Six Terrifying Villains Played By Comedians

For the first time ever, we're scared of Albert Brooks.

By Andrew Osborne

This week, Albert Brooks makes a welcome return to the screen as a lethal Jewish mobster in Drive — which may seem like a strange casting choice to those familiar with the comedian's roles as the nebbish reporter in Broadcast News or the neurotic fish in Finding Nemo. But as the following list illustrates, the same fear and loathing that so often fuels great comic performances can also create genuinely scary cinematic villains.

 

1. Bill Murray, Mad Dog and Glory (1993)

The premise sounds like a Saturday Night Live gag: timid Robert De Niro cowering fearfully in the presence of a menacing Bill Murray. But the role reversal works surprisingly well in John McNaughton's underworld love story about a lonely civil servant attempting to rescue a young woman named Glory (Uma Thurman) from the clutches of a Chicago mob boss (who also dreams of "killing" as a stand-up comic). Murray, a notorious brawler in his younger days, has always had the cocky swagger of a guy used to getting what he wants, so when he finally drops the smirk and screams that he "owns" Glory, chances are you'd cower, too.

 

2. Mo'Nique, Precious (2009)

Mo'Nique pulls no punches in her gritty stand-up (like 2007's I Coulda Been Your Cellmate, performed at a women's prison in Ohio). But even so, few were prepared for the actual punches (not to mention the television) she threw in her Oscar-winning performance as the monstrous mother in Lee Daniels' drama. Some critics were deeply moved by the film, while others slammed it as exploitive melodrama, yet Mo'Nique's pitiful, pathological Mary clearly made an indelible impression that qualifies her for inclusion (alongside Mrs. Bates and Mommie Dearest) in the Bad Mama Hall of Fame.

 

3. Rodney Dangerfield, Natural Born Killers (1994)

And speaking of terrible parents... Oliver Stone's controversial tale of spree-killers Mickey and Mallory was filled with disturbing images, but the most shocking of all may have been the sight of Rodney Dangerfield in a dirty wife-beater as Juliette Lewis' physically and sexually abusive father, Ed. The fact that the scene unfolds as a hellish sitcom parody (complete with inappropriate laugh track) only makes the brutality of the performance more grotesque.

 

4. Steve Martin, The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

Steve Martin is a smart, talented guy who could easily spend the rest of his career making cool films with interesting directors. Why he chooses instead to waste most of his time on mediocre crap like Cheaper By The Dozen 2 is a pop-culture mystery for the ages, especially after you watch his performance as a ruthless con man in The Spanish Prisoner. Perhaps owing to his supposedly aloof off-screen persona, Martin generally seems more at home in cool noir than warmed-over family mush, and his ease with David Mamet's rat-a-tat bad guy banter makes you wonder if he's been conning us with the nice-guy shtick all along.

 

5. Robin Williams, Insomnia / Death to Smoochy / One Hour Photo (2002)

While Steve Martin's crappier film roles seem to result from some kind of cynical lowest-common-denominator calculation, I always get the feeling Robin Williams simply doesn't know any better: he's just the kind of guy who honestly thinks Patch Adams was good. At the same time, Williams' dark side has always been right there on his sleeve with the rest of his emotions, and when he chose to let it run wild in 2002 (playing a teen-murdering crime novelist, a psychopathic kids' show host, and a creepy stalker in quick succession), the cumulative effect was downright chilling.

 

6. Sandra Bernhard, The King of Comedy (1983)

During an interview with Sandra Bernhard on a recent edition of his WTF podcast, Marc Maron admitted his surprise that the comic chanteuse (and former Madonna BFF) was, in fact, nothing like the angry, borderline deranged stalker she played in Martin Scorsese's film about obsessed fans kidnapping a Johnny Carson-esque talk show host (portrayed by the equally iconic Jerry Lewis). Indeed, like Anthony Perkins before her, Bernhard apparently learned the hard way that playing a psycho to perfection can sometimes have unintended consequences.

Commentarium (39 Comments)

Sep 15 11 - 1:03am
NuckingFuts

See! Williams DOES have talent!!! He's very good comedically, but he shines in the dramatic/darker stuff definitley. I mean, look at worlds greatest dad.

Sep 15 11 - 2:39am
GeeBee

Patch Adams was WONDERFUL!!! It was, right? Anyone?

Sep 15 11 - 10:35am
BenReininga

No.

Sep 16 11 - 12:27am
Rodion

Yes, it is a fantastic movie.

Sep 20 11 - 2:30am
Sagebrush

Absolutely not! Also, I can tell you from personal experience that the real Patch Adams is the south end of a north-bound horse.

Oct 31 11 - 3:07am
Alison

The real Patch is a jerk? What is your personal experience?

Sep 15 11 - 3:47am
Chuck

World's Greatest Dad was quite good. I'd also like to point out his earlier collaboration with Bobcat in Shakes The Clown. It's only one scene but it was the best thing in the movie.

Sep 15 11 - 3:50am
JJ

Comedians can do drama quiet well, but actors cannot always do comedy. And there we go.

Sep 15 11 - 5:35am
ibg

I agree- I think comedy is harder and also includes in it dramatic acting at times.

