Weekend Roundtable: What I Really Want to Do Is Direct

After establishing successful careers in front of the camera, many actors get the itch to broaden their ambitions and actually make movies as well as star in them. Sometimes this works out well, but other times not so much. As we witness Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling both give it a shot this month, let’s look at some other actors who’ve tried their hand at directing, for better or worse.

Note that this topic will specifically focus on individuals who have made their primary careers as actors first before trying to direct. We’re not talking about filmmakers who sometimes make cameos or take small roles in their movies (like Quentin Tarantino or Spike Lee), or about professional actor-directors (like Woody Allen).

Luke Hickman

For the longest time, Ben Affleck had a bad rap. Sure, he made some bad decisions in acting roles, but that doesn’t negate the fact that he won an Oscar for writing ‘Good Will Hunting’ back when nobody really knew who he was. He finally restored his good name when he took to directing. The three features that he has released since then have been wonderful. ‘Gone Baby Gone‘ is a dark, unhappy story of investigating child abductions. ‘The Town‘ is a Scorcese-esque heist film that deserves to go down in history as one of the best. And ‘Argo‘ won the Oscar for Best Picture. Nobody picks on Ben anymore!

Mike Attebery

I like Jack Nicholson. He’s just one of those stars that makes you smile the first moment he appears on screen. But the man cannot direct. He’s made a handful of films – one in the 1960s, two in the ’70s, and the last in 1990. Anyone who has seen ‘The Two Jakes’ can probably guess why Jack hasn’t felt the urge to step behind the camera again in 25 years. That movie is a disaster. His filmmaking style reminds me of some of the more hallucinatory films made by my very experimental professors in college. To summarize the feeling of watching a Nicholson-directed movie, you need just six words: “What the hell is going on?!”

M. Enois Duarte

As a young actor very early on, Joseph Gordon-Levitt demonstrated some talent in front of the camera as Information Officer Tommy Solomon on the very funny sitcom ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’. After the show ended in 2001, he didn’t make many waves until a pair of excellent performances in ‘Mysterious Skin’ and the awesome ‘Brick’. Since then, he’s grown into quite the A-list actor.

In 2013, Gordon-Levitt surprised everyone when he starred, wrote and directed the impressive ‘Don Jon‘. It was something I never expected of him, showing a great deal of promise and talent behind the camera. I’m excited to see what he’ll bring to ‘The Walk’ and ‘Snowden’, but also anticipate (more like hope) his next project will be just as good as ‘Don Jon’.

Brian Hoss

As an actor, Clint Eastwood devoured the screen like it was second nature. Of course, he’s also had a long career as director. Back in 2003, I was pretty sure that given half-decent material, Eastwood was money in the bank. More so than his acting, his directing lends itself to a patience that can achieve both characterization and sentimentality without losing the thread of the narrative or the audience.

Sadly, I think that deft touch for directing has dulled over time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if actors like Chris Evans don’t have Eastwood in mind when they think ahead to becoming directors.

Shannon Nutt

Although he’s directed some television and a number of documentaries, William Shatner had one big shot at a legitimate directorial career and – fairly or unfairly – he blew it. Although I’ve never hated the movie as much as many have, there’s no doubt that ‘Star Trek V‘ was a huge disappointment, and that Shatner has to take the blame for most of what’s up there on screen.

While Shatner gets some good performances out of his fellow cast members (DeForest Kelley is particularly good in the film), the lack of a strong ending and the failure to nail down ILM for the visual effects – and then getting shoddy effects work back after spending millions on it, to the point that Paramount started cutting F/X out of the movie to prevent the budget from ballooning more – assured that Shatner’s first attempt at helming a big-budget Hollywood movie would also be his last.

Chris Chiarella (Sound & Vision)

In the waning days of ’80s excess, William Shatner‘s voyage behind the camera for ‘Star Trek V’ stood as a cautionary tale for runaway Hollywood ego. An opportunity born of a clause in his contract that assured equal treatment with his colleague Leonard Nimoy, fresh off the success of helming the previous two ‘Trek’ entries, ‘The Final Frontier’ plods along with a make-it-up-as-we-go vibe and wannabe precious moments that, like the cast, come off as old and tired. In Kirk’s defense, he had a grander vision in mind, but what he wound up with is now universally regarded as the worst of the classic ‘Trek’ films.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

Charles Laughton is primarily remembered as one of Britain’s greatest actors, and yet his work as a director puts to shame many filmmakers who’ve dedicated their entire lives to the craft. This is all the more impressive considering that Laughton only directed a single film: 1955’s ‘The Night of the Hunter‘.

This was hardly the typical vanity project. Laughton optioned the rights to the novel of the same name with the intention of starring as its conniving, murderous preacher. His business partner thought that lining up financing would be easier if Laughton instead remained on the other side of the camera.

It’s certainly difficult to imagine anyone but Robert Mitchum as the misogynistic, predatory preacher with “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed across his knuckles. Cinematographer Stanely Cortez once remarked that “Only two of all the directors I’ve worked with understood [light]: Orson Welles and Charles Laughton.” The film’s hauntingly beautiful interplay between light and shadow has rarely been equalled before or since. The equally brilliant score by Walter Schumann – his last for the big screen – furthers the feeling that ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is a Grimms’ fairy tale filtered through the lens of film noir. As much a shame as it is that Laughton never returned to the director’s chair, he accomplished more with one film than most could hope to achieve in a lifetime.

