They say that in Hollywood, as elsewhere, money talks. But at the same time, let’s acknowledge how silly it is to begrudge anyone the collecting of a big paycheck for taking an acting job—to act as if we wouldn’t do the same thing in their position is absurd. Monetary compensation is a powerful motivator, even to those who are already making a damn fine living.
But still, that doesn’t mean we can’t note the prominent actors who aren’t above slumming it in order to cash in. There are a handful of well-liked actors and actresses working in Hollywood who simply seem to have rather more …relaxed… standards than others when it comes to their next project. As long as the money is right, they’re true film mercenaries: actors you can hire for your independent feature to give it a paper-thin veneer of legitimacy. How many films have historically been bolstered by the likes of Roddy McDowall or Cameron Mitchell in this way?
In this list I’m not talking about genre movie stars and icons, actors such as Robert Englund or Kane Hodder who appear in scads of horror films because their name has some minimal drawing power to a niche community of genre geeks. The actors on the list below are in a higher echelon: They are performers who have won Oscars or starred in Academy Award-winning classics, but at the same time have no qualms about appearing in horrendous B movies—just as long as their checks don’t bounce.
1. Ben Kingsley
You’re not going to find many actors who have won an Academy Award for Best Actor and then gone on to appear in so many pieces of crap as Sir Ben Kingsley. It’s a phenomenon one tends to see with actors who had an earlier period of prolific dramatic success—in Kingsley’s case, the run of well-regarded films he made after winning the Oscar for 1982’s Gandhi, in which he controversially played the role despite being a half-white British man. By the 2000s, though, Kingsley’s screening process had become significantly less rigorous.
Of course, there were seeds of his willingness to work for a paycheck earlier, such as an appearance as the lead scientist in 1995’s hilariously campy erotic horror film Species. But it’s really from the mid-2000s onward that Kingsley hits his slumming peak, appearing in the following derided messes, among others:
Spooky House (2002)
This odd children’s film was made in Hungary and has the look of a Hallmark Channel original gone terribly wrong. Kingsley plays “The Great Zamboni,” a magician who lives in the titular Spooky House and occasionally helps orphans via the mystical powers of stage magic. He is naturally introduced in the trailer as “Academy Award-winner Ben Kingsley,” because Spooky House is definitely the sort of film that earned him a thespian reputation. It feels like a film where one of the children must be a distant nephew whose parent demanded Kingsley do his best to launch their career. The alternative—that he really believed this film was important—is a far scarier possibility.
A Sound of Thunder (2005)
Almost certainly one of the worst films to receive a wide theatrical release in the 2000s, A Sound of Thunder is an abortive adaptation of a Ray Bradbury short story. Perhaps Kingsley was a huge fan of the author, and that’s why he signed on to play sci-fi business mogul Charles Hatton, or perhaps the producers drove up to his house with a dump truck full of money. Regardless, the film was a massive flop, and is mostly notable for featuring one of the worst wigs in cinematic history, planted squarely on Kingsley’s normally bald head. BEHOLD:
I assume that the release of this movie was roughly the moment when the rest of Hollywood started “dropping by” Kingsley’s home because “they were in the neighborhood,” wondering if maybe he needed any help sorting out some sort of vast debt to the criminal underworld. Because unlike Spooky House, you really can’t, on any level, justify a Best Actor winner appearing in a Uwe Boll video game adaptation film. Especially when he’s appearing as “Kagan, King of Vampires” and father of Kristanna Loken. This is literally a film that ends with Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley engaging in a vampire fistfight.
The Love Guru (2008)
You know that Kingsley is a good actor when his career actually managed to survive being in The Love Guru, unlike Mike Myers. But hey, at least it got him a Razzie Nomination for Worst Supporting Actor.
Dragonheart 3: The Sorcerer’s Curse (2015)
There is no way in hell that Kingsley has actually sat down and watched this direct-to-video sequel that he starred in, but he must feel good to be known in 2016 as “the bargain bin Sean Connery” when it comes to casting your fantasy epic. Also: I love how the trailer makes sure to mention that the film features “Academy Award-winner Ben Kingsley,” but still doesn’t contain a single word spoken by him. That’s always encouraging.
