15 Times Movie Stars Took Surprise Supporting Roles And Stole The Show

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Vote up the surprise appearances that improved the whole movie.

If you see movies on a regular basis, you've undoubtedly had the experience of seeing a star in a supporting role that came as a complete surprise. We're not talking about quickie cameos designed to earn a cheap laugh, but scenes in which a respected performer shows up to play an important character. That can be fun, as it offers something unexpected. At the same time, when the casting is shrewd, the abrupt arrival of a major star usually signifies something important is happening. These surprise appearances often give the actor the chance to steal the show.

In some of these cases, the star's participation was noted in the advertising yet downplayed, or the exact nature of their role was hidden. In others, the stars opted to go uncredited to ensure their scene(s) packed the requisite punch. The practice has become increasingly popular in recent years, given that A-list actors can often earn a hefty paycheck for a job that's quick and fun. There's also a cool quotient that goes along with waltzing onto the screen and walking off with the entire movie.

These memorable surprise appearances caught viewers off-guard but, more importantly, added something crucial to the films in which they appeared.

Photo: Kingpin / MGM

  • Gary Oldman - 'Hannibal'
    Photo: MGM

    There are many gruesome elements in Hannibal, but one of the biggest is the face of the villain. Or, should we say, the lack of a face. Mason Verger is the only surviving target of the notorious psychopath Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Although Verger survived, the encounter left his face horribly disfigured, as well as paralyzed. As a result, he's out for revenge.

    When we finally get a look at Verger, it's difficult to tell who's playing him. Buried under that makeup is none other than Gary Oldman. While he may not be entirely recognizable, the actor's trademark intensity - not to mention his penchant for playing distinctly unusual characters - is right there. In his hands, this bitter man is absolutely chilling.

    When asked by IGN why he chose to go uncredited, Oldman explained, "We thought that as I'm unofficially the man of many faces - you know, of Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula, and Sid Vicious, and Beethoven - we thought that I would be... I'm playing the man with no face. So we just had a bit of fun with it. We thought it would be great. The man with no face and no name, and sort of do it anonymously."

    2,627 votes
  • Ben Stiller had famously done a Tom Cruise imitation on his early-'90s Fox sketch comedy show. Apparently, Cruise didn't take it too personally, since he joined the cast of the Stiller-directed Tropic Thunder, playing Les Grossman, a vulgar, balding movie studio chief with an unexpected penchant for hip-hop dancing.

    Quite frankly, the actor was in need of a public image makeover at the time. He'd received tons of negative press for infamously jumping on Oprah Winfrey's couch, making controversial Scientology claims (including one that criticized Brooke Shields for taking psychiatric medication to treat postpartum depression), and getting dropped by Paramount, the studio where he had a production deal. Trumpeting his appearance in the film might have turned some audiences off, so his comeback role was left as a surprise.

    As it was, recognizing him under the makeup and padded suit proved difficult, so many ticket buyers didn't realize it was him until his name popped up in the end credits. Regardless, Cruise-as-Grossman stole every scene he was in.

    3,526 votes
  • David Fincher's Seven follows two detectives - Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) - as they pursue a serial killer who models his elaborate acts after the Seven Deadly Sins. It's a shock for both of them and the audience when a bloodied Kevin Spacey walks into a police station and announces himself as the culprit, "John Doe." 

    Unlike many movies dealing with psychopaths, Seven doesn't introduce us to the villain in advance. As with Somerset and Mills, we have no clue who, exactly, they're looking for. Having Spacey's participation revealed in any of the marketing materials or the film's opening credits would have tipped off audiences, who would be waiting and expecting him to show up. Keeping him out of all that allowed viewers to experience the detectives' surprise vicariously. 

    Spacey himself put it best, telling Total Film, "I'd just done Swimming with Sharks, The Usual Suspects, and Outbreak, a big Warner Bros movie. I knew that if any of those movies did well, my profile would be... different. How would that affect my billing in Seven? If I'm the third-billed actor in a movie where the top two billings are trying to find somebody and they don't find that somebody until the last reel, then it's obvious who that somebody is."

    2,256 votes
  • Sigourney Weaver - 'The Cabin in the Woods'
    Photo: Lionsgate

    The main characters in The Cabin in the Woods discover they're all sacrifices in a sick experiment in which horror creatures of every sort are out to get them. They're like fish in a barrel. The movie ends with two of them breaking free of the game and penetrating the underground command center where everything is being orchestrated. This is where they meet "The Director," the person in charge of the entire demented affair.

    Finding the right person to assume this role was important. It had to be an actor of a certain caliber yet with an iconic connection to the horror genre. Director Drew Goddard found just the right person in Sigourney Weaver. Having played Ellen Ripley in the four original Alien pictures, she's revered by horror fans. At the same time, she's got the acting prowess to effectively make The Director someone we immediately recognize as a serious force to be reckoned with. Weaver brings deep authority to the surprise role, helping ensure that The Cabin in the Woods' big finale carries the necessary weight.

    1,514 votes
  • Bill Murray - 'Kingpin'
    Photo: MGM

    Bill Murray toplined a string of major hits in the early '90s, including Groundhog Day and What About Bob? It was therefore surprising when he took a small role in Kingpin, a 1996 bowling comedy directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly of Dumb & Dumber fame. He plays Ernie McCracken, a pro bowler who causes main character Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) to lose a hand in a hustle gone bad.

    Murray was mentioned in advertising yet not highlighted, largely because the bulk of Kingpin is about Munson and an Amish prodigy (Randy Quaid) that he mentors. After the first few minutes, Murray's character disappears, only to reemerge in the last act, when Munson enters a championship match and has to square off against his old nemesis.  

    The Caddyshack star apparently took the role on a whim. The Farrelly Brothers thought getting him to play the supporting role was a longshot, but Quaid had worked with him on Quick Change and offered to reach out. Sure enough, Murray arrived on set three weeks later, hilariously improvised all his lines, and had viewers howling with laughter over McCracken's bad combover.

    1,570 votes
  • Although primarily known for television work, Henry Winkler has always dabbled in film too. Wes Craven's original Scream found him in horror movie territory, a place no one ever expected to find him. Winkler plays Principal Himbry, who gets sliced up in his office by the masked slayer known as Ghostface.

    Aside from the shock of seeing "the Fonz" in a slasher flick, the actor's appearance took audiences by storm because it isn't simply the corny pop culture cameo it initially seems to be. Winkler isn't there to pass the baton to a new generation of teen stars; he's there to become one of Ghostface's first marks. Himbry's bloody demise packs a wallop because no one in their right mind anticipates seeing Henry Winkler in a part like that. The moment has subsequently gone on to become one of the most iconic "kills" in the entire Scream franchise. 

    Winkler agreed to forgo an onscreen credit when the producers wanted to focus on the younger cast members instead.

    1,386 votes