The biographical film is one of the most compelling film genres because it allows audiences to experience characters from the story through cinematic storytelling. Seeing the visual representation of the subject helps bring the story to life, and sometimes the subject is always there to appear in the film.

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Whether it’s absurd comedies like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or historical dramas like Erin Brockovitch, the biopic genre is filled with fascinating cameos. Showing the subject on screen gives the film an air of authenticity and the audience can more easily believe what they see.


The Good Things (1983)

The Good Things (1983)

Based on the book by author Tom Wolfe, The good thing attempted to capture an entire era of American space exploration in a single film. The film follows the beginnings of the US space program from the first test flights to break the sound barrier to the launch of the Mercury 7 rocket.

The central focus of the film is test pilot Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepard, who made some of the first flights to break the sound barrier. Appearing in the film as Fred the bartender, Yeager watches over the three astronauts as they reunite at a local bar. Although his role is small, the legendary figure’s presence is almost nostalgic as he watches a fictionalized version of the story he made.

Big Eyes (2014)

Margaret Keane painted in the park of Big Eyes

Some cameos bring the subject matter to the forefront of the film and make their appearance very obvious, while others are much more subtle. Big eyes follows painter Margaret Keane who found sudden success with her unique style of painting. Unfortunately, Keane’s life was cut short when her husband tried to take credit for her paintings.

During a scene in which Keane, played by Amy Adams, paints in the San Francisco park, the painter herself appears in the background. Simply sitting on a bench and reading, Keane is barely noticeable to moviegoers until a photo of Adams and Keane is shown over the end credits. Although different from many of his other films, Big eyes remains one of Tim Burton’s finest modern films.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Jordan Belfort gives a motivational speech in Wolf of Wall Street

Although most biopics that feature cameos are flattering, Martin Scorsese’s classic the wolf of Wall Street has a less rosy view of his subject. The film follows Jordan Belfort, a shrewd stockbroker who experiences a meteoric rise and eventual fall in the world of corrupt stock trading.

Appearing briefly in the film as a motivational speaker, Belfort graced the screen in his own biopic. In a rare moment of reality, Belfort’s cameo allows him to show off a bit of the dangerous charisma that has led him to his successes (and failures). While the film doesn’t attempt to draw too much attention to Belfort’s cameo, his personality is much bigger than a movie’s usual little player.

Lords of Dogtown (2005)

Cast of Lords of Dogtown

The best biopics often aim to capture an important moment in time and the characters who were integral to that pivotal moment. Lords of Dogtown documents the foundations of modern surfing and skateboarding trends that originated in Venice Beach, California in the 1970s.

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Although somewhat hazy in its approach, the film remains a fascinating time capsule of a less discussed trend. Many of the characters featured in the story have cameos throughout the film, including Tony Alva and Jay Adams, who are both main characters. Although they only appear as random guests at parties, their appearance is an important nod to the creators of the sport.

Erin Brockovitch (2000)

A waitress serves a table by Erin Brockovich

Some biopic subjects are so vibrant in personality that it would be doing the film a disservice not to feature them in even a small cameo. Erin Brockovitch is the story of a headstrong single mother who becomes a legal assistant at a California law firm. There, she investigates a power company accused of poisoning the local water supply.

Brockovich’s personality was embodied by Julia Roberts in one of her best roles, but Brockovich herself was also given a chance to shine. Having a few lines as a waitress at a local restaurant, Brockovich fitted in well with the cast and gave one of the best performances by a non-actor in recent movie history.

The Disaster Artist (2017)

Tommy Wiseau talks to James Franco in The Disaster Artist

Generally known as one of the best bad movies of all time, Bedroom became a cult classic and its production was perfect fodder for a biopic. The Disaster Artist follows Greg Sestero, an aspiring actor who teams up with an eccentric director to make one of the worst movies of all time.

Although the film portrays its subject as an unlikable crackpot, that didn’t stop the real article from appearing in the film as a cameo. Wiseau appears in a post-credits sequence as a party animal who has a brief conversation with the fictionalized version of himself. By making the cameo more tongue-in-cheek, the filmmaker winks at the audience and fits into the overall tone of the film.

The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

A judge watches from The People Vs Larry Flynt

In another biopic from legendary director Milos Forman, a controversial figure in the adult entertainment industry is exposed for the world to see. The People vs. Larry Flynt centers on the titular Flynt who becomes an unorthodox defender of free speech when the U.S. government attempts to censor his pornographic posts.

Using comedy to tell the compelling story of Flynt’s defense of free speech in court, the film also has a comedic way of introducing its main subject. Appearing as a circuit court judge, the real Larry Flynt is given the opportunity to pass judgment on his fictional self. The irony of casting Flynt as the indigestible judge is one of the funniest moments in the excellent biopic.

The Man on the Moon (1999)

Jim Carrey and Bob Zmuda argue in Man On The Moon

Unfortunately for moviegoers, the subject of Man on the Moon was no longer around to appear in the film, but that didn’t stop other important characters from appearing. The film documents the life and career of absurdist comedian Andy Kaufman from his comedy debut until his untimely death.

Although Kaufman was brought to life by Jim Carrey’s incredible acting performance, one of Kaufman’s closest aides was on hand to appear in the film. Bob Zmuda worked closely with Kaufman and helped bring many of his pieces to life. Appearing in the film as a producer exasperated by Kaufman’s antics, Zmuda joined several other real-life personalities from Kaufman’s life.

American Splendor (2003)

Harvey Pekar and his wife watch American Splendor

While cameos in biopics aren’t necessarily rare, American Splendor found one of the most unique ways to present his subject matter in film. The story follows alternative comic book writer Harvey Pekar and the daily struggles of his life that inspired the stories in his comics.

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Appearing as himself in cutaway footage, Pekar’s appearances in the film break the fourth wall and find him commentating on the fictional footage. Showing the real person juxtaposed next to Paul Giamatti’s performance allows the audience to get a clearer picture of the man himself.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is both a biopic and one of the greatest book adaptations of all time. The film follows journalist Hunter S. Thompson as he is sent to Las Vegas with his eccentric lawyer to cover the proceedings of a police convention. There, the duo embark on a series of bizarre, psychedelic adventures in Sin City.

Almost too bizarre to be believed, the memories of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson are on full display in the film. In a psychedelic panic, the fictionalized version of Thompson comes face to face with his older, real self. Though brief, Thompson’s cameo in the film is a hilarious way to poke fun at the “psychedelic trip” trope by showing the character reacting to aging.

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