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The Actor-Director Recycling Company

Scorsese and De Niro. Burton and Depp. Allen and Allen. There’s a long history of filmmakers and performers who work together over and over again. What can we learn from a deep dive into these repeated pairings?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Earlier this summer, Dunkirk viewers who weren’t already deafened by the beginning of the film may have noticed the distinctive voice of Michael Caine coming over RAF radio in an aerial scene. Even though there were no on-camera opportunities for an 84-year-old actor in the lean and grisly story of soldiers marooned and rescued at a pivotal point of World War II, director Christopher Nolan still scrounged up a voice-over role for the legend who’s appeared in every one of his films since Batman Begins.

“I wanted very much to squeeze him in here,” Nolan said, confirming Caine’s uncredited cameo and acknowledging an homage to Caine’s character in the 1969 film Battle of Britain. “And also, it’s Michael. He has to be in all my films, after all.”

Nolan is known for recycling stars. Counting Dunkirk, Caine has appeared in seven of the 10 feature films that Nolan has directed; one of the pilots Caine’s character talks to is played by Tom Hardy, who’s starred in three Nolan movies. (Costar Cillian Murphy’s Nolan Number is up to five.) But Nolan isn’t alone in bringing back cast members. While his movies are among the most visible recent examples of a director repeatedly getting the gang back together, he actually goes back to the well a lot less than many other prominent moviemakers.

Every director recycles, for obvious reasons. Making a movie means making oneself vulnerable to catastrophe and ridicule, and a returning actor represents certainty and continuity amid a mass of unknowns. There’s relative safety and, at times, artistic synergy in the pairing of particular people who have a rapport, push each other, and know how to work when they’re sharing a set. Most movie watchers can reel off a litany of well-known director-actor duos without thinking too hard: Scorsese–De Niro (and DiCaprio); Soderbergh-Clooney (and Damon); Allen-Farrow; Burton-Depp; Howard-Hanks. In most of these iconic cases, surnames aren’t even necessary: You’ll follow along if I cite Spike and Denzel, Ridley and Russell, Pedro and Penélope, or PTA and PSH.

In the wake of Dunkirk, I wanted to determine which directors are most prone to reusing actors and which director-actor combos resurface most frequently. To do that, I pulled Box Office Mojo’s list of directors ranked by cumulative box-office gross (in inflation-adjusted 2017 dollars) and filtered out any who have directed fewer than 10 films. That left me with 102 directors (counting each of the Farrelly brothers separately). Then I asked Walt Hickey of FiveThirtyEight to help me write a script to scrape the IMDb pages of each of those directors. The resulting data dump contains every credited cast member from each of those 102 directors’ features—a total of 77,010 unique director-actor pairings across 1,766 films. A little spreadsheet magic later (courtesy of Jessie Barbour), I had what I wanted.

A few caveats: First, these data exclude documentaries, short films, TV movies, and other smaller-scale projects. We counted only feature films, including some that haven’t yet made it to theaters but do have casts listed on IMDb. Second, the results include only credited cast members, which means that Caine’s Dunkirk contribution doesn’t make the cut. And third, because IMDb doesn’t isolate the stars of each film—many movies list their casts in order of appearance—there was no way to limit the data collection to leading roles. That means that an obscure actor credited as Waiter #1 in one film and Angry Guy #2 in another film by the same director would get the same credit for a repeat appearance as a more recognizable name with top billing in both movies.

With that “brought to you by” behind us, we can proceed to the stats. The table below lists the top and bottom 20 directors in repeats per movie, where a “repeat” is defined as an actor’s second appearance in a movie made by the same director. (In other words, the Nolan-Caine pairing accounts for five repeats, counting each of the movies they made together following Batman Begins, save for the uncredited Dunkirk role.)

