When we think of the great screen bad guys, we’re usually thinking of major characters who define the underlying conflict of the story: Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, Darth Vader in Star Wars, the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, and any number of James Bond’s devilish nemeses. You learn who they are at the start of the movie, observe their cruelty over the development of the plot, and usually get to watch them defeated by the end. They’re memorable figures, sure, but occasionally the scariest villains have had only minor parts. As full-length supporting roles, they might not carry as much menace, but seen for just a few minutes, they can become the most enduring performances from their films.
To some extent this is down to the structure of the original narratives. Throw a crazed hit man or a scrawny pervert into a scenario, however briefly, and it will pack a wallop no matter who’s been hired to play it. Yet when the hit man or the pervert seem to organically sprout from the drama – when they seem not to be acting – the viewer’s emotional involvement goes up a few notches. There’s something especially unsettling when a person you’ve never encountered before suddenly appears in a picture doing or saying awful things to the star; whereas you know instinctively that Anthony Perkins really isn’t a criminal psychotic and Anthony Hopkins really isn’t a cannibal, you can’t be as sure when it’s Joe Blow committing the mayhem. Movies are ultimately about suspension of disbelief, and a convincing gallery of supporting players is one of the most crucial but least appreciated aspects of movie production. Give the casting directors some.
But cameo villains have a particularly thankless job. Like anyone who works on a feature film, they are self-employed specialists earning a livelihood in a challenging business. They have to learn lines, hit marks, and cooperate with the other cast and crew, just as the marquee names do (maybe more so – bankable stars have their behavior indulged in ways no walk-on actor’s would ever be). But when the completed movie is shown, audiences are left wondering: “Where did they find someone to do that?” as if the performer was asked to be himself in front of a camera rather than portray, for not much money or recognition, an imaginary and very unattractive character. It may be a comfort to remember that these creepiest cameos were, in fact, thoroughly staged, and that when the director said “Cut,” everyone went back to being their harmless, thoroughly professional selves. At least, we hope so.
1 “First Mountain Man” & “Second Mountain Man” (Bill McKinney and Herbert “Cowboy” Coward) Deliverance, 1972 Pretty much the ultimate cameo villains, their sudden emergence from the Georgia woods and the subsequent “Squeal like a pig” sexual assault on Jon Voight and Ned Beatty in John Boorman’s classic has shaken spectators for over forty years. Note how Boorman films the scene with a minimum of edits and no music, lending a chilling documentary feel to the depravity. When first presented, McKinney and Coward came across like no heavies a Hollywood studio had ever turned out – no theatrical grimaces, wicked grins, or clever repartee from them – but as realistic products of rural ignorance and squalor; Appalachia’s had a bad name ever since. Despite Burt Reynolds’ claim that McKinney got dangerously carried away during the shooting, later accounts by the participants affirm what no one could originally believe: it was rehearsed, performed, and photographed by a team of pros. Herbert Coward was an occasional stuntman and rodeo performer cast for his missing teeth, while Bill McKinney was an experienced character actor who collaborated closely with his screen victim Beatty to project the brutality described originally in James Dickey’s novel. “It was carefully worked out and calmly executed,” John Boorman wrote in his autobiography. The director also noted that Stanley Kubrick wanted McKinney to play Sergeant Hartman in his Full Metal Jacket, but that Kubrick was too scared to meet him in person. “I told him that Bill was a fine upright fellow and that what Kubrick had seen on the screen was acting,” Boorman recalled. McKinney maintained a steady career for many years, and even reunited with Coward in the low-budget Ghost Town (2007). Anonymous, authentic, and very disturbing, they set the standards for the category.
2 “Man With Knife” (Roman Polanski) Chinatown, 1974 The movie’s director was hardly an unknown bit player when he picked himself to be the foreign-accented thug who calls Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes “kitty cat” and gives the private eye a spontaneous nose job, but he looked and sounded just unusual enough – and Nicholson acts scared enough – to convey an unpredictable maliciousness with his brief role. According to one source, Nicholson and Polanski were often at odds during the shooting (“Where’d you get the midget?” Jake asks the other henchman) and the actor wasn’t sure his director had rigged the prop switchblade safely. The knife-in-the-nostril attack is another signature of cameo villainy: they have to be not only mean but somehow weird, taking a perverse pleasure from imaginative sadism like this. And unlike a gunshot or a stage punch, Jake’s is the kind of injury that’s just minor enough for audiences to really flinch in identification when they see it. In real life, of course, Roman Polanski would never hurt anyone and has never had any kind of trouble with the law.
3 “NVA Guard” (Ding Santos) The Deer Hunter, 1978 Though the historical accuracy of North Vietnamese soldiers’ use of Russian roulette to torture American captives is questionable, there’s no denying the intensity of this scene, with the imprisoned grunts Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage subjected to extreme psychological and physical viciousness from their military opponents. Filmed in Thailand, director Michael Cimino cast locals for the roles of NVA personnel, a nice change from Hollywood’s habit of hiring Japanese-, Korean-, or Chinese-Americans to interchangeably stand for any and all Asians. As the leader of the squad, Ding Santos exhibits a smoldering hostility that had to be patiently coached, as Cimino explained in 2010: “None of the Thai people we used to play the Viet Cong were actors, and they were reluctant at first to hit somebody.” With Vietnam still fresh in the minds of many viewers, the sight of real southeast Asians meting out merciless punishment to American POWs was the most distressing aspect of this powerful film.
