Looking back at some of the strangest cameos in film and TV history, we were struck by how many of them were by musicians. It makes sense. After all, musicians are already out of place among actors on a TV or film set. What they bring to the table is different from what actors bring, in terms of star quality, charisma, self-expression and established personae. If you’re familiar with both the musician’s work and the characters in a movie or TV show (and the actors who play them), then it’s fun to watch the discharge of weird energy that takes place in the pop star’s fish-out-of-water encounters with fictional characters and the stars who portray them. Here, then, are 14 of our favorites from over the years.
Tom Waits, Fernwood 2Night (1977)
The faux talk show hosted by Barth Gimble (Martin Mull) and Jerry Hubbard (Fred Willard) books Waits as a guest, since a tour bus breakdown has stranded the whiskey-voiced crooner in the Midwestern town of the title. It’s weird to hear a laugh track over Waits’ performance of “The Piano Has Been Drinking,” with each of its wry little ironies prompting loud guffaws. And then Waits sits down for a surreal interview with the clueless small-town hosts. Mull and Willard are two of the funniest men in TV history, but they play it straight as city slicker Waits drops sly one-liners and cadges $20 from the pair. It’s easy to imagine, back in 1977, an audience that was just as puzzled as the hosts were by Waits’ shtick.
The Clash, The King of Comedy (1983)
They’re just billed in the movie as “Street Scum,” but among the gang of New York City street-corner punks who make fun of Sandra Bernhard’s character in one scene are Clash mainstays Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Joe Strummer. (Director Martin Scorsese was reportedly a fan of the British punk pioneers.) Also present are the band’s manager, Kosmo Vinyl, filmmaker Don Letts, singer Pearl Harbour and singer-actress Ellen Foley (Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” duet partner, and later a star of TV’s Night Court).
Bo Diddley, Trading Places (1983)
The rock guitar pioneer shows up in this comedy classic as a Philadelphia pawnbroker who believes that down-and-out Dan Aykroyd is trying to sell him a stolen watch. The former commodities broker insists that the watch is worth thousands of dollars and tells time in several different world cities, including Gstaad. Diddley’s delivery is priceless on the reply: “In Philadelphia, it’s worth 50 bucks.” The scene ends as the man behind the album Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger sells Aykroyd a pistol.
Lou Reed, Get Crazy (1983)
In this nearly forgotten comedy by Allan Arkush (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) about a New Year’s Eve all-star rock concert, Reed plays Auden, who’s an apparent gloss on Bob Dylan. It’s an interesting casting idea – both Dylan and Reed were Sixties visionaries who expanded the artistic vocabulary of rock, then spent the rest of their careers exploring vastly different but occasionally overlapping territories. Still, given how much their paths diverged, Reed’s take on Dylan seems surprisingly spot-on and hilarious. He’s soft-spoken, deliberately obscure and enigmatic, endlessly fascinating, and (onstage) completely on fire.
Boy George, The A-Team (1986)
You probably never realized how much camp was behind the macho heroics of The A-Team until the flamboyant George O’Dowd showed up. At a time when both Culture Club and the A-Team were getting a bit past their prime, they joined forces in an unlikely episode where Face (Dirk Benedict) hits a snag as a music promoter when he mistakenly books CC into a country-western nightspot full of homophobic cowpokes. (See, he thought he was getting an act called Cowboy George, not Boy George.) Still, the British new-wavers save the day, first when they win over the country crowd, and second, when they help the team foil a robbery of the venue’s till. At a key moment, Boy George shows how butch he is by kicking in a door. (Then he cracks up, unable to keep from breaking character.) “Totally awesome, Hannibal,” George tells George Peppard. Indeed, totally awesome.
Miles Davis, Scrooged (1988)
The inventor of cool plays the leader of a band of street musicians performing Christmas carols in front of the midtown Manhattan office building where Bill Murray’s bah-humbug TV executive rules with an iron fist. Davis and company (including fellow ringers Larry Carlton, David Sanborn and Paul Shaffer) barely get through a few bars of a muted, crackling, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” before Murray lashes out at them, calling the buskers amateurs who must have just learned the tune yesterday and who ought to take their collected change and use it on music lessons. Offscreen, one can imagine the two Zen masters, Miles and Murray, either bonding over their shared bad attitudes or else avoiding each other completely out of mutual alpha-male respect. Onscreen, one simply gasps at Murray’s chutzpah – though, really, who else would have the balls to dis Miles Davis to his face?
