The Not-So-Silver Screen: Writers Acting in Film

July 12, 2012 | 15 books mentioned 28 4 min read

Writers often make cameo appearances in films based on their stories. Occasionally, they play themselves in movies. Some playwrights, by nature of their proximity to actors and the theater, are almost better known for acting than for their writing (Wallace Shawn and Sam Shepard, for example).

There are writers, however, who act in films that have nothing to do with their own writing. Who are some of these authors, and how do they fare on the big screen?

cover1. Calvin TrillinSleepless in Seattle (1993)
In his debut performance as Uncle Milton in Nora Ephron’s romantic comedy, Calvin Trillin can be called subtle. The author of Tepper Isn’t Going Out and About Alice is doing one of the things he does best: eating dinner. He is also relatively avuncular, if your uncles are, like mine, the sort who basically ignore you. (You can catch most of his performance here starting at 1:05.)

Trillin followed up his Sleepless in Seattle performance with a role in another Nora Ephron film, Michael (1996). As the sheriff who throws the eponymous archangel and his entourage in jail, Trillin has a few lines, but he appears acutely conscious of the camera — and determined to turn away from it. How like a writer.

cover2. George PlimptonLawrence of Arabia (1962)
The late editor of the Paris Review auditioned for the role of himself in Paper Lion (1968), based on his book of the same name, but the part went to Alan Alda. However, Plimpton brought his transatlantic honk to many movies. He made his film debut as a Bedouin running across the desert in David Lean’s epic and went on to make 18 more big-screen appearances. He donned a cowboy hat in Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo (1970) and partied with club kids in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998). He logged bit roles in The Detective (1968), L.A. Story (1991), and Good Will Hunting (1997), among others.

cover3. Jerzy KosinskiReds (1981)
George Plimpton appeared as an editor in Reds (1981), which also featured writer Jerzy Kosinski as Grigory Zinoviev, the Russian revolutionary-turned-bureaucrat. Kosinski’s portrayal of Zinoviev is cold, furious, and authentic. Before filming began, Kosinski also convinced director Warren Beatty that the latter was having a panic attack. Beatty says, “I found that for some reason my feet were sweating profusely…Kosinski was hiding under the table pouring hot tea into my shoes very gradually.”

Plimpton and Kosinski also had cameos in A Fool and His Money (1986). Plimpton played God. Kosinski was a beggar. Literary Brat-Packer Tama Janowitz made a brief appearance as a talk-show host. By all reports, the film is terrible. Pre-Speed Sandra Bullock had a small role. She is featured prominently in the re-cut trailer.

cover4. Maya AngelouPoetic Justice (1993)
Poetic Justice was directed and written by John Singleton but Maya Angelou supplied the poetry recited by Justice, played by Janet Jackson. Angelou also had a small role as June, one of three sisters whom Justice encounters at a family reunion. Angelou also played a woman named May and read her poem “In and Out of Time” in Madea’s Family Reunion (2006). The writer is comfortable on camera, impressive and sonorous. Really, though, Maya Angelou plays Maya Angelou, even when she’s ostensibly a character named after a month.

cover5. Martin AmisA High Wind in Jamaica (1965)
A very blond, 13-year-old Amis appeared in the film based on Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel. The story has been described as The Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan. British children who are being sent to England for schooling find their ship commandeered by pirates. The pirates prove juvenile, while the children find their blood lust awakened by the plundering and pillaging. Amis describes the making of the movie in his memoir, Experience. Puberty hit the future writer during filming, forcing filmmakers to overdub Amis’ voice with that of a young girl’s.

cover6. Salman RushdieThen She Found Me (2007)
In the film based on Elinor Lipman’s book of the same name, the author of The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children plays physician to a pregnant Helen Hunt. The film is filled with off-puttingly familiar mugs: Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Colin Firth. Most distracting of all may be Rushdie’s. He tries his best, but let’s face it: SALMAN RUSHDIE, fatwa survivor, ex-husband of Padma Lakshmi, plays an obstetrician who is not using enough gel while operating an ultrasound machine. Disbelief has not been suspended if the audience* starts yelling, “Use more gel, Rushdie! Use more gel!”

*Okay, I was watching it alone in my living room. Still.