2. Malcolm McDowell
Oh Malcolm. You are the patron saint of thespian B movie slummers. There are a lot of great actors who have been in a lot of bad movies, but nobody does it with even half the zeal of Malcolm McDowell. Not only will this guy be in your movie—he’ll be in your movie tonight, if you’ve got a car ready to pick him up. The script? He’ll give it a once-over on the way to the shoot, then make up new, BETTER lines for his character. While on set, he’ll curtly nod at Michael Ironside, recognizing that although they’re likely to be in the same sort of films, they’re not really on the same level, because he’s MALCOLM MCDOWELL. Accept no substitutes.
McDowell is of course the iconic actor behind “protagonist” Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s landmark A Clockwork Orange, and has since appeared in scores of Hollywood films, everything from Caligula and Cat People to Easy A or Rob Zombie’s maligned Halloween remakes, where he replaced the great Donald Pleasence. Since the late ’80s in particular, though, McDowell has also been a prolific B movie presence—any time someone needs a maniacal, vaguely British presence in their movie, he’s one of the go-to casting choices. Mad scientist? Call for Malcolm. Cyber-terrorist, captain of industry or any other randomly educated authority figure? You just got McDowell’d, son. Let’s enjoy a few select cuts from his filmography from the ’90s onward, while acknowledging that this is BARELY scratching the surface of everything he’s appeared in.
Class of 1999 (1990)
Man, the outlook on the future was pretty grim in 1990. This film, I must admit, is as ludicrously entertaining as it is stupid, and McDowell is right in the middle of things. He plays a school principal who has completely lost control of a rampaging neo-punk student body in future-past 1999. The only solution: Bring in cyborg teachers who can stand up to this new brand of fully armed and deadly student. But what happens when the cyborgs spin out of control into a frenzy of blood and poor education? Cyborg-on-student violence, that’s what.
2103: The Deadly Wake (1997)
Malcolm McDowell is Sean Murdoch, a disgraced, alcoholic sea captain of the future who must transport a deadly human cargo on a rusting, dilapidated boat. Thankfully, though, the ship is equipped with some sort of psychic baby in a tube (this is a real thing in the film). Will Malcolm’s dry British wit be able to stop someone (or something) from releasing a doomsday virus from the bowels of his ship? You won’t know until you watch, but that’s not something I recommend you do by any means.
Pinocchio 3000 (2004)
This is a prime example of the type of role that Malcolm McDowell has been taking all through the 2000s and beyond—one that desperately banks on his cache as some sort of named value (that guy from Clockwork Orange!) to “class up” a production that would otherwise be completely and utterly unknown. In this case, it’s a bizarre Canadian-French-Spanish animated, futuristic take on Pinocchio, wherein Malcolm is (naturally) playing the villain, an evil mayor named “Scamboli.” This is even uglier than it sounds.
Suing the Devil (2011)
Malcolm McDowell isn’t the kind of mercenary who lets his personal beliefs get in the way of earning a paycheck. Case in point: He’ll make any kind of movie for the right payoff, including Christian cinema that is tacky even for the genre in question. Suing the Devil is rather amazing in this capacity, starring McDowell as Satan, who is dragged to real-life court to answer for his crimes and be penalized a paltry “8 trillion dollars.” To quote an excellent review by Gabe Toro, who I don’t envy for having watched the entire movie, “The ideas behind the film are laughably primitive, and it’s startling to see an actor of McDowell’s caliber swept up in them. At the point where Satan begins taking credit for gangsta rap, it’s clear that the ignorance that powers this film is borderline dangerous. In short, it’s embarrassing on almost every level, poorly written, shot, scored and edited and bereft of a single idea, interesting or otherwise.” But hey, thankfully, Malcolm got paid.
