The dictionary defines a cameo as a brief appearance of a known person in a work of the performing arts, typically unnamed or appearing as themselves, which is just ambiguous enough a definition to leave it up for interpretation. The most important aspect of a memorable cameo appearance (besides the celebrity component), is the unexpected. A scene that comes out of nowhere and takes you by surprise but yet, the whammy element isn’t in the definition. And It’s generally accepted that a cameo is relegated to one scene but again, that’s also not in the definition, nor does it specify how long is too long.
So, the first thing I had to do was to define what a cameo was based on my own set of parameters and then go from there. I came up with two rules, which were:
1) the cameo in question could extend past one scene but it couldn’t run past 5 minutes (give or take) and the special guest star couldn’t partake in any important scenes. Pretty much meaning, if you cut their scene out of the film, the film would still work.
2) uncredited roles were automatically considered unless they were integral to the plot (I.e., no Kevin Spacey in Seven or Edward Norton in Kingdom of Heaven)
With that out of the way, I now present you with the 50 Greatest Movie Cameos Of All Time.
(And since cameos, by their very nature, are supposed to be surprises, consider this your spoiler warning.)
10. Michael Cera | This is the End (2013)
The second he broke free from Arrested Development and started making movies, the backlash against Michael Cera (which I’ll never understand) began. The internet seemed to immediately dislike him, with public disdain/indifference hitting full swing around 2010 or so. Which is probably why he relished the chance to go, as his Superbad character would say, “full throttle ‘Charlie’s Angels 2′” with his cameo in This is the End. Taking his hipster persona and burning it to the ground, this “Michael Cera” is portrayed as a cocaine loving douche bag who grabs every party he’s at and fucks it in the ass. He’s a Tasmanian devil of chaos with a penchant for drinking Capri Sun’s while getting oral. In other words, he’s my spirit animal.
09. Johnny Depp | 21 Jump Street (2012)
In the last act of the film, Schmidt and Jenko (played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum respectfully), two undercover officers disguised as high schoolers, find themselves in a Mexican standoff with a drug dealing motorcycle gang when all of a sudden, two of their apparent foes reveal themselves to be undercover DEA agents. As the men remove their disguises, audiences were shocked to find out that this was a secret sequel to the show as the actors under the makeup were Johnny Depp and…Peter DeLuise, the main characters of the original 21 Jump Street TV show. It’s a fun callback to the show and a nice surprise for fans. And what’s even better is the fact that both men are immediately shot and killed. It’s a surprise on top of a surprise.
08. Christopher Walken | Pulp Fiction (1994)
I feel as though the actors that are the easiest to imitate, are the easiest to underrate. Since actors like William Shatner, Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Walken all speak in a unique cadence that is easy to emulate, they become easy targets of mockery or ridicule. Which is a shame considering they’re all fantastic actors. Take Walken for example, a man so good at his job, that he tells a long as hell story about hiding a watch up his ass and instead of chuckling, you actually start to care about that watch. Instead of being repulsed by the idea of a little kid handling an item that was up the ass cavity of two different men, you understand its importance and why he’d risk his life to retrieve it. Under any other circumstances, you’d yell at your TV because of Butch’s decision to go back to his apartment even though it’s more than likely swarmed with hitmen but he needs that watch and you buy that because of Walken.
07. Donald Duck and Daffy | Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
It is a miracle that this film exists. That Disney and Warner Bros. played nice just long enough to get a movie made, is truly amazing and would never happen today. But thank God they did because without this movie, we’d never have a scene with Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny or more importantly, a scene where Donald and Daffy play a game of battling pianos. Taking inspiration from an old Tom and Jerry cartoon as well as the vaudeville bit in Limelight involving Chaplin and Keaton, the Donald and Daffy scene is equal parts historically important, instantly iconic and hysterically funny.
06. Stan Lee | Various
Although he’s synonymous with the comic book cameo now, his first guest appearance was all the way back in the 1990 horror film The Ambulance. He followed that up with a small role in Mallrats and after a handful of cartoons later, he finally made his first comic book cameo proper in X-Men, and its been nothing but cameo city ever since. Whether he’s speaking or just sitting in the background, seeing him was like a warm hug from your grandfather. Now that he’s sadly gone, the MCU won’t be the same but the legacy he left behind will never be forgotten.
