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The 1996 version of Hamlet, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, has a number of high-profile actors in minor roles who were only in one or two scenes. A few that stand out to me (descriptions from Wikipedia):

  • Robin Williams as Osric, the Elsinore courtier sent by Claudius to invite Hamlet to participate in the duel with Laertes.
  • Billy Crystal as the First Gravedigger, a sexton digging Ophelia's grave who makes a case as to why she should not receive Christian burial before making quick dialogue with Hamlet. He later presents the skull of Yorick to Hamlet, not knowing of Hamlet's history with the jester.
  • Judi Dench as Hecuba, the Queen of Troy and wife of Priam, played in flashback during the Player King's speech.

When I was watching the film, I couldn't see these actors as their characters because there wasn't enough about the characters to latch on to. So it seemed to me like Hamlet talking with Robin Williams, not Orsic. I understand that some critics felt the same way as well.

Why was this casting decision made?

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Firstly, all actors love to do Shakespeare (or at least to be able to say they have done it).

Many had worked with Branagh before, for example, Robin Williams, in Dead Again.

This was also something that also worked for him before, see Much Ado About Nothing with Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington and Michael Keaton.

But the real reason so many stars were cast, was so the picture could get made. This wasn't just another movie-length "Hamlet", Branagh wanted to do the full version, which would run around 4 hours. To back it, IMDB reports that Castle Rock demanded the star laden cast.

However, Castle Rock Entertainment, agreed to finance the film and to Branagh's demands (filming in 65mm, complete control over the film, etc..) under two conditions: a star-studded cast for the show and a 35mm, abridged 2.5 hour version of the show for a wider release.

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