4 “Grady” (Philip Stone) The Shining, 1980 Without a single gesture towards violence, the homicidal implications of former Overlook Hotel caretaker Delbert Grady’s recommendation that Jack Torrance “correct” his son Danny make this personification of the establishment’s supernatural power the second-scariest character in the film. Stone, who’d already worked for Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, literally comes out of thin air as the ghostly Grady, whose conversation with Jack Nicholson’s Torrance in a well-appointed men’s room symbolizes the growing paranoia within Jack’s fragile psyche. As with the most threatening cameo villains, Grady’s evil slithers out sideways, as when he warns that Jack’s son Danny is attempting to telepathically contact Scatman Crothers’ Hallorann, “a n—– cook,” to rescue him. “The demons in this movie are so vicious they’re even racists,” critic Pauline Kael remarked. A vicious demon indeed.
5 “Hector the Toad” (Al Israel) Scarface, 1983 You may not know his name, but you’ve probably repeated some of his catchphrases: the Colombian cocaine dealer with a sideline in involuntary amputation anchors one of the most-watched and most notoriously violent movie sequences ever made. Yet while everyone remembers the shower and the chainsaw, look closer for the subtlety with which Al Israel and director Brian DePalma set up the encounter. Hector initially comes across to Al Pacino’s Tony Montana as a friendly coke vendor – just a bit too friendly – whose merchandise is reassuringly “close by,” until the ambush of Tony and the unlucky Angel (Pepe Serna) gets under way. In that switch from false bonhomie to genuine murderousness is where the Hitchcockian suspense of the scene resides, before a drop of blood is spilled. Israel, who died in 2011, also appeared in DePalma’s Body Double and Carlito’s Way, but he’ll always be remembered as the guy who did for illicit drug transactions what Bruce the Shark did for swimming.
6 “Willie Red” (Special ‘K’ McCray) Rush, 1991 Another kind of drug menace is posed by the seedy heroin connection who slyly calls the bluff of undercover cops Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh in this underrated crime drama. McCray at first seems like a slightly addled addict extolling the virtues of getting high (“Pretty soon you be feelin’ all unnecessary…like you’re floatin’ on a cloud of titties…”), until you realize he knows exactly what he’s doing when he forces the narcs to inject some of his product: before Patric and Leigh have time to back out, his goofy junkie cajolery becomes a deadly serious game of criminal and chemical chicken. Rush is about the risks run by drug officers when they pose as drug users, and the deceptively cool, quietly sinister Willie Red embodies that risk.
7 “Harlan” (Timothy Carhart) Thelma and Louise, 1991 Before he’s introduced, the story seems like a lighthearted adventure of an extended girls’ night out, but after Harlan tries to force himself on a vulnerable Thelma (Geena Davis) and is killed by the protective Louise (Susan Sarandon), we are into a much deeper study of sexism, sensitivity, and sisterhood. Carhart’s Harlan – unfortunately like too many real-life examples – shows up presenting himself with a lanky roughneck charm, until he’s alone with his victim and his truer crudity emerges. Kudos to the actor for taking on an ugly role and doing it believably enough that we’re glad to see him shot; he’s the main reason we’re really rooting for the heroines.
8 “College Boy # 1,” “College Boy # 2,” “College Boy # 3 (Michael A. Goorjian, Jeremy Jordan, David Lee Wilson) Leaving Las Vegas, 1995 It should be no surprise that there are several would-be or actual rapists on a list of cameo villains – the change from outward charm to open threat is upsetting enough on film, let alone in reality. This ominous scene from a grueling movie shows Elizabeth Shue’s defenseless prostitute Sera finding herself trapped with a trio of boisterous frat guys, one with a video camera, who suddenly aren’t the fun-loving vacationers she’s counted on. The male actors display an effective mix of eager innocence and underlying malice, and while the actual assault isn’t shown, it’s made very clear during the sequence and after what Sera has to suffer. Interestingly, both the rowdy All-American youths and their use of a camera to record their “party” anticipate by many years our current controversies over campus sexual violence and online exploitation.
9 “Vincent Corey” (Lee Tergesen) Monster, 2003 The protagonist’s career as a serial murderer begins when she kills the misogynistic, sadistic Corey in self-defense, and the preceding minutes of hard-luck hooker Aileen (Charlize Theron, earning her Oscar) facing off with Tergesen’s repellent john are agonizing to watch. While Aileen encounters numerous sleazy males in the film, it’s this guy, alone with her in his car at night, who’s easily the sleaziest. “More than anything I was very worried about having an actor who would be afraid to go where the character needed to go,” director Patty Jenkins remembered. “I knew [Tergesen] could be comfortable with it and be acting as well.” This is one of those scenes where you have to remind yourself that it’s only a movie and the people onscreen are performers.
10 “Kenneth Braun” (William Sadler) Kinsey, 2005 With a face like a permanent mug shot, versatile character actor Sadler has played a lot of abhorrent people over his career (including a white-trash meth cooker in Rush), but this fictionalized version of the sex researcher’s most candid interviewee outdoes them all. In front of Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) and his assistant (Chris O’Donnell), Braun shows off his ability to reach orgasm in a few seconds, and then recounts a long history of sexual experiences with women, men, family members, animals, and children, all with a stomach-churning blend of coquettishness and amorality. Sadler’s Braun represents the very dark side of the sexual revolution Kinsey precipitated – he’s owed a lot of credit for allowing us this vivid glimpse under the rock.