Most and Fewest Repeats Per Movie

Director Repeats Movies Repeats Per Movie (Most) Director Repeats Movies Repeats Per Movie (Fewest)
Director Repeats Movies Repeats Per Movie (Most) Director Repeats Movies Repeats Per Movie (Fewest)
Bobby Farrelly 421 12 35.1 Michael Apted 14 22 0.6
Peter Farrelly 433 13 33.3 Rob Cohen 9 13 0.7
Garry Marshall 450 18 25 Ang Lee 11 14 0.8
David Mamet 133 10 13.3 Peter Weir 12 15 0.8
Peter Jackson 180 14 12.9 Mike Newell 16 19 0.8
Andrew Davis 151 13 11.6 Taylor Hackford 13 14 0.9
Spike Lee 296 27 11 Curtis Hanson 13 14 0.9
Dennis Dugan 152 14 10.9 William Friedkin 18 19 0.9
Mel Brooks 114 11 10.4 Frank Oz 13 12 1.1
Jonathan Demme 181 18 10.1 Paul Schrader 24 20 1.2
Mike Leigh 120 13 9.2 Wolfgang Petersen 17 14 1.2
Robert Rodriguez 193 21 9.2 Renny Harlin 25 20 1.3
Woody Allen 445 49 9.1 Roger Donaldson 24 19 1.3
Michael Bay 118 13 9.1 James Mangold 13 10 1.3
Sam Raimi 131 15 8.7 Edward Zwick 17 13 1.3
Richard Donner 167 21 8 Phillip Noyce 27 20 1.4
Kevin Smith 127 16 7.9 Mira Nair 19 14 1.4
Pedro Almodóvar 158 21 7.5 James Foley 18 13 1.4
John Landis 134 19 7.1 Roman Polanski 32 23 1.4
Chris Columbus 98 15 6.5 Stephen Frears 35 24 1.5

When it comes to cast recycling, there are really two categories: the one with the Farrelly brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary) and the late Garry Marshall (Overboard, Pretty Woman), and the one with everyone else. Repeatedly employing friends and family is one of the primary reasons for the Farrellys’ (and Marshall’s) high ranking—if you’re related to either of them, you probably got to be in a bunch of their movies. (More on that in a moment.)

There are some names among the rampant repeaters that one would expect to be topping a list of this type, including Kevin Smith, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Peter Jackson (whose score is inflated by his many Tolkien adaptations), but Nolan is nowhere to be found. If you scan the full list, you’ll spot him in 34th place out of 102, with an average of 4.6 repeats per movie. (In case you’re wondering where Wes Anderson is, he hasn’t quite hit the 10-movie mark. The forthcoming Isle of Dogs will be his ninth feature film.) Overall, the results reveal a remarkable range in casting tendencies. It’s not uncommon for directors to recycle several actors per movie, but eight qualifying directors have averaged less than one cast member in common from film to film.

Let’s dig a little deeper. The results above include cases where directors cast themselves in their own films, as some filmmakers are famous (and/or notorious) for doing. Vanity parts are tough to resist: 44 of the 102 directors in the data set can boast about at least one credited role in their own films. The following table includes all of the directors who’ve had credited parts in at least five of their own films. The full list—which includes Martin Scorsese at four films (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Bringing Out the Dead)—is available here.

Director Cameos

Director Total Films by Director Number of Own Films Acted In
Director Total Films by Director Number of Own Films Acted In
Woody Allen 49 28
Clint Eastwood 36 22
Tyler Perry 23 18
Spike Lee 27 11
Kenneth Branagh 18 10
Mel Brooks 11 9
Kevin Smith 16 9
M. Night Shyamalan 13 8
Dennis Dugan 14 8
Barry Sonnenfeld 11 7
Oliver Stone 20 5
Rob Reiner 20 5

Allen, of course, is the king of casting himself; including his upcoming, as-yet-untitled 2018 release, he’s made 49 films, the most in the data set. He’s also acted in more than half of those movies, making “Woody Allen–Woody Allen” the most common director-actor combo in the sample.

Speaking of the sample: The whole set of 77,000-plus pairings is available here. You can comb through all of the combos at your leisure, but let’s identify the most prolific (if not necessarily the most memorable) pairings in three arenas.

