Appearing in a single scene can be a tough racket. Not only are these roles forced to compete with the character arc of the protagonist, but oftentimes, the one scene wonder is intended to both forward the plot and provide a little flashy entertainment to boot. If done improperly, one would struggle to even remember that they were in the movie. If done well, however, these scenes can serve as highlights or historic additions that enhance the entire project.
The rules for the list are simple: an actor must appear in one single scene, steal the show, and not show up again. Unfortunately, for gems like Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous (2000) or Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) who had two or three scenes, this means they’re unable to make the cut. Still, that leaves plenty of one-scene wonders to make us laugh, cry, or scramble our brains in wonderment.
Here are Screen Rant’s 15 Characters Who Showed Up For One Scene And Stole The Whole Movie.
15. Bill Murray – Zombieland (2009)
Bill Murray is a superb actor, and in 2009’s Zombieland, he’s so good it gets him killed. Well, technically Jesse Eisenberg blows a hole through him with a shotgun, but it’s only because the Ghostbusters star played such a convincing zombie. Reportedly brought on after a laundry list of A-listers (including Patrick Swayze) turned it down, this extended cameo couldn’t have been delivered better by anyone else. The scene’s core hilarity is harnessed around Murray’s signature deadpan, while he embodies the role he was born to play: Bill Murray.
Surrounded by fellow Oscar nominees Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, and Woody Harrelson, Murray takes his final, wigged moments to reflect on life’s regrets — namely, Garfield: The Movie (2004). In a film already stacked with comedic insanity, Zombieland dials the right frequency to make this outlandish scene funny for both viewers and cast members (Emma Stone clearly couldn’t hold back the laughs). On the bright side, he said everyone can just call him “Bill” now.
14. Chris Rock – I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988)
Chris Rock was an unknown when he popped up in 1988’s I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, but with this hilarious scene, he didn’t stay that way for long. The popular entertainer waltzes into the “Hammer and Slammer” diner owned by Jim Brown and Isaac Hayes, only to start breaking down the cost of a rib order. In comparing it to his own pocket change, the unnamed patron decides to order one — one rib, that is.
At just under two minutes, the scene is the shortest on this list– a perfect execution of set-up and punchline. Director Keenen Ivory Wayans strikes gold with Rock’s twitchy delivery, while Hayes grows agitated with each ludicrous proposal: 15 cents for a sip of soda, or better yet, as the skit’s howling punchline “f– it, pour it in my hand for a dime.” Even before Rock pulls out a surprise cash wad to set Hayes off, it was obvious that we had just seen (and laughed at) the birth of a comedic great.
13. William Hurt – A History of Violence (2005)
In its final scene, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) goes from harrowing film noir to hyper-violent blood bath. It’s a jarring transition, but one that benefits from the addition of William Hurt as gregarious, chrome-domed crime lord Richie Cusack. He’s hell bent on killing his little brother Joey (Viggo Mortensen)– a plan that quickly goes south when the estranged sibling murders his way out the door. Richie, zanily collected up to this point, goes full on psycho and allows Hurt to dig deep into his bag of hammy eccentricities.
“How do you f–k that up!?!” He yells at his downed henchman, before unloading a slug into him out of sheer frustration. Hurt plays these sparing minutes like a noir heavy from the ‘50s, and even in his final moment, facing Joey’s gun barrel, he’s defiantly sleazy. He represents the past that Mortensen’s character can deny, but never fully escape. And he does it with some superb facial hair.
12. Kathleen Freeman – The Blues Brothers (1980)
On the lighter side of the the spectrum, Kathleen Freeman steps up to the plate and takes a few well earned wacks in the comedy classic The Blues Brothers (1980). As Sister Mary Stigmata, also known as “The Penguin,” the actress calls Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) Blues into her office for a discussion about the church. With tax companies closing in, Jake makes an ill-conceived pass at getting the cash through illegal channels — something that instantly brings out “The Penguin” in Sister Mary.