Although...I guess it depends what kind of comedy. I can

Sep 15 11 - 5:35am
ibg

't really picture Seinfeld being that good in a dramatic role.

Sep 15 11 - 9:21am
suga

Billy Connolly in Boondock Saints.

Sep 15 11 - 12:07pm
Campo

And the best thing in that second X Files movie.

Sep 16 11 - 10:05am
thinkywritey

Oh lord yes, and one of the funniest comedians EVER.

Sep 15 11 - 10:35am
Moops

Robin Williams is a comedian? Don't comedians need to be funny?

Oct 31 11 - 3:07am
Alison

Maybe his comedy doesn't run to your taste, but millions think he's hilarious and brilliant

Sep 15 11 - 3:12pm
Kel

"While Steve Martin's crappier film roles seem to result from some kind of cynical lowest-common-denominator calculation..." Or, as the "crappier" films have huge budgets, a smart financial decision.

Sep 15 11 - 8:30pm
nerkums

No.

Sep 16 11 - 2:35am
Sharon

I immediately thought of Don Rickles in Casino. It was not that he did anything particularly violent, but he just had a certain menacing quality about him that was amazing. I do not like him as a comedian, but I would love to see him in something dramatic again. Another comedian who played a horrible person in a dramatic role was Red Buttons. I am sure it was a TV feature movie or part of some series back in the late 60s or early 70s.

Sep 16 11 - 3:44am
Alex

I know it's a TV series, but Stephen Colbert was pretty damn creepy in that one Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode he did. Also, the actor who played Mr. Toomey in The Langoliers was a comedian, and Sascha Baron Cohen was quite creepy as Signor Pirelli in Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd.

Sep 16 11 - 9:23am
hannah

I agree. Stephen Colbert was very creepy in that Law and Order episode. Neil Patrick Harris also did an episode that was highly disturbing. I know he's not stand up but he mostly does comedy.

Sep 16 11 - 6:26pm
Alex

I'm going to have to look up NPH or that. I've been excitedto see the progress in the Doctor Horrible sequel because I've never seen him as a villain before, so this is welcome knowledge. Colbert characterized his L&O role as feeling like one long joke set-up that never had a pay-off/punchline. :)

Sep 16 11 - 7:44am
Hockey Puck

Rickles was also a mobster-turned-vampire in Innocent Blood. Long live Rickles!

Sep 16 11 - 3:39pm
Mitch

How about Christopher Guest as the six-fingered-man in The Princess Bride. I had no idea it was him until imdb!

Sep 25 11 - 12:29pm
Matt

Christopher Guest is probably one of the most under-rated character actors of our generation. But he does a lot of work, so maybe that's not true. Additional thumbs-up for simply mentioning The Princess Bride here.

Sep 16 11 - 5:45pm
Me

Chevy Chase was pretty terrifying as a Mel Gibson ripoff on SVU, but that was more because of how terrible he was.

Sep 16 11 - 7:41pm
You

Christopher Lloyd in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, anyone? His character scared the hell out of me as a child.

Sep 17 11 - 3:52pm
cs

Ditto! He was absolutely terrifying in that, particularly to a seven year-old

Sep 18 11 - 8:47am
S.S.

Patton Oswalt in "Big Fan." (Although he wasn't a "villain" per se, it was a serious role in which he did quite a good job.)

Sep 18 11 - 10:45pm
2 Ree Al

G. W. Bush as The President was pretty scary -- o wait, that wasn't a movie, that was real.

Sep 19 11 - 2:26pm
Tomtom29

Cheap shot—totally beneath you... hmm... maybe not.

Sep 19 11 - 11:49am
Ditto

I always found Robin Williams performance in Dead Again (Cozy Carlisle) to be a fairly spot-on departure from comedy. It may not be terrifying per se, but there was a lot of bitter/anger there...

Sep 19 11 - 3:21pm
Sgt. York

I was genuinely worried that I would see Jim Carrey as The Riddler on this list...but you made some excellent choices. I would limit Robin Williams to just Insomnia and leave it at that.

Sep 21 11 - 2:15pm
bubba

Always thought of Micheal Chiklis as a comedic actor, The Commish and other light weight stuff, but he really was good as Vick Mackey in The Sheild.

Sep 22 11 - 5:43pm
Alex

How about John Lithgo in Dexter season 4?

Sep 25 11 - 10:50pm
Michael Tammaro

Can't believe nobody mentioned Alan Arkin in Wait Until Dark.

Oct 12 11 - 7:34pm
Marshall

Also, don't forget the only role Dane Cook was any good at embodying: a wannabe serial killer in Mr. Brooks. (Not exactly "terrifying," but certainly "dark.")

(Also, sorry: But is there some reason my last comment --about the true nature of Robin Williams' character in One Hour Phone-- wasn't posted? This is my first time on this site, and I'm wondering if I violated some unspoken standard or other, when I thought I was merely being "thoughtful.")

Oct 24 11 - 9:55am
Michael Tammaro

Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and Casino. Pesci started out as a musician and stand up comedian.
Jerry Lewis as Buddy Love (at least I thought he was scary when I was a kid).

Nov 12 11 - 5:12am
jack of all trades

plus.....just watched "wild things".....hope i don't spoil it for anyone but Bill Murray in the very last scene, seems to have been the brains behind it all !