The Flaming Lips, Beverly Hills 90210 (1995)
In the episode “Love Hurts,” the alt-rockers give a fairly straightforward performance (by their standards – no animal costumes, for instance) of their then-recent hit “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Nonetheless, the Fox drama’s resolutely unhip teens and twentysomethings seem thoroughly bewildered, even disappointed. Well, not Steve Sanders (Ian Ziering), who admits that he’s not much into alternative music, but these guys “rocked the house!” His date, however, grumbles that the Lips are no Michael Bolton. Nope, they’re not.
Iggy Pop, The Adventures of Pete & Pete (1995)
The Artist Formerly Known as James Osterberg appeared on five episodes of the Nineties kidcom, playing James Mecklenberg, overprotective father to Nona (Michelle Trachtenberg), the sometime love interest of Little Pete (Danny Tamberelli). In the episode “Dance Fever,” the Stooges frontman comes along to the school dance and embarrasses his daughter with a sung request (in that singular Iggy Pop baritone croon) to have the last dance, but Little Pete slides in and Pop-blocks him, much to Nona’s relief.
Tom Jones, Mars Attacks (1996)
Your great-aunt’s favorite Vegas heartthrob crooner plays himself in Tim Burton’s alien invasion spoof. Not surprisingly, the ageless, virile Welshman proves his indestructibility as a survivalist hero after the vicious Martians all but level the gambling Mecca. (Still, it’s another singer, the recently deceased country yodeler Slim Whitman, whose high-pitched vocals prove fatal to the sensitive-eared Martians.)
Aimee Mann, The Big Lebowski (1997)
Pop thrush Mann has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in the Joel and Ethan Coen comedy cult favorite as one of the German nihilists. Specifically, she’s the one who sacrifices her green-nail-polish-adorned toe for the cause. (Also part of the group is Red Hot Chili Peppers exhibitionist Flea.) It’s one of the former ‘Til Tuesday singer’s few acting performances. She’s slightly more vocal in an appearance as herself, performing at the Bronze nightclub on Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a 2002 episode, where she gets to say, “Man, I hate playing vampire towns.”
Bob Dylan, Dharma & Greg (1999)
Wacky hippie-chick Dharma (Jenna Elfman) auditions to play drums for Dylan’s band. At least for a few minutes of sitcom time, the music icon proves unexpectedly tolerant of her mugging, spotlight-hogging and lack of rhythmic diversity. The band (ncluding such aces as T Bone Burnett and Joe Henry) manage to follow her lead for a few numbers, but even after Bob tries tactfully to give her the brush-off, she still has the chutzpah to ask if Dylan and his pros will help her load her drum set into her van. Dylan has the grace to find her more amusing than insulting.
Bruce Springsteen, High Fidelity (2000)
The Boss has dispensed a lot of advice over the years, but he’s acted in only one movie. Here, he appears as himself, rock icon, moral exemplar and guru to John Cusack’s music-store geek. The vignette has its roots in Nick Hornby’s novel, and Cusack’s real-life acquaintance with Springsteen made the cameo a reality. Bruce tosses off a few guitar licks and words of wisdom about women, but what he says is of less consequence than the surprising fact that he’s there at all.
Elvis Costello (with Sean Penn and Harry Dean Stanton), Two and a Half Men (2004)
In the Season Two premiere, boozy jingle writer Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) invites a few pals over for a night of cigars, Scotch and male bonding. The pals just happen to be an Oscar-winning movie star, a legendary pop songwriter and a veteran character actor. It’s odd to see such celebrated talents used as props to throw into sharp relief the ongoing tensions between Charlie and his dweeby brother Alan (Jon Cryer), but all three guests get off several good punchlines, generally at their own expense. And Costello takes an offhand comment of Penn’s, in which he denies having any flagpole-raising problems with his then-wife Robin Wright, and turns it into a mournful ballad, with the refrain “Rally ’round the flag.”
Justin Bieber, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2010-11)
The Canadian teen idol appeared on two episodes of the veteran procedural drama as Jason McCann, a young anti-tax radical and a bomb expert who causes explosive mayhem all over Las Vegas before the cops shoot him dead. The pop singer didn’t make Beliebers – er, believers – out of a lot of longtime CSI fans, but whatever twisted schemes his character is planning behind that baby face, you certainly can’t take your eyes off him.
This list was originally published in July 2013