Oh, the paycheck gig. We’ve all done it. Taken that job we knew we shouldn’t because dammit, we needed the money. So what makes actors any less respectable for doing so? Well, maybe the fact that one of their paychecks could probably fund your family for a year. Maybe it’s because we’d rather remember Raul Julia for “Kiss of the Spider-Woman” than “Street Fighter: The Movie“. But you know what? We’re not talking about those consistently working character actors who are as ubiquitous as a corner Starbucks. Neither are we talking about the C-listers or the has-beens. I mean, c’mon… I’m pretty sure Lou Diamond Phillips would show up to your kid’s puppet show for a sixer and cab fare, but I’m not gonna knock the guy for it.
No, no…today we’re talking about those actors who should not only know better, but can damn well do without the paycheck for whatever shit-of-the-week, destined for SpikeTV drek they’ve hauled their ass on set for. We’re talking about actors who not only have films in AFI’s top 100, but also have films so dumb that they probably can’t spell “AFI.”
So let’s get to it, eh? For handy read-along fun, I’ve included a link to each of the actor’s individual filmographies in case you want to play my new drinking game called “A Series of Unfortunate Choices.” Warning: You have to down a double for every film in which one listee appears with another. Strap in, kids…brevity ain’t my strong suit.
10. Peter O’Toole
Oh, Peter! You had yourself a damn fine run, you did. “Lawrence of Arabia” stands as one of the finest epics ever put to film, and pretty much everything you did from that point in 1962 to about 1976 is pretty damn solid. But in the same year we saw the amazing military epic “Zulu Dawn,” we also got our look at “Caligula,” the film in which nearly every single participant wishes they could erase it from their resume. Maybe it was too much exposure to Sir John Gielguld’s junk, but after that O’Toole’s choices get ever more “just gimmie the paycheck”. “Supergirl” may well be one of the absolute worst comic-book films ever made while “Creator” and “Club Paradise” nearly epitomize 80s dreck. In fact, it’s pretty much a two-decade string of paycheck roles from the man until 2003′s “Bright Young Things,” after which we get an odd grab-bag of big Hollywood epics (“Troy“) and heartstoppingly awful crap (“Thomas Kinkade’s Home for Christmas“). Want proof? Do a Google image search for O’Toole. For pages and pages, it looks like the man went from late 20s to 80-something with nothing in between. That’s right, folks. Even Google doesn’t want to think about “High Spirits“.
Oh, where to begin? By the time Dennis Hopper had made his sixth film, he’d worked with James Dean (“Rebel Without a Cause“, “Giant“), Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson (“Giant“), Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas (“Gunfight at the O.K. Corral“), and Marlon Brando (“Sayonara“). After that? Well, things get a little dicey for oh…let’s say 10 frickin’ years, with a solid string of paycheck gigs until we get “Cool Hand Luke” in 1967. Granted, Hopper was fiercely independent minded (and not particularly pleasant to work with by most accounts), but whereas a lot of our esteemed list-makers have kind of a 1-good-for-every-3-bad ratio, Hopper is closer to 1-in-10. Oy vey. On the back of “Cool Hand Luke” we get the iconic “Easy Rider” (with “True Grit” released the very same year), but then Hopper just about nails his own career coffin shut with “The Last Movie” (yeah, that deserves it’s own link), a self-directed trainwreck that was so toxic that not even his turn in “Apocalypse Now” eight years later was enough to pull him out of the dive. (Well, to be fair..it’s not like “Rumble Fish” helped anyone’s career…) Nope, it’s another 7 years before an amazing trifecta of “River’s Edge“, “Blue Velvet“, and “Hoosiers” hits us in 1986 (along with *sigh* “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2“).
After that, there’s no doubt Hopper ain’t gonna turn down a single thing. Loved “Chattahoochee“? Of course you did, as it was amazing. How about “Flashback“? (I think I just threw up in my mind a little.) Are “Paris Trout” or “The Indian Runner” good enough to wash the taste of “Super Mario Bros.” from your mouth? Which, by the way, just so happened to come out the same year as a great turn in “Red Rock West” and an absolutely genius exchange with fellow-listee Christopher Walken in “True Romance“? These are the dilemmas we ponder together. What’s awful is that the guy is still such a cinematic mainstay for me. He’s like that Hollywood uncle that shows up and sometimes is the life of the party, and sometimes vomits on your open hand by starring in “The Crow: Wicked Prayer.” The sad bit is that I would dearly love to ascribe Hopper’s appearance in the truly excoriable “An American Carol” as a paycheck gig, but sadly he was was a notoriously Republican-leaning fellow in his later years.
