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.)
20. Orson Welles | The Muppet Movie (1979)
He may not have the comedic timing of a Steve Martin or the sex appeal of a Madeline Khan and he certainly lacks the what-the-hell-are-you-doing-in-this WTF factor of a Richard Pryor but no one on Earth could’ve played the king-making Hollywood executive better than Welles. Making a meal of every line, every gesture, Welles makes Kermit (as well as the audience) feel the weight of his importance and how gravely serious the “the standard Rich-and-Famous contract” is. Any other actor would’ve played Lew Lord as the Devil incarnate but Welles manages to pull off an even more incredible feat: a character so intimidating, you’d actually prefer the Devil as a boss.
19. Mike Tyson | The Hangover (2009)
Since his boxing days are long behind him, coupled with the fact that he raises pigeons, has an effeminate lisp and a dumb as fuck face tattoo, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when Mike Tyson was the most dangerous man on the planet. When there are debates about whether or not Tyson could’ve beaten Ali that are still going on to this day, you know he was a bad motherfucker and it’s that image The Hangover is having the most fun playing with. He’s still a beast who owns a goddamn tiger but he also owns an adorable lil pug and listens to Phil Collins. The film somehow made him playful without removing the threat of a one punch kill.
18. Christopher Walken | True Romance (1993)
Tarantino has written some of the most consistently quotable dialogue in film over his almost thirty years in the biz and while most would point to Pulp Fiction‘s Ezekiel speech as his best monologue, I’d argue it’s the Sicilian speech in True Romance. While Dennis Hopper may get the most screen time since it’s mostly his spiel, it’s Walken who you’re focused on. He doesn’t say much but when he does, it’s short, sweet and to the point. And then you’re dead.
17. David Bowie | Zoolander (2001)
Due to their being some unsettled beef between the two models, an impromptu fashion walk off challenge is thrown down by Hansel (Owen Wilson) to Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) because that’s what happens in the high stakes world of underground modeling. Since the challenge was unplanned, a judge is needed. Enter— David Bowie. While not given much to do besides scribble notes on his hand and make pained expressions when Derek eventually fucks up, he still somehow owns every frame he’s in because he’s David fucking Bowie.
16. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck | Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)
The Avengers: Infinity War of The View Askewniverse, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is Smith packing all of his creations into one movie and while It doesn’t exactly work, there is at least one gem in the bunch: the bit with the Good Will Hunting sequel. Subtitled “Hunting Season”, the film sees the return of Affleck and Damon as their Good Will Hunting characters in a similar scene from the first movie but with a twist. Instead of one upping a college douche bag with a girl’s number, they just blast him with a shotgun. “How do you like them apples” indeed.
15. Keanu Reeves | Always Be My Maybe (2019)
Every couple of years, an actor everyone dismissed, gets a hot streak that revitalizes their careers. Robert Downey Jr had one, then Matthew McConaughey, Jeff Goldblum just went through one and now it’s Keanu Reeves’ turn. It started about three years ago but 2019 was truly the year of the Keanu. He had a huge action movie, a huge animated movie, an appearance at E3 that spawned a million memes and a super secret special appearance in Always Be My Maybe, in when he plays a pretentious movie star that spouts out garbage philosophies and exudes a cloud of arrogance. He’s instantly unlikable and Keanu Reeves nails it. He’s not in it much but it might be his best performance yet.
14. Alfred Hitchcock | Various
I have no idea if they still do it but back in the day, Playboy magazine used to hide it’s logo somewhere on the cover. It was a fun little scavenger hunt for the sophisticated readers who chose that magazine over Penthouse or Hustler or Busty Preggos Quarterly. Alfred Hitchcock did something similar with his films in that he would hide a cameo of himself somewhere in the background. Most of the time it would be obvious, like him walking a huge pack of dogs or doing something equally outlandish to draw your attention but the best by far has to be his cameo in Lifeboat. Since the entire film takes place on a lifeboat and since he’s not one of the people on said lifeboat, he had to get a bit creative with this one. His solution? Amongst the rubbage that floats by is a newspaper with an ad for a weight loss pill with the before and after model being him. Before Stan Lee was in every MCU film and before M. Night Shyamalan ruined his own films with his unnecessary cameos, there was Hitchcock.
13. Hugh Jackman | X-Men: First Class (2011)
Without a doubt the shortest cameo on the list, the failed recruitment of wolverine in X-Men: First Class lasts less than 40 seconds and involves just 3 words and yet it is still one of the most unexpected crowd pleasing moments in any film. Jackman also has an amusing spot in Night at the Museum 3: Battle of the Smithsonian where he pokes fun at his famous character but since he doesn’t tell anyone in that film to go fuck themselves, it didn’t make the cut.
12. Will Smith, Jim Carrey and Co. | Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)
The anchorman fight in the first film was a wonderful non sequitur that comes out of nowhere and ends almost as quickly. By the time your brain starts to comprehend what’s happening, it’s over. It was delightfully preposterous, but after the release of the sequel, feels a bit quaint by comparison. If the last one felt like a Family Guy cutaway gag, this was a full blown Zucker/Abrams film condensed to 8 or so minutes. Including a vast assemblage of movie stars as well as a minotaur, a ghost and a werewolf, this fight has it all.
11. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar | Airplane! (1980)
While it may seem that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s appearance in the film is just another crazy element thrown in for no discernable reason, it’s actually a hat on top of a hat. Airplane! isn’t just a spoof about disaster movies, it’s parodying a specific film called Zero Hour!, so much so that scenes are recreated and entire lines of dialogue are pulled straight out of Zero Hour! that takes on new a comedic bent out of context. Since that film also had a sports figure in a cameo role (a one Elroy Leon “Crazylegs” Hirsch), Airplane! followed suit. Kareem unfortunately doesn’t get to partake in much of the craziness but his mere presence is crazy enough.
What do you think of the selection so far? What are some of your favorite movie cameos? Maybe they will show up further on the list!