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The Late Movies: Cameos by Famous Actors in Not-So-Famous Movies

What do The Hangover, Ocean's Eleven and Zoolander have in common? They all contain brief appearances by familiar faces -- and all were also hits with viewers. These clips show something more rare: cameos by well-known actors in not-very-popular films.

Jack Black in Melvin Goes to Dinner

Dustin Hoffman in The Holiday

Lindsay Lohan and James Franco in The Holiday

Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Meryl Streep in Stuck on You

That's just the tip of the iceberg. What are some other small parts played by big actors?

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27 Festive Facts About Christmas Vacation
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

On December 1, 1989, a new chapter of Griswold family dysfunction was unleashed upon the world when National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation made its debut in movie theaters and an instant holiday classic was born. Here are 27 things you might not know about everyone’s favorite Christmas comedy.

1. THE MOVIE IS BASED ON A SHORT STORY.

Like the 1983 original, Christmas Vacation is based on a short story, “Christmas ‘59,” written by John Hughes for National Lampoon in December 1980. Its literary predecessor is paid tribute to when Clark is trapped in the attic and pulls out a box of old home movies, including one labeled “Christmas ’59.” (Eagle-eyed viewers might notice that when Clark is watching the film, it actually says “Christmas 1955.”)

2. CLARK GREW UP IN SAMANTHA STEVENS’S HOUSE.

If Clark’s childhood home featured in those old movies looks familiar, that’s because it’s the same house featured on Bewitched as well as The New Gidget. Except it’s not a house at all; it’s part of the Warner Bros. back lot, located on what is known as Blondie Street. The rest of the Griswolds’ neighborhood is on a studio back lot as well. And if the home of their snooty neighbors, Todd and Margo, looks familiar, that’s because it’s where Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and his family lived in Lethal Weapon.

3. JOHN HUGHES WASN’T A FAN OF SEQUELS.

Though many of Hughes’ films have spawned sequels, the man himself was not a fan of retreads. “The only sequels I was involved in were under duress,” Hughes once stated in an interview. Though he’s credited as a writer on European Vacation, he said that was only because he had created the characters. “But the studio came to me and begged for another [Vacation movie], and I only agreed because I had a good story to base it on. But those movies have become little more than Chevy Chase vehicles at this stage. I didn't even know about Vegas Vacation until I read about it in the trades! Ever since it came out, people have been coming up to me with disappointed looks on their faces, asking ‘What were you thinking?’ ‘I had nothing to do with it! I swear!’”

4. IT’S ONE OF ONLY TWO CHRISTMAS MOVIES RELEASED IN 1989.

Though the holiday season is usually packed with Christmas-themed movies, Christmas Vacation was one of only two that were released in 1989. The other was John Hancock’s Prancer. Johnny Galecki, a.k.a. Rusty Griswold, starred in both.

5. AUDREY IS (MIRACULOUSLY) OLDER THAN RUSTY.

Johnny Galecki, Beverly D'Angelo, Chevy Chase, and Juliette Lewis in 'Christmas Vacation' (1989)
Warner Bros.

In both the original Vacation and European Vacation, Rusty is believed to be the older of the two Griswold children. In Christmas Vacation, Rusty somehow morphs into Audrey’s younger brother.

6. THE FILM HAS TIES TO IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

In addition to footage from the Frank Capra classic actually appearing in the film, Christmas Vacation has another fun tie to It’s a Wonderful Life: Frank Capra’s grandson, Frank Capra III, is Christmas Vacation’s assistant director.

7. THE CAST OF CHRISTMAS VACATION WAS PRETTY IMPRESSIVE.

In addition to featuring future stars Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis (who scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination three years later for her role in Cape Fear), star Beverly D’Angelo was most impressed with the older actors who came along for the Christmas Vacation ride. “I attribute that to Jeremiah Chechik and his direction in bringing in E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, and Diane Ladd,” she noted. “That was really a special cast.”

8. IN A WAY, STANLEY KUBRICK IS TO THANK FOR CHRISTMAS VACATION.

Christmas Vacation marked the directorial debut of Jeremiah Chechik, who began his career as a fashion photographer for Vogue then moved into commercial directing. “I had made these commercials that became quite iconic here in the U.S.,” Chechik told to Den of Geek! in 2011. “They were very dark and sexy and sort of a little bit ahead of their time in terms of style. And what happened was they gained the notice of [Stanley] Kubrick, who had mentioned them as his favorite American filmmaking, ironically, in a New York Times article.” It didn’t take long for Chechik’s phone to start ringing and for studios to start sending him scripts. “And the script that really piqued my interest was Christmas Vacation," he said. "And the reason is I had never done any comedy—ever.”

9. CHECHIK HAD NEVER SEEN A VACATION MOVIE.

“I hadn't seen the first two [Vacation movies], and so I wasn't really influenced by anything other than the fact that it was a big—at the time—their big Christmas movie, and comedy,” Chechik said. “And I just felt if I could crack this maybe there's a whole other world of filmmaking for me.” Following Christmas Vacation, Chechik directed Benny & Joon, Diabolique, and The Avengers plus episodes of The Bronx is Burning, Gossip Girl, Chuck, and Burn Notice.

10. THE MOVIE HAD A HUGE BUDGET, PARTICULARLY FOR A COMEDY.

A $27 million budget, to be exact. Which was particularly high considering that the film had no special effects a la Ghostbusters (which was made for $30 million). But it had no trouble making its budget back; the film’s final domestic gross was $71,319,526.

