The 20 Greatest Movie Performances By A Non-Traditional Actor

7. John Matuszak – The Goonies (1985)

John Matuszak The Goonies

The Role – HEY YOU GUYS!!! If you grew up in the 1980s, few movies were more iconic than Richard Donner’s The Goonies. And midway through the coming of age story of friends searching for buried pirate treasure, you were introduced to a hulking specimen of a man with one twitching eye chained to a chair in a small room.

This was the how we met Sloth. The hideously ugly but lovable Fratelli brother immediately warmed our hearts by sharing a Baby Ruth with Chunk and then helping him along the way to One-Eyed Willie’s ship. In a movie with so much heart and so many great one liners, everyone knew, that SLOTH LOVE CHUNK!

Why “non-traditional” – John Matuszak was a fun loving football player in the NFL who won two Super Bowl titles with the Oakland Raiders in the 1970s. He turned to acting and was instantly typecast as “football player/jock” roles. Arguably his only famous role was as the lovable monster in The Goonies. A few years after Goonies, he died of heart failure, brought on by drugs in his system.



6. Jaye Davidson – The Crying Game (1993)

the crying game

The Role – 1993’s biggest surprise hit to both audiences and critics alike was Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game. The main attraction was the huge bombshell that shocked audiences across the globe. When IRA member Fergus (Stephen Rea) seeks out his former captives lounge singer girlfriend Dil he becomes entranced by her and things eventually become romantic when…well let’s just say there’s more to Dil than meets the eye.

Why “non –traditional” – Davidson was an unknown fashion designer when he was “discovered” and asked about the role. The role surprised everyone and he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He was obviously not comfortable in the spotlight as he “retired” from acting after just one more film role, portraying the sun god Ra in 1994’s Stargate.

931102_Todd Oldham spring line fashion show with Christian Slater and Jaye Davidson, Bryant Park,


5. Lee Strasberg – Godfather Part 2 (1974)


The Role – Anytime you are referencing the Godfather trilogy you are expecting top acting. The first two films earned a ridiculous 9 acting nominations at the Oscars including 2 wins. In Godfather 2, Michael is now firmly in control of the family and looking to open up a new gambling empire. He seeks the help of Jewish mob boss Hyman Roth.

A murderous triangle of mobsters is set up between the Corleones, Roth, and Frank Pentangeli of New York. Someone tries to assassinate Michael and his wife Kay and Roth and Pentangeli are the chief suspects. Roth tries to appease Michael and earn his trust first in Miami and then in Cuba.

Why “non-traditional” – Strasberg was 73 when he played Hyman Roth and hadn’t acted since 1953! He helped run the Actor’s Studio and trained many of the greatest actors ever including Godfather legend Al Pacino. His teaching credentials are so impressive that Marilyn Monroe left nearly all her assets to him in her will.

Lee Strasberg


4. Dr. Haing S. Ngor – The Killing Fields (1984)

Dr. Haing S. Ngor The Killing Fields

The Role – During the reign of tyrannical dictator Pol Pot, Cambodia was a living hell. When a NY Times reporter goes to survey the nation; Dith Pran is the local Cambodian representative there to assist him. Pran and his family are running the risk of being anywhere near Cambodia while the Khmer Rouge is moving in.

Why “non-traditional” – One of the most incredible true stories in Oscar history, Dr. Haing S. Ngor lived through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Similar to China’s Cultural Revolution, all doctors, and intelligent thinkers were executed and tortured. Ngor had to deny having any medical knowledge and basically hide his identity while living in constant fear.

He was able to escape into Thailand and came to the US as a refuge in 1980. With no acting experience at all, Ngor’s performance won him the 1984 Best Supporting Actor Oscar. After everything he went through, he was senselessly murdered in a parking garage in 1996.


3. Harold Russell – The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)


The Role – In 1946’s Best Picture winner, Homer Parrish returns home from WWII horribly scarred brandishing two hooks instead of hands. The film details the lives of returning soldiers and their readjustment to an “ordinary” post war life and the roles of the women in their lives.

Why “non-traditional” – Russell was serving in the military when explosives blew off his hands. He is a real life amputee and was noticed for the film by director William Wyler who saw a military film Russell made for other disabled veterans. Russell, like previously mention Haing S. Ngor was a first time actor who won Best Supporting Actor.

Today one might think this role would be played by a famous actor making use of special effects to show the “hook hands”. It’s a testament to the time this film was made that an actual disabled war vet was cast. He spent his career inspiring other disabled veterans.

Harold Russell


2. Jennifer Hudson – Dreamgirls (2006)


The Role – Dreamgirls is about 3 girls who start as an opening act and blossom into a Supremes-style power group. As the talented lead singer Effie White, Hudson is eventually cast aside for prettier, skinnier Deena (Beyonce). Effie’s story could be a tragedy, but she overcomes the odds and her talent shines through to the end. Jennifer Holliday introduced Effie on Broadway, but Jennifer Hudson now OWNS this role.

Why “non-traditional” – American Idol was only in its third season when the world met Jennifer Hudson. And… she DIDN’T WIN! She actually finished third to eventual winner Fantasia. When the casting call came for Dreamgirls, Hudson beat out 782 other people (according to IMDB) including Fantasia.

Hudson’s performance literally resonated throughout theatres and audiences alike as she cruised to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in her first screen role. It was the first and only time in 30 years of movie going, where the ENTIRE theatre stood up and clapped MID-MOVIE after her rendition of the classic “And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going.”

Jennifer Hudson


1. R. Lee Ermey – Full Metal Jacket (1987)

R. Lee Ermey Full Metal Jacket

The Role – Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, the meanest, angriest, most vile and ultimately hilarious drill instructor in movie history. Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is a Vietnam film in two parts. The second is a violent, disturbing war film about the desensitized youth 8,000 miles away fighting for causes they don’t understand.

But the first half belongs to R. Lee Ermey. In Marine boot camp he tortures the young recruits led by Matthew Modine (Joker) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Pyle). He mocks them and humiliates them so badly that Pyle eventually snaps and kills him before committing suicide. This first half is part horrifying and part shamefully hilarious as we join in the belittling of Hartman’s recruits. Nearly every line he utters is quotable (MAGGOT) and he has basically been playing variations of that role ever since.

Why “non-traditional” – Ermey was a real life drill sergeant who served over a decade in the military. He was a military advisor to Francis Ford Coppola on Apocalypse Now and took a small role as a helicopter pilot. He continued to be a military advisor on war dramas landing small roles in the early 80s before Kubrick blasted him into the mainstream for good.

R. Lee Ermey

Author Bio: Dan Torkel grew up in Brooklyn, NY and has been watching movies since age 2 when his parents took him to see Sesame Street’s Follow that Bird. His first job was an usher at a UA theatre where he used his $5.15 an hour salary to stockpile a huge DVD collection and see all the free movies he could see. He currently teaches history at Abraham Lincoln (NOT Vampire Hunter) High School in Brooklyn, and is happily married with 2 kids.