05. Neil Patrick Harris | Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)
While a good cameo can provide a smile or a mild chuckle from savvy viewers who are in on the joke and a great one can end up stealing the film, there are a few so uniquely singular, so extraordinarily memorable, that they revitalize entire careers. NPH’s career post Doogie Howser was, to put it kindly, garbage ass. I’m assuming he hosted some lame ass award shows or did some super gay Broadway shit or maybe he sold his body to the night. Nobody knows what he did. All we know is that he wasn’t in the public consciousness but that all changed after Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. After audiences saw him snort cocaine off of hookers and get proper buck wild, his career exploded and hasn’t died down since. Which just goes to show you, the quickest way to someone’s heart is through cocaine.
04. Tom Cruise | Tropic Thunder (2008)
The beginning of the 21st century wasn’t kind to Tom Cruise. In addition to his couch jumping incident on Oprah, his involvement in Scientology was becoming more public, as did the many controversies surrounding it, which didn’t bode well for his good guy image but he began to make something of a comeback with his unpublicized appearance in Ben Stiller’s 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder. Cruise appears underneath prosthetic makeup as Les Grossman, a balding, fat Hollywood executive (the look is heavily rumored to be based on Harvey Weinstein) whose job it is to negotiate with terrorists in order to save four actors who find themselves in the middle of a real conflict while they were shooting a movie for him. His strong arm tactics are so cold blooded, they shock even the mercenaries trying to murder the egocentric actors. A rare comedic performance from the movie star, Cruise is simultaneously hilarious and repugnant, which make for an unforgettable mix of humor and slime.
03. Bill Murray | Zombieland (2009)
While looking for shelter or a place to just fuck around for a bit, the characters played by Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, and Abigail Breslin arrive in the desolate streets of Hollywood and precede to make their way to a mansion owned by none other than Bill Murray, who just so happens to still be alive. Using zombie make up to continue golfing without the fear of getting attacked, the legendary comedian ends up getting killed due to a prank gone wrong, which results in the funniest death scenes in any film, ever. I can’t wait for the sequel to try and inevitably fail to one up it.
02. Samuel L. Jackson | Iron Man (2008)
The cameo that kickstarted an empire. It would be disingenuous to say that Sam Jackson pitching Tony Stark on the Avengers Initiative, was the reason we got an MCU but it is true that at the time, there was no bigger moment for nerds. Because every time a film added a fun Easter egg that could potentially blossom into something cool, I.e., Freddy’s hand grabbing Jason’s mask at the end of Jason Goes to Hell or the xenomorph skull on the wall of the predator ship in Predator 2, they would also take years to pay off and were always disappointing but this was different. The second Iron Man started making money, we all knew that it was a possibility and after the Incredible Hulk, it was pretty much a guarantee. We were getting the Avengers and everything was going to change. Many may feel superhero fatigue or feel jaded at the never ending onslaught of comic book movies but go back in time to 08 and remember how hyped you were. That hype belongs to this scene.
01. Alec Baldwin | Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
A performance so iconic, so career defining, you could be forgiven for thinking he was not only in the entire movie but was the main character. Written specially for the actor by Mamet, the role is unique to the film adaptation as there is no Blake in the original stage play. The most quotable part of the film, the thing most people remember about the movie wasn’t even in the play. That goes to show how good a writer Mamet is—that he can somehow improve upon an already successful story—but a true testament to the talents of Baldwin, in that Mamet not only knew he could do it but was good enough to be gifted such a bounty of rich dialogue. “Second prize, a set of steak knives. Third prize is, you’re fired.” The fact that Judi Dench won for Shakespeare in Love, a role that was of equal length but markedly inferior in quality and Baldwin wasn’t even nominated for this is a goddamn travesty. This is more than a cameo, it’s one of the greatest performances in cinema, that just happens to only last eight minutes.
What did you think of the selected top 50? What are some of your favorite movie cameos that didn’t make the list?