Freeman, a veteran of TV and film, plays off her matronly appearance with a rigid flick of the yardstick over Jake’s lap. It only gets worse from there, as the nun proceeds to roll up her sleeves and fling her weapon so wildly that it turns into a flapping, free-for-all that sends both men down a flight of stairs. In her defense, this wrathful treatment inspires the duo to “go on a mission from God,” so we can’t say she was wrong in her methods. What we can say is that she leaves an indelible impression on the film, both literally and figuratively.
11. Adrien Brody – Midnight in Paris (2011)
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) is a cinematic delight. Through detailed recreation and a stellar cast, the director’s ode to nostalgia easily ranks as one of his greatest works. Appearances from Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), and Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) are among Midnight’s high points, but few are able to supersede the intrigue of Adrien Brody’s Salvador Dalí. While he was technically spotted at a party earlier in the film, Dalí’s lack of dialogue still leaves him free to join the list through his encounter with modern man Gil Pender (Owen Wilson).
Brody, a New York native, nails the Spaniard’s accented prose while his lanky, composed appearance makes him a stunning doppleganger. Beyond these superficial traits, however, the real magic lies in the actor’s spirit — a charismatic, bubbly artist bursting with life and energy. Frankly, it’s a crime no one has swiped Brody up for a Salvador Dalí biopic. As he says time and time again through this four minute scene, he is “Dalí!”
10. Donald Sutherland – JFK (1991)
Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) is overflowing with stellar work from the likes of Walter Matthau, John Candy, and Jack Lemmon among many others. The film delights in exploiting the boundaries of the conspiracy thriller genre, using these iconic actors as puzzle pieces within the greater jigsaw of D.A. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). That being said, the biggest piece, without question, belongs to Donald Sutherland’s slick federal informant. Sharing a single scene with Costner, the veteran player gives the film its biggest serving of massive cover-ups and inter-agency conspiracy.
The role, reportedly based on Chief of Special Operations L. Fletcher Prouty, is not an easy sell: deliver dense exposition babble without boring the audience. Sutherland’s baritone voice and rattled off proficiency does just that, as he turns this potential yawn into a thrilling highlight. Costner barely keeps up with the intensity, which, coupled with John Williams’ chilling score, make this circumstantial theory feel like cold, hard fact. It’s a masterful pinch-hit performance.
9. Gene Hackman – Young Frankenstein (1974)
Gene Hackman is a man of many talents, but one that doesn’t instantly jump to mind is comedy. More often than not, the Oscar winner derives humor from bleak drama, whether mocking perps in The French Connection (1971) or berating outlaws in Unforgiven (1992). That is precisely why his uncredited turn in Young Frankenstein (1974) proves to be such a surprising change of pace. As recounted on the movie’s Blu-ray commentary, Hackman learned of the film through tennis buddy Gene Wilder, and requested a role on the grounds he “wanted to try comedy.” Given his pedigree and star power, director Mel Brooks obliged, and the result was a slapstick sequence for the ages.
Hackman plays Harold, a lonely blind man who has the misfortune of bumping into the Frankenstein monster (Peter Boyle). At least, that’s how it seems. It turns out Harold is more lethal than the undead creature himself, and a series of physical gags drive this tear-inducing irony to a close. Blind or not, Hackman’s skilled timing proved he has one hell of an eye for comedy.
8. Vanessa Redgrave – Atonement (2007)
Joe Wright’s 2007 romance Atonement swoons with stories of the past. It tells of a tragic love affair between a working class man (James McAvoy) and the upper class woman (Keira Knightley) he loves, as seen through the eyes of a naive young writer (Saoirse Ronan). The story unfolds with far less clarity than the plot suggests, however, as shifts between reality and fiction become indistinguishable, and revolving perspectives build to a hauntingly realized finale.
