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You look a bit familiar… Five Most Effective Actor Allusions

There are many reasons why some characters in the movies seem a bit familiar. Sometimes, the actor has become so badly typecast that they only seem to play one character, as Matthew Perry and Hugh Grant seemed doomed to do in the 1990s (before Perry was cast in short-lived TV series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Grant in the Weitz brothers’ About a Boy, 2002). Sometimes a character is transferred completely from television to film, as Leslie Nielson’s Frank Drebin was from Police Squad to The Naked Gun series. But sometimes the reference, while deliberate, is more subtle.

An ‘Actor Allusion’, as defined on TV Tropes, is a casting in-joke or reference which refers to a previous role the actor has played. In most cases, the reference is a throwaway line or two and proceeds from the happy coincidence of that actor having been cast in that role (for example, you might be hard-pressed to find a Jeff Bridges film without some kind of Dude reference these days). However, sometimes the actor is cast specifically to create the desired actor allusion and their entire role revolves around it. Following the release of Duncan Jones’ Source Code, which contains a rare serious example, the time seems ripe to celebrate five of the very best and ask why they work so well (spoilers for Source Code follow).

William Shatner as Commander Buck Murdock in Airplane II: The Sequel (dir. Ken Finkleman, 1982).

Most of these sorts of allusions occur in spoofs and broad comedies, for obvious reasons, and this one is a classic. Buck Murdock may have a name that alludes to Buck Rogers, but the character is all about Captain Kirk, from the moment he looks through a periscope and thinks he sees the Starship Enterprise.

The allusion works so well for two reasons. One is that Star Trek and Captain Kirk are so spectacularly famous that most people in the Western world will probably get the joke, whether they’ve ever watched the TV show or not. Many allusions and in-jokes only appeal to a limited number of people who are aware of the older work, and while these people will find it hilarious, others will be left wondering if there was a purpose to the odd comment or strange event they just watched (as anyone who’s watched a TV show made in another country can testify). Following the release of the new movie and with the disappearance of Star Trek from TV for the time being, it may be that, eventually, the fame of the original series’ stars will fade and no one will understand why Leonard Nimoy narrates all the science-fiction flavoured episodes of The Simpsons. However, that time is not yet, and for the moment, this is one we can all get.

The other reason it works is that Shatner throws himself into the role with such goodwill. His po-faced expression as he stares through tiny windows on a lunar base, tries to work out which spaceship he’s looking at and faces panel after panel of blinking lights is perfect – just over the top enough to let us know he’s in on the joke, just serious enough to work in the context of the film. Shatner’s comic skills have always been a big part of what made Captain Kirk such a successful leading man, even when the scripted jokes scraped the bottom of the ‘truly awful’ barrel, and they serve him and the film perfectly here.

Martin Sheen as a soldier in Vietnam in Hot Shots! Part Deux (dir. Jim Abrahams, 1993).

Another spoof-comedy cameo, the beauty of this one is how much came together to create a gag that seems, in hindsight, almost inevitable. There are a few big acting families around and the Sheens/Estevezs are among the most prolific, especially when it comes to working with each other. Not only do they seem to work together more often than most other acting dynasties put together, they also all look so extraordinarily alike that even Martin Sheen’s daughter Renee had to be kept out of focus in the background for seven years on The West Wing, before finally getting an in-joke of her own in the finale (Sheen asks after her mother). Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club (dir. John Hughes, 1985) could almost be his father in Badlands (dir. Terence Malik, 1973) and while Charlie Sheen is slightly taller and of a different build, the similarities in his features are striking.

Charlie Sheen had starred in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), so it was hardly a giant leap to include some kind of in-joke referencing Vietnam and Platoon in particular in a Rambo spoof like Hot Shots! Part Deux. But famous father Martin had also starred in an exceptionally well known Vietnam movie, Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). And so, Martin Sheen is brought in, playing an unnamed character based on Apocalypse Now’s Captain Willard, to greet his son as their boats pass on a jungle river. This would be fairly amusing by itself, but the whole thing is topped off by the two yelling simultaneously ‘I loved you in Wall Street!’ – a film in which, of course, both starred (dir. Oliver Stone, 1987). Put simply, so many gags – referencing well known movies for maximum impact – come together here that it represents some kind of movie in-joke perfection.

Colin Firth as Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary (dir. Sharon Maguire, 2001).

If you thought Six Degrees of the Sheen/Estevez Family was complicated, in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Colin Firth plays a fictional character who is based on his televisual interpretation of the forerunner of the same fictional character. In the books, the titular Bridget lusts after Firth in the first book and actually interviews him in the second; this was, thankfully, cut from the second movie in case the whole production came crashing down in a state of meta-textual confusion.

The reason it works may seem obvious – Mark Darcy is modelled loosely after Firth’s interpretation of Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy, so of course, Firth should play him. But it if were that simple, the casting would not have worked. If Firth just played Mark Darcy as Austen’s Darcy, he would come across as a one-note actor (at the time this was by far his best known role) and the film would have fallen flat. Mark Darcy is not a one-joke cameo or small role like Shatner’s or Sheen’s, he is a fully fledged character and must be three dimensional enough to provide a convincing romantic lead. No matter how much female viewers might be in love with Mr Darcy, they would find themselves quickly taken out of the film if he suddenly appeared in unaltered form in the early twenty-first century.

