16 Actors With The Most Iconic Roles Of All Time
I was rewatching Indiana Jones movies the other night and thought to myself how Harrison Ford, with this role and the ones of Han Solo and Rick Deckard, is probably the actor with most iconic roles in his career. So I started wondering, who are the actors with the most iconic set of roles of all time? The type of roles that are instantly recognizable. The type of roles where is enough just to mention the name of the character and people know who are you talking about without the need to mention the name of the movie. And I’m not talking about best performances or actors who played the most iconic roles once but of the actors who played more than one iconic role in their careers. Yes, Bruce Willis played John McClane, Anthony Hopkins was Hanibal and Kevin Spacey played Keyser Soze, but they didn’t have another iconic role in their careers.
To give you a short answer, there are more actors that have played more than one iconic character than you probably think, but the actors with most iconic roles of all time are probably Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Patrick Stewart, and Mel Gibson. Harrison Ford played Indiana Jones, Han Solo (Star Wars) and Rick Deckard (Blade Runner), Stallone played Rocky and Rambo, Schwarzenegger was Terminator and Conan, Patrick Stewart played Jean Luc Pickard in Star Trek and Professor X in X-Men movie, and Mel Gibson played Mad Max, William Wallace in Braveheart and Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon. But there are more like Micheal Keaton who played both Batman and Beetlejuice or Samuel L. Jackson who played Nick Fury and Mace Windu.
Actors Who Have Played More Than One Iconic Character
So let’s take a look who were the actors with the most iconic roles of all time.
Harrison Ford – Indiana Jones, Han Solo, Rick Deckard
Hollywood legend Harrison Ford starred in many big blockbusters and different genres, from action, adventure, drama to romance. And he’s an actor who played some of the cinema’s biggest icons – Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Rick Deckard. Ford played Han Solo in a couple of Star Wars movies. Star Wars is probably the most popular franchise of all time and Han Solo is one of the most iconic roles of all time.
The same goes for Indiana Jones – I don’t think there is a person in the world who doesn’t know who is Indiana Jones. An archaeology teacher and an adventurer with a whip looking for mystical treasures. Role of Rick Deckard is maybe not as iconic as Solo and Jones, but every movie lover knows that Rick Deckard is the main character from one of the best SF movies of all time, Blade Runner. Ford also played Rick Deckard in a sequel called Blade Runner 2049, although he wasn’t the main character there.
Besides these roles Ford also played Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, president in Air Force One and Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, just to mention some of his most famous roles.
Sylvester Stallone – Rambo, Rocky
Sylvester Stallone may not be the best actor in the world but he was one of the biggest stars in the 1980s and 1990s and an actor with some of the most famous movie characters. His most iconic roles are definitely Rambo and Rocky.
Starting in 1982 with The First Blood, Stallone will go on and play John Rambo four more times with different results. While The First Blood is actually a very good action thriller, the same can’t be said about its sequels. Rambo II and Rambo III were fun but trashy 80’s action titles, Rambo: Last Blood released last year, didn’t feel like a Rambo movie and was, by the way, one of the worst movies of 2019. Rambo IV released back in 2008 was a pleasant surprise – a simple action movie with a mediocre story but with explosive and thrilling action sequences. Directed by Stallone, it was one of the best action movies in the first decade of this century.
Rocky was an even bigger success. It was made in a time when Sylvester Stallone wasn’ a big star. He was a struggling and little known actor who played small roles in a couple of movies and TV shows back in the ’70s. He wrote a script for Rocky and offered it to producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Winkler and Chartoff were interested in the script and offered him $350,000 for the rights. Stallone, who was poor at the time (he had no car, no money and wanted to sell his dog because he couldn’t afford to feed it), made a bold move and refused the offer unless they agreed to allow him to star in the film. They agreed and the rest is history. The movie was a huge success and spawned a couple of sequels.
Arnold Schwarzenegger – Terminator, Conan
Professional bodybuilder, politician, investor, and probably the greatest action star of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in many big Hollywood blockbusters in the 1980s and 1990s. From Predator and Commando to Total Recall, True Lies, and Last Action Hero, Schwarzenegger had some of the best action or SF action movies at the time.
But he also played two roles in the 1980s which will become some of the most iconic roles of all time – Terminator and Conan. Conan the Barbarian was an epic sword and sorcery film from 1982 directed by John Milius, based on the character created by Robert E. Howard. Upon release, the movie received mixed reviews from critics but became a huge commercial success and earned Schwarzenegger worldwide recognition. In the following years, Conan the Barbarian became a cult film, beloved by movie fans.