Nepotism Picks, Supporting Actors, and Stars

Perhaps unsurprisingly, patronage appears to be alive and well in the moviemaking business. We all do favors for our family members and friends to the extent that our positions and powers allow, but most of us can’t cast relatives in film roles. That’s the kind of favor that directors do. Consequently, the top of the repeat-pairings leaderboard is littered with actors who share the same last name as their director, or who have easily unearthed family ties of some sort. Below I’ve listed all of the family connections I could identify among director-actor combos with at least eight repeats.

Directors and Nepotism

Director Actor Director-Actor Combo Repeats Relationship to Director Total Films by Director
Director Actor Director-Actor Combo Repeats Relationship to Director Total Films by Director
Ron Howard Clint Howard Ron Howard-Clint Howard 16 Brother 25
Ron Howard Rance Howard Ron Howard-Rance Howard 14 Father 25
Richard Donner Steve Kahan Richard Donner-Steve Kahan 13 Cousin 21
Garry Marshall Kathleen Marshall Garry Marshall-Kathleen Marshall 12 Daughter 18
Sam Raimi Ted Raimi Sam Raimi-Ted Raimi 11 Brother 15
Garry Marshall Barbara Marshall Garry Marshall-Barbara Marshall 11 Wife 18
Garry Marshall Scott Marshall Garry Marshall-Scott Marshall 11 Son 18
Oliver Stone Sean Stone Oliver Stone-Sean Stone 11 Son 20
Pedro Almodóvar Agustín Almodóvar Pedro Almodóvar-Agustín Almodóvar 11 Brother 21
Ridley Scott Giannina Facio Ridley Scott-Giannina Facio 9 Wife 26
Garry Marshall Tracy Reiner Garry Marshall-Tracy Reiner 9 Niece 18
Peter Farrelly Zen Gesner Peter Farrelly-Zen Gesner 8 Brother-in-Law 13
Spike Lee Joie Lee Spike Lee-Joie Lee 8 Sister 27

Naturally, I’m not claiming that these beneficiaries weren’t capable of playing their parts, but it seems safe to say that some of them might not have been deemed the best actors available in a true meritocracy—which, of course, has never existed in the entertainment industry (or, for that matter, most other industries). The majority of these generous directors haven’t deceived themselves about their relatives’ acting talents, which is why most of the parts dispensed to family members are so small as to pass without notice.

Although Ron Howard has employed his brother and father (who made his movie debut alongside 2-year-old Ron in the 1956 Western Frontier Woman) more often than any other director on the list has cast from the the family tree, Marshall was by far the most generous job creator for family members. His daughter, wife, son, and niece all qualify for this list, and many other friends and relatives fall a few films short of the eight-repeat cutoff. When Marshall—who more or less remade Pretty Woman as The Princess Diaries and also reunited Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Runaway Bride—died last year, he wasn’t the only Marshall whose Hollywood career was affected (although there’s still an accomplished filmmaker in the family).

The table would have swelled significantly if I’d included close friends and associates alongside family members. John Doumanian, amicably divorced ex-husband of Woody Allen’s longtime friend and producer Jean, has had bit parts in 14 of Allen’s films, from Annie Hall (“Coke Fiend”) right up through 2016’s Café Society (“Bartender”). Stockbroker Al Palagonia gave Spike Lee his first courtside seats at a Knicks game and, as a token of Spike’s appreciation, has appeared in 11 Lee joints.

Marshall’s largesse extended to acquaintances, too; Tom Hines was a waiter whom Marshall encouraged to “come in and audition.” The audition didn’t go great—upon seeing Hines act, Marshall told him to “try other things”—but he still ended up acting in nine Marshall movies, while also serving as the director’s personal assistant, screenwriter, and on-set script doctor. And while the frequently repeating Farrellys don’t show up on the family leaderboard, they’re all over the rows at eight repeats and under. The late Danny Murphy, who became quadriplegic in a 1974 diving accident at which Peter was present, ended up in nine Farrelly films after he needled his director friend about the lack of wheelchair-equipped characters in his movies up to that point. When asked about his casting process, Peter Farrelly once said, “I just really hate saying no to people,” which probably applies to plenty of directors when they’re dealing with people they personally know. If you want to make it in the movies—at least for a moment or two at a time—meet a director, or be born related to one.