Home Alone: The Holiday Heist (2012)
“But wait,” you may be saying. “Weren’t there only three Home Alone movies?” Well no, there weren’t. And actually, this isn’t the fourth film in the series, either—it’s the fifth. The fourth, and first to go direct-to-video, starred the esteemed French Stewart as its lead villain. The fifth, Home Alone: The Holiday Heist, upgraded bigtime with the Malcolm McDowell Bump. He plays, naturally, the leader of a group of burglars, who per usual are thwarted by a child’s collection of deadly booby traps. The film premiered via ABC Family (now known as Freeform) in their Christmas programming block, and it’s hard to say whether this represented a step UP or DOWN for McDowell, once a muse of Stanley freakin’ Kubrick. What I can tell you is that Malcolm McDowell currently has 15 movies that are either filming or in post-production, so if you’re looking to hire him for your own terrible film, you’ll likely find him agreeable.
3. John Rhys-Davies
Alright, that name might not immediately jump out at you unless you’re a film fan, but his characters certainly will. John Rhys-Davies is a stout Welsh actor known for being attached to two of the biggest film franchises ever: He’s the man who played Indy’s friend Sallah in the Indiana Jones movies, and Fellowship member Gimli the dwarf in The Lord of the Rings. Ah yes, he’s that guy.
Of course, film geeks know Rhys-Davies just as well from his ridiculously vast network of B movie appearances. You have to admit that he’s a wonderful screen presence, with his distinctively deep, rich voice making him an in-demand voice actor as well—I even interviewed the guy last year about a Christian/art documentary he was lending his voice to.
But through it all, John Rhys-Davies has also found time to collect a whole lot of paychecks from truly atrocious movies. This means everything from blatant rip-offs (Cyborg Cop) to a great number of creature features with names like Sabretooth, Dragon Storm, Anaconda 3 and Chupacabra Terror. Like so many other guys on this list, he’s the sort of presence you bring in when the movie desperately calls for some kind of thespian gravitas. It doesn’t always work, but at the same time you’re pleased when Rhys-Davies’ portly frame trundles into view. Particularly silly B movie appearances include:
The Double O Kid (1992)
Direct to video? Check. Stars a 21-year-old, drugged-out Corey Haim playing a high school student? Check. Blatant James Bond rip-off in the title? Check. I believe we can safely conclude that we have all the elements of a terrible movie here, gentlemen. Rhys-Davies appears briefly in the trailer to impart some crucial information about scientists and a plot involving the Bermuda Triangle.
The Lost World (1992) and Return to the Lost World (1992)
Before you even start reading this entry, go and watch the trailer below. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Alright. That’s a film that came out less than one year before Jurassic Park. I repeat: Less than one year before Jurassic Park, this was the standard. If you’ve ever needed some kind of direct comparison that can illustrate how big of a leap forward Jurassic Park represented, simply watch John Rhys-Davies in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.
You’ve gotta love that in the one-year period between the release of The Two Towers and Return of the King—movies that cumulatively made more than $2 billion in box office—John Rhys-Davies was like “Hell, I should star in a movie where Rutger Hauer plays the president.” This flick, which is similar in some respects to 2003’s equally awful The Core, stars martial artist/Iron Chef “chairman” Mark Decascos as a soldier who must try to prevent the destruction of Los Angeles via tectonic plate upheaval. Rhys-Davies makes a natural co-star as a scientist who believes the only way to save the planet is to use nuclear weapons to bomb L.A. off the face of the Earth—just your standard “save the Earth by blowing up L.A.” plan that I’ve been suggesting for years now.
In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007)
One thing you’ll notice that these actors share in common is a willingness to work with the same indisputably awful filmmakers, because they’ll work for whoever pays them. Enter Uwe Boll, a man who has never made a quality film in his career, but loves to poach “respectable” actors who have either hit the skids or simply don’t give a shit. This fantasy epic/video game adaptation is absolutely chock full of hilarious casting, including Jason Statham as the star, Leelee Sobieski as the female lead, an incredibly confused Burt Reynolds as a medieval king and Ray Liotta as a FREAKING WIZARD. I don’t know what else I can tell you, except that Rhys-Davies also plays another wizard, and that even with all these seeming advantages, the movie still doesn’t manage to reach “fun-bad” status.
