The most iconic movie characters of all time will certainly be those who have left an indelible impression on the minds of film fans. Without them, the films they were part of would be nothing.
Cinema is of course all about characters. If the characters are relatable and depicted brilliantly, fans are able to connect with them on a different level. Of course, actors play an important role in making characters unforgettable. Without them, many of the most iconic characters ever would simply be a footnote in the annals of cinema. Maybe not even that.
Why performance is critical to character immortality
Such is the power of performance that even a character written as a supporting role might become more famous than all the protagonists put together. For example Mark from A Better Tomorrow (1986), a Hong Kong film credited with launching the heroic bloodshed genre.
The John Woo film had two main leads — Ti Lung and Leslie Cheung, one of the greatest performers in world cinema. But it was the performance of Chow Yun-Fat, who played Mark, that became a sensation with moviegoers in Hong Kong at the time. The wave was so high that Chow Yun-Fat became one of the topmost stars in Hong Kong cinema and returned in the next two instalments of the film playing a different character.
That, in a nutshell, is how an actor can influence the fame of a character and become immortal as a result of it. Characters can be of any kind — hero, antagonist, anti-hero or those with complex moralities. And they can be anyone, from a gangster to a wandering gunman.
Appearances: The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974)
Marlon Brando immortalised Mario Puzo’s enigmatic literary character on screen in the first Godfather film in 1972.
Vito Corleone is an enigmatic crime boss, the don, from the Corleone family — an Italian Mafia family, who live in contemporary New York City. Don Vito is presented as a dangerous man for those who cross him, but deeply caring for the members of his family. He especially dotes on his younger son, Michael.
In the second film the character’s rise from humble origins after coming to New York City as a refugee is brilliantly played by Robert De Niro. The exceptionally well-acted portrayals by both Brando and De Niro solidified Vito Corleone as one of the greatest movie characters of all time.
Appearances: Every James Bond film since 1962
There is no doubt that Ian Fleming’s creation is one of the greatest fictional spies of all time and a pop culture icon. James Bond is a Commander of the Royal Navy who works for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more commonly known as MI6. His secret service code is 007 and he is depicted as the finest of all 00 (Double O) agents.
The iconic character first appeared on the big screen with Dr. No (1962) and most recently in the film No Time to Die (2021). Together, the spy film series is one of the highest grossing franchises of all time. The character is noteworthy for using unique gadgets, one-liners and adventures around the world. Six different actors have played Bond in various films from the franchise — Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig.
Appearances: The Star Wars original trilogy (1977-83), The Force Awakens (2015), The Rise of Skywalker (2019) and Solo (2018)
A creation of George Lucas, Han Solo has been one of the most iconic characters. Solo is not a superhero and neither is he Force-sensitive. Yet his personality, which resembles that of a space cowboy, has turned him into a fan-favourite character in the franchise.
Street-smart and fiercely loyal to his friends, Solo is presented as a small-time smuggler who becomes a hero of the galaxy when he joins the fight against the Empire. He is known for flying the Millennium Falcon and his legendary friendship with his Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca. Also, as the story progresses, Solo becomes the husband of Princess Leia and the father of Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren.
Harrison Ford played the character in all films except Solo, where Alden Ehrenreich portrayed a young Han Solo.
Appearances: All 8 Harry Potter films from 2001 to 2011
Harry Potter is one of the greatest characters in both films and literature. A creation of acclaimed British author JK Rowling, Potter is about a young male wizard and his friends from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry who protect both the wizarding and human worlds from a dark wizard named Lord Voldemort.
The titular character of Potter was played by Daniel Radcliffe in all the films. Rupert Grint played Ron Weasley and Emma Watson played Hermione Granger, the other two protagonists who play Harry’s best friends.
Six of the 8 films were nominated for 12 Academy Awards.
Appearances: All four films in franchise from 1981 to 2008
Certainly one of the toughest movie characters ever, Indiana Jones is a creation of George Lucas. The character is depicted as a 1930s archaeologist who goes on multiple adventures at a time when the world is heading towards World War II. Witty and knowledgeable, Jones is known for sometimes using his bullwhip to escape tricky situations and protect powerful artefacts from falling into the wrong hands.
While the first three films were released in the 1980s, the fourth and so far the last, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, was released in 2008. It is also the one film in the franchise set in the 1950s.
Harrison Ford featured in all four Indiana Jones adventures portraying the titular character, and all of them were directed by Steven Spielberg. As per media reports, an untitled Indian Jones film is in the works. The film does not involve either Lucas or Spielberg and is directed by James Mangold. Ford is however set to return as the character.
Captain Jack Sparrow
Appearances: Five films from 2003 to 2017
The charismatic Captain Jack Sparrow was the single biggest reason behind the terrific success of the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise. No doubt that the iconic character is universally hailed as one of the greatest movie characters of all time.
