5 Iconic Actors Who Have Done Their Best Work Behind the Camera

With the upcoming releases of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (already in theaters) and The Affleck’s Gone, Baby, Gone (10/19) we go to thinking around the offices who are some of those iconic actors that have done their best work behind the camera. We came up with five, which probably speaks volumes about our ability to come up with things as opposed to the number of actors/actresses with a large body of work as directors. Hard to believe, but we excluded Sean Penn, (great as some of his movies may be) since he’s done his best work in front of the camera.

Ron Howard


Opie is about as iconic as you can get, but Little Ronnie Howard?say it with me?wanted to direct. Apparently way back in the Andy Griffith days, he was already pumping the crew for information on how to make his own movies.

He started at the tender age of twenty-two with Grand Theft Auto, not exactly Citizen Kane, but something of a crowd pleaser. However, he followed that with an impressive string of hits. Night Shift (1982), Splash (1984), Cocoon (1985), Gung Ho (1986), Willow (1988), Parenthood (1989) Backdraft (1991), Far and Away (1992), The Paper (1994), Apollo 13 (1995), Ransom (1996), Edtv (1999), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), A Beautiful Mind (2001), The Missing (2003), Cinderella Man (2005) andThe Da Vinci Code (2006).

Not a real stinker in the bunch, although, personally, I hated The Da Vinci Code for the inanity of the screenplay, and Ransom for the ending. (Keep an eye out for my Top Ten List of Terrible Endings for What Otherwise Might Have Been a Great Movies.)

I think Parenthood is an unrecognized gem, a modern classic if you will; a fine line in the mix of comedy and pathos which only Steve Martin could have brought off so well. Splash arguably made Tom Hanks a true star, and didn’t hurt Darryl Hannah’s career any. Willow, a modern fantasy classic.

Hanks and Howard combined again for one of the best films of the ’90s, in Apollo 13. (Despite the verisimilitude, none of the launch scenes used stock footage.) And an entire generation was introduced to something they had never seen before: the slide rule.

It’s arguable that Ron Howard isn’t an actor any more and sure we wouldn’t put up a fight. Afterall, his brother Clint Howard is probably the more accomplished actor. But go screw, this is our list.

Clint Eastwood


Look at that mug? Does it get more iconic than that? Toss in some of those quotes from Dirty Harry and Clint Eastwood has two (at least) iconic roles: the Man With No Name and Dirty Harry Callahan; nevertheless, in 50 years I suspect film buffs will be talking about Clint more as a director than actor. Many of the movies he only acted in were films that lacked, um, subtlety. As a director, Eastwood seemingly embraced the eccentric, even the paradoxical.

He starts with a movie that scared the Be-jeesus out of me when I was a kid Play Misty for Me (1971). Think Fatal Attraction, only sixteen years before; Eastwood’s character isn’t married, he just has a girlfriend, one scary scary girlfriend. Breezy (1973) kind of sucked, High Plains Drifter (1973) we know about and needs little elucidating on my part. The Eiger Sanction (1975) was Clint’s first, and best, adaptation of a best-selling book. Other, almost-as-good adaptations are The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Firefox (1982), Honkytonk Man (1982), White Hunter Black Heart (1990), The Bridges of Madison County (1995) a decent movie from a horrible novel, Absolute Power (1997), a decent movie from a great book, True Crime (1999), Blood Work (2002) and Mystic River (2003). Wales, Honkytonk Man, and White Hunter Black Heart all feature eccentrics.

Although he never abandoned the casual violence of the movies that made him a star–The Gauntlet (1977), Heartbreak Ridge (1986), Pale Rider (1985), Sudden Impact (1983), The Rookie (1990) were all tough guy, crowd appeal movies, as was Space Cowboys (2000) without the violence.

But it was when Eastwood decided to examine some of the moral ambiguity of violence, that he reached new heights. In the seventies, critics used to love using the word ?antihero? to describe the leads in movies like Taxi Driver and The Godfather.

With Unforgiven (1992), Eastwood created the ultimate antiwestern. For most of American cinematic history, the gunfighter was depicted as either fast or dead, but almost never did the victor confront any of the possible emotional or psychological consequences of killing a man.

Two other fine films dealing with the unexpected events which can follow violence are Million Dollar Baby (2004) and the criminally neglected A Perfect World (1993). A lot of people hated the ending to Baby, perhaps because they were so caught up in the character of Maggie, as played by the very appealing Hilary Swank. They need to remember that the real subject of the movie was an examination of the lifetime effect that the world of boxing had had on Frankie, Clint’s character.

There had already been quite a few films willing to confront uncomfortable questions about war, best of the recent ones being Glory, and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and though not a movie certainly Band of Brothers. But Eastwood hit an exacta with Flags of Our Fathers (2006), and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) which Clint has said are meant to be companion films, so check out the DVDs.

