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Actors who were actually playing themselves

Ben Arnold
Yahoo UK Movies Features
22 March 2012

The Holy Grail for movies based on real events is authenticity. So who better to play the roles on screen than the people who actually did the stuff? Well, actors, in general. But sometimes, as with new US Navy Seals film 'Act of Valour', those people on screen are just a wee bit more qualified than their stage school counterparts.

Here are some fine examples of actors you might not have realised were actually playing themselves...

[Related feature: Hollywood stars who started out in soaps]
[Related feature: One hit wonders that faded into obscurity]

Frank Willis – All The President's Men

Frank Willis was the security guard who alerted the police to the break in at the now infamous Watergate office complex in Washington DC, the beginning of a chain of events that would topple president Richard Nixon. Willis played himself in the Oscar-trawling film of the real events, 'All The President's Men', alongside Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the courageous reporters Woodward and Bernstein.

He did the same thing in 'Forrest Gump', when Forrest inadvertently calls security to complain about seeing flashlights in the opposite office building while staying at the Watergate Hotel. Willis's story was a tragic one, however. He quit security after not getting a raise for his actions, and despite some notoriety died penniless of a brain tumour in 2000.

Keith Jones – Black Hawk Down

Ridley Scott's 2001 fictionalised retelling of what happened during the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia was praised for its accuracy, throwing the actors playing the Delta Force into crash commando courses and using Rangers from the actual battles as stunt performers and extras.

Many of the helicopter pilots, including Chief Warrant Officer Keith Jones - who gets some lines in the film - were the actual pilots who flew the MH-6 Little Birds in the battle on October 3 and 4, 1993.

Edward Bunker - Reservoir Dogs

In ‘Reservoir Dogs’, Mr. Blue is always the crook you can never remember… probably because he’s not played a famous actor and has hardly any lines. Well, it was Edward Bunker who donned the suit - a man well qualified for the role because he was actually a real life ex-bank robber.

Bunker also did time for drug dealing, extortion and forgery before turning his back on crime to become a novelist and occasional actor. He later befriended Michael Mann, working as a 'prison technical advisor’ on 'Heat'.

Edward McDonald – Goodfellas

The scene at the end of ‘Goodfellas’, where mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is persuaded to testify against his mafia pals and enter the witness protection, is more realistic than you might think. The fella he chats to is Edward McDonald, the US attorney who dealt with the real-life Hill. McDonald even repeats some of the same spiel about the witness protection program to Liotta as he did Hill.

Oscar Goodman – Casino

Lawyer and politician Oscar Goodman made his name in the 70s defending 'legitimate businessmen', including casino boss, Jimmy 'Lefty' Rosenthal. So when Martin Scorsese filmed 'Casino', about the life of Rosenthal, he hired the charismatic Goodman to play himself and he was a natural on camera. Four years after the film came out Goodman was made Mayor of Las Vegas, an office he held until last year.

R. Lee Ermey – Full Metal Jacket

R. Lee Ermey wasn't supposed to be in 'Full Metal Jacket', Stanley Kubrick's harrowing take on the Vietnam war. He was, in fact, hired as a technical advisor to the legendary director, who wanted absolute authenticity in the drill scenes. The instructional video he gave to Kubrick was so convincing that he gave him the role of the potty-mouthed Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, but the role is purest Ermey himself.

He improvised much of his dialogue too, something that Kubrick never usually allowed his actors to do. He's since more or less played himself in everything from 'The Simpsons' and 'Toy Story' to 'Family Guy' and 'House'.

Ben Sliney – United 93

On Ben Sliney's first day in his new job as a National Operation Manager for the Federal Aviation Administration, two planes flew into the World Trade Center towers and third crashed into the Pentagon building. It was Sliney who was credited with grounding every plane in the sky in response to the terrorist acts that happened on September 11, 2001. Director Paul Greengrass used him in an advisory role for his film 'United 93' and also cast him as an air traffic controller.

The Schindlerjuden – Schindler's List

It wasn't until Steven Spielberg was half way through filming 'Schindler's List' that he realised how it should end. He decided that the most appropriate way finale would be to gather some of the Schindlerjuden, 'the 'Schindler jews', to play their respects at Schindler's grave in Jerusalem. The 128 people who appear at the end of the film are among those saved by the German industrialist including Schindler's widow Emilie and the widow of Itzhak Stern.

‘Act of Valour’ is released out 23 March.

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