Most well-known actors average one or perhaps two film roles per year. A few, such as Robert DeNiro or Jude Law or Ben Stiller, seem to averaging a new film every other month.
But at the far end of this prolific spectrum are actors who appeared in just one movie. Many of these one-hit-wonders left an extraordinary legacy with a single spin across the big screen; a few, however, left bewildering and odd cinematic legacies which did not hint at their true talents.
In tribute to their solo efforts, we present (in chronological) our tribute to the greatest one-hit-wonders in movie history.
1. LILLIE LANGTRY The 19th century’s equivalent to Paris Hilton, the frisky Langtry was famous for being famous – particularly in her not-so-private role as the mistress of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. When the royal romance cooled, Langtry took a belated career as an actress. While her beauty and charm initially compensated for her thespian deficiencies, she eventually found a lucrative niche as the star of light comedy and became a popular star in the British and American theater. Her only movie was a 1913 adaptation of her stage success “Her Husband’s Neighborhood.” It is not certain if any prints of this film still survive, though most likely the film (which came relatively late in her career) did not present Langtry at the peak of her beauty. Langtry was clearly not impressed with her screen debut, as she made no further movie appearances.
2. ELEANORA DUSE The Italian theater legend also came to films late in career, recreating her stage triumph “Cenere” for the cameras in 1916. Duse was the latest in a long string of theatrical royalty to act before the camera, but she ruefully discovered there were dramatic differences between the mediums. “I made the same mistake that nearly everyone has made,” she said upon seeing “Cenere” on the big screen. “But something quite different is needed. I am too old for it. Isn’t it a pity?” Indeed it was, as Duse would never venture before the cameras again, leaving “Cenere” as her only film record.
3. MARIA FALCONETTI The Corsican-born star of the Paris stage was not Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s first choice to play the title role in “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (he wanted Lillian Gish, who was not available). But it is impossible to imagine another performer who embodied the physical and emotional torture suffered by the doomed warrior-maiden. But the torture Falconetti displayed was not entirely acting â€“ the grueling demands of the role drove her to a nervous breakdown during the course of production. Falconetti was able to recover and complete her role, but suffered a relapse once filming concluded. Although she was widely hailed for her extraordinary screen presence, Falconetti shunned the screen for the remainder of her career.
4. BESSIE SMITH The first African-American woman to achieve mainstream music stardom, Smith deserved her title as “Empress of the Blues.” When sound came to cinema, Smith was cast in an all-black short film titled “St. Louis Blues,” in which she played a woman who is abused by an unfaithful boyfriend who steals her money and breaks her heart. Smith was not a natural when it came to reciting dialogue, but when she started singing it felt as if she owned the Earth. “St. Louis Blues” was typical of early talkies, with its stiff production and primitive sound recording, but it was daring in giving a star turn to an African-American woman. Alas, it was Smith’s only film appearance â€“ there would be no further calls for her appearance in movies.
5. HELEN GAHAGAN Writer Heywood Braun dubbed the Broadway diva “five of the ten most beautiful women in the world.” It seemed logical for RKO to cast the gorgeous Gahagan as the ageless Queen Hash-A-Mo-Tep in its lavish production of “She.” While the film may have been a bit hokey, Gahagan more than acquitted herself as the mysteriously ageless royal who can turn men into her captives by her mere presence. Alas, Gahagan was not captivated by movies and made no further films. But she remained in Hollywood, marrying actor Melvyn Douglas and entering politics, where she served as a Congresswoman representing Los Angeles. Gahagan’s political career ended in the bitter 1950 Senate race in which her Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, successfully slandered her as a Communist dupe.
6. JOHNNIE RAY The overly expressive singer whose melodramatic interpretation of ballads, most notably the monster hit “Cry,” has been cited as the link between the easy-going crooning of 1940s pop music and the raucous gyrations of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. Hollywood took its time responding to Ray’s popularity before casting him in the 1954 extravaganza “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” While Ray was a mesmerizing performing force on the stage and in recordings, on screen he seemed ill-at-ease and curiously stolid. Given that his film debut found him surrounded by notorious scene-stealers (Donald O’Connor, Dan Dailey), curvy distractions (Marilyn Monroe, Mitzi Gaynor) and the loudest woman in the world (Ethel Merman), it is no wonder that Ray could barely compete. His role as the member of a theatrical dynasty who becomes a priest also seemed out of touch for his demeanor. While the film was a success, Ray was not considered for subsequent movies.
7. JOSEPH WELCH The soft-spoken lawyer became a national hero during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings when his attack on Senator Joseph McCarthy (broadcast on live television) brought the blustery Red-baiter into an unaccustomed silence, thus bringing an end to the reign of hysteria known as McCarthyism. Welch was not an actor, despite the dramatic exchange he had with McCarthy, but he was given a chance at film stardom when Otto Preminger cast him as a judge in his 1959 “Anatomy of a Murder.” Welch had relatively little to do in the film, but he was more than satisfactory as the wise old judicial presence who presided over a scandalous sexual assault case. It is not recorded what Welch felt of his stab at acting, and he died a year after the film’s release.
8. TARITA The sultry Maori was the romantic lead in the 1962 “Mutiny on the Bounty,” but she was not an actress. She was a dishwasher who was spotted by the film’s star, Marlon Brando, and was cast on the spot when the production was on location in Tahiti. While no one could deny her beauty, Tarita’s acting left a lot to be desired – though her stiff, earnest line-readings actually created some sort of balance against Brando’s fruity overacting. Brando had no complaints. In fact, he married Tarita and set up a residence in Tahiti. “Mutiny on the Bounty” was a box office disaster, but the Brando-Tarita marriage weathered a 10-year run before ending in divorce. Tarita never sought another film role.
9. BERMUDA SCHWARTZ Who is Bermuda Schwartz? Good question! She was one of the stars in the low-budget 1968 costume drama “Head Lady,” which was very loosely based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Il Decamerone.” Schwartz played a young noblewoman at a 17th-century all-girls school who falls in love with a lowly but hunky gardener. While cited in the Medved Brothers’ book “Son of the Golden Turkey Awards” in the category “The Most Ludicrous Professional Name in Movie History,” the snarky siblings were unable to dig up any details on the performer’s real name and career. Whether the actress appeared under any other monikers is unknown – but with a name like Bermuda Schwartz, one cannot miss snagging attention on a credits list.
10. JOHN F. KENNEDY JR The once-and-always John-John was not the first presidential offspring to act (Ron Reagan and his sister Patti Davis tried their hands at performing, rather dismally). But Kennedy’s trademark charm was well-preserved in the 1990 indie “A Matter of Degrees.” Kennedy’s performance comes in the midst of an otherwise-silly comedy about an idealistic college student fighting the corporate takeover of the campus radio station. During a party sequence, Kennedy turns up as a guitar-strumming guest who hits on an easily-enchanted young lady. Kennedy’s amusing guest role was uncredited, yet every critic singled him out as the reason to pay heed to the film. Even today, “A Matter of Degrees” is remembered as Kennedy’s one-and-only movie role.