What the hell is he doing in that?! No doubt you’ve asked yourself this question before. Maybe you were sitting in a movie theater watching the trailers when all of a sudden an actor whose talent you’d admired or whose integrity had seemed so ironclad pops up in a crappy movie. A movie so god-awful, in fact, that it not only tarnishes them but makes you feel dirty for once believing in them. After all, you’d invested something in this person, and now they’re out there pimping their reputation to the highest bidder in movies they knew full well would suck.
If you look hard enough, you’ll find one of these embarrassing money grabs on just about every serious actor’s résumé. Because for as long as there have been actors, there have been actors willing to cash in. (And, yes, we know the money can be hard to resist. Try.) Around the Entertainment Weekly offices, we have a name for these kinds of mercenary performances: ”paycheck roles.” And since we’ve been burned too many times to count, we feel it falls on us to police these offenses and hold the guilty parties accountable. Hence, our list of the 25 Most Shameless Paycheck Roles of All Time. If your name is on this list, please don’t be cross. We’ve included you because we expect more from you. We care. And if this kind of caring is wrong, we don’t want to be right.
25. Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again
(1983) After 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, Connery said ”never again” and traded his Walther PPK for more lucrative non-Bond paydays. It rarely worked (see: Zardoz). Twelve years later, we saw a man publicly eating crow. And it wasn’t pretty. The then-53-year-old Scot’s physique was saggy, his thinning hair resembled the last sad wisps of cotton candy, and his macking on a young Kim Basinger was just plain creepy. And then, freakin’ Octopussy made more money.
24. Jason Alexander in Dunston Checks In
(1996) The ”hiatus film” is a long and noble TV tradition. During rerun season, many small-screen stars cash in their chips for a big-screen quickie. And we expect these movies to be terrible. Still, nothing could have prepared us for Seinfeld‘s George Costanza costarring with an ape. And don’t give me any of that ”Eastwood did an ape movie” nonsense. Watching this flaccid flick, you can’t help experience a little ”shrinkage.”
23. Bill Murray in Garfield
(2004) Should there be an exemption for kids’ movies? No, since there’s actually such a thing as good kids’ movies. Murray put his late-career indie street cred on the line to voice the crudely animated, lasagna-eating feline opposite Breckin Meyer and Jennifer Love Hewitt. You have to wonder just how big a check was needed to get Murray to sign off on weak one-liners like ”I think I’m going to blow cat-chow chunks!”
22. Marlon Brando in Superman
(1978) Okay, this movie’s actually respectable. If only the same could be said of the Method meatball’s motives for signing on as Superman’s baby daddy, Jor-El. Brando, who was never shy about his desire for big paydays in exchange for minimal work, shook down the producers for an eventual total of about $14 million for 13 days on the set. That translates into roughly $1.2 million per minute of screen time.
21. Matt Dillon in Herbie: Fully Loaded
(2004) It was hard not to be moved by Dillon’s Oscar nod for Crash. After all, here was an actor who’d never been taken seriously — a lunch-pail lunk we’d all secretly been rooting for since The Outsiders — finally getting some respect. But then, he made this Lindsay Lohan turkey. It’s more than a little humiliating watching our favorite greaser getting sprayed in the face with motor oil and losing a war of wits to a VW Bug.
20. Cuba Gooding Jr. in Chill Factor
(1999) Three years after his Jerry Maguire Oscar, Gooding was still asking folks to show him the money. How else to explain this slice of tripe featuring a weapon of mass destruction and an ice cream truck? Look at that again: a weapon of mass destruction and an ice cream truck. At one point, Gooding threatens Skeet Ulrich with ”I’m about to get in your ass like last year’s underwear!” What does that even mean?
19. Elizabeth Taylor in The Flintstones
(1994) Yes, she’s a living legend…blah blah blah. But despite her five Oscar noms, Taylor remains about as hopeless at picking out quality roles as she is at choosing husbands. In fact, I’m blaming Larry Fortensky for getting her mixed up with this one, where she plays Fred’s mother-in-law, Pearl Slaghoople. Taylor slums her way through a litany of groan-inducing puns (she calls John Goodman’s Fred a ”skunkasaurus”).
