While other movie industries from around the world have produced their fair share of movies and TV series, Hollywood stands way above all of them due to the fact that its productions hold all the records in terms of commercial success, critical acclaim, and recognition from award bodies. This is as a result of the American industry’s desire to put out well-thought-through projects that keep viewers engrossed, for many years at times. One particular tactic Hollywood has managed to successfully use to stay head and shoulders above its competition is its creation of iconic movie characters that viewers have either related to, aspired to be, or have just outrightly regarded as heroes.
Every movie lover, even those that might not particularly be interested in keeping up with the latest releases, has that one favorite movie that lives in their memory as a result of these characters and the actors or actresses that gave life to them. From the thousands of movie characters that have been portrayed over the ages, we have been able to come up with ten that have or will be able to stand the test of time, making them undisputedly iconic.
10 Undisputed Iconic Movie Characters and the Actors Behind Them
1. Rocky Balboa – The Rocky Film Series
Rocky Balboa is the title character created and portrayed by actor and filmmaker Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky film series that so far includes eight movies; Rocky (1976), Rocky II (1979), Rocky III (1982), Rocky IV (1985), Rocky V (1990), Rocky Balboa (2006), Creed (2015), and Creed II (2018), grossing more than $1.7 billion at the worldwide box office. The character is loosely based on the former professional heavyweight boxer, Chuck Wepner, who won the hearts of boxing fans, and that of Stallone, when he fought Muhammad Ali and was against all odds a few seconds shy of lasting the distance before he was eventually knocked out in the 15th and final round. Other former professional boxers who also inspired the Rocky Balboa character are the legendary heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano (name and fighting style), Joe Frazier (Philadelphia origin and training methods), and Jake LaMotta (Italian-inner city roots and ability to absorb many blows).
Often pointed out as the role that kick-started Sylvester Stallone’s film career, and widely considered to be his most iconic role, the actor has received wide acclaim and numerous awards, including Academy Awards, BAFTA, and Golden Globe Award nominations for his performance in the role. He has also been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the non-participant category for his work on the Rocky Balboa character. Another nod to the character’s iconic status is its immortalization with a bronze statue near what is today known as the Rocky Steps in Philadelphia, recalling a scene from the original Rocky movie.
2. Don Vito Corleone – The Godfather Trilogy
Don Vito Corleone is a character created by author Mario Puzo and portrayed by Marlon Brando in the first installment of the series; The Godfather, and by Robert De Niro, a younger version of the character in the second installment; The Godfather Part II. Regarded by many as the greatest film character of all time, Vito Corleone is based on a composite of mid-20th century New York Mafia figures; Carlo Gambino, Frank Costello, Joe Bonanno, and Joe Profaci.
The Godfather films were a huge box office success as they earned over $429 million worldwide. The two actors who portrayed the character both won Academy Awards (Best Actor for Brando and Best Supporting Actor for De Niro) for their performances of the same character, making Corleone the only character played by two different actors to be awarded an Oscar for both portrayals.
3. Terminator – The Terminator Franchise
Terminator is a character created by James Cameron and mainly portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator franchise that includes movies like The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Terminator Genisys (2015), Terminator: Dark Fate (2019), which has helped in generating over $3 billion in revenue for the franchise. An iconic movie character is a machine created by the antagonist group, Skynet, for infiltration-based assassination missions. Described as a cybernetic organism, the machine consists of living tissue over a robotic endoskeleton.
While the title “Terminator” has also been used as a generic name for describing other human-simulating characters in the Terminator franchise, Schwarzenegger has remained synonymous with the role, so much so that other actors who have played the role get digitally overlaid with his likeness.
4. Captain Jack Sparrow – The Pirates Of The Caribbean Film Series
Captain Jack Sparrow is a character created by screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and is portrayed by Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series; Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Dead Man’s Chest (2006), At World’s End (2007), On Stranger Tides (2011), and Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017), which has grossed over $4.5 billion worldwide. The character’s creators based it on a combination of The Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards and Looney Tunes cartoon character Pepé Le Pew.
