Since conflict is at the heart of all good movies, it makes sense that there have been a lot of rich characters whose sole purpose in life seems to be to rile up the protagonist. Whether they are annoying, pranking, bullying, hassling, degrading, instigating, intimidating, endangering, or hunting the protagonist, these go-to jerks below are there at every turn, just to make sure the hero is properly thwarted throughout. A good movie jerk usually sounds like a jerk, just from his name. And he just refuses to go away—simply has to have the last maniacal laugh.
Here are Screen Rant’s 10 Actors Who Were Born to Play Jerks. Or at least that’s what casting directors have found.
10. Alan Rickman
BAFTA, Golden Globe, Emmy, and Screen Actors Guild Award winner Rickman is obviously one very fine actor, so he’s probably just acting like a jerk. But boy is he good at it. The guy has played the worst person ever three separate times: first as Hans Gruber in Die Hard, then as Sheriff George of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and finally as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise. Sure, Rickman has given us a smattering of other quality jerks throughout the years, along with notable romantic comedy turns, but think about this: Gruber may have been the biggest jerk of the ‘80s, a decade riddled with movie jerks. And Snape is arguably a bigger jerk than Hans. Which speaks volumes about Rickman’s ability to rile.
Obviously, part of the secret to Rickman’s success is his fine use of affect. His holiness and entitlement gives his characters that added bit of a-hole. But perhaps an undervalued reason is Rickman’s voice, which was not just well-trained by the Royal Shakespeare Company, but has been mathematically calculated to be the “perfect human voice” by scientists. Well, let’s give credit where it’s due, perfection was achieved by combining Rickman’s voice with his Die Hard brother, Jeremy Irons.
9. William Atherton
Die Hard is notable for having not just one superb jerk, but three. We’ll get to the third later, but Atherton’s Richard Thornburg helped give media-types a terrible name, which they’ve never really recovered from (okay, a lot of that is their own fault.) But perhaps Atherton’s most famous jerks are the power-abusing kind. Has there ever been a bigger power-tripping prick than Walter Peck in Ghostbusters? Well, other than Professor Jerry Hathaway in Real Genius. Definitely not Dr. Noah Faulkner in Bio-Dome, but he wasn’t far off. What a collection of jerks!
Atherton didn’t always play such meanies. His big break came in Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express, and he appeared in a couple of films alongside George C. Scott. But then came Ghostbusters, in 1984, followed six months later by Real Genius, and after that, every ’80s kid around hated him. So why not cash in? “They made money. So the muse changes as the cash clinks, you know?” said Atherton in 2010.
Perhaps now would be a good time to give honorable mention to a man who didn’t quite make this list, Robert Prescott, who played Hathaway’s stooge, Kent, in Real Genius (as well as Cole Whittier in Bachelor Party.) You remember Kent, right? He’s the one led by “God” at the end of the movie, only to be drowned in popcorn cooked from outer space. Interestingly enough, this was before the widespread use of CGI so, according to Atherton, they actually made all that popcorn, over the course of three months; the machine in the studio never stopped popping.
8. Paul Gleason
There’s obviously something about being in charge that makes people behave so badly. Which is the basis for Gleason’s most famous authoritative jerk: Richard Vernon, the douchebag detention monitor in John Hughes’ most Hughesian achievement, The Breakfast Club. Vernon was such a jerk he drove a brain like Brian Johnson, an athlete like Andrew Clark, and a princess like Clair Standish to break the rules which Vernon so haplessly tried to enforce. And Gleason’s over-the-top authoritative tom-foolery made lives equally difficult for folks in Die Hard (the trifecta of jerks!), Trading Places, Van Wilder, and many more.
It’s worth noting again that we are talking about another very well-trained actor here; Gleason studied with Lee Strasberg, aka Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II, aka the father of method acting, aka the guy who trained Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro, among others. So Gleason crafted his way into making you hate him, like a true professional jerk.
7. William Zabka
If you needed to cast a high school or college jerk in the ‘80s, you failed if you couldn’t get William Zabka. After one guest appearance on The Greatest American Hero, Zabka got a call to come in and read for another part, got told he was perfect on the spot, and was given his first ever movie part, not to mention his first ever script. And boom, he was a natural, exuding ever the Aryan air as the beautiful and angry Johnny Lawrence in 1984’s surprise hit, The Karate Kid. For many, it would be hard to see him as anyone but.
Of course, he only solidified that blond jerk reputation by displaying similarly wicked WASPiness in his next four roles: as the “leather mesh tough-guy gloves” wearing Greg Tolan in Just One of the Guys; as Jack, the Lothario who’s seeing Audrey’s best friend while she’s away on a European Vacation; as the lion-maned frat boy Chas in Back to School; and then as Johnny again in The Karate Kid, Part II. Perhaps it wasn’t as much type-casting as it was meant to be; Zabka was just so good at playing a jerk in the è80s, he even did it again some 20 years after the decade ended, in 2010’s Hot Tub Time Machine.
6. Mark Metcalf
When you think back on Animal House, one of the finest movies ever made about college, you probably recall a house full of jerks, Omega Theta Pi. These were some of the most obnoxiously elitist scumbags the cinema-going world had ever seen, and yet who was the biggest scumbag of all of them? Douglas C. Neidermeyer, Rush Chairman, Army ROTC Cadet officer. And Metcalf was so good at spitting in peoples faces and intimidating them to tears, that he deftly reprised the role of “Douglas C.” in Twisted Sister’s totally ‘80s video for “We’re Not Going to Take It.”
