ian Brown, frontman of the acclaimed rock band The Stone Roses, appears in a non-speaking role, casually filling up the foreground of this establishing dolly shot of the Leaky Beaker in the Alfonso Cuarón-directed installment of the Harry Potter film franchise. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of moment, especially considering the ages of the film’s target demographic (particularly when it was first released) vs. the age demographic most likely familiar with The Stone Roses. However, the more you think about it, the weirder it becomes. Not only is Brown showing off serious wizard cred with his nonchalant display of wandless tea-stirring magic, but he’s absorbed in the decidedly Muggle classic “A Brief History of Time.” That is, his reading material indicates some level of comprehension, or at least awareness, of Stephen Hawking in a world where a self-described Muggle enthusiast doesn’t know how to pronounce “electricity” properly.
So, how did it happen? According to Brown, who was apparently at least somewhat friendly with Cuarón through his (now ex) wife, Fabiola Quiroz, he “did it for a laugh.” Apparently over dinner one night, Cuarón told Brown “that he had a part for me, so I asked my lads and they said, go for it.” No further comment was given as to who “the lads” are.
King Abdullah II of Jordan on Star Trek: Voyager
The future king of Jordan makes an uncredited cameo appearance as an unnamed ensign in the opening scene of the episode “Investigations” in Season 2 of Star Trek: Voyager. He’s a huge Trekkie, and the appearance was arranged for King (then Prince) Abdullah by his US advisor. The briefness and non-speaking nature of his cameo somehow increase the shock factor of his appearance for those Trek viewers familiar enough with the royal to recognize him on sight.
Buzz Aldrin on 30 Rock
Retired astronaut Buzz Aldrin has had plenty of fun since the 1970s, making cameo appearances as himself in everything from The Simpsons to The Big Bang Theory, but his special appearance in the 30 Rock Season 4 episode “The Moms” is particularly out of this world. Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) seeks out the aerospace legend after a heart-to-heart with mother Margaret (Anita Gillette) in which the latter claims Aldrin was the true love of her life—as opposed to, you know, Liz’s father. Their eventual meeting is delightfully strange in the way that great cameos often are, with Aldrin giving Liz a brief run-through of his youthful misadventures to assure her that her mother didn’t miss out on anything by ditching him, and concluding with the pair taking a few moments to hurl abuse at the moon (“I walked on your face!).
Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall
Marshall McLuhan, the 20th-century philosophical icon known to film and media students everywhere for his “the medium is the message” theory, shows up early in Annie Hall after Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) gets into an argument over McLuhan with an overly loud mansplainer waiting behind him in line for a movie. The argument comes to a screeching halt when Alvy pulls out none other than McLuhan himself from his convenient location behind a display board. “I heard what you’re saying. You know nothing of my work,” McLuhan calmly tells the mansplainer.
It was actually originally planned for the cameo to be filmmaker Federico Fellini instead, but those plans fell through last minute, so McLuhan filled in. His delivery is somewhat stilted; after a strong start, his rather lengthy spiel becomes somewhat less coherent — apparently, McLuhan had issues delivering the line properly, even after several takes. Nonetheless, it’s a great “wait, is that—?” moment.
Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Having the original author of a work make a cameo in the adaptation is quite common — as is having the real person cameo in a biopic of a living person. Considering Fear and Loathing is a loosely disguised autobiography on literal acid, Hunter S. Thompson’s appearance in Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation is of particular note. As Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) floats through a partying crowd, high as a kite, recounting in voiceover “the Great San Francisco Acid Wave” of 1965, suddenly one figure among the masses catches his attention. “Mother of God, there I am,” Duke comments.
And there, indeed, Hunter S. Thompson is.
Well played. Very well played.
Peter Jackson in Hot Fuzz
The filmmaker best known for bringing Middle Earth to life in the outstanding Lord of the Rings trilogy and then ruining it a little with the study in excess and disappointment that is The Hobbit trilogy shows up in the opening montage of Hot Fuzz as the deranged Santa Claus who stabs Nick Angel (Simon Pegg) in the hand.
So how did this cameo come about? Well, Peter Jackson was apparently a fan of Shaun of the Dead, so he and director Edgar Wright ended up becoming friends. And then, as Wright explains in an About.com interview, “I was telling him about Hot Fuzz and he said, ‘I’ll be in the UK and I’ll do a cameo if you want.’ Then I thought, ‘F**k, he should play Santa.’ It was brilliant, actually.”
Bertrand Russell in Aman
In what is almost certainly the most downright bizarre cameo on this list, Nobel laureate writer, philosopher, and mathematician Bertrand Russell made his one and only film appearance (as himself) in the 1967 anti-war Bollywood film Aman. In Russell’s one scene, he bestows some words of wisdom about world peace upon the young protagonist, Dr. Gautamdas (Rajendra Kumar). The details of how exactly this cameo came to be are unclear and seem fated to remain amongst the great mysteries of the universe.
Gwen Stefani in The Aviator
Back in ye olde era of 2004, in her pre-solo career days when she was still exclusively known as the lead singer of No Doubt, Gwen Stefani made a brief appearance as Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. She shows up on the arm of Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) at the premiere of Hell’s Angels, the 1930 film in which she starred and which was written and directed by Hughes. The cameo is a lot smaller than this anticipatory MTV article might lead you to believe. Still, Stefani convincingly looks the part of Harlow. The story goes that Scorsese saw Stefani on the cover of Teen Vogue and thought she would be good for the part.
Tim Burton in Hoffa
Tim Burton, the filmmaker whose brand at this point is perhaps best described as “Disney Goth” makes a cameo as a corpse in Danny DeVito’s 1992 biopic of the legendary labor union leader (played in the film by Jack Nicholson).
You’ve got to admit, it makes sense.
Damien Hirst in Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London
Admittedly, that Damien Hirst’s glorified specimen jars with hyperbolically pretentious titles have made him one of the world’s richest living artists hurts my soul a little. That said, Hirst did make a cameo as “Arty Farty Security Guard” in the kid spy movie sequel Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London, so at least he has a sense of humor. Or, you know, he owed somebody a favor. The details of how this cameo came to be are unclear, but it probably has something to do with Hirst being friendly with director Kevin Allen’s brother, Keith. Photographic evidence is unfortunately lacking — amazingly, the internet isn’t abound with screencaps from this dated product of mid-2000’s youth culture — but it’s IMDb official.
Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich
As mentioned before, cameo appearances from the actual person in biopics of living people is a pretty common trope. Most tend to be either blink-or-you’ll-miss-it type deals or extended concluding statements, but Erin Brockovich’s cameo in the Steven Soderbergh-directed movie about her whistleblowing role in Hinkley, California’s groundwater contamination scandal finds a commendable middle ground. Brockovich plays a waitress who serves Julia Roberts as Brockovich and her kids, and her name tag reads “Julia.” Geddit?
George Lucas in Beverly Hills Cop 3
Beverly Hills Cop III might have been the weakest entry in the series, but in cameos the 1994 sequel sticks the landing — at least in this one, in which Star Wars creator George Lucas plays a disgruntled theme park attendee who gets jumped in line by Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) as the latter escapes onto a ride. Lucas says all of one word, “Hey!,” and is referred to in the credits as “Disappointed Man.” No one on the internet has yet missed the opportunity to point out that this will, somewhat prophetically, be the very same role played by the majority of Lucas’ many fans just five years later.
Related Topics: Acting