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Non-Actors Who Got Thrown Into Movies And Totally Nailed It

Updated April 13, 2021 69.4k votes 12.5k voters 955.6k views17 items

List RulesVote up the unexpected casting choices whose big break blew you away.

You don't always need an expensive theater degree or a five-day-a-week personal trainer to be in a Hollywood movie. Sometimes a filmmaker will instantly recognize that someone, despite the fact they've never acted a day in their life, has innate qualities that might make them perfect for a particular role. And these are the times those hunches were exactly right.

  • Gunnery Sergeant Hartman was such a hilariously terrifying and convincing Parris Island drill instructor in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket because that’s exactly what the man playing him was. R. Lee Ermey was a roughneck from Kansas who was once told by a judge he could either go to jail or join the Marine Corps.

    After a military career in which he actually tormented raw recruits, he became a technical advisor for the movie industry. It was in this role that Kubrick saw him in a different one - giving Matthew Modine, Vincent D'Onofrio, and moviegoers everywhere boot camp nightmares.

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    • Danny Trejo was an ex-con working as a youth counselor when he arrived on the set of the 1985 action thriller Runaway Train to help out with a young crew member's substance problem, per the Yakima Herald. When the director got a look at Trejo's imposing mug, he offered Trejo a chance to be an extra in a prison scene.

      The writer of the screenplay then recognized him as a skilled pugilist he knew in prison years earlier, and Trejo's role expanded to "Boxer." From then on, he became the go-to guy for decades whenever a script called for a scary-looking guy with tattoos.

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      • Finding an actor who could believably emote the horror of witnessing the tragedies of the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian genocide was a daunting task for the casting director of The Killing Fields. But, incredibly, he happened to stumble across such a man at a wedding in Long Beach, CA. Haing Ngor was the perfect choice, though he had never acted a day in his life, because he actually had to traverse minefields and eat rats to escape the ruthless regime, as detailed in The Hollywood Reporter.

        Ngor was hesitant to play the part of real-life journalist Dith Pran, despite his "innate gift for acting," due to the nightmares he would have to relive. But thankfully for us all, he took the role and earned the 1984 Academy Award for best supporting actor.

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        • Harold Russell had a pretty rough time in World War II, having lost both his hands in a demolition mishap. His double amputations sent him into a depression and resulted in his being fitted with two metal hooks. He mastered the hooks quickly and starred in a military training film. When offered a Hollywood role that would further showcase his disability, Russell turned it down, believing he would fail. But eventually he relented and agreed to play Petty Officer 2nd Class Homer Parrish in the 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives.

          Russell ended up winning two Oscars for the same performance - one for best supporting actor and an honorary one for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans." Afterward, he became an advocate for the disabled as chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped.

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