Ooooh, I can already hear the “What? How dare you!”s making their way from the bellies of enraged cinephiles! But bear with me, and you’ll see I’m ever so right (which as Eric can attest, is usually how it goes). How’s this for oddly symmetrical? Whereas Peter O’Toole begins a slow slide into punching-the-clock-ville after “Zulu Dawn“, Michael Caine’s notable career begins in earnest with that film’s (equally acclaimed) predecessor, “Zulu“. By then, Caine had already been a working film actor for 10 years, and I strongly suspect it was that slow road to bankability that has much to do with Caine’s seemingly inability to turn down a paying gig. Nevertheless, for every “Alfie” or “The Italian Job” (yes, I mean the original) we get an ever more crappy Harry Palmer film like “Billion Dollar Brain.” Caine’s greatest trick has been making you remember “Get Carter“, “Sleuth“, and “The Man Who Would Be King” and not say “The Magus” (holy crap, but is it awful…). And “A Bridge Too Far“? As much as I enjoy it, it may be the biggest paycheck film of all time! 1,000 stars! Each on screen for almost 2 minutes!
Maybe we could excuse “Blame it on Rio” as a nice way to pick up a lovely paid vacation in Brazil, but no vacation is worth “Jaws: The Revenge.” (This time it’s personal!) You know, we’re talking about a guy who has performed with both the Muppets and Steven Seagal. He could damn well be the king of this list, truth be told. So what saves him from a higher rank? Well, the fact that in his later years Caine has become increasingly choosy with his roles. Hell, from 1998′s “Little Voice” on, we get almost an unbroken string of pretty damn good movies. Good on him, I say. For that we give him some slack, even if he did pull turns in both the awful, awful remake of “Get Carter” and “Austin Powers in Goldmember.”
Yup, it’s Sir Ben Kingsley! Royal National Theatre member! Oscar winning actor of “Ghandi“! Remember “Schindler’s List“? “Sexy Beast“? “House of Sand & Fog“? How about “The Love Guru“? Huh? Who wouldn’t want that on their resume, eh? We’re talking about a guy who (after about 2004) will apparently take just about any role that comes his way as long as you make sure to put the “Sir” in front of his name.
Seriously, now… If you decide that playing the baddie in “Thunderbirds” is a good idea, I don’t have to call you ‘sir’. If you then go on to decide to be ANYTHING Uwe Boll directs (like say “BloodRayne“), I’m pretty sure we’re allowed to punch you in the face, knighthood or no.
Okay, okay…so maybe Kingsley’s descent into paycheck grabbing is pretty recent, but it’s hard not to include on this list a guy who is consistently one of the most critically acclaimed actors of his age yet will turn around and star in utter shit like “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” It’s not the quantity that made this list…it’s the anti-quality. Just a reminder: Willingly worked with UWE BOLL and Michael Madsen’s wig. I know porn stars who’d turn that gig down.
Hmm…lot of British folk on this here list, huh? Hopkins is another actor whose fame came pretty late into his film career, even though Laurence Olivier himself invited him into the Royal National Theatre (where Hopkins became his understudy), and he had sizable roles in no small number of really amazing movies. Onscreen since 1967, it’s not until 1991′s “The Silence of the Lambs” that Hopkins becomes an almost omnipresent star in our cinematic constellation. But let’s put that in perspective, shall we? What’s the very next film we see Hopkins in? Motherfucking “Freejack“! Really? That’s like meeting a ridiculously hot chick at a bar, only to see her do the walk of shame from underneath hobo bridge the next morning. But no, no…he played it safe for a while with sure-fire critical hits from the Merchant Ivory factory (where they lovingly hand-craft film after film about intensely repressed upper-class Britons!) before inching his way to paycheck-dom with “Instict” and of course, that paycheck-of-paychecks, the utterly un-redeemable “Hannibal.” (Sorry Eric. It’s a terrible movie, and you’re a terrible person for liking it.)
Remember Hopkins’ performance in the adaptation of Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain“? Of course you don’t, but you damn well know he went back to the Lecter well for a third turn with “Red Dragon.” Now Hopkins is sliding towards self-parody with his participation in “The Wolfman“ (Dear Universal, would you please just fucking stop already?), and the upcoming “The Rite“, yet another entry in the bafflingly popular “exorcism” genre. Here’s hoping a little Shakespeare will rub off the man when he gets his Viking on in “Thor,” but I’m gonna admit: I’d rather Brian Blessed be handling the Odin role. At least Blessed could *use* the paycheck.