This finale is delivered with incomparable grace by the great Vanessa Redgrave. Playing the writer in her later years, the Oscar winner is given the task of cobbling narrative strands that converge into an effective, emotional statement. She does just that. Redgrave reveals a woman who fabricated a happy ending through fiction — her method of dealing with the tragedies that actually did occur. Directly addressing the camera with her aged, saddened eyes, the performance a heartbreaking admittance that life rarely mirrors that of a Hollywood movie.
7. Dean Stockwell – Blue Velvet (1986)
It takes a lot to steal a scene from wild man Dennis Hopper, but that’s precisely what Dean Stockwell does in this deranged Blue Velvet (1986) performance. Arriving midway through David Lynch’s dark masterpiece, Stockwell’s delicate pimp Ben welcomes Frank Booth (Hopper) and company into a home that would make even John Waters shiver with disgust. The smooth operator then proceeds to toast one of life’s more aggressive acts, while his demeanor furthers Velvet’s descent into society’s suburban dumpster.
Despite the severed ears and disturbing roleplay, Ben’s impromptu lip-sync to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” remains the film’s most frightening moment. Eerily lite to enhance his kabuki white makeup, the actor croons while Booth stands a few feet away, entranced. The audience is constantly aware of the freakshow unfolding before them, but with Stockwell’s perversely smug performance, it’s easy to get caught up in the spell. Even if he isn’t the candy colored clown they call the sandman, this “suave f—ker” is not easily forgotten.
6. Ned Beatty – Network (1976)
Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s satire Network (1976) is best remembered today for Peter Finch’s frantic lead performance. As a news anchor whose sudden madness leads to a new hit show, the character causes quite a bit of discomfort for his corporate bosses– until, of course, he’s paid a visit from raging boss Ned Beatty. Dressed in a smart suit and presenting an affable air as he leads the anchor into the boardroom, Beatty unleashes a maelstrom of capitalistic ideas as if he were Moses coming down from the executive mountaintop.
Masterfully filmed by Lumet, with extreme close-ups of Finch and obscured, distant shots of Beatty, the sequence is rotten rhetoric at its most compelling. The veteran actor, typically known for lighter fare like Nashville (1975) and Superman (1978), delivers his most ferocious performance — a man taking joy in twisting Finch’s religious mania for capitalistic gain. The upside down flag that guides this scene to a close is a fitting capper.
5. James Badge Dale – Flight (2010)
In the script for Flight (2012), James Badge Dale was simply referred to as “gaunt young man.” It’s a description that, while technically accurate, grossly undersells the brilliant work he delivers in this lone sequence. The character bumps into a scarred pilot (Denzel Washington) and a fellow patient (Kelly Reilly) in the hospital stairwell, where he is dealing with the effects of cancer and chemotherapy. Still, the chipper spirit bums a smoke and proceeds to spill a stream-of-consciousness that silences both his co-stars and the audience in amazement.
Dale, who reportedly lost twenty pounds for the role, disappears into his appreciative outlook; a man who, now faced with mortality, sees the beauty that every day provides. “I wish I could bottle this feeling that I have,” he shares between swapped glances, “about how beautiful every breath of life is.” He departs soon after, but the looming echo of his words permeate the rest of the story. Fittingly, director Robert Zemeckis named the exchange as his favorite scene.
4. Christopher Walken – Pulp Fiction (1994)
Christopher Walken is a professional one-scene wonder. From early roles like Annie Hall (1977) to larger cameos like True Romance (1993), he knows how to drop in and make his presence known, and nowhere is this more evident than in Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Pulp Fiction (1994). Given a lengthy speech to deliver in a continuous take, Walken reunites with the writer-director for the most bizarre, inspiring wristwatch yarn ever committed to film.
As Captain Koons, Walken gets to play story time with a young Butch Coolidge, explaining how he served in Vietnam with his father and vowed to preserve the family watch in the event of the senior Coolidge’s death. It’s a graphic (and at times, hilarious) account that makes terrific good use of the actor’s mannered, yet implicitly sinister delivery. Combined with Tarantino’s penned quotables (“five long years he wore this watch, up his a–”), this legendary scene breaks up Pulp Fiction’s A.D.D. pace — a detour Walken proves to be well worth it.
