"The Nutty Professor" (1996)
Actor: Eddie Murphy
Characters: Professor Sherman Klump, Buddy Love, Cletus Klump, Mama Anna Klump, Grandma Klump, Ernie Klump Sr and Lance Perkins
His 1963 comedy "The Nutty Professor," one of his best known starring vehicles, saw Jerry Lewis take on three roles, which made sense as the film was a light-hearted riff on the Jekyll & Hyde story. For Tom Shadyac's 1996 remake, star Eddie Murphy seemed to take that as a challenge: Murphy played not only obese Professor Sherman Klump and Buddy Love, his thin, brash alter ego, but also four members of Klump's similarly waistbanded family and a white fitness instructor. Aside from a couple of brief appearances from a young Dave Chappelle, the film's a pretty standard, turgid magic potion comedy carried along only by Murphy's ever-present energy, but it really sings in the set-piece dinner sequence where Sherman, and at one point love interest Jada Pinkett, sit down with the rest of the family. It does have an overreliance on fart gags, but these scenes are otherwise among the highpoints of Murphy's career: four equally funny performances colliding with each other, with Murphy's sweet-natured straight man reacting against each other. It's all the more impressive because Murphy was acting against thin air. The scenes pretty much single-handedly made the movie a giant hit, so obviously 2000's sequel, directed by Peter Segal, saw their roles expanded. Unfortunately, it's to much lesser effect; the follow-up was cruder, and much more charmless, dispersing much of the goodwill that came from the first (and earning a parody at the start of Ben Stiller's comedy "Tropic Thunder," with Jack Black's crude comic star Jeff Portnoy playing multiple roles in a comedy called "The Fatties").
"The Mouse That Roared" (1959)
Actor: Peter Sellers
Characters: Grand Duchess Gloriana XII, Prime Minister Count Rupert Mountjoy, Tully Bascombe
"Dr. Strangelove" (see below) is the most famous example of Peter Sellers playing multiple roles, and rightly so, but the comic star had already done a triple-header four years earlier, to less legendary effect, in 1959's "The Mouse That Roared." Based on the bestselling novel by Leonard Wibberley, the plot is a somewhat milder Cold War satire than Kubrick's film, which sees a tiny European nation, Grand Fenwick, declaring war on the United States in an attempt to replenish their economy with foreign aid after they lose. Unexpectedly, however, the country's bow-wielding invasion force win the war, and end up capturing a devastating, world threatening Q-bomb. Sellers plays three senior figures in Grand Fenwick: the Queen Victoria-esque Grand Duchess Gloriana XII, Prime Minister Count Rupert (a riff on Benjamin Disraeli, supposedly), and nerdish leader of the military forces, Tully Bascombe, with British character actor favorites like Leo McKern and William Hartnell (the original Doctor Who) as back up and Jean Seberg as Tully's love interest. It's fairly broad stuff, with Sellers' performances, like the film in general, lacking the savagery or derangement of 'Strangelove,' and the romance with Seberg is ill-conceived by way of a bit creepy, but it has a certain charm, taking its cues more from Ealing films like "Passport To Pimlico" or "The Titchfield Thunderbolt" than anything else. It does land a few gentle satirical jabs nevertheless, and even in mild form, Sellers' comic genius is enough to carry the film. It says something that, when the 1963 sequel "The Mouse On The Moon" rolled around without Sellers' involvement (though directed by a just-pre-"A Hard Day's Night" Richard Lester), no single actor could replace him, with Margaret Rutherford, Ron Moody and Bernard Cribbins playing the Duchess, the Prime Minister and Tully, respectively.