Apocalypse Pompeii (2014)
Nothing says your career is going well quite like starring in a direct-to-video feature from The Asylum that is itself a modernized mockbuster of an already terrible movie by Paul W.S. Anderson. If I was John Rhys-Davies, then this is how I’d lead off introducing myself at parties: “Hello, I’m a professional actor, and I starred in a movie parodying a different movie directed by the man behind Resident Evil: Retribution. Yes, I’m available for children’s parties. Is it an open bar?”
4. Michael Caine
Look, we all love Michael Caine, right? The guy’s still in great movies on a regular basis. He’s arguably more popular now than he ever has been in his career at the age of 83, coming off appearances in Chris Nolan’s Batman series and films such as Interstellar. He was nominated for Academy Awards for acting in every decade between the 1960s and 2000s. It’s indisputable: Caine is a great actor.
Yes, he’s a great actor—one who is also quite willing to be in your bad movie as well, if you pay him. And unlike some of his other cohorts on a list like this, Caine tends not to shy away from the fact that he’s always been willing to work for a paycheck, frequently citing his low-income upbringing as a reason. Here’s an ENTIRE INTERVIEW about it from 1983, with Caine candidly explaining his willingness to do whatever it takes to make a living. To quote: “I make second-rate movies to pay for my first-rate lifestyle. I like limousines, expensive wine and dinners. And I have absolutely no desire to be poor. Again.”
So yeah, that’s pretty much indisputable, right? If Caine’s not embarrassed, why should we be? Let’s enjoy a few of his clunkers:
The Swarm (1978)
Caine himself has called this the worst film he ever made, although that was likely before some of his later POSs. The story of a killer bee invasion in Texas, it was labeled as one of the 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made by the Golden Raspberry Awards, which also gave Michael Caine the dubious honor of being nominated in the very first Razzie Worst Actor category in 1980 for another film, The Island. In this one, he plays the prestigious role of Prominent Bee Scientist, with all the running and yelling and stinging this entails.
Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979)
I include this one because I find it hilarious that one year after making what he called the worst film of his life, Caine teamed up with the same director to make ANOTHER disaster film, this one a sequel. He really just did not give a shit.
Blame it on Rio (1984)
This was, sadly, the last film by director Stanley Donen, who had once brought us Singin’ in the Rain and Charade, but it doesn’t stop Blame it on Rio from being a complete turd. It can’t quite decide if it’s supposed to be a romantic comedy or a Porky’s-style sex comedy, but the fact that the plot largely revolves around 51-year-old Caine and a 17-year-old girl should give you some sort of idea. Vincent Canby, legendary reviewer for the New York Times, ably summed it up with the following: ”...there’s not a single funny or surprising moment in the movie. However, Blame It on Rio is not simply humorless. It also spreads gloom. It’s one of those unfortunate projects that somehow suggests that everyone connected with the movie hated it and all of the other people involved.”
Jaws: The Revenge (1987)
Caine hasn’t even tried to hide the fact that Jaws: The Revenge is beyond terrible. The movie that gave birth to the phrase “this time, it’s personal” also features a roaring shark prominently in its legendarily bizarre concluding sequence, and it earned Caine yet another Razzie nomination for Worst Supporting Actor. The actor had this to say, in later years: “I have never seen [the film], but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific!” That’s classic cynical Caine for you.
On Deadly Ground (1994)
Did you know that Michael Caine played the villain in a Steven Seagal environmental action movie? Because he definitely did. His hair is dyed jet black, and it’s the worst thing you or anyone else has ever seen in their goddamn lives.
The Last Witch Hunter (2015)
Sometimes with these movies, it’s fun to speculate on the sequence of events that might have led to an actor playing the part. On this one, I like to imagine that a young Vin Diesel somehow helped Caine get off cocaine in the ’80s, and Caine swore that one day he would repay the favor by appearing in a film of Diesel’s choosing. Diesel then waited 25 years to spring The Last Witch Hunter on him like Don Corleone collecting on a favor. And that’s how Michael Caine ended up playing a priest who acts as a caretaker to a witch-hunting Vin Diesel.
