Given the option, we imagine that most actors would choose to go out in a blaze of glory, hitting a career high, or maybe even making their best film, just prior to their death. But it usually doesn’t work out that way. Of course, bad movies happen to good actors all the time, but they don’t always get to make up for it before kicking the bucket. What’s worse, the films they would have preferred to sweep under the rug tend to gain extra notoriety on account of their…finality.
Here are 15 roles in films that acclaimed, promising, and/or beloved actors would likely prefer never to have seen the light of day. The problems run the gamut. Sometimes, these actors are quite clearly phoning it in. Very occasionally, it’s a role of which they should be utterly ashamed, or their talents were simply squandered. Often, however, their performance is the best thing about these films that are so bad, that they’re…still pretty bad. Only a few of these titles qualify for “cult” status. The rest are Rotten Tomatoed and Razzie Approved.
15 Raul Julia – Street Fighter: the Movie (1994)
Famous for classic films like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Tequila Sunrise, and beloved as Gomez Addams, Julia was already diagnosed with terminal cancer when he accepted the role of General M. Bison in this video game adaptation alongside the Muscles From Brussels. Julia reportedly took the job for his kids, who were with him on set, because they were fans of the game and wanted to see him beat up Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Bison is a power-mad drug kingpin with dreams of running his own dictatorship. A consummate professional, the award-winning actor went above and beyond to prepare for the role, studying the mannerisms of historical dictators and drug lords. He also somehow mustered the energy to do his own stunts. The film was commercially successful, but universally panned. Sadly, the inane – and occasionally homophobic – dialog and a nonsensical plot fail to do Julia’s performance justice. The actor manages to come away with his dignity intact, but the film is an unequivocal stinker.
14 Gene Kelly – Xanadu (1980)
Olivia Newton John’s 1980 roller-skating musical fantasy was so bad that it inspired the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards (aka The Razzies). Olivia plays Kira, a Grecian muse who comes to Earth periodically to inspire artists. Gene Kelly is Danny McGuire, a washed up big band leader who changed careers after he lost his own muse in the 1940s. Kira’s magic powers inspire Danny, along with Swan from The Warriors, to open a roller disco.
You might think this idea would call her career aptitude into question, but they enthusiastically comply. At least Kelly gets the best scene, dancing old school alongside Olivia and some ghost musicians. But the rest of the film is a beautiful disaster. A famous Esquire review quipped, “In a word, Xana-don’t”. Kelly was also aware of the film’s flaws, saying, “The concept was marvelous, but it just didn’t come off.” The film legend died two years after its release, though he might have changed his tune had he known the cult favorite it would become.
13 River Phoenix – The Thing Called Love (1993)
Legendary Hollywood director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) inexplicably helmed this drama about a quartet of young aspiring country singers struggling to make it in Nashville. Also starring Samantha Mathis, Sandra Bullock, and Dermot Mulroney, everyone involved gives equally underwhelming performances with intermittent accents, forgettable songs, and very little chemistry between the love interests. Considering how selfish and dimwitted the characters are, the weak performances are understandable. There’s little wonder why these musicians are struggling.
At 23, Phoenix had already received much critical acclaim for his work in Stand By Me and My Own Private Idaho, and he undoubtedly had a promising career ahead of him. Two months after the film’s release, Phoenix overdosed on speedballs outside the Viper Room, a West Hollywood nightclub. In his review, Roger Ebert cattily stated, “Perhaps no one could have saved Phoenix…But this performance in this movie should have been seen by someone as a cry for help.” Meow!
12 Robin Williams – Absolutely Anything (2015)
In addition to comedic legend Robin Williams, director Terry Jones lured his Monty Python colleagues, Simon Pegg, and Kate Beckinsale to this British sci-fi comedy stinker. The Pythons play a council of Aliens who decide to bestow unlimited power on an average human (Pegg). Early on, Pegg uses it to give his dog, Dennis (voiced by Williams), the power of human speech. Dennis spends much of the remaining film mocking Pegg’s ineffectual and/or misguided attempts at supernatural self-improvement. It’s a shame Jones took inspiration, rather than discouragement, from the similarly premised Jim Carrey embarrassment, Bruce Almighty.
An abundance of potty and privates humor, gratuitous CGI, and a pat moral about power and responsibility make for a painful 85-minutes. With an 18% Rotten Tomatoes score, critics cited Williams' work as the only reason not to set fire to every print of the film and pretend like it never happened. Released first in the U.K., the film won’t hit American theaters until May 12th, 2017. But with warnings like that from across the pond, stateside success is doubtful, even with the knowledge that it will be the last film we'll ever hear Williams' voice in.
11 John Candy – Wagons East (1994)
Starring in beloved smash hit comedies like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Stripes, and Uncle Buck, John Candy was comedy royalty in the 1980s. Only 43 years old, Candy died mid-production on this “comedy”, also starring Richard Lewis, about a group of failed settlers from the Wild West. Hoping to fare better on the opposite coast, they hire an alcoholic wagon driver (Candy) to take them on the calamitous journey.