The Terminator was made in 1984 by then-unknown director James Cameron (Aliens, True Lies, Titanic, Avatar, Abyss). It was a cheap SF action thriller that surprised everyone earning excellent reviews and becoming a commercial success. This SF action masterpiece helped launch Cameron’s film career and solidify Schwarzenegger’s status as an action star. The movie spawned a couple of sequels but only the first one is worth mentioning, as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, is one more SF action masterpiece and one of the rare sequels that are as good or better than original.
Mel Gibson – Mad Max Rockatansky, William Wallace, and Martin Riggs
One of the biggest movie stars from the 1980s and 1990s, Australian actor Mel Gibson starred in many famous movies. So it’s no wonder he also played some of the most iconic roles in history.
In the late 70s, Gibson accepted the role of Max Rockatansky in a small post-apocalyptic movie called Mad Max and the rest is history. The movie spawned two sequels in the 80s with Gibson in the lead role and one sequel many years later with Tom Hardy as Mad Max. Mad Max wasn’t the only iconic role for Gibson in the ’80s as he also starred as a Martin Riggs in a highly popular action franchise Lethal Weapon.
In the 1990s Gibson started directing movies. He made a debut with a solid The Man Without a Face but his second directorial effort, Braveheart, will give him one more iconic role – William Wallace.
Patrick Stewart – Jean Luc Pickard, and Professor X
Patrick Stewart is definitely not the actor who pops in mind when you think about actors with the most iconic roles. But Stewart played Jean Luc Pickard in Star Trek TV series and movies which is one of the more recognizable roles in history. Many years later he’ll also play Charles Xavier aka Professor X in a highly popular X-Men franchise.
Johnny Depp – Edward Scissorhands and Jack Sparrow
Johnny Depp, once a huge Hollywood star, had some rough couple of years. But still, he starred in numerous good movies and played two iconic roles – Edward Scissorhands and Jack Sparrow.
Before he became a caricature himself, Depp actually made good movies, from Ed Wood, Dead Man, Donnie Brasco or Sleepy Hollow, just to name a few. And one of those movies was Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands which gave Depp his first iconic role.
His second iconic role was in a risky, pricey project called Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. You see, at the time of a release, pirate movies were dead and Johnny Depp wasn’ a sure bet at the box office. But in the end, the movie became a huge success spawning a couple of sequels and Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow became one of the cinema’s most iconic and beloved characters of the last decade. Unfortunately, sequels weren’t particularly good and Depp started taking similar roles making him one of the more irritating Hollywood actors.
Micheal Keaton – Batman and Beetlejuice
One more actor that probably isn’t on your mind when you think of actors with the most iconic roles is Michael Keaton. But the guy played two iconic characters, both in Tim Burton movies.
After starring as a Beetlejuice in 1988., Burton hired him for the lead role of Batman / Bruce Wayne in his first big-screen adaptation from 1989. Although Keaton wasn’t the first actor you would pick for the Batman, in the end, he was pretty solid in the role and after Christian Bale, probably the best actor who portrayed this character on the big screen.
Christian Bale – Batman and Patrick Bateman
One more actor who portrayed Batman, Christian Bale is known as one of the best actors of his generation giving us many memorable roles. But his two most iconic roles are definitely Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, a satire of 80s yuppie culture based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis.
Bale was the best Batman and was excellent as a serial killer Patrick Bateman. Bateman is a young rich businessman who has it all but is also extremely vain and cares more about his looks and business cards than his own fiancee. But as we figure out, Patrick is empty inside so when night hits, he turns into a killer who murders prostitutes and business rivals. If you’re interested more on this subject you can check our article What is your favorite movie about serial killers?.
Keanu Reeves – John Wick, Neo
Whoa! Although Reeves is not a good actor with emotional range ala Steven Seagal he starred in a couple of pretty good movies like Speed, The Devil’s Advocate, or Point Break. But he also gave us two iconic roles – Neo in The Matrix and John Wick.
First Matrix came out of nowhere and became this huge influential Hollywood blockbuster. It is not hard to see why as it is one of the best SF movies of all time. And besides exceptionally well-done action sequences, thought-provoking story and memorable soundtrack, Wachowski brothers and Reeves gave us one of the most iconic roles of all time. I’m talking about the first movie only as its sequels were a huge disappointment.
Reeves’s second iconic role is John Wick. Made back in 2014, John Wick was an original action movie made by an unknown directors. Reeves played John Wick, ex-assassin who’s retired and mourning the death of his wife. When bad guys kill his dog, he goes on a killing spree. Sounds stupid but in the end John Wick surprised everyone with its exceptionally choreographed action sequences and became a cult hit. Two more sequels followed, each more successful than the previous.
