Short And Sweet: 10 1/2 Memorable One-Scene Performances


Everyone knows that, while it’s generally the stars who put fannies in the seats, supporting players often wind up walking away with a film (a fact we here at Movie FanFare try to commemorate with our Scene Stealers salutes). And ever since producer Michael Todd popularized it in Around the World in 80 Days, audiences have become accustomed to the concept of the “cameo,” where a recognizable actor, athlete, politician, or other notable makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss -it appearance. There is, however, another role that falls somewhere between these two, where a person is featured in just a single scene (or maybe two) of a film, yet makes an indelible impression on moviegoers…that is, those who didn’t just step out for a bathroom break. The following “micro-turn” list includes talents on the rise, familiar faces, big-name stars, and some performers who, for whatever reasons, will forever remain a Quizzo or Trivial Pursuit answer.

1. Roscoe Lee Browne, Uptown Saturday Night – Bill Cosby and director Sidney Poitier’s 1974 buddy flick featured several comedic supporting turns, Harry Belafonte’s Godfather parody, Richard Pryor’s shady private eye, and Flip Wilson sort of playing his Reverend Leroy character among them. The one with the sharpest satiric edge, though, was from the always dapper and eloquent Roscoe Lee Browne as a slick Congressman who prepares for a meeting with Cosby and Poitier by trading his three-piece suit for a dashiki, flipping his President Nixon portrait to reveal one of Malcolm X, and putting African music on the stereo before greeting his “brothers.”

2. Madelyn Cates, The Producers – “Who d’ya want? Nobody gets in the building unless I know who they want. I’m the concierge. My husband used ta be the concierge, but he’s dead. Now I’M the concierge!” And with that, Madelyn (or Madlyn) Cates introduced herself to would-be Broadway con men Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks’ 1968 laugh riot, railing against Nazi neighbor Kenneth Mars and his “dirty, disgusting, filthy, lice-ridden boids.” Cates’ bellicose five-line turn, her first of three film roles, was followed by steady TV work until her death in 1993.

3. Montgomery Clift, Judgment at NurembergStanley Kramer’s acclaimed 1961 dramatization of the Nazi war crimes tribunals was an acting showcase for such stars as Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Maximilian Schell, Richard Widmark,  and Marlene Dietrich. But while each of them had several scenes to work with, Montgomery Clift–playing a mentally challenged baker who was sterilized as part of the Third Reich’s eugenics campaigns and breaks down on the witness stand–needed but one 12-minute courtroom appearance to earn a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his stunning portrayal. The troubled Clift apparently had trouble memorizing the part, so Kramer allowed him to ad lib a good portion of it.


4. Marilyn Harris, Frankenstein – It was never a good idea in Universal horror movies of the 1930s and ’40s to anger the Frankenstein Monster, but befriending the big guy had its own drawbacks. Child actress Marilyn Harris learned this sad fact in the original 1931 shocker when her character, a shepherd’s daughter named Maria, thinks the monster (Boris Karloff) she meets in the woods would make a good playmate. Showing him how to throw flowers in the water to make them float, Maria is accidentally drowned when the creature assumes she’ll float, too.  Harris’ demise, cut out of theatrical and TV prints for decades after the film’s release,  marked the zenith of her brief Hollywood career, which ended in 1944.

5. Roger Hill, The Warriors – About five minutes on the screen and four simple words–“Can you dig it?”–were all Roger Hill needed to become a film icon as Cyrus, charismatic leader of New York City’s biggest street gang,  in Walter Hill’s 1979 action classic. The head of the Grammercy Riffs, Cyrus brings together hundreds of boppers from across the Big Apple to a Bronx park with a plan to unite all 60,000 gang members and take over the city, “because we got the streets, suckers,” but his murder puts an end to the dream and sends the Warriors running for their lives. This was Hill’s second and final film role, followed by stage and TV work and a new job in the library of a New York college.  Can you dig that?

6. Dorothy Malone, The Big Sleep – It was just her fifth credited film role, but future Academy Award-winner Dorothy Malone made the most of it as the sexy, unnamed bookstore worker who catches the eye of private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) during a rainy stakeout of a suspect’s shop across the street.  When Bogie offers to split a bottle of rye with her during his vigil, Malone coyly closes the store early, lets down her hair, and doffs her spectacles, if only in deference to Dorothy Parker’s maxim, “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

7. Meat Loaf, The Rocky Horror Picture Show – A couple of years before his hit “Bat Out of Hell” album set new standards for Wagnerian rock ballads, singer/actor Meat Loaf rode his motorcycle out of a super-size freezer and into cult cinema stardom as half-lobotomized greaser and ex-delivery boy Eddie in the 1975 midnight movie classic. Tooling around mad scientist Frank N. Furter’s (Tim Curry) lab on his bike, Meat belts out “Whatever Happened to Saturday Night ?” and makes out with Columbia (Little Nell), before an enraged Frank ends his song–and his life–with a pickax. What happens to Eddie after that? Let’s just say, “That’s a rather tender subject. Another slice, anyone?”

8. Edie McClurg, Planes, Trains and Automobiles – This is one scene that, for obvious reasons, loses some of its punch in edited-for-TV airings. On home video, however, you can catch all of comic actress Edie McClurg’s performance as a cheery car rental agent confronted by enraged customer Steve Martin as he tries to make it back to Chicago for Thanksgiving , and savor her final moment of triumph when–after enduring his barrage of “f”-bombs–she colorfully informs him of his situation without the all-important rental agreement.

9. Alice Nunn, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure – “On this very night, 10 years ago, on the same stretch of road…” So the mysterious truck driver played by Alice Nunn begins her terrifying tale to Alamo-bound hitchhiker Paul Reubens in Tim Burton’s 1985 comedy. A veteran TV and film guest star, Nunn’s second most famous role was as Joan Crawford’s maid Helga in Mommy Dearest. She passed away in 1988, but should a fog-shrouded semi pull up near you some evening, “Be sure and tell ’em Large Marge sent ya!”


10. Dean Stockwell, Blue Velvet – It’s not easy to out-bizarre your fellow cast members in a David Lynch movie, but Dean Stockwell managed to do just that in his one-scene turn as Frank Booth’s (Dennis Hopper) unctuous, kabuki-faced, satin-jacketed mentor in malevolence, Ben.  The mellow yin to Hopper’s manic yang, Stockwell’s eerie lip-synching rendition of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” just barely hints at what lies inside the depraved mind of the drug dealer/pimp.

And, last and quite possibly least…

10 1/2. Terry Richards, Raiders of the Lost Ark – Ten seconds or so of screen time only merits half a listing, but British tough guy Terry Richards will forever be remembered as the hulking Arab swordsman that a weary Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) has no interest in taking on and promptly shoots dead.