As bad as Neidermeyer was, though, it may not have been his biggest jerk. Though less famous perhaps, pooch-punting and crossbow-lobstering Aguilla Beckersted could have been worse. In Savage Steve Holland’s One Crazy Summer, the ruthless real estate developer Beckersted and his sniveling son Teddy make life unnecessarily difficult for Demi Moore, John Cusack, Bobcat Goldthwait, the great Curtis Armstrong, and one of Bill Murray’s brothers. And lest we forget, Metcalf worked jerkily on TV too; he played The Master in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Maestro on Seinfeld. Anyone who demands to be referred to as the Maestro, you know he’s a jerk.
5. James Spader
Spader has phenomenal range, including robots, but at the heart of most of his distinct roles is a distinctly haughty jerk. There’s just something in Spader’s tone that gives him such a snooty, detestable air. And it’s always seemingly been there, all the way back to his breakthrough performance in 1985’s Tuff Turf, even though he was more of a “street rebel” than a jerk. But his next big hit, 1986’s Pretty in Pink, once and for all put Spader’s despicable talents on full display. There were a lot of big jerks in film in 1986, but not many had a bigger jerk name than Steff. And Spader simply oozed Steff-ness, it permeated off his white blazer and perfect blonde feathered Duran-Duran hair.
But he was fun to hate. Just like most of Spader’s best jerk characters—like Rip in Less Than Zero, Stewart Swinton in Wolf, Mr. Grey in Secretary, and many of his characters up through present day—who all display a likeable dis-likability that has remains thoroughly compelling.
4. Bill Murray
Another jerk you love to hate. But when Murray wants to be, he can lay the jerk down as thick as anyone. Usually he’s a jerk who finds redemption, which makes you remember the good guy beneath perhaps. Or maybe it’s just because his jerks are so darn funny we mostly give Bill a pass and don’t hold a grudge.
Take Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, for example, the weatherman who at the beginning of the movie uses his superpower to trick women into bedding down with him, but by the end of the movie is the kind of guy who really has to figure out a women before he can get her to bed down. And in Scrooged, as Francis Xavier “Frank” Cross, he’s the classic Scrooge character, who begins the film stapling antlers to a mouse, but transforms into the kind of guy who can make mute kids sing. Even Steve Zissou comes around in the end. Though Above-the-Law Big Ern McCracken from Kingpin will always just be a Munson.
3. Jason Schwartzman
Though he seems to be a really sweet guy when you talk to him, there’s no doubt Schwartzman has a proclivity for prickliness. But hey, sometimes it just takes a jerk to get things done, to shape minds, to challenge our views. Which may have been where Max Fischer found his motivation to be one of the worst students at Rushmore and the bane of Bill Murray’s existence.
Either way, he was a tough guy to like initially. As was Jeremy in Shopgirl, a man who actually asks to borrow change while asking for said girl’s phone number, then later congratulates her on going out with him. As was Gideon Graves, the “perfect asshole” who steal’s Scott Pilgrim’s girl because he’s better than Scott. As was the titular Philip in Listen Up Philip, which is basically a study in how far you can push your protagonist to the objectionable extreme and still have your audience stay with a film. And then there’s Bored to Death, where even though he’s sweet and well meaning, you still know what kind of self-loathing jerk he is: the kind whose neuroses make everyone else neurotic.
2. Kevin Spacey
Another one of those phenomenal actors who can do anything. And sometimes that means playing despicable, horrible, no good, very-bad people. If you didn’t see it sooner, Spacey’s skeevyness became readily apparent in 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross, where John Williamson, the keeper of the leads, wields entirely to much power. Quite the foreshadow to another jerk who wields too much power: Francis “Frank” Underwood in House of Cards.
Indeed, Spacey has shown quite the penchant for playing horrible bosses, in films or TV shows that are pretty much about horrible bosses, the most obvious being Horrible Bosses. Spacey is so delightfully bad as David Harken, he allows us to become hopeful for his homicide, even though it’s to be carried out by two other quality jerk actors, Jason Bateman and Jason Sudeikis. But even though Harken is terrible, it’s hard to say he’s a worse boss than Buddy Ackerman in Swimming With the Sharks, who probably did more to scare people from working in the film industry than Ari Gold.
1. Jeremy Piven
Here’s a guy that was such a big jerk, that even when he was on your side, he was a jerk, as he showed countless times as the aforementioned Ari Gold on Entourage, the agent with the mouth that spat worse words than many of us knew existed. But long before that, his first two roles, though minor, sort of set the stage: as the orange-crushing football player Spike in Lucas and as sniveling Teddy’s jerk buddy in One Crazy Summer.
His behavior got much worse in 1994’s PCU as James “Droz” Andrews, a total nightmare who definitely qualified for a sensitivity awareness weekend. Or what about Michael Berkow in Very Bad Things, a guy who’s miscreant behavior gets a very good stripper killed? Or Rodney’s kid brother who got locked in a dumpster one time, Dean Gordon “Cheese” Pritchard in Old School. Unfortunately, he got out of that dumpster.
There have been so many wonderfully plump jerk roles in Hollywood history, many of which certain actors gravitate towards, for one reason or another. With so many jerks to choose from, we expect to see many arguments made below for who else should be on this list.