Samuel L Jackson – Jules Winnfield, Nick Fury and Mace Windu
Samuel L. Jackson had a role in so many movies but one of his most recognizable characters is definitely Jules Winnfield from Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Pulp Fiction. I mean who doesn’t remember him and John Travolta in that movie or his Ezekiel 25:17 speech?
But this wasn’t the only iconic role for Jackson as he played a Jedi master Mace Windu in Star Wars prequel trilogy and Nick Fury in many Marvel movies. A little bit of trivia for you. If you were wondering why does Samuel L. Jackson often wears purple, the reason is it’s his favorite color, and also he wanted to stand out in Star Wars as all other characters had green, blue or red lightsabers.
Christopher Lee – Saruman, Dracula, and Sherlock Holmes
English actor, singer, and author Christopher Lee is one more actor who doesn’t pop in mind when you think of actors with the most iconic roles. But as he played Saruman, Dracula, and Sherlock Holmes, each instantly recognizable character, he deserved his place on our list.
Ian McKellan – Gandalf, Magneto
English actor Sir Ian Murray McKellen received nominations for two Academy Awards and also won a Golden Globe Award, six Laurence Olivier Awards, a Tony Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award just to name a few. He had roles in numerous movies but will be remembered for his two iconic roles as Gandalf in LOTR and Hobbit trilogies and Magneto in the X-Men franchise.
Alan Rickman – Hans Gruber and Severus Snape
Great English actor Alan Rickman was born on February 21, 1946 in Hammersmith, London. Although he was hailed as one of the best actors of his generation, Rickman started acting late in life. After appearing in various TV shows and movies he got his first movie role at the age of 46. That movie was Die Hard where Rickman played the main villain Hans Gruber. Probably no one expected that a newcomer like Rickman would give us one of the greatest villains of all time.
One of the most recognizable things about Alan Rickman was his voice which was actually a result of childhood disability but as we see that didn’t stop him from becoming a great actor. During his career, Rickman gave us many memorable performances in movies like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Sense and Sensibility, Galaxy Quest, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, just to name a few.
But roles he will be remembered for are Hans Gruber and Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series. Unfortunately, Rickman died on 14 January 2016 at age 69 of pancreatic cancer.
Hugo Weaving – Agent Smith, V
English actor Hugo Weaving may not be a huge movie star and he probably wouldn’t pop in your mind when you think of actors with the most iconic roles. Starting with The Matrix trilogy where he played the main bad guy agent Smith, Weaving has a couple of iconic roles in his career.
One of them is the role of masked vigilante V in the big-screen adaptation of great graphic novel V For Vendetta from Alan Moore (Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). And he also played Lord Elrond of Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, voiced Megatron in the three Transformers movies and played Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Clint Eastwood – Dirty Harry, Man with No Name
Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood, starred in and directed numerous movies and gave us many memorable performances. But his two most iconic roles are Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry series and Man With No Name in a Sergio Leone’s great spaghetti western trilogy – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
Both of this roles are instantly recognizable and quoted by many movie fans. “Do you feel lucky, punk?”.
Al Pacino – Tony Montana, Michael Corleone
Al Pacino isn’t a big star he was back in the 20th century and in the last 20 years, he made more bad or mediocre (Righteous Kill, Jack and Jill, 88 Minutes, Hangman) than good movies (Insomnia). But let’s not forget that once Pacino, just like De Niro, was a great actor and had roles in many high-quality movies like The Godfather, Serpico, Heat, Dog Day Afternoon, The Devil’s Advocate, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Donnie Brasco.
And during those years he gave us two iconic roles. First in The Godfather movies as Michael Corleone and then as Tony Montana in Scarface. Both of them are two of the most quoted and influential characters of all time.
Besides all the actors mentioned above, there were some actors who also played some iconic characters in their career although it’s questionable are these characters instantly recognizable. Tom Hanks is a very good actor who tackled almost everything, from dramas, comedies, thrillers, crime and war movies. His most iconic role is definitely Forrest Gump, although Woody from Pixar’s Toy Story series also pops in mind.
Tom Hardy played Bane in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises which is one of the most famous roles in the last couple of years. But he was also Bronson in 2008, although it’s a question how many people would know who are you talking about.
From the rest, Kurt Russell was Snake Plissken and Wyatt Earp, Jim Carrey played The Mask, The Riddler, Scrooge, The Grinch, and Andy Kaufman, Ben Affleck was Batman and Daredevil and Gary Oldman played Dracula, Jim Gordon, Beethoven, and Sid Vicious.