The 25 Greatest Directorial Debuts by Actors-Turned-Directors

greatest directorial debuts

Art is not an exact science. Artists are not people that can be tied down to a single spot and execute a job according to some fix parameters. Artists need to explore, push their boundaries and go places they’ve never gone before. In cinema the ultimate goal seems to be directing. A lot of screenwriters, editors or even producers aspire to direct and some do it pretty well.

Actors are another category that, more and more, make the move towards directing. Some of them turn out to be brilliant directors and some of them don’t do so well so they return to acting. But most of them try the experience at least once and some pretty interesting films result from their efforts. Here is a list of 25 great directorial debuts of actors-turned-directors. The list is chronologically ordered.


1. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)


Charles Laughton was a respected Shakespearean actor before directing this highly influential film set on the back roads of America. Unfortunately this was the only film he directed; many fans of this film would have liked to see Laughton direct some more.

“The Night of the Hunter” is a gripping tale of a serial killer who flees his latest murder scene and arrives in a small American town where he begins his career as a preacher. The religiously fanatic man has the letters “L-O-V-E” and “H-A-T-E” tattooed on his hands. These two words are used as symbols in his impromptu sermon sessions.

“The Night of the Hunter” was one of the most controversial films of its time and is now regarded as a cult classic to the audience and as a major source of inspiration to young filmmakers; and it was directed by an actor.


2. One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando, 1961)

One-Eyed Jacks

We all now Marlon Brando can act. But can he direct? The answer is yes. “One-Eyed Jacks” could have close to perfect if it wasn’t for that over the top ending with loud music, bright colors and exaggerated acting. The movie begins beautifully with Marlon Brando’s character (his also the star of the picture) taking his time in eating a banana. The character pulls back to reveal that the character is in the middle of a bank heist.

From there on we learn about the crime duo of Rio (Marlon Brando) and Dad (Karl Malden) who get cornered by the lawmen and decide that the only way they can make it is if one of them goes after some fresh horses. Dad is given money to go after the horses but instead of buying the animals and returning to the spot he flees. Rio is captured and sentenced to hard years in prison.

From this point on it becomes a classic tale of revenge with one or two twists given to the western genre. Rio escaped from prison and sets out to find his ex-partner. He learns that Dad is in California where he has become the sheriff of a small coastal town. Instead of provoking his ex-partner Rio plans his revenge slowly and carefully by leading Dad to believe that his is willing to let bigons be bigons.

In reality Rio is plotting his terrible revenge by seducing Dad’s daughter and destroying not only him but his family as well. This is not your usual western but it’s still a classic of the genre; all courtesy of Marlon Brando.


3. Rachel, Rachel (Paul Newman, 1968)

Rachel, Rachel

Every director needs a muse. Paul Newman knew that when he directed his first film: “Rachel, Rachel” an adaptation of the novel “A Jest of God” by Margaret Laurence. So he chose the best: his wife Joanne Woodward, a talented actress in her own rights. The story is a very complex one that would pose some difficulties to even the most experienced directors. Still Paul Newman pulled it off superbly with the help of extraordinary actress Joanne Woodward.

The film tells the story of Rachel Cameron (Joanne Woodward) a 35 year old lonely woman who is also a virgin. Rachel lives in a small town in Connecticut where she also a grade school teacher. Despite being lonely Rachel doesn’t live alone but with her overbearing demanding widowed mother.

Because of the difficulties of living with her mother Rachel uses this as an excuse not to do certain things like going out or dating. She regrets this defense mechanism that she developed but nonetheless thinks it’s for the best.

But when her old high school classmate Nick comes into the town for the summer vacation and asks her out on a date Rachel finds herself conflicted in her feelings. She feels that the time is right to let herself go just a little but it remains to be seen in what way her loosening up will actually help her.


4. Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)


Who amongst movie fans hasn’t heard of “Easy Rider”; it is the quintessential movie of the Cultural Revolution that took place in the late 60’s, early in 70’s in America. Maybe it’s no coincidence that this seminal movie came out in 1969: the infamous Woodstock year.

The landmark counterculture film started the American cinema revolution paving the way for filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman. The premise of “Easy Rider” is very simple: two hippie bikers (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) travel through the roads of their country in search of freedom. On their way they meet all sorts of quirky characters who make up what America was during the sexual revolution. Among these characters they befriend a drunken lawyer (Jack Nicholson) who decides to join them on their “quest”.

In order to give the movie authenticity real drugs were used in the marijuana smoking scene. Another authenticity touch is the use of popular music instead of a specially designed musical score. As banal as it might seem today back then it was a highly innovative technique as it was never done before.