Much of the work is done by the books and script, of course. The books’ Mark Darcy is based on Mr Darcy and is a similar character, but he is not quite the same, partly because he lives two hundred years later and partly because he has living parents to please. The films emphasise the difference in various ways, most notably by ensuring that his last line in the first film includes the ‘f’ word (Austen would be quite taken aback).

The bulk of the work, however, is done by Firth, who turns in a performance that is almost, but not quite, Darcy. Mark Darcy has the same haughty attitude and abrupt way of speaking as his forerunner, but he smiles more – indeed, he shows all his emotions more strongly, for where Firth’s Mr Darcy conveys emotion almost entirely by the power of dark eyes, Mark Darcy looks wistful, grumpy, surprised, cheeky and all the other various emotions that come into play in a romantic comedy. There is just enough Darcy in Mark to make the casting work; there is just enough Mark in Mark Darcy to prevent him from becoming a one-joke character and turn him into a lead.

Scott Bakula as Coulter’s Father in Source Code (dir. Duncan Jones, 2011).

This is a rare example of a serious use of this sort of allusion, in a serious scene. Many viewers will have no idea that the voice on the other end of the ‘phone is the star of Quantum Leap, and it won’t matter – the scene works perfectly well without it. Jones has commented that part of the reason he wanted Bakula was because his voice is strong, familiar and reassuring without necessarily being immediately recognisible.

There is, however, more to it than simple good casting. The plot of Source Code follows Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has left his own body behind and entered into that of another, and who is trying to avert a past disaster and change the future for the people around him. The debt to cult favourite Quantum Leap is immediately obvious to anyone who’s seen the show (in which the main character Sam Beckett ‘leaps’ into the bodies of others to change the course of the past) and rather than trying to cover this up, Jones acknowledges it openly. Most notably, he includes a ‘mirror shot’ in which our hero looks into a mirror and sees the person he’s leaped into looking back at him, one of which appeared in just about every episode of Quantum Leap. Jones isn’t trying to ‘steal’ ideas from the show and the homages are more than just a tip of the hat – he is acknowledging his debt to the show with visual references that deliberately invoke the earlier work as a way of saying ‘thank you’, as well as helping viewers to understand what’s going on.

The casting of Bakula in a voice-only role is another ‘reference’ to the earlier show. The scene he appears in is one of the most touching and tragic in the film and, as such, echoes one of the less well-remembered facets of Quantum Leap. Although the TV show was often silly (the episode where Sam leaps into a chimpanzee springs to mind) it was equally often sad and melancholic, and a number of episodes centred around Sam’s colleague Al’s military career and the personal tragedy he suffered when he was declared missing and his wife re-married. In the series finale of Quantum Leap, Sam changed the timeline so that Al and his wife remained married, but Sam himself was condemned to leap on forever, serving others and never returning home. This is not dissimilar to the fate Dr Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) has in mind for Coulter, who can never return to his own home but who is expected to continue serving the military in the bodies of others indefinitely. As Coulter tries to escape this fate, hearing Bakula’s voice on the other end of the phone is both poignant and chilling, adding a extra degree of tension for fans that make the connection – will Coulter also be condemned to ‘leap’ forever, as his ‘father’ was? It is these added layers that make this so effective, and so much more than a simple voice cameo.

Derek Jacobi as Gracchus in Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott, 2000).

Derek Jacobi’s most famous role was as the stammering Emperor Claudius in the TV series I, Claudius. Jacobi was completely convincing as the title character, aging onscreen from early twenties to late seventies and holding the audience’s rapt attention through thirteen hours of orgies, beheadings, poisonings and Brian Blessed. As such, he is the go-to actor to cast in just about anything involving Romans or stammering. In The King’s Speech (dir. Tom Hooper, 2010), for example, he plays the snobbish Archbishop, who always seems to know exactly the wrong thing to say, though without actually stammering himself. Appearances like this cause knowing smiles to break out across the faces of the audience, though it is fair to say that in some cases, it may be a simple coincidence of casting.

The role of Gracchus in Gladiator, however, seems more deliberately cast to refer to his former role. Gracchus is the calmest, sanest character in the film, in whose hands the Empire is left after the (unhistorical) death of Emperor Commodus. Although devoid of stammer or imperial relations, Gracchus has much in common with novelist Robert Graves’ Emperor Claudius; he is shrewd, cautious, a survivor rather than a hero who knows the way other people’s minds work and uses that knowledge to try to achieve his own ends. The allusion works partly because Jacobi is such a good actor he would be excellent in the role anyway, but also because when they see him, a button clicks in the audience’s mind that says ‘Ah yes – this is ancient Rome. I know where I am and what to expect’ (namely, murder, incest and intrigue, elements less prominent in the more battle-centred earlier parts of the film).

These Actor Allusions work largely thanks to the talent of the actors concerned and add an extra layer of depth to the film for those who ‘get’ them without, importantly, leaving behind those who don’t. These five are those I think are especially successful, but there are many equally effective ones and honourable mention must go to Ian Holm, who once voiced Frodo Baggins in a radio play, and who played uncle Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (dir. Peter Jackson, 2001) to perfection. The obvious gags are great fun, but perhaps most fun of all is spotting the more subtle ones later when watching the film at home on DVD!

– Juliette Harrisson