18. Ben Affleck in Paycheck
(2003) This one’s almost too easy. I mean, it’s right there in the title. My guess is Affleck — who admits regretting ”the times I took movies just to work” — never even made it past the script’s cover page before signing on for this jackpot. Coasting in smug lug-nut mode, Affleck plays a ”reverse engineer” (we know he’s a brainiac because he wears glasses) who wakes up with his memory wiped and goons on his tail. To say that he phones in his performance is too generous. It’s more like he’s using a couple of tin cans and some string.
17. Buster Keaton in Beach Blanket Bingo
(1965) During the silent era, Keaton was arguably a greater comedic talent than Charlie Chaplin. But the introduction of sound made him obsolete. By the LBJ years, this genius was reduced to taking any fluff film that would have him in exchange for a payday. Take this Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon hormone-apalooza, which features Keaton wearing his signature porkpie hat and deadpan expression. Well, his expression is deadpan at least until a bombshell in a bikini crosses his path. Then his eyes bug out like the world’s oldest living horndog. Ah-ooo-gah! How depressing.
16. Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich in Eragon
(2006) This one’s a twofer. Maybe Irons is a closet nerd with a thing for fire-breathing flops. After all, he also starred in 2000’s Dungeons & Dragons. But what’s Malkovich’s excuse? Between the Sam Shepard plays and the artfully cocked beret he likes to wear while combing used-book stores on the Left Bank, we kind of assumed he was, well, too much of a snob for this stuff.
15. Christopher Walken in Kangaroo Jack
(2003) Sure, the guy works with directors like Spielberg and Tarantino, but he’s also made so many clunkers, it’s hard to pick the worst. The Country Bears? Joe Dirt? Gigli? Tough call, but in the end we went with this Bruckheimer crap confection because he costars with a badly animated marsupial who wears shades and sings ”Rappers Delight.” This guy needs an intervention. He may be the least selective actor alive.
14. Richard Pryor in Superman III
(1983) Pryor deservedly gets a lot of praise for his no-holds-barred stand-up comedy, but in the early ’80s he was like a heat-seeking missile of bad instincts. No, we’re not talking about the freebasing. We’re talking about movies like The Toy, Brewster’s Millions, and this unfortunate chapter in the squeaky-clean Man of Steel saga, which renders the once proudly profane Pryor hamstrung and neutered.
13. Faye Dunaway in Supergirl
(1984) Peter O’Toole is lousy in this too, but at least he disappears for most of the film (no doubt to head to the bank). Dunaway, on the other hand, is trapped for the entire nightmare, hamming it up like Cruella De Vil on a laughing-gas jag. Dunaway (who, it should be noted, is also in Dunston Checks In) plays a harpy fond of kimonos and world domination…and not nearly as fond of Helen Slater’s Supergirl.
12. William Hurt in Lost in Space
(1998) Here’s a guy who seems to get Oscar noms just for waking up in the morning looking lost. Hurt must have taken a gander around Hollywood and seen his peers buying up Aston Martins and wondered, ”What the hell am I doing playing imprisoned transvestites in art films? I could be stinkin’ rich!” Unfortunately, he winds up looking stiffer than the movie’s robot. I swear you can see the self-loathing creep across his face.
11. Laurence Olivier in Clash of the Titans
(1981) It had to suck to be Laurence Olivier. Sure, you’re one of the world’s greatest actors. But the catch-22 is that you can’t just say ”Screw it, I’m gonna cut loose, throw on a toga, and ham it up as Zeus.” Or can you? Olivier lets his Athenian freak flag fly as the original god father. While Harry Hamlin undergoes the trials of Perseus, Olivier kicks back on Mount Olympus making googly eyes at Ursula Andress’ Aphrodite.
10. Demi Moore in Striptease
(1996) In which Moore was paid a then-record $12.5 million to go topless. Okay, she also did some ”acting” in this dreadful flashdancer-with-a-heart-of-gold saga. But nothing she should be proud of. Not only does Striptease suck, it makes Showgirls look like Schindler’s List. And all that Annie Lennox music didn’t help. Watching Moore writhe around on all fours, you don’t just feel embarrassed for her, you experience a profound existential malaise.
9. Michael Caine in Jaws: The Revenge
(1987) Caine has done so many paycheck roles, he’s almost like Walken’s cockney doppelgänger. Still, we’ll pick this fourth Jaws outing because, after all, ”this time it’s personal.” Caine plays a bush pilot named Hoagie. And he must be a ham-and-cheese hoagie because those are the two settings on his acting. Ironically, this dud cost Caine more than he made: When his name was called to accept his Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters, he was shooting this great white mess.
