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Role 'Em

Directors act in As Good As It Gets

Ethan Hawke

(Doane Gregory)

To show off at any New Year’s party, try this movie trivia question: Which three acclaimed directors appear in “As Good As It Gets,” the new James L. Brooks flick starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt?

The first two answers might come easily to folks who’ve seen the film: Lawrence Kasdan (“The Big Chill”) plays Nicholson’s beleaguered psychiatrist, and Harold Ramis (“Groundhog Day”) has a cameo as the doctor of Helen Hunt’s son.

But who is that director who shows up as an ordinary-Joe bus rider sitting beside Helen Hunt? None other than Todd Solondz, who made 1996’s sleeper hit about teen angst, “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”

Solondz was eating at a New York coffeehouse last spring when he was approached by film producer Bridget Johnson. “She asked me if I was who I was,” Solondz remembers. Johnson brought him over to meet her dining companion, James L. Brooks. By the time the trio finished their meal, the 37-year-old director had the tiny role of “Man on Bus” in “As Good As It Gets,” which Brooks was filming at the time.

Of course, Brooks isn’t the only director who has mischievously sneaked his peers in front of the camera. John Landis is known for filming unlikely cameos. The cast of his Tom Arnold flick, “The Stupids,” for instance, included Costa-Gavras (“Missing”), David Cronenberg (“The Fly”) and Norman Jewison (“Moonstruck”). Though Landis’s “Beverly Hills Cop III” hardly seemed like a place to find Barbet Schroeder (“Reversal of Fortune”) and George Lucas – there they were.

Casting fellow directors might seem like an inside-Hollywood gimmick, but that’s not always the case. Sydney Pollack (“Tootsie”), for instance, won acclaim for his role in Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives” and recently stepped in to replace Harvey Keitel in Stanley Kubrick’s pending “Eyes Wide Shut.” Says Solondz: “You don’t have to be a trained actor to be effective in a particular role.” That’s good to know: If Nicolas Cage abandons the new “Superman” film, they can always fly in Nicolas Roeg.