5. Michael Madsen
Michael Madsen is an interesting case, as some would claim he was never a quality actor, while others would defend him to this day. What we can say for sure is that there’s exactly one director in the world who knows how to get the most out of Michael Madsen, and his name is Quentin Jerome Tarantino. All it takes to come to that conclusion is witnessing Michael Madsen in the likes of Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home or Supreme Sanction and comparing that guy to the Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs or Kill Bill.
This is also presumably why Madsen appears in so many B movies, and especially in those movies made by directors who envision themselves “the next Tarantino” or a similar title. Whereas the average up-and-coming indie director can’t exactly afford to go out and get Uma Thurman or Brad Pitt for their feature, they often can afford Michael Madsen. And, being film students, they’ve seen Reservoir Dogs and assume they can get the same kind of performance out of the guy. And that’s where they go fatally wrong, because only Tarantino can get that kind of performance out of Michael Madsen. Every other director is just renting a warm body for the duration of the shoot.
...let’s enjoy some Michael Madsen movies, shall we?
Remember what I said about mercenary actors tending to appear in the same bad films? Well, you’re going to see that a lot here. The only question we need to answer: Did Ben Kingsley allow Michael Madsen to speak to him directly on the set of Species, or did he require an intermediary to relay messages?
The Thief & The Stripper, a.k.a. Strip ‘n Run (2000)
This is exactly the sort of direct-to-video action trash that Madsen was reduced to appearing in after failing to capitalize on his initial Tarantino bump. He plays a sleazy strip club owner in this one, perpetually squinting in the style of a fair-to-middling Robert de Niro impression. It’s notable for its amusingly varied cast of bad movie veterans, including Martin Kove, Charles Napier and the freakishly swollen face of Robert Z’dar. Watching the trailer, one can’t help but gain even more respect for Tarantino, who was somehow able to look at work like this and tell he could make something of Madsen.
You may remember me mentioning, a paragraph or two ago, that a lot of these actors end up in the same films thanks to their willingness to sell themselves. The only question we need to answer this time: When Michael Madsen met Ben Kingsley again on the set of BloodRayne, do you think he held a grudge after the way he was treated while making Species?
Lost in the Woods (2009)
IMDB synopsis: “This is about people in the woods.” YouTube rental synopsis: “An 11-year-old takes on two kidnappers (one played by Michael Madsen).”
That is literally all the information that exists about this film online. There is no trailer. There are no clips. There is no English-language Wikipedia page, although there IS one in Italian, for whatever reason. I can’t offer any 100% airtight proof that this film exists at all, outside of this mind-blowingly awful, nonsensically-cropped poster. Make of it what you will. It looks like the poster of a film where the biggest star (Madsen) would have been paid in cartons of off-brand cigarettes, or possibly with an Estonian mail order bride.
The Brazen Bull (2010)
The makers of this film are lucky to not have been served a C&D from Tarantino himself for essentially poaching the Vic Vega character straight out of Reservoir Dogs. I assume that’s exactly what they told Madsen when they hired him: “Be that character from Reservoir Dogs,” as if every person who had hired him in the last 15 years hadn’t said the exact same thing. However, in this one he channels the copyright-infringement better than in most, playing a sadistic serial killer who stalks a few real estate investors through the only location the filmmakers could afford: an abandoned warehouse, done up to look like a high rise.
This is precisely the same sort of film that Madsen is appearing in today—action/horror/thriller features that literally could not be made without him. Actors such as Madsen, and all the others on the list, bring JUST enough legitimacy to these projects for filmmakers to be able to scrape together the necessary investment on promises that the film will really “open some doors” in Hollywood for the director/producers. Whether it’s titles such as Terrible Angels, Infected or last year’s Lumberjack Man (which is a supernatural lumberjack slasher, by the way), if you want to find Madsen, just keep following the trail of checks.
Jim Vorel is really looking forward to the inevitable Madsen-McDowell-Kingsley team-up in Anaconda 7: Trouser Snake. You can follow him on Twitter.