This one kinda hurts you, doesn’t it? To know that man of “Raging Bull“, “The Godfather: Part II“, “Mean Streets“, “Taxi Driver“, etc. is also the star of “Hide and Seek“ and “We’re No Angels“? De Niro has one of the best unbroken run of amazing films on record, but sometime around the late 80s, the siren song of sweet, sweet cash seemed to worm it’s way inside the ear of one of cinema’s greats. Was it “Angel Heart” that broke his spirit? We’ll never know, but what we do know is that after that point the amazing-to-great ratio (“Goodfellas“! “Heat“!) shifted into “okay-to-what-the-hell-was-he-thinking” (“Backdraft“? “Mistress?” What the hell?). Oddly enough, De Niro being De Niro kept us from thinking he was going for the paycheck (somehow the idea that he was just taking bad roles seemed more comforting) so much so that even his American Express commercial still got some critical raves. Roll that around your skull for a minute. An AmEx commercial. Hey, Bobby… Jack Klugman’s on the phone and he sounds a little pissed.
But let’s not skitter around the movie we’re all thinking about, right? Oh, you weren’t thinking about “Analyze This“? Of course you weren’t, because human beings instinctively try to shy away from traumatic memories as a protective measure. “Meet the Parents” is the film that most film fans like to point to as the official beginning of the end, but in truth there was no doubt Bobby was getting his paycheck on after “Analyze This“, which frankly should be considered the partial-birth abortion of mob comedy. (Which, by the by, is a thinly veiled rip-off of a straight-to-video film called “The Don’s Analyst“) Oh, and he came back for the sequel that maybe 3 people not involved with the production thought contained any semblance of “comedy.” After that point, all bets are off. Did you see “What Just Happened” or “Everybody’s Fine“? Well, don’t feel bad because neither did anyone else.
We’re now three films deep into Focker territory, and I’m pretty sure that when they finalize the script about the boating vacation the extended family takes in Aruba, we’ll all be talking about “Ship Fockers” as the feel-good hit of 2014.
Whew… This was tough, but there was no way this man wasn’t making the list. Again we’ve got an actor who had been working in the business for 21 years before his first lead role (1993′s optimistically titled “Loaded Weapon 1“), even though he’d turned in strong performances in a number of great works. (We’ve got Spike Lee to thank for a number of those) Samuel L. Jackson was 46 years old when “Pulp Fiction” transformed him into one of Hollywood’s most sought-after actors, and while he made an effort to keep a respectable run, once we get to “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” all bets are off. Need someone to legitimize your film about genetically enhanced sharks (“Deep Blue Sea“)? No problem! Hey, who *doesn’t* want to be in a film with Vin Diesel? (“xXx“) How about Ice Cube? (“xXx: State of the Union“) Obligatory TV remake? (“S.W.A.T.“) Check!
And then there’s a little movie called “Snakes on a Plane” in which Tinsletown’s most eloquent bad-ass brought us the immortal line: “I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” If there were any doubt about Jackson’s reticence at taking any gig that happens to tickle his fancy, they vanished along with our collective interest in that Internet fad-film with big dreams and no brains.
Jackson’s another actor who has reached a point where his level of adoration from the public (both offline and on) seemingly deflects any criticism you could throw his way, no matter how unfortunate a choice he makes (Yeah, I’m looking at you “The Spirit“). Thankfully, Jackson is still sneaking in both fan-favorite roles as well as turning in damn fine narration.
Then again, I don’t know anyone man enough to give Samuel L. Jackson that much shit for working for the money. The man kicked heroin and cocaine. I’m pretty sure my ass wouldn’t be much of a challenge.
Let’s not bandy things about. Walken’s another one with a nice long run of solid, respectable work (1966 to 1994 to be precise) who, at one special point in time, just decided “Fuck it. As long as the check doesn’t hit the ceiling when I drop it, I’m in”. Much like De Niro, we can affix this professional disregard to a specific point in time. In this case it’s 1995, aka the year of “The Prophecy“, an apocalyptic thriller about avenging angels and Viggo Mortensen playing one creepy ass Satan, after which Walken officially glued his internal acting dial to “out-of-my-fucking-mind.” Seriously, folks. While the rest of this list may manage to have a few consistent hits (or at least money makers) in their subsequent work, Walken seems to have decided that picking up one of his films is like reliving the Russian roulette scene from “The Deer Hunter.” A seemingly endless string of mob-related films in which he acts quirky and menacing? Check. Not one, but two “Prophecy” sequels? Check.
I know, I know. He’s an Internet darling who gets a lot of slack because he’s funny on SNL and is seemingly game for anything, but we’re not talking about “Annie Hall” Walken. We’re talking about “Joe Dirt“, “Kangaroo Jack“, and “The Country Bears” Walken. We’re talking about “Balls of Fury” Walken. Yes, he and Hopper are easily the best thing about “True Romance“, and he steals his tiny little scene in “Pulp Fiction,” but goddammit every single one of you who willing paid cash money for “Suicide Kings” or “The Opportunists” should consider yourselves no better than the douchebag who keeps buying shots for the blitzed chick at her pal’s bachelorette party because you think this will be the one where she flashes her tits at you.