8. Norman MailerCremaster 2 (1999)
Mailer acted, directed, and wrote many films (including Maidstone [1970], in which Mailer’s character’s fight with his brother, played by Rip Torn, turns into a real-life brawl). But Mailer also received good notices for his role in Ragtime (1981), based on the book by E.L. Doctorow, in which he portrayed architect Stanford White, and as Harry Houdini in artist Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2 (1999). Barney’s avant-garde film was loosely based on the story of Gary Gilmore, who claimed to be the illegitimate grandson of Houdini, and was convicted of killing two Utah gas station attendants. Gilmore was also the subject of Mailer’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Executioner’s Song.

cover9. Gore VidalGattaca (1997)
In 1971, Norman Mailer headbutted Gore Vidal in the greenroom of the Dick Cavett show (the on-camera portion of the spat can be found here). Clearly, the two writers shared a sense of theatricality which might explain their attraction to the cinema. Vidal enjoyed turns in Tim Robbins’ political satire Bob Roberts (1992) and the comedy Igby Goes Down (2002), among others. Vidal also had a supporting role as the sinister head of a space agency in the dystopian thriller, Gattaca, which also starred novelist Ethan Hawke. 

10. Anita LoosCamille (1926)
This 33-minute silent film loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, probably shouldn’t qualify for this list — it’s essentially a home movie of a drunken party — but the cast is completely insane. Paul Robeson! Clarence Darrow! Charlie Chaplin! Loos, writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes fame, played the title role. Essayist H.L. Mencken, and novelists Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and W. Somerset Maugham made appearances. Publisher Alfred Knopf also had a cameo.

11. Extras
N+1 editor Keith Gessen had a minor role in Andrew Bujalski’s mumblecore Mutual Appreciation (2005). Beat writer William S. Burroughs appeared in Drugstore Cowboy (1989). Essayist and This American Life contributor David Rakoff acted in Capote (2005) and Strangers With Candy (2005). And finally, novelist and professional egoist Ayn Rand, an uncredited extra in Cecil B. Demille’s The King of Kings (1927), probably spent her life wondering why she wasn’t the star.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

's novel, Trip, was recently published by Outpost19. Her non-fiction has appeared in The Awl and The New York Times. Her short stories have been published in The New Quarterly (online) and Everyday Genius. She can be reached at or on Facebook.


  1. You could add John Sayles and Studs Terkel who were in Sayles’ terrific adaptation of Eliot Asinof’s EIGHT MEN OUT. Sayles played writer Ring Lardner and Terkel was sportswriter Hugh Fullerton who was one of the key people who figured out the White Sox were throwing the 1919 World Series.

  2. Got it – Vonnegut is disqualified.

    Capote might sneak through because Alvy Singer tells Annie while they’re sitting on a bench that the man passing by is the winner of the “Truman Capote Look-Alike Contest”. The man, in fact, being Truman Capote. So, I guess he played his look-alike. Does that count?

  3. Can we count John Hodgman? Even though most people will probably remember him as “PC guy,” he’s an author, and he did appear in ‘Baby Mama’ and ‘The Invention of Lying.’

  4. Truman Capote did have a prominent role in Neil Simon’s “Murder By Death.” And John Sayles had a small part as a macho motorcycle cop in Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild.”

  5. Mishima Yukio starred in several films, and directed the hyper-nationalistic movie PATRIOTISM.

  6. John Sayles has a supporting part in Joe Dante’s MATINEE, too. He wrote 2 films for Dante.

  7. Sayles has acted in several of his own films. A writer, director, producer, editor, he is also an actor, not just a writer playing at it.

  8. Of course, there was Peter Benchley, who did an admirable job as a television reporter in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.

  9. Looks like I have a lot of watching (and reading) to do!

    One note: for the purposes of this article, the writers on this roundup appear in films that have nothing to do with their own writing. Eg. Jennifer Weiner’s cameo as “Woman Smiling” in “In Her Shoes” doesn’t count, because she wrote the book.

  10. Except for earning money, writers should never try to do anything but write.

    But thanks for the link to the Vidal-Mailer throwdown.

  11. James Dickey as sheriff in “Deliverance”; James Merrill as doctor in “Lorenzo’s Oil.”

  12. Stephanie Meyer had a chameo in twilight. She was served a sandwich at the bar while “working” on her laptop.

  13. Wow. No mention of Graham Greene’s cameo in Truffaut’s ‘La Nuit Américaine’.

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