Most movie actors are content to just act. Others direct, too. Some make a go of it and might even win acclaim on both sides of the lens, while others fold their director’s chair away after just one try. Here, you’ll find a list of actors who took a single shot:
Marlon Brando: One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
The star of this western tale of vengeance took over from Stanley Kubrick — a tall order — and did the job just like you’d expect a self-indulgent egotist to do it: He went through film stock like it was toilet paper, got behind schedule, and turned in a five-hour first cut. (Kubrick would have gotten away with it, but Brando was no Kubrick.) The film, taken away by the studio and recut, was successful nonetheless, and some credit must go to Brando (and to director of photography Charles Lang, who earned his 15th of 18 Oscar nominations for this film) for its visual flair.
James Cagney: Short Cut to Hell (1957)
Why Cagney, among the most accomplished actors of all time, chose this minor film noir piece as his first (and last) directing gig — and why he didn’t garner a big-name cast — we’ll never know. This remake of the noir classic This Gun for Hire — about a hitman on the run with, as a hostage, the girlfriend of the cop in charge of the case — is tough and tense (we can expect nothing less from a force of nature like Cagney), but somehow there should have been more to it.
Charles Laughton: Night of the Hunter (1955)
This is the achievement to which all other one-shot directing efforts are compared. Laughton, an unattractive but captivating actor best known for his imperious Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, already had extensive experience in directing for the stage when he made this unforgettable melodrama, a flop upon its release but since then celebrated for its thickly atmospheric gothic style. It’s ironic that the story — a demented preacher tries to get two young orphans to reveal the whereabouts of a wad of stolen money — centers around children, because Laughton disliked kids, and star Robert Mitchum directed the children’s scenes for him. The film’s initial failure (it wasn’t resurrected as a classic until after the director’s death) discouraged Laughton from directing any more films — our loss.
Karl Malden: Time Limit (1957)
Malden, unfortunately best known to most people for flogging American Express cards in TV commercials in the 1980s and 1990s, was a Broadway and Hollywood veteran who won an Oscar for his supporting role in A Streetcar Named Desire and was again nominated, but didn’t win, for On the Waterfront. His only directing effort — a drama about an army prosecutor (Richard Widmark) who smells something rotten when a soldier, accused of treason while he was a POW during the Korean War, readily confesses his guilt — is stagey and preachy at times but generally effective.
Anthony Quinn: The Buccaneer (1958)
Not surprising for a film directed by an actor knowing for nibbling on scenery now and then, this is a campy, gaudy melodrama about pirate Jean Lafitte’s decision to aid General Andrew Jackson in defending New Orleans against the British in the War of 1812. Never mind that the historical veracity is threadbare and the acting is hammy; it’s a hoot to watch. Producer/director Cecil B. DeMille, king of the screen epics, had planned to direct this remake of his 1938 version, but he became ill and turned the directing job over to Quinn, his son-in-law (who had a small role in the earlier version). DeMille still had a heavy hand in the production during and after shooting, though, so it’s difficult to know who to blame.
Bonus — Frank Sinatra: None But the Brave (1965)
Legendary director Frank Capra reportedly claimed that Sinatra could have been the greatest screen actor ever if he had put aside his music career. Sinatra didn’t take Capra’s advice (and he did all right by singing), but he gave a good account of himself, earning an Oscar for best supporting actor in the World War II melodrama From Here to Eternity and turning in impressive performances in films like The Man with the Golden Arm, in which he plays the title character, a heroin addict, and The Manchurian Candidate, about a Korean War veteran caught up in a political conspiracy. However, his only directing effort — a World War II drama about an uneasy truce between American and Japanese soldiers stranded on the same small island — is nothing special, but worth a look for curiosity’s sake.
P.S.: Several other actors tried directing just two or three times, including Kirk Douglas (Scalawag and Posse), Charlton Heston (Antony and Cleopatra, Mother Lode, and the TV movie A Man for All Seasons), and Burt Lancaster (The Kentuckian and the Midnight Man), and James Stewart directed a couple of television anthology dramas in the 1950s. John Wayne is credited with directing The Alamo and The Green Berets, and refused codirecting credit for three others (twice because he was helping out ailing elderly directors he admired).