And dammit…the worst part is he’s still charming as hell. He’s impossible to take your eyes off of when he’s onscreen, and when he decides to play it straight you remember for a minute that he’s one hell of an incredible actor. So why did he decide to be in “Click“?
Great, now I’ve made myself sad. Let’s move on.
Oh, John! How will you be remembered in the cold heart of Hollywood’s memory? Will it be the uncertain 20-something angst of Tony Manero? Lovesick greaser Danny Zuko? Luckless thug Vinnie Vega? At the rate you’re going, pal, you’ll be lucky if it’s Sean Archer/Castor Troy from “Face/Off.” Now I have to admit: I went back and forth on Travolta’s inclusion on this storied list because frankly, I’ve got a lot of love for a number of this man’s films. But at the end of the day, the fact is that Travolta had one of the best comebacks in Hollywood history (1994′s “Pulp Fiction” after 14 years of cinematic wilderness), only to trade every ounce of that goodwill for a litany of increasingly awful, awful movies that you wouldn’t buy for your in-laws. “But ‘Get Shorty‘ was a blast!”, you say. Yeah, and “Be Cool” may be one of the worst films of the 00s. Hell, I’d watch “Battlefield Earth“ over the eye-rape that was “Swordfish.” Travolta also loses points for giving “Ain’t It Cool News” its name (from the ‘are we sure this isn’t a Van Damme film classic “Broken Arrow“), which in my book is like finding out your dad is the guy who had the idea for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer forming a band.
1. Nicolas Cage
Don’t act so shocked … Was there ever even a question? Nicolas Cage utterly epitomizes this list (and in fact was, along with Hopkins, the reason for it) with a filmography that reads like the cinematic version of those “long-term effects of meth” photo series. Hell, he’s starred in a film with 90 percent of this list! Cage made his name as an oddly endearing actor turning in great performances in little movies (I don’t care what you say; If you didn’t like “Valley Girl” I will punch you in the face with a glove dipped in fire ants.) before turning into (and I am not kidding here, folks) one of the finest actors of his generation. The man infuses every single role he takes with an absolute seriousness and dedication that is all the more astounding for how increasingly insane his choices are. What’s maddening about Cage is that for every “Gone in Sixty Seconds” or “Bangkok Dangerous,” we get a handful of films that remind us why he’s so damned good. “Bringing Out the Dead.” “Adaptation.” “Matchstick Men.” “Lord of War.” “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.”
Truth be told, it’s always been a rocky road for my favorite Coppola. Pretty much everything on his resume from 1982 to 1987 is fantastic. Even “Vampire’s Kiss” has this wonderful weird charm to it. And then the man turned in the utterly-forgettable “Fire Birds“, the Skinamax classic “Zandalee“, and “Wild at Heart” (my favorite Lynch film, by the by) in the SAME DAMN YEAR (1990). But where, oh where, did the train fully jump the rails? Oh, I think we all know the answer to that. Fresh off a well-deserved Oscar win for 1995′s “Leaving Las Vegas“, we get “The Rock” which, okay, okay…is actually a hell of a lot of fun. But “Con Air“!? That film’s title should have been “KA-CHING”, considering who cashed it in on that bloated corpse of an action film. I’ve had night terrors about Guatemalan Gummi bears running a kosher deli in Gary, Indiana that made more sense than that film. After “Con Air,” things just get schizo. Maybe never getting a shot at Superman just broke the man, or maybe Lisa Marie Presley selling off his comic book collection made him decide to take ANY role that could even come close to comic-book cinema. I seriously think that the man would show up on set for a fan film if they offered him $400 and a doughnut.
And hoo-boy… Seeing that Cage’s personal finances have been in free fall for the last few years, we can only assume that we’ve got a lot more batshit paychecks in the pipe, and judging from the upcoming “Drive Angry” I think it’s going to be a long, long time before we get the good Cage back. Here’s hoping he gets to take the Caine route, and work his way back to consistent respectability, eh? We can only hope…
So there we have it: a veritable walk down the aisle of the world’s most screwed-up video store starring people who should damn well know better. This was an oddly tough list to put together, as there is certainly no shortage of bad choices in Hollywood, but it takes a special talent to swing from glorious to gruesomely bad. I’m curious who you think escaped my gaze here, and even more curious to see if anyone can offer up a female actor with the same kind of awesome-to-batshit ratio as some of our more esteemed inductees.
Have at it!
By the way if you’ve been playing along with the drinking game, congratulations! You’re now in an alcoholic coma! Huzzah!