Josh Zyber

When George Clooney, major star of both the big screen (‘Return of the Killer Tomatoes!’) and small (‘The Facts of Life’), decided that he needed to direct, it seemed like an inevitability. His first attempt, 2002’s ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind‘, was met with polite applause by critics but didn’t make much traction otherwise. However, three years later, his historical drama ‘Good Night, and Good Luck.‘ seemed to mark Clooney as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with. Depicting the true story of newscaster Edward R. Murrow’s standoff with fearmongering Senator Joseph McCarthy, the film is both a blistering political broadside and also a compelling character drama about men of principle, with nuanced performances, gorgeous black-and-white photography and a perfect infusion of subtle humor. The picture eventually scored six Oscar nominations, including a couple for Clooney as screenwriter and director.

Sadly, Clooney saw diminishing returns with later directing projects such as ‘Leatherheads‘ and ‘The Monuments Men‘. The failure of the latter may prevent him from directing again for a while.

Tell us in the Comments about other actors who have made notable (for good or ill) attempts at directing.


  1. cardpetree

    Clint Eastwood’s deft touch for directing has dulled over time? Wasn’t the last movie he directed, nominated for an Oscar?

  2. photogdave

    Gary Sinise gave us a really good version of Of Mice and Men in 1992. I remember the critics, especially Ebert raving about it and much was said about Sinise’s stage experience.
    he hasn’t directed a feature film since.

  3. Josh Zyber

    I haven’t watched The Two Jakes since VHS, but I would like to. I recall thinking that it wasn’t a patch on Chinatown, which was problematic since Nicholson tied it so closely to that movie that you’d have to watch the original right beforehand to follow the plot (a perplexing decision for a sequel made 16 years later). But I didn’t hate the movie, and found it kind of interesting.

  4. As an actor Cornel Wilde was presented as a Ken doll, although he did respectable film noir roles, too.

    As a director he did THE NAKED PREY and NO BLADE OF GRASS. I haven’t yet seen BEACH RED.


  5. Eastwood stood out to me for being a decent director from actor as well.
    But while we’re on Star Trek/Shatner, lest not forget Jonathan Frakes. He’s done fairly well both on tv episodes and on Trek movies themselves. Imdb gives him credit for 35 titles, but when you add up all the episodes, he’s done quite a few (100+ perhaps.)

  6. Mike

    I rewatched Two Jakes last year. I was really liking it for a while, but there’s a point where it suddenly becomes just about impossible to follow. It would have been really interesting if Towne’s original plans for the series had worked out. Actually, it would be awesome if he would just turn the planned second and third films into novels.

  7. ronniebarzel

    I think the late Sydney Pollack is a terrific example of an actor who switched gears to become (mostly) a director, to the point where a reference to Pollack the actor inspires thoughts of “Oh yeah, he used to do that.”

    I’m surprised no one mentioned Ron Howard as an actor-turned-director. The stories I’ve heard about his days on “Happy Days” – where he would constantly ask questions of the episode directors and cinematographers – show that he was actually meant for his latter career.

  8. No mention of Ron Howard or Robert Redford? Redford is still known to get in front of the camera every now and then, but he and Howard are better known these days as top of the line directors. Howard especially seems able to craft good movies (other than these dreadful Langdon films) out of any genre.

  9. I’m surprised no one has mentioned crazy Mel. I was ready for him to go full time director before all the madness of his personal life made the tabloids and overshadowed his artistic career. I’ve enjoyed every movie he’s made behind the camera. I love just how crazy and outside the box Apocalypto is.

    • Bolo

      Yeah, the guy was really talented on either side of the camera. I figure his acting career is done, but I hope he can still get small directorial projects off the ground. It kills me that we’ll never get his viking movie.

  10. William Henley

    So there are a few who come to mind that I am surprised no one has mentioned yet.

    LeVar Burton has directed a total of 29 Star Trek episodes across 4 series. Wonderful director.

    Tim Russ has taken to directing shorts and fan films, which is really cool. To think that an actor in the series would love the series so much as to do Fan Films means a lot.

    Charlie Chaplin

    Woody Allen

    Gene Kelly

    Robert Duvall (The only one I saw was The Apostle)

    John Wayne

    Carl Reiner

    Tom Hanks

  11. I actually watched the Two Jakes last week as its on HBO GO now and I’ve got to say, while the film has some great imagery its severely confusing. The “sex scene” between him and Madeline Stowe goes from violent, to sensual, to awkward to demeaning to… A completely different scene! then all thats said about it is “do you think he knows we?” The interesting thing about Actors turned Directors is it seems like so many of them are capable of making a great or at least good picture and then as they continue directing, their skills diminish. Bill Duke (of Predator fame) directed Deep Cover which is a great film but everything else hes directed is a bit of stinker. Bill Paxton’s Frailty is also insanely good but The Greatest Game Ever Played is a sentimental schlock-fest (although as a golfer, I’ve watched it numerous times). The same can be said about Kevin Costner, although he somewhat rebounded after the Postman with Open Range.

  12. Brett

    I’m gonna have to go with that guy whose picture is up at the top. Affleck’s three movies to date have all been powerhouses. Big respect. And in his downtime he works for Fincher and plays Bruce Wayne. Not too shabby at all……

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