Characters who had a huge impact despite only being on screen for minutes

Tom Beasley
·Contributor
·6 min read
'Jaws', 'Star Wars: A New Hope' and 'Alien'. (Credit: Universal/Disney/Fox)
'Jaws', 'Star Wars: A New Hope' and 'Alien'. (Credit: Universal/Disney/Fox)

When it comes to nabbing a part in a movie, everyone wants to be the lead. Everyone wants the most lines of dialogue and the most screen time to make sure they get the chance to have the biggest impact on the story and the audience.

But sometimes, films benefit from supporting characters who are able to maximise the power of their minimal time in front of the camera. It was these roles that were celebrated in a recent Reddit thread, pointing out that some of the most memorable characters in movie history only spent a handful of minutes on the screen.

Alien (1979)

The xenomorph makes his comeback in Alien (20th Century Fox/Park Circus)
The xenomorph makes his comeback in Alien (20th Century Fox/Park Circus)

After appearing in Alien, the xenomorph was quickly cemented as one of the defining bad guys in horror cinema. Dozens of them appeared in James Cameron’s all-out action sequel Aliens, but Ridley Scott’s tense original — a haunted house story set in space — only showed the alien for four minutes in total. That’s just three per cent of the movie’s running time.

Read more: James Cameron on where the Alien franchise went wrong

The xenomorph, in all of its H.R. Giger-designed glory, isn’t even introduced until an hour into the movie, but the tension is able to build independently of the delightfully designed monster.

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

Darth Vader is one of the most famous villains of all time. (Credit: Disney/Lucasfilm)
Darth Vader is one of the most famous villains of all time. (Credit: Disney/Lucasfilm)

On any list of the most memorable movie villains of all time, Darth Vader would have to find himself near the top. However, the hulking Sith warrior is only on screen for around nine minutes in 1977’s A New Hope and only has just over half an hour of time across the entire original trilogy.

Read more: Vader’s Rogue One cameo almost never happened

James Earl Jones’ sonorous voice though, coupled with Dave Prowse’s impressive physical performance, created a bad guy for the ages. The former Anakin Skywalker is one of the great villains ever depicted on the big screen, regardless of how little he was actually seen.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in 'The Silence of the Lambs'. (Picture credit: MGM)
Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in 'The Silence of the Lambs'. (Picture credit: MGM)

Anthony Hopkins won the Oscar for Best Leading Actor for his role as cannibal psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. The Academy considered his performance to be a leading one, despite the fact he only appeared on screen for around 16 minutes. It’s the shortest performance to ever win one of the leading actor gongs.

Read more: Hopkins says actors are “pretty stupid”

Hopkins would go on to reprise the role in sequel Hannibal and prequel Red Dragon, but it’s his quietly terrifying work in The Silence of the Lambs that resonates today. Like so many of the performances on this list, it feels as if Lecter is on screen, even when he isn’t.

Jaws (1975)

Roy Scheider vs Bruce in 'Jaws'. (Credit: Universal)
Roy Scheider vs Bruce in 'Jaws'. (Credit: Universal)

Unlike some of the entries on this list, the absence of the shark from much of Jaws was forced upon the production. The animatronic killer fish — affectionately nicknamed Bruce after director Steven Spielberg’s lawyer — was a notorious failure, rarely working when it was supposed to and forcing the crew into improvisation. Ultimately, the shark is only on screen for four minutes in total.

Read more: Bruce from Jaws has been fully restored

Almost every moment of the shark’s screen time in Jaws has become iconic, from the “bigger boat” sequence through to the crunchy gore explosion of Quint’s death. Despite the stressful origins of Bruce’s absence, it ultimately proved to make the film better as Spielberg experimented with some terrific tension-building tricks.

Kill Bill (2003/2004)

Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol. One (Credit: Miramax)
Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol. One (Credit: Miramax)

Title characters are usually the main focus of the movie in which they appear. Certainly, the Bill of Kill Bill is the figure around whom the action pivots. However, his screen time across both parts of Quentin Tarantino’s blood-soaked duology is only around 10 minutes.

Read more: What will Tarantino’s final film be?

David Carradine is, of course, memorable as Bill. However, as with Lecter, it’s really his influence over the story that’s more important than seeing the character himself on screen. These movies are about Uma Thurman kicking all kinds of rear end as the sword-toting Bride.

Les Misérables (2012)

Anne Hathaway in 'Les Misérables'. (Credit: Universal)
Anne Hathaway in 'Les Misérables'. (Credit: Universal)

It’s rare that Oscars are won on the basis of just one scene, but Anne Hathaway’s powerful performance of I Dreamed a Dream in Tom Hooper’s big screen adaptation of Les Misérables is an example of just how well it can work. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, miles ahead of her competition, despite only appearing in front of the camera as Fantine for around 15 minutes.

Read more: First look at The Witches, starring Hathaway

So effective was this trick of limited screen time for Hathaway that Hooper tried to pull it off again with Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella in Cats. It was, it’s fair to say, somewhat less effective.

Beetlejuice (1988)

Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder in 'Beetlejuice'. (Credit: Warner Bros)
Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder in 'Beetlejuice'. (Credit: Warner Bros)

One of the most popular comments on the Reddit thread points out that the title character in Tim Burton’s beloved 1980s black comedy Beetlejuice only appears on screen for around 17 minutes in total. Michael Keaton’s devilish performance, however, was enough to cement the character as one of the most memorable figures of the era.

Read more: Everything you didn’t know about Beetlejuice

Despite the limited screen time, Keaton made enough of an impact that Beetlejuice always seems to find itself near the top of any list of movies that most deserve a sequel. Burton, however, said last year that he doesn’t think it will ever happen.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in 'Apocalypse Now'. (Credit: United Artists)
Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in 'Apocalypse Now'. (Credit: United Artists)

Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz is an unseen figure for much of Apocalypse Now — the endgame of the main character’s journey through the jungles of Cambodia. When he eventually appears, well past the two-hour mark of the story, he’s only on screen for around 15 minutes — as one Reddit commenter pointed out. The actor was paid $3.5m (£2.8m) for that role in 1979, which is the equivalent of around $12.5m (£10m) today — more than £800,000 per minute.

Read more: Coppola says Apocalypse Now is not an “anti-war” movie

Brando was a huge movie star at this point, having made the pivot from lead roles to highly paid supporting performances. The film came out just a year after he broke records for his wage packet as Jor-El in Superman: The Movie. Not a bad few years at the office for him.