Sparrow is a pirate lord whose adventures are both comical and thrilling. Johnny Depp played the character in all films of the franchise. In fact, Depp’s critically lauded performance was one of the major reasons why Sparrow became a pop culture icon in the eyes of everyone from kids to adults.
One of the most memorable characters, Sparrow is portrayed as intelligent and sometimes even treacherous who uses his brains to get out of a tough situation. He is not only wanted by the forces of East Indian Company and armadas of other nations but also ruthless supernatural entities including Captain Davy Jones, Blackbeard and Captain Salazar.
Anthony De La Torre played a young Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017).
Neo and Trinity
Appearance: The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003) and The Matrix Resurrections (2021)
Neo and Trinity are the main characters of The Matrix film franchise. Created by the Wachowskis and played by Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, respectively, Neo and Trinity are the heroes of the story. They try to fight back against the machines who have created the Matrix to keep humans trapped in a simulated reality.
The film franchise is notable for its use of special effects and outstanding action sequences. Its cultural impact has been phenomenal especially with regard to film-making, religion, philosophy and science. Many of its scenes such as the ones involving Neo dodging a hail of bullets and Trinity escaping pursuers on a busy highway have inspired everything from GIFs to parody scenes.
Not only the two, other characters such as Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne and Agent Smith, essayed by Hugo Weaving, are also quite popular.
While all films have been critical and commercial successes, the first film from the franchise, The Matrix (1999), won four Academy Awards.
Appearances: Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
No list of top famous movie characters ever to have graced the screen would be complete without Bride. Essentially appearing in a single storyline divided into two films, Uma Thurman as the Bride — a dangerous assassin on a revenge mission against a group of assassins and their leader for trying to kill her and her unborn child, has made the character iconic.
Quentin Tarantino gave depth to the character in his own style with depictions of extreme violence and breathtaking action scenes. Thurman brought the Bride to life with her powerful performance. The success of the two films also made the yellow tracksuit worn by the Bride, one of the most iconic outfits in film history.
Rose and Jack
Appearance: Titanic (1997)
Their innocent love story and the tragic fate it met turned Jack Dawson and Rose into one of the most beloved couples in cinematic history.
James Cameron, the director, excellently weaves a romantic story in the backdrop of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Jack is a poor young artist who falls in love with the aristocratic Rose on the ship. Rose, who feels suffocated in her world, finds Jack’s freewheeling lifestyle appealing. But then tragedy strikes and the Titanic sinks.
The film was a success both commercially and critically. It won 11 Academy Awards, equalling the record set by Ben-Hur (1959). Titanic is the third highest-grossing film of all time with a lifetime gross of over USD 2 billion since its release.
Appearance: The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
The illustrious Meryl Streep plays Miranda Priestly, the demanding boss of a famous fashion magazine. Priestly is depicted as extremely workaholic, who is also a walking encyclopaedia of the fashion industry. But her strict demeanour creates problems for her young personal assistant, Andy (Anne Hathaway).
The Devil Wears Prada is a film adaptation of the 2003 novel of the same name. Directed by David Frankel, the film received two Academy Award nominations including Best Actress for Streep.
The Terminator (T-800)
Appearances: The Terminator film franchise since 1984
The Terminator is a pop culture legend to film fans around the world. Immortalised on screen by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator is basically a machine sent back in time to kill John Connor to prevent him from becoming the leader of the resistance in the future.
Schwarzenegger turned Terminator into one of the greatest movie characters of all time. His performance, especially the machine-like dialogue delivery including the phrase “I’ll be back”, took Terminator beyond the big screen and into comic books, video games and every merchandise imaginable.
A creation of James Cameron, the T-800 is a specific model of the Terminators depicted in the franchise. It first appears in The Terminator (1984) as the main antagonist sent to kill Sarah Connor, the would-be mother of John. The character then reappears in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) as the protagonist trying to save a young John Connor from another Terminator, the shape-shifting T-1000.
The T-800 Terminator, always played by Schwarzenegger, appeared in all subsequent films in the long-running franchise.
The Man With No Name
Appearances: A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966)
The films are collectively known as the ‘Dollars trilogy’. Though each story is a standalone, the common thread connecting them is one of the greatest movie characters of all time — The Man With No Name, played by screen legend Clint Eastwood.
Created by Sergio Leone, each of the three Italian epic spaghetti Western films are counted among the finest films in movie history. But among the three, the last, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, is universally hailed as the best.
As for Eastwood, the fictional character of The Man With No Name remains one of his career best performances. The Man With No Name is a wandering gunfighter in the Wild West. He is basically an anti-hero, with conflicting morals. He doesn’t speak much but his skill with the gun is almost unmatched. The character has been so well-received that it continues to inspire everything from outfits to comic books over the decades.
(Main image: © 1997 – Paramount Pictures/IMDb)
(Featured image: © 2015 – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions/IMDb)