3. Alfred Molina – Boogie Nights (1997)
Bred from the stage, Alfred Molina always brings a grandiosity to his roles. And with Boogie Nights (1997), the British thespian gets to do so under the fictional influence of booze and coke. Arriving at the tail end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s porn epic, Molina plays scantily clad big shot Rahad Jackson, complete with silk robes and a period-friendly mustache. Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and his friends (Thomas Jane and John C. Reilly) are there to rob him, but as the scene progresses and their host comes undone, things take a wild turn.
Relentlessly energetic, powered by Rick Springfield and sporadic fist bumps, Molina’s role stands tall in a stellar cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, and Burt Reynolds. In a world of decadence, Molina is tasked with conveying the film’s rock bottom, and he does it with the subtlety of a crack pipe hit. It’s ten minutes of pure, unhinged, tension.
2. Viola Davis – Doubt (2008)
Doubt (2008) is a clinic in dramatic acting. Between Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams, a total of 28 Oscar nominations drive the film’s controversial narrative. Nevertheless, it is Viola Davis, in a brief, eight minute sequence, that both steals the show and strikes at the very core of this wrenching tale. As Mrs. Miller, Davis shares her screen time with Sister Aloysius (Streep), a nun who informs her that her son may or may not be getting molested by the local priest.
Upon hearing the news, Mrs. Miller’s reaction is not at all what the film or director John Patrick Shanley set up the viewer to expect. Instead of condemning, she’s thankful that someone is giving compassion to her closeted gay son — a boy who “shouldn’t be responsible for what God made him to be.” Davis makes sense of a woman in an unwinnable existence; and in this, the Oscar nominee also offers up Doubt’s most honest voice.
1. Alec Baldwin – Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Alec Baldwin has always been at his best in short spurts. A character actor trapped in a leading man’s body, his finest works typically involve him getting loud, abrasive, or some combination of the two. David Mamet was keenly aware of this talent, and he scripted an entire scene to add to his adapted stage play Glengarry Glen Ross— one in which a bigwig from “downtown” (Baldwin) drops in to motivate the salesmen. Seven minutes later, it easily take the title for best single scene performance.
Taking the floor, Baldwin’s oily emissary weaves a symphony of verbal abuse and naked cruelty. Not only does he love his job to an unhealthy degree, he gets distinct pleasure from rubbing it in the faces of his in-subordinates. Mamet’s colorful prose and brutal humor supplies a perfect melody, but it is undoubtedly Baldwin who cranks out the tune of shameless, perverse greed. In a cast of Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin and Jack Lemmon, this testosterone-fueled turn reigns supreme.“Coffee is for closers,” he explains, and with this display, Baldwin gets to be first in line.
Bonus: Mark Hamill – Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
With no dialogue and only fifteen seconds of screentime, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) mesmerized audiences around the world. It was an unexpected way to reintroduce the famed character, especially since he was third billed in the credits, but director J.J. Abrams had a very specific reason to withhold Luke until the end:
“He [Hamill] was so kind to do it, and at first he was like ‘Will it seem silly, will it be a joke that he is standing there?’ I said to him ‘I don’t think it will.’ I said because the whole movie is about that, it could be a great fun drum roll, up to seeing the guy.”
To Abrams’ credit, the tease worked brilliantly. Unlike Han Solo (Harrison Ford) or Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), who received plenty of screen time with the new generation, Luke remains an enigma. Now the same age Obi-Wan Kenobi was in the original Star Wars (1977), Hamill’s grim expression is a haunting implication of what’s transpired– a once optimistic Jedi turned cynical. Director Rian Johnson will have a lot of explaining to do in Episode VIII.
Who’s your favorite show-stealing one scene wonder? Let us know in the comments!
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