11. ROGER EBERT DID NOT LOVE THE FILM.

Though it has become a bona fide holiday classic, not everyone was a fan of Christmas Vacation. In his two-star review of the film, Roger Ebert described the movie as “curious in how close it comes to delivering on its material: Sequence after sequence seems to contain all the necessary material, to be well on the way toward a payoff, and then it somehow doesn't work.”

12. IT’S THE ONLY SEQUEL IN THE VACATION FRANCHISE TO HAVE ITS OWN SEQUEL.

Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie's Island Adventure DVD
Warner Home Video

But don’t be disappointed if you didn’t know that. Or haven’t seen it. The 2003 film, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure, was made for television. It finds Randy Quaid and Miriam Flynn (as Eddie and Catherine) stranded on an island in the South Pacific for the holidays. Yes, really. It currently holds a 12 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

13. AUDREY IS THE ONLY GRISWOLD TO APPEAR IN CHRISTMAS VACATION 2.

Dana Barron, who played Audrey in the original Vacation, reprised her role for the Christmas Vacation sequel. Eric Idle, who appeared in European Vacation, also makes an appearance, playing “English Victim.”

14. COUSIN EDDIE IS RANDY QUAID’S BEST-KNOWN CHARACTER.

At least it’s the role that gets him the most recognition. In a 1989 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Quaid admitted that he was amazed by the impact the character made. “People still come up to me and quote lines from that part. I get a lot of recognition from that role—probably as much, if not more, than any other.”

15. COUSIN EDDIE IS BASED ON A REAL GUY.

Quaid borrowed many of Cousin Eddie’s mannerisms from a guy he knew growing up in Texas, most notably his tendency toward tongue-clicking. But Eddie’s sweater/Dickie combo? That was an idea from Quaid’s wife.

16. YOU CAN BUY YOUR OWN DICKIE.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Collectibles is a website dedicated to all things Christmas Vacation (obviously). Among the many fun items are Cousin Eddie wardrobe staples, moose mugs, and punch bowls.

17. EDDIE’S SON, ROCKY, DOESN’T SPEAK IN THE FILM.

Nope, not a word.

18. AUNT BETHANY IS BETTY BOOP.

Christmas Vacation marked the final film of Mae Questel, who began her career as the voice of Betty Boop in 1931. She passed away at the age of 89 in January of 1998.

19. BETHANY AND LOUIS’ ENTRANCE MADE THE EARTH SHAKE.

At the same time the production filmed the arrival of Uncle Louis and Aunt Bethany at the Griswold house, a minor earthquake struck. The camera shakes slightly as a result of it as Bethany walks through the front door.

20. CHRISTMAS VACATION WENT STRAIGHT TO VIDEO IN ENGLAND.

Though the movie is a popular holiday film in the UK too, it was never actually shown in theaters there. Instead, it went straight to home video.

21. YOU WON’T HEAR “HOLIDAY ROAD” IN CHRISTMAS VACATION.

Christmas Vacation is the only movie in the series that doesn’t feature Lindsey Buckingham’s song, “Holiday Road.” Instead, a new song—the aptly titled “Christmas Vacation”—was written for the film by married songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. A cover of the song appears on the 2007 Disney Channel Holiday album.

22. RANDY QUAID IS THE THIRD COUSIN OF GENE AUTRY.

Which may just sound like a random. But at the end of the film, when the police raid the Griswold home, the version of “Here Comes Santa Claus” being used is Autry’s.

23. ELLEN GRISWOLD LIED TO THE COPS.

In the same scene, Ellen Griswold apologizes to Mrs. Shirley—the wife of Clark’s boss and Eddie’s kidnapping victim—assuring her that “This is our family's first kidnapping,” when, in fact, it is their second. At least the second that we know of: In the first Vacation film, the Griswolds force Lasky, the security guard at Wally World (played by John Candy), to open the park for them.

24. CHEVY CHASE, BEVERLY D’ANGELO, AND JULIETTE LEWIS REUNITED IN 2012.

The trio got together to film a series of Old Navy commercials for the holiday season. Though Johnny Galecki wasn’t there, two previous Rustys—Anthony Michael Hall and Jason Lively—were. As was Dana Barron.

25. JOHNNY GALECKI RECEIVED AN AWARD FROM CHEVY CHASE.

In a 2012 interview, The Sydney Morning Herald asked Johnny Galecki whether he has kept in touch with Chevy Chase. He admitted that “the only time I’ve seen him since that movie, which was 21 years ago I think, is when he presented us with our People’s Choice Award, so that was really neat. If you’re going to run into Chevy again it may as well be as he’s giving you an award.”

26. CHEVY CHASE AND BEVERLY D'ANGELO WERE ANXIOUS TO SEE ANOTHER VACATION MOVIE HAPPEN.

On July 29, 2015, the latest film in the Vacation franchise—simply titled Vacation—made its debut. And it couldn't have happened soon enough for Chase and D'Angelo. In 2011, Chase told Ain’t It Cool News that “I just got off the phone with Beverly D’Angelo. We are trying to work up a new Vacation and apparently Warner’s is working on one with grandchildren, but the one that Bev and I want … You know, we are just trying to think of ideas, because she is very funny and very brilliant, so when you get her in a writing mood and me in writing mood, it’s good, but it’s very hard to get the time.”

27. THE STUDIO WON THAT ONE.

Chase and D’Angelo may have had their own ideas, but the studio moved ahead with that whole “one with grandchildren” thing. Written and directed by John Francis Daley (Sam from Freaks and Geeks) and Jonathan M. Goldstein (who wrote Horrible Bosses), Vacation featured a grown-up Rusty (played by Ed Helms) taking his own family on a road trip.

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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


Getty Images

By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


Getty Images

Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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