Robert Redford


Iconic roles with Paul Newman in The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and you know if I have to tell you more about his iconic status go ask your mom or grandma about what kind of an icon the other “Big Rob” is.

As a director he has not been as prolific as Ron Howard or Clint Eastwood; but, like them, he has created a remarkably consistent portfolio of quality films. The one-time Roy Hobbs of The Natural, hit the first pitch into the upper deck for a grand slam with Ordinary People (1980). Other films include The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), The Horse Whisperer (1998), Quiz Show (1994), A River Runs Through It (1992), and The Milagro Beanfield War (1988).

Bagger and Milagro were commercial flops, but were not awful films. The book, “A River Runs Through It,” had been considered unfilmable, yet Redford’s success in directing it almost led him to try taking on the equally unfilmable “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” (He never reached an agreement with Robert Pirsig before he died, which may be just as well. The accepted wisdom may, in fact, be right regarding Zen being impossible to adapt.)

And though this is strictly about the merits of an actor/actress as director, we’d be remiss without mentioning that the gentleman started Sundance. Nuff’said.

Mel Gibson


Iconic roles include William Wallace, Mad Max, Martin Riggs, getting really drunk and hitting on young women and then making anti-semitic slurs. Despite that, he’s developed quite an oeuvre behind the camera.

His debut, The Man Without a Face (1993), was, shall we say, undistinguished. But the other three, Apocalypto (2006), The Passion of the Christ (2004), Braveheart (1995) are each pretty remarkable films. Braveheart had some of the best sword fight scenes ever, and, of course, the wonderful overarching story of fighting for freedom against oppression. It single handedly, despite tanking at the box-office but succeeding during the Oscars, reinvigorated the historical epic genre.

While I’m not a fan of the fundamentalist aspects of the religious message behind Passion, even an atheist cannot deny the power of the direction. I dare anyone to watch the scene where Jesus is lashed over and over again and not look away or wince. It’s anguishing and on a visceral level, Gibson acheives the goal of making viewers experience Christ’s suffering and passion.

Apocalypto is one of the best films of this decade. I guarantee that you have never seen the kind of visuals that Gibson serves up here, and almost all of them did not use CGI. And the dialog is extraordinary, too, in that there is so little of it. He doesn’t need a lot of words to tell the story. In many ways it reminds me of another of my favorite films with limited dialog, Jeremiah Johnson.

The physical landscape becomes a character in the story, even to the point of driving the plot. The essential story is one of basic survival, so too many words would merely get in the way of the story. If you boycotted this film because of Mel’s well-publicized anti-Semitic tirade, you have deprived yourself of a truly unique movie watching experience.

Rob Reiner


Meathead isn’t the most iconic actors around, but that role from All in the Family was in many ways an iconic role. For those who’ll make the claim that Reiner is a director first, well, his performance in Spinal Tap pretty darn awesome and he’s acted in far more movies and shows then he has produced or directed. In many ways he falls into the same vein as Sydney Pollack (an actor who’s directed some incredible films) but Reiner gets the close nod. There’s no doubting, however, that his best work has always been behind the camera.

Let me hit you with this: From 1984 – 1996 Rob Reiner had a fantastic decade-plus directing these legendary films, This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, A Few Good Men, Ghost of Mississippi and The American President. That’s an impressive run for any filmmaker, but especially for a guy nicknamed Meathead.

Since then he’s done a whole lot of crappy rom-coms, but we won’t hold that against him. Just look at the movies he made.

Honorable Mention

Kevin Costner and Ben Affleck

Almost didn’t include Costner because I don’t think of him as an iconic actor. One might be tempted to confess his best acting role was playing the dead guy in The Big Chill. (We’ll spot him Field of Dreams and Bull Durham.) But Field of Dreams is a truly great film, and not just because it won a Best Picture Oscar. I talked about how Glory dealt with some of the issues of war, and about Unforgiven as an antiwestern. Dancing with Wolves kind of bridges the gap between those two films. Costner’s John Dunbar is an officer in the Civil War, but we quickly leave the whole North-South conflict behind and become immersed in the European-Native American culture collision. A beautiful, lyrical, thoughtful film. Costner did pretty well with Open Range; he probably would rather not talk about The Postman or Waterworld.

Ben Affleck is probably iconic only in being a finalist in the “Biggest Hyped Actor We Thought Actually Had Talent But We Might Have Been Wrong Award.” He has directed a movie which has not quite been released in the U.S., but based on early buzz looks quite good. Gone Baby Gone, is based on a great novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote “Mystic River.” So I feel pretty safe in thinking that the movie will at least be good, and if it ends up being very good, then it will, de facto, be Ben’s best work.

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