Dedicated to the theme of his own film, director Peter Markle chose to press on through adversity and finish the film without Candy, who was nowhere near wrapped. Before the advent of realistic CGI, Markle could do little more than insert wordless reaction shots and a body double throughout the rest of the film. The few scenes Candy managed to complete aren’t half bad, but they’re like drinking a glass of ice water in the middle of a flame-engulfed room. With a 0% Rotten Tomatoes rating, John Candy’s death was the least of this film’s problems.
10 Elizabeth Taylor – These Old Broads (2001)
Written by Carrie Fisher, and starring four Hollywood legends (Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins, and Elizabeth Taylor), this TV movie should have been, at the very least, an instant camp classic. The meta plot centers around three fictional Hollywood legends, begrudgingly reunited by their agent (Taylor) to star in a TV special celebrating the 30-year-anniversary of the movie musical that made them famous. Stunt casting has Reynolds face off with Taylor in a thinly veiled scene that addresses their real-life husband-stealing beef (Eddie Fisher left Reynolds for Taylor when Carrie was just a baby). The actresses have several other real-life connections between them, including competition for film roles.
It must have looked so promising on paper, what with all this talent and pre-existing drama. It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly went wrong, but failed slapstick, incessant pratfalls, Weekend at Bernie’s-style corpse shenanigans and an over-medicated performance by Taylor couldn’t have helped.
9 James Avery – Wish I Was Here (2014)
Already famous actor/director Zach Braff made history when he raised the budget for his second feature film on Kickstarter, receiving three million dollars (one million over asking) from 46,520 fans. What Braff failed to mention was that he was effectively remaking his first film, Garden State, but setting it in L.A.
James Avery, best known as Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bell Air, has a blink-and-you’ll miss it role as “Audition Actor #2”. In the scene, Braff frames his faux-bewildered white mug in the midst of a line of African American actors at a casting call (because black people make hilarious props). A casting agent informs Braff that he can leave because they decided to “go African American with the role”. Jim Parsons helpfully asks, “Does he have to be a dark black person?” As Braff stares blankly ahead, one of the other actors wonders aloud how it came to this because he did Othello in college. Avery’s response, and only line, apart from the bad courtroom dialog sides they’re all reading is, “we all did”.
8 Peter Cushing – Biggles: Adventures in Time (1986)
With 130 acting credits, including Star Wars and many Hammer Horror titles, Cushing could have easily called it quits after his cameo in Top Secret. Sadly, he pressed on to play Colonel William Raymond in the foul stench of a film known as Biggles: Adventures in Time.
Originally intended as more of an Indiana Jones rip-off, filmmakers decided to ramp up the time travel due to the recent success of Back to the Future. The result is a convoluted and generally baffling film about a big city salesman celebrity-themed TV dinner salesman who is zapped by a bolt of lightening in his office in full view of his coworkers and sent back in time to meet his “time twin”, Biggles. Together, they must stop the Germans from using a dangerous device that would change the outcome of WWII.
Aiding them in their mission is a retired military officer (Cushing), who, naturally, lives in a Steampunk loft inside of London’s Tower Bridge with his pet crow. David Robinson of The Times called Cushing, “the principal consolation” of the film.
7 Christopher Reeve – Village of the Damned (1995)
This remake of a 1960 sci-fi horror film starred Christopher Reeve in his final role before suffering the tragic equestrian accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He plays a small-town doctor and parent to one of nine evil psychic and telekinetic children who were immaculately conceived during a mysterious blackout. In a rare moment of incompetence, John Carpenter directed this box-office failure that was nominated for a Razzie and sports a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Reeve was always particularly skilled at maintaining his dignity in silly situations, and Dr. Allan Chaffee is no exception. His final scene is a master class in painful facial contortions, as he focuses on the mental image of a brick wall in order to conceal his plan for blowing up the children in their classroom. It’s pretty impressive considering the ham-fisted dialogue and his stiff (the children) or over-the-top (Mark Hamill and Kirstie Alley) scene partners. But Reeve’s skillful swan song cannot save this film from being anything other than a village of disappointment.
6 Peter Sellers – The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980)
Peter Sellers' final role was described by film critic Phil Hardy as a “British atrocity”. The year before, Sellers earned an Oscar nod for his role in Hal Ashby’s Being There, as a simple-minded gardener who stumbles into unlikely success in business and politics. If only that could have been our last memory of him, instead of a comedy based on an ill-conceived character from Sellers’ early career.
In a horrifying example of Yellowface that was rampant in 1980s Hollywood, Sellers plays a 168-year-old Chinese doctor, who must replicate the serum that affords him eternal life, after one of his minions accidentally destroys his original supply. Needless to say, it’s chock full of "hilarious" racism, and cringingly awful musical numbers. In the final scene, Fu dons an Elvis jumpsuit and sings, “Rockin’ Fu Music”, which is chock full of awful Chinese food puns. Sellers died one month before its release.