There are limits to knowing movie people in high places; it usually takes some real skill to become a regular with bigger parts than “Bartender” and “Coke Fiend.” We’ve come to the character actors: This is the class of screen staples whom most moviegoers can’t name but can recognize (or would have been able to recognize at the peak of their not-quite fame). I’m excluding stunt people such as George Orrison (10 films with Clint Eastwood) and Allan Graf (nine with Walter Hill); to make this list, the audience must be capable of placing the face. We’ll stick with an eight-repeat minimum once more.

Directors and Supporting Actors

Director Actor Director-Actor Combo Repeats Total Films by Director
Director Actor Director-Actor Combo Repeats Total Films by Director
Richard Donner Paul Tuerpe Richard Donner-Paul Tuerpe 15 21
Garry Marshall Hector Elizondo Garry Marshall-Hector Elizondo 14 18
Barry Levinson Ralph Tabakin Barry Levinson-Ralph Tabakin 14 23
Neil Jordan Stephen Rea Neil Jordan-Stephen Rea 10 18
Garry Marshall Frank Campanella Garry Marshall-Frank Campanella 9 18
Woody Allen Ira Wheeler Woody Allen-Ira Wheeler 9 49
Tyler Perry Cassi Davis Tyler Perry-Cassi Davis 8 23
Walter Hill Peter Jason Walter Hill-Peter Jason 8 21
Jonathan Demme Charles Napier Jonathan Demme-Charles Napier 8 18
Spike Lee John Turturro Spike Lee-John Turturro 8 27

Paul Tuerpe pops up in hired-gun roles in all four Lethal Weapon films and also plays uniformed officials in Airport ’77, The Toy, The Goonies, and Superman, his first pairing with Richard Donner. Héctor Elizondo met Marshall in 1979 and became a constant in Marshall’s movies from Young Doctors in Love (1982) all the way through the director’s final film, Mother’s Day (2016). Frank Campanella, another Marshall go-to guy, had credited roles in TV shows and films from 1949 to 2006, and coached De Niro in Sicilian for De Niro’s role as young Vito in The Godfather: Part II. This category contains some of the most improbable acting origin stories: Ralph Tabakin, veteran of 15 Barry Levinson films, was a retired FAA engineer and community-theater director when Levinson spotted him accompanying some students to an audition and hired him on the spot. Awarded two Bronze Stars and five Purple Hearts in World War II, Tabakin had a battle-scarred face that made him stand out in small roles in The Natural, Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man, and more. “I could never write what he does,” Levinson said in 1999. “Ralph is a genuine character.”

Frequent Allen ally Ira Wheeler also came to acting late in life, answering an ad on a whim that led to his big-screen debut in Rollover after his 60th birthday. In addition to her recurring role as Ella Payne on Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, Cassi Davis is a constant in the Madea movies; strong-jawed enforcer Charles Napier, meanwhile, was often enlisted by director Russ Meyer as well as Jonathan Demme, just as Peter Jason is always on call for both Hill and John Carpenter. John Turturro is on the border of being too famous to be stuck in supporting territory, which signals that we’ve come to the category that closes awards shows and will also end this article.

Leading Roles

This fifth and final table lists the most star-powered pairings with six repeats or more.

Directors and Lead Actors

Director Actor Director-Actor Combo Repeats Total Films by Director
Director Actor Director-Actor Combo Repeats Total Films by Director
Woody Allen Mia Farrow Woody Allen-Mia Farrow 12 49
Robert Rodriguez Danny Trejo Robert Rodriguez-Danny Trejo 11 21
Sam Raimi Bruce Campbell Sam Raimi-Bruce Campbell 10 15
Yimou Zhang Li Gong Yimou Zhang-Li Gong 9 24
Kevin Smith Jason Mewes Kevin Smith-Jason Mewes 9 16
Martin Scorsese Robert De Niro Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro 8 27
Robert Rodriguez Cheech Marin Robert Rodriguez-Cheech Marin 8 21
Tim Burton Johnny Depp Tim Burton-Johnny Depp 7 19
Dennis Dugan Adam Sandler Dennis Dugan-Adam Sandler 7 14
Richard Linklater Ethan Hawke Richard Linklater-Ethan Hawke 7 21
Tim Burton Helena Bonham Carter Tim Burton-Helena Bonham Carter 6 19
Sydney Pollack Robert Redford Sydney Pollack-Robert Redford 6 20
John Landis Dan Aykroyd John Landis-Dan Aykroyd 6 19
Robert Rodriguez Antonio Banderas Robert Rodriguez-Antonio Banderas 6 21
Robert Altman Shelley Duvall Robert Altman-Shelley Duvall 6 36
Pedro Almodóvar Antonio Banderas Pedro Almodóvar-Antonio Banderas 6 21
Woody Allen Diane Keaton Woody Allen-Diane Keaton 6 49

