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What is a Cameo Appearance?

By Kathy Hawkins
Updated: May 23, 2024

A cameo appearance, or cameo, is a short appearance by a famous person, generally in a film or television show, though the term can also refer to a play, book, or other form of media. Cameo appearances generally are done simply for publicity or novelty value, rather than to advance the plot; a cameo generally lasts for only a few minutes in most cases.

It is often common for a film's director to have a cameo appearance in a scene of the movie. The most famous example is Alfred Hitchcock, who made a cameo in 37 of his 53 films. In these appearances, Hitchcock does not have a speaking role. Often, he plays a person in the crowd who is standing or walking close to one of the film's central characters. Some of Hitchcock's cameos are as brief as two seconds in length, while others have lasted as long as two minutes. Several modern directors, such as M. Night Shyamalan and Quentin Tarantino, regularly have a cameos in each of their films, though these are often speaking parts and may last for several minutes.

Another individual who is well-known for making a cameo appearance in many films is the horror novelist, Stephen King. He has appeared briefly in many of the movies that are based on his novels, including Creepshow, Pet Semetary, and The Stand. In several films, he has a small speaking role; in others, he merely makes a silent appearance.

Some current television shows are well-known for including at least one cameo appearance on nearly every episode. One such show is the cable program, Entourage, which is based on the life of a fictional movie star who regularly hangs out with celebrities. Entourage has featured hundreds of cameo appearances from actors, musicians, and Hollywood insiders who play themselves in the script, including Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Hefner, and Brooke Shields. Another show, Curb Your Enthusiasm often featured a cameo appearance by a well-known actor, including most of the Seinfeld cast, Mel Brooks, and many others.

The cameo appearance is not the sole province of actors and people in the entertainment industry. In novels, characters from another book by the same author frequently make a cameo appearance in a subsequent work. For example, Sir John Falstaff is a prominent character in part one and two of William Shakespeare's play, Henry IV; however, Falstaff also makes a brief cameo in a comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

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Discussion Comments
By miriam98 — On May 31, 2011

@David09 - I think some directors just love acting and never want to lose touch with their craft. It’s not uncommon to see actors eventually wind up as directors. When they do that they go different paths.

Some of them just want to stay out of the acting spotlight permanently after that, while others like to dip their feet in the water now and then. I think it just depends on the director.

I saw Clint Eastwood play a role in a movie he directed, El Torino. If you ask me, I think Eastwood never wanted to get away from the craft of acting. I think he felt as long as he had some acting role, whether major or minor in a film, he would understand better how to direct. I don’t know if his reprise in El Torino would be considered a cameo appearance, however, since it was an important role.

By David09 — On May 29, 2011

@NathanG - Cameos are kind of weird in that they don’t necessarily advance the plot in a significant way. I remember seeing M. Night Shyamalan in both Signs and The Sixth Sense. In Signs he played the guy who accidentally killed the preacher’s wife and in The Sixth Sense he played the doctor.

These aren’t exactly non-essential roles, but I always wondered, what is it that causes a director to decide he is going to cast himself in the film? Is it ego? Pride of ownership? He just loves acting? It’s always felt a little weird, but I suppose as long as you’re not casting yourself for the lead role it’s OK.

By NathanG — On May 28, 2011

One of the most recent cameo appearances that I can recall was Leonard Nimoy as Spock in the new Star Trek Movie that came out a couple of years ago. The new movie played upon a different timeline for the retelling of Captain Kirk’s history—how he came to be, and so forth.

Somewhere in that timeline something happened and the new Kirk winds up on a planet somewhere meeting the old Spock (there is also a new Spock in the movie).

I thought it was kind of strange, and in hindsight, it wasn’t that integral to the plot in my opinion, but I guess that’s what cameos are. It was neat to see Spock given a brief role. He will always be the voice of wisdom in the Star Trek films.

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