“Back to the Future II” (1989)
Actor: Michael J Fox
Characters: Marty McFly, Marty Jr., Marlene
It happens two or three times per year that “Back to the Future II” crops up as a subject for discussion in Playlist HQ, and though we’d love to say that distinction were reserved for some early Rossellini movie or an obscure Murnau, it’s this Robert Zemeckis sequel that inevitably reveals the deepest, bitterest rift within our ranks. This writer, however, is firmly in the “avidly pro” camp, and often jumps on the grenade of writing about it just to skewer the perception of the Playlist’s POV being that it’s a misunderstood minor masterpiece, because that’s what it is. Fine, that’s hyperbole, but still ‘BTTF2’ is a terrifically ambitious and imaginative movie attempting the much more difficult trick of visiting an unknown future (the unfeasibly distant 2015, where’s my goddamn hoverboard?) than remaining in the past, like the other installments, and along the way giving Michael J. Fox (and to a lesser extent Thomas J. Wilson, who plays Biff and Griff Tannen) the opportunity to have a little fun playing his character’s son and daughter, while also playing the aged-up version of Marty himself. It’s hardly the most taxing of the multiple roles we have in this list, as it’s really reserved for a couple of cameo-level scenes, but Fox certainly seems to have a blast interacting with the other versions of himself, all whom display varying levels of obnoxiousness, and he makes a remarkably pretty Marlene to boot.
“Dr. Strangelove” (1964)
Actor: Peter Sellers
Characters: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley; Dr Strangelove
While Eddie Murphy might have become synonymous with the phenomenon in recent years, leading to his double-inclusion on this list, if this feature has a patron saint, it’s probably Peter Sellers, and this film, along with Alec Guinness’ multi-turn in “Kind Hearts & Coronets,” has to stand as the pinnacle of excellence in this specific field. A brilliantly caustic and intelligent satire from little-known journeyman Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove” would have no doubt been a great film even without Sellers’ treble—it’s that tightly scripted and has that blazing a talent behind the camera. And Sellers’ three performances were actually a contractual mandate from the studio rather than an inspired piece of casting per se (he was actually signed for the Slim Pickens role too, but was reluctant and eventually bowed out of that due to a sprained ankle not allowing him to sit in the cockpit). Yet it stands as the definitive multi-role, with the actor delivering three separately brilliant performances that operate across every possible register, and that somehow, linked in this metatextual way add to the film’s incredibly specific, well-achieved tone: the dead-center bullseye where farcical exaggeration meets believably frightening lunacy. Kubrick can take the oceans of credit due for maintaining such a precarious tonal high-wire act throughout, but it’s hard to believe it would have had quite the same impact without Sellers, whether it's his Mandrake not having enough change to call the President, or his soft-spoken Muffley talking to his Russian counterpart Dmitri on the phone, or most indelibly perhaps, his titular Strangelove trying to stop his rogue arm from throttling him. Utter genius from beginning to end, Sellers casts such a long shadow (or three) over the tradition, that it’s hard to imagine anyone tackling several roles in the one film will ever surpass this gold standard.
We also considered Jerry Lewis' "The Family Jewels" for inclusion here, in which he plays seven roles in a sweet-hearted family-film riff on the "Kind Hearts & Coronets" formula in which a young heiress must choose between her six uncles following the death of her father. And of course, skit-based comedy movies often rely on this sort of stunt casting so we could well have listed Monty Python films "Life of Brian" and "The Holy Grail" too, as most of the troupe plays three or four or more characters in each, as does Mel Brooks in both "The History of the World Part 1" and "Blazing Saddles," both of which he also obviously directed. And while it's not quite on brief as he does only play two roles, Lee Marvin's turn in comedy western "Cat Ballou" is worth a mention in that it won him the Best Actor Oscar, the only time, as far as we can make out, that an actor has won for a film in which he played multiple roles (Chaplin was nominated for "The Great Dictator" but lost to James Stewart in "The Philadelphia Story"; Nicolas Cage was nominated for "Adaptation" but lost to Adrien Brody for "The Pianist"; while Sellers was nominated for "Dr. Strangelove" the year before Marvin won, but lost to Rex Harrison. Now, we love "My Fair Lady" as much as the next guy, but come on). And finally, an extremely impressive early example was in the silent short "The Play House" in which Buster Keaton, in an extended opening sequence, plays every performer, audience member, stage hand and musician in what turns out to be a self-populated dream, predating "Being John Malkovich" 's similar scene by, oh, about eight decades. What did we miss that you miss? Tell us in the comments. —Jessica Kiang & Oli Lyttelton