After having faced questions from the executive producers of the movie on whether he was fit enough to play the role due to him being an unconventional actor, Johnny Depp’s performance in the role won acclaim from film critics and is said to be one of the main reasons why moviegoers enjoyed the films. For his performance in the role, he has won numerous awards, including nominations for an Academy Award, BAFTA, and Golden Globe.
5. Forrest Gump – Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump is the title character created by novelist Winston Groom and portrayed by Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis’s 1994 film of the same name. The character is made out to be a compassionate, optimistic, and tenacious human being who bears witness to various defining historical events in the 20th century. He is also a war veteran, philanthropist, and businessman.
While actor Michael Conner Humphreys portrayed Forrest as a child, Tom Hanks took all the plaudits for his performance in the role and is almost synonymous with it. He further earned an Academy Award for his performance as the film, which grossed over US$677 million worldwide, won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Visual Effects, and Best Film Editing.
6. Rambo – The Rambo Film Series
Another iconic movie character played by Sylvester Stallone to make this list is that of John Rambo, a US Army veteran who suffers from a post-traumatic stress disorder and has difficulty adjusting to normal life. Created by novelist David Morrell, the character first appears in the novel, First Blood, before it was later made popular by its portrayal by Stallone in the Rambo film series; First Blood (1982), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Rambo III (1988), Rambo (2008), and Rambo: Last Blood (2019), all of which grossed about $727 million in total.
Stallone has received widespread acclaim and recognition for his portrayal of the character as the term “Rambo” has been used to commonly describe a person who is tough, aggressive, disregards orders, enters dangerous situations alone, and uses violence to solve problems.
7. John McClane – The Die Hard Film Series
Known for his sardonic one-liners, including the famous “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” catchphrase, John McClane is a character created by novelist Roderick Thorp and portrayed by Bruce Willis in the Die Hard film series; Die Hard (1988), Die Hard 2 (1990), Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), Live Free or Die Hard (2007), and A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), all of which has grossed a combined $1.4 billion worldwide. The character, who is a New York City Detective, is based on the fictional characters of Detective Joe Leland from Thorp’s bestselling novel, Nothing Lasts Forever (adapted as Die Hard), and of Frank Malone from novelist Walter Wager’s 58 Minutes (adapted as Die Hard 2).
For his excellent performance in the role in all the movies, Bruce Willis is widely regarded as an action hero. Entertainment Weekly magazine went as far as calling the characters portrayed by Keanu Reeves in Speed, Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57, and Jean-Claude Van Damme in Sudden Death copycat descendants of John McClane.
8. James Bond – The James Bond Franchise
No list of iconic movie characters would be complete without the inclusion of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, which was based on a number of commandos the author knew during his service in the Naval Intelligence Division during the Second World War. Fleming went on to add his own style and tastes to the character whose name has been said to have been either appropriated from an American ornithologist of the same name or a Welsh agent who Fleming served with named James C. Bond.
As any movie lover with an average knowledge of the industry would know, the James Bond character has been portrayed by numerous actors like Sean Connery, David Niven, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig.
9. Darth Vader – The Star Wars Franchise
Unlike any of the other characters on this list, Darth Vader is a villain who plays the role of the primary antagonist in the Star Wars franchise. The character was created by filmmaker George Lucas and has been portrayed by numerous actors, most notably
David Prowse and Bob Anderson while James Earl Jones is known to have voiced the character. Darth Vader’s iconic status is cemented by the fact that the character is now known as a symbol of evil in popular culture.
10. Atticus Finch – To Kill A Mockingbird
Atticus Finch is a character created by novelist Harper Lee in her 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film of the same name. The character is based on Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, an Alabama lawyer, who was known to represent black defendants.
Atticus Finch goes down as one of the most iconic movie characters of all time due to his willingness to support social outcasts and victims of prejudice. His case is further helped by the revering and memorable performance by Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Gregory Peck who received an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the character.