The movie reflects the attitudes of the two writers of the film – Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda – who were symbols of the counterculture living their lives induced in alcohol and drugs. Although no one gave these two stoners a chance “Easy Riders” was completed, screened and it blew everyone away only getting bigger and bigger as times passes by. And it was directed by an actor: Dennis Hopper.


5. Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood, 1971)


The younger generation thinks of Clint Eastwood as this high-brow older than dirt director that makes Oscar movies. It is incomprehensible to imagine that Clint Eastwood was once young and that for many years he was an actor. Before he was the director of “Gran Torino” and “Mystic River” he was The Man with No Name from the spaghetti western series and tough cop Dirty Harry.

Naturally when he started directing he took his influences from his two dearest directors: Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. His first successes as a director were, of course, westerns but the first film he directed was a typical 70’s thriller entitled “Play Misty for Me”.

The film is about disc jockey Dave Garver (Clint Eastwood) who has a brief fling with one of his listeners. Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter) is Dave’s biggest fan and calls repeatedly during his show requesting just one song: the jazz classic “Misty”. After spending one night together the woman begins to stalk Dave showing all the signs of borderline personality disorder. The movie turns into a gripping thriller that will surely capture anyone’s attention.

Eastwood’s thriller is seen as a precursor to staple films of the genre like “Fatal Attraction” of “The Fan” and was definitely a clear indicative of the directing career that lay ahead for the, then 41, actor.


6. Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980)

Ordinary People

Nobody saw Robert Redford’s directorial debut coming. This sleeper hit took everyone by surprise when it won the Oscar for best director over favorite Martin Scorsese and his film “Raging Bull”. Of course everyone knew that Robert Redford is a gifted actor but no one expected him to be just as good as a director.

“Ordinary People” is exactly about what is referenced in the title: your average day to day people and their average day to day problems. It marks the acting debuts of Timothy Hutton (who won an Oscar for best supporting role) and Elizabeth McGovern.

The story concerns the strains within an ordinary American family after the accidental death of the oldest son. Instead of dealing with the problem the Jarrett family tend to ignore it hoping that it would go away and develop a system of talking their way around the important issues that need to be addressed. This does not seem to be the case with Conrad, who idolized his older brother and does not want to let go of his memory.

At the beginning of the movie Conrad has a failed suicide attempt and feels alienated from everyone around him (friends and family). The movie is slow paced and does not feature any fireworks or major climaxes. Instead it shows us the realities around us and the people who try to deal with them as best as they can.


7. Henry V (Kenneth Branagh, 1989)

Henry V (1989)

Right after Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh is the most well-known Shakespearean actor; so it is no surprise that his directorial debut was based on one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. The film was one of the most spectacular directorial debuts of all time, receiving wide critical acclaim and being called one of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever.

The huge challenge with Shakespeare adaptations is that there are many of them out there and it’s very hard to come up with something new and fresh that will capture the audience’s attention and imagination.

“Henry V” does not have a fantasist approach but has something that few adaptations have: it is very faithful to the original material thus capturing the essence of Shakespearean drama. The all familiar tale of King Henry V of England as told by Kenneth Branagh remains an extraordinary film that shouldn’t be missed.


8. Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990)


As films were getting more and more sophisticated with elaborated plots and complex issues, nobody gave the epic genre a chance in the world when it came to awards, incomes and mass-appeal; that is until “Dances with Wolves”. Kevin Costner’s ambitious directorial debut stole the hearts of critics and audiences alike – so much so that poor Martin Scorsese lost the Oscar again in favor of an actor turned director for the first time.

The three hour epic poetically tells the story of John Dunbar (Kevin Dunbar), a Union Army lieutenant whose suicide attempt – he rides his horse in front of the confederate line hoping to get shot but instead stirs up the courage in his comrades’ hearts and wins the battle – turns him into a war hero. For his bravery he is rewarded with a horse and with the luxury of choosing his own post. He requests a transfer on the very edge of the western frontier citing that we would like to see it before it is gone.

Once arrived at his new post he realizes that he is on his own that it is most likely that he will be forgotten there. Although aware of the nearby Indian tribes he elects to stay and bond with nature and its harmony. As time passes he becomes friend with a lonely gray wolf and then with the Indian tribes from the area. He gets more and more absorbed in the Native American culture and beings to see the injustice in their conflict with the white man.

Slowly Dunbar’s perceptions are overturned and he switches sides. He is accepted by the tribe and given the nickname Dances with Wolves (a reference to his friendship with the wolf). The film is highly moralistic but has all the rights to do so, given the bloody history of the Native Americans struggle to survive. As a respect for the Indian culture all the dialogue within the tribe’s members is spoken in the Lakota dialect. The film is beautiful and deserves all the accolades in the world.