Farrow and Allen form the most prolific partnership in this sample; during the period when the two were together romantically, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, she acted in every film of his between A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and Husbands and Wives, 13 in total. By that time, Allen had already completed a previous productive screen partnership with an earlier love interest, Diane Keaton, who sneaks onto the table at the bottom.

Texas-born director Robert Rodriguez makes this table three times for working relationships with Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, and Antonio Banderas (who also qualifies with Almodóvar). Although Trejo is Rodriguez’s second cousin, he’d been acting in features for a decade before he first teamed up with Rodriguez in 1995’s Desperado; he’s continued to rack up credits for Rodriguez in the “Machete” role the combo created in Spy Kids. Bruce Campbell, who ranks just below Trejo, is most famous for the three times he’s starred for his high-school friend Sam Raimi in The Evil Dead and its sequels, but he’s also made cameos in Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, Darkman, and more.

As expected, Scorsese–De Niro (which will add another chapter in next year’s The Irishman) and Burton-Depp (which no one wants another chapter of) make the list, as does another Burton regular, Helena Bonham Carter; Jason Mewes, who’s repeatedly played Jay to Kevin Smith’s Silent Bob; Li Gong, frequent collaborator of Chinese director Zhang Yimou; Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford, whose partnership spanned seven films over 25 years and produced The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, and Out of Africa; Robert Altman and Shelley Duvall, who spent much of the ’70s making classics together; and the ongoing relationship between Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke, who’ve coproduced and cowritten some of their joint projects, eight of which have featured Hawke on screen. (“We’re always working on something,” Hawke said last year.) Comedies are well represented, too, courtesy of Dennis Dugan–Adam Sandler and John Landis–Dan Aykroyd.

Many of the most famous director-actor twosomes just miss this cut, with five repeats apiece (that is, six total appearances). In the almost-qualified category, we get Peter Jackson’s Tolkien completists, including Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, and Andy Serkis; Donner and Mel Gibson; the Nolan-Caine duo that inspired this exercise; Scorsese and DiCaprio (and Harvey Keitel); Steven Soderbergh and both Clooney and Damon; Oliver Stone and John C. McGinley; Rodriguez and Salma Hayek; the Coen brothers and a trio of regulars, Frances McDormand, John Goodman, and Steve Buscemi; Spike Lee and a trio of his regulars, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, and Ossie Davis; Lawrence Kasdan and Kevin Kline; Kevin Smith and Ben Affleck; Paul Schrader and Willem Dafoe; David Mamet and William H. Macy; and Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan.

Many movies we’ve marveled at would never have reached the creative heights that they did without the director-actor alchemy that accrues after repeated pairings. This sort of recycling is often a source of inspiration, not a sign that some is missing, although a meeting of like-minded director and actor is only a spark, not a full-fledged fire. The graph below, assembled from available Box Office Mojo inflation-adjusted domestic earnings and Rotten Tomatoes scores for the first seven movies made by the directors and stars with the most repeat pairings, shows that the reception tends to trend up (or decline only slightly) in the second and third go-rounds.

After that, though, a gradual decline into creative (and possibly financial) bankruptcy sometimes ensues. The Dugan-Sandler pairing is a reminder that even the most prolific pairings don’t always produce cinematic magic; for every Happy Gilmore, there’s a Jack and Jill.