5 Bob Hoskins – Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
Suffering from Parkinson’s, Bob Hoskins chose to retire from acting after this film, and he would die from pneumonia two years later. But first, he played Muir, a blind seer and one of the titular character’s seven dwarfs in Snow White and the Huntsman. A representative for Little People of America called the decision to paste CGI heads of average-sized actors onto the bodies of dwarf actors, “akin to black face”. And that wasn’t even the worst thing about the grueling 128-minute film.
Working from a one-note script, Charlize Theron, as the evil queen, resorts to Al Pacino yell-acting, and Kristin Stewart was criticized for her vacant turn as Snow White. Playing the leader of the dwarves, Ian McShane blamed time wasted on makeup and prosthetics for cutting into their performance time. “These people pay you a lot of money and you want it to be good,” McShane mused. “But sometimes you want to say, ‘Hey guys, you know, get it together.’” Sorry they couldn’t get it together for you, Bob.
4 Chris Farley – Almost Heroes (1998)
Chris Farley rose to fame with his endearingly clumsy and exuberant SNL characters. He also made two successful, and thematically similar, back-to-back comedy features (Tommy Boy and Black Sheep). But, plagued with addiction, he died alone in his apartment after a four-day illicit substance smorgasbord. At 33, he never realized his full career potential.
His final role was as Bartholomew Hunt in Almost Heroes, where he played a bumbling and hapless explorer shoddily attempting to beat Lewis and Clark to the West Coast. The film is little more than a series of idiotic, cheap gags such as slap fights, eagle punching, and more pratfalls and poop jokes than you can shake a Quaalude at. Matthew Perry, also then struggling with addiction, fares no better in his performance, as a naturalist with delusions of grandeur.
Incredibly, the film’s director is Christopher Guest, the man who invented and perfected the Mockumentary. Was there a nitrous oxide leak on set? With a staggering 8% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, film critics were traumatized by their viewing experience, and ran out of synonyms for “awful”.
3 Janet Leigh – Halloween H2O (1998)
Janet Leigh’s first film role in 18 years was also her last. In an extended cameo, Leigh plays Norma, a woman concerned about the mental state of Laurie Strode (Leigh’s real life daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis) on her least favorite holiday. The entire scene is little more than an excuse to make references to their film careers and relationship. Their interaction begins with a jump scare as Norma surprises Laurie (“Everyone’s entitled to one good scare [on Halloween]”, and then leads off her lecture with, “If I could be maternal for a moment”. Her generic advice is that, “we’ve all had bad things happen to us”, and so it’s best to “take care of yourself” and “concentrate on today.” Norma then climbs into her 1957 Ford Cedan (her car from Psycho) and drives away.
The critical consensus is that the film isn’t bad, per se, just entirely unnecessary. That’s also a good description for Leigh’s one and only scene.
2 Bela Lugosi – Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Before he died in 1956, Bela Lugosi filmed scenes for one of Ed Wood’s uncompleted projects. In an attempt to give Plan 9 from Outer Space credibility and attention, Wood shoehorned Lugosi’s final footage into the story. He also used the Lugosi association to secure actors and funding for what is now known as the “worst movie ever made” (The Golden Turkey Awards).
Amongst the disconnected footage is Lugosi at a funeral, Lugosi in a Dracula cape, and Lugosi walking in and out of a door. With bad dialogue and shoddy filmmaking, Ed Wood was basically the original Tommy Wiseau minus the acting aspirations. Since Lugosi was already working with Wood when he died, it’s possible he would have forgiven the indiscretion. Unfortunately, we’ll never know how Plan 9 with an alive and consenting Lugosi would look. Maybe it would have been only the second worst film ever made.
1 Joan Crawford – Trog (1970)
Following her career-revitalizing turn in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Joan Crawford entered the twilight of her career. She did a series of forgettable thrillers and TV guest appearances before accepting her final role as anthropologist Dr. Brockton in a sci-fi horror film so awful, “The King of Bad Taste” John Waters named it as one of his favorites.
When a troglodyte is discovered living in a cave in the English countryside, Dr. Brockton takes it upon herself to domesticate and train the creature that she affectionately dubs “Trog”. Unsurprisingly, Trog eventually goes on a murderous rampage, but not before Crawford gets to earnestly act opposite a guy in monkey suit and repeatedly say “Trog” in her refined actorly voice.
Mysteriously, Crawford chose to do this film, not out of need for work, but because she wanted to once again work with her producer on Berserk. Though she lived another seven years, the film marked the death of her acting career. On the bright side, The Official Razzie Movie Guide calls it one of the “100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made”, so at least it has that going for it.
What other great actors went out on a low note? Let us know in the comments.