8. Judi Dench in The Chronicles of Riddick
(2004) Hey, Dames gotta pay the rent too. Here, Dench ditches the Merchant Ivory frippery to go head-to-head with Vin Diesel in the bloated sequel to 2000’s Pitch Black. Dench does double duty as Aereon, a shape-shifting soothsayer, as well as the narrator of the film’s opening, where she expounds on Necromongers and the Underverse. Judi, you had us at Necromongers.
7. Orson Welles in Transformers: The Movie
(1986) Dig this voice cast: Judd Nelson, Casey Kasem, Eric Idle, Leonard Nimoy, and Scatman Crothers. Crazy, right? But perhaps no one was as out of place here as the director of Citizen Kane, well into his Paul Masson-shilling decline. Welles wields his gargantuan baritone as the voice of Unicron, a ravenous robot-planet that devours everything in its path. Yes, his last role was a fat joke.
6. Peter O’Toole in Club Paradise
(1986) Some actors see movie shoots as little more than paid vacations (how else to explain Ocean’s Twelve?). But even by those lax standards, O’Toole’s appearance in this Robin Williams reggae romp is particularly painful to watch. Lawrence of bloody Arabia himself lumbers through the flick like a sunburned ghoul. The tagline to this stink bomb says it all: ”The vacation you’ll never forget — no matter how hard you try.”
5. Dennis Hopper in Super Mario Bros.
(1993) When you appear in more than 30 movies in the ’90s alone, quality control is gonna get lost in the shuffle. As a half-lizard villain named King Koopa, Hopper gets tarted up in snakeskin suits and has his hair pulled back into blond Flavor Flav cornrows. In the single worst videogame-turned-movie ever made (which is really saying something), Hopper does his worst overacting to date (again, saying something).
4. Tony Curtis in The Bad News Bears Go to Japan
(1978) Walter Matthau wisely wanted no part of this inept sequel (neither, apparently, did Tanner or Lupus). But Curtis was only too willing to check his pride at the door to play a sleazy promoter in what wound up being a smorgasbord of racial gags (those crazy Asians and their endless bowing! And get this, they eat raw fish…what savages!). It’s amazing Japan remained an ally after this came out.
3. Sir Ben Kingsley in BloodRayne
(2005) They say Gandhi used to get in bed with two naked women just to test his willpower. We wonder if Kingsley’s decision to star in BloodRayne was a similar test. Directed by hack extraordinaire Uwe Boll (House of the Dead), this miasma of vampire hokum stars Sir Ben as Kagan, king of the vampires. Between this and Thunderbirds, the Queen’s gotta be kicking herself a bit about the whole knighthood thing.
2. Richard Burton in Exorcist II: The Heretic
(1977) Looking like he just came off of the world’s longest (and sweatiest) whiskey bender, Burton plays a Vatican investigator charged with reopening the Regan MacNeil case. Burton’s soldier of Christ battles a ridiculous demon named Pazuzu and is even forced to wear a snug safari outfit. Wanna bet those stormy years with Liz Taylor — sorry, Pearl Slaghoople — were looking pretty sweet mid-shoot?
1. Robert De Niro in The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle
(2000) He was the young Vito Corleone. He was Travis Bickle. He was Jake La Motta, Rupert Pupkin, and Al Capone. He’s been nominated for six Oscars. He is our greatest living actor. No question, no room for debate. And yet, there is that one little aberration. Little? Who am I kidding? One huge-ass aberration called The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle — an insult so epic that he could spend the rest of his days going door-to-door with FTD bouquets, Whitman’s Samplers, and personal mea culpas to every ticket buyer…and then, maybe then, we could forgive him for Fearless Leader, a performance so mind-bogglingly bad that it’s almost avant-garde. Perhaps then we could erase the image of De Niro dressed in Nazi garb with a monocle, looking like Heinrich Himmler (for the record, Himmler wasn’t funny). And we could forget the sight of De Niro getting jiggy with it (neither is this). And, worst of all, his ”You talkin’ to me?” bit, where you can actually witness a legend crapping all over his legacy. No, come to think of it, all of those acts of contrition still wouldn’t be enough. There’s really no excuse he could offer to heal our broken hearts.