Whether on stage, screen, or in the pages of a best selling book, the chances of creating an iconic character are slim to none. That being said, a performer selected to portray such a role has got it made, a surefire cause to count their lucky stars -- while on the fast track to becoming one themselves. Roles like Rocky Balboa, Indiana Jones, and The Terminator define these “lightning in a bottle” legacies, a marriage of performer and character that would prove foolishly frustrating to ever see recast.
But this hasn’t always been the case. Sometimes, when those same lucky stars align, iconic characters have allowed more than one performer to sport their onscreen mantle. It’s been done in prequels, sequels, or outright reboots. Superheroes are notorious for this practice, though the number of caped crimefighters who qualify is high enough to earn their own article (supervillains included). Keeping that in mind, this list will focus upon mortal men and women, with the rule being that they cannot portray the same role in the same film (i.e. Looper, MIB III). Outside of this, all dead-ringers and doppelgängers are welcome.
Here are Screen Rant’s 15 Famous Characters Portrayed by Multiple Great Actors.
Portrayed by: Leonard Nimoy, Zachary Quinto
Mr. Spock, perhaps even more than Captain Kirk, has come to embody the intergalactic wonder that is Star Trek. Half human, half Vulcan, the bowl cut badass constantly walks the line between emotional repression and deep-seated loyalty, making for a string of moments that movie nerds are likely never to forget. As cool as he was on paper, however, it was the stern portrayal of late great Leonard Nimoy that truly clinched the character’s charm throughout the galaxy. Rarely without logic, and usually in control, Nimoy provided a perfect counterbalance to Kirk’s gung-ho approach, and this chemistry exploded on both the small and silver screen.
Naturally, rebooting the role was a daunting task in 2009, and director J.J. Abrams realized as much, allowing Nimoy to have final say in who took over the part. Enter Zachary Quinto, a TV veteran who impressed not only through his uncanny resemblance, but the ability to wield conflicting moods convincingly. While the new Spock admittedly rages more than his predecessor, Quinto’s portrayal has proven more compelling than a Vulcan grip to the gut. Nimoy taught him well, as can be seen in the upcoming installment Star Trek: Beyond.
14 Sarah Connor
Portrayed by: Linda Hamilton, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke
As a teen waitress with little else going on, Sarah Connor wasn’t exactly hero material in 1984’s The Terminator. But if time (and time travel) have proven anything, it’s that the most important people often masquerade beneath a veil of normalcy. By film’s end, Sarah’s true colors have been revealed: scrappy, unrelenting, and willing to enforce her way or go out fighting. Selling this inconceivable transformation is no picnic, and actress Linda Hamilton not only delivers, but does the viewer one better by becoming a full-on badass for T2: Judgment Day (1991). Though killed off between this film and 2003’s Rise of the Machines, her large presence still looms over the dystopian saga.
Resurrected on television in 2008, The Sarah Connor Chronicles found the character portrayed by a younger, less hardened Lena Headey. Set after the events of T2 (and ignoring T3), the actresses’ subtle turn proved divisive among die-hard groupies, who felt she lacked the physical resemblance to fully sell Sarah’s return. The same critique was lobbed at Emilia Clarke for the series' recent outing Genisys (2015). Either way, this decisive former dork forever holds a place in pop culture maternity.
13 Jack Ryan
Portrayed by: Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Chris Pine
CIA analyst Jack Ryan had quite the big screen debut in 1990. Spearheading thriller The Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy’s iconic character played commissary between two warring nations on the brink of nuclear battle -- not exactly a large margin for error. As Ryan, actor Alec Baldwin captured concern splendidly, humanizing the hero while ensuring he remained effective in the extraordinary measures at hand. Steering clear of macho men like John Rambo and John McClane, Baldwin’s portrayal made him a star, while legitimizing Jack Ryan as a bonafide franchise leader.
Baldwin turned down the sequel Patriot Games in 1992, and the studio responded by going with Indiana Jones star Harrison Ford. Arguably even stronger at playing frazzled everymen, Ford knocked his performance out of the park, and would do so again with 1994 follow-up Clear and Present Danger. Sadly, this successful track record went down in the 2000s, as capable actors Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears) and Chris Pine (Shadow Recruit) ruined the franchise beyond all recognition. Now, the only remaining hope for Ryan’s return is in the hands of Amazon and Jim from The Office.
12 Willy Wonka
Portrayed by: Gene Wilder, Johnny Depp
Remember when Johnny Depp was announced as the new Willy Wonka? The response wasn’t exactly kosher, as many felt such a definitive role be better left untouched. Still, Depp and director Tim Burton remained unshaken, and released Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to box office success in 2005. To their credit, the critical response was mainly positive, with many citing Depp’s performance as darker, stranger, and ultimately more fragile than was initially anticipated. To those in disagreeance, the new direction was a far cry from the glory days of O.G. Wonka Gene Wilder.
Playing the polar opposite of Depp, Wilder’s scatterbrained approach to the role is a colossal achievement, whether screaming of rowboats or passively insulting the brats who found his golden tickets. Expanding upon the silly, less insecure aspects of Wonka’s persona, the wacky performer is, pardon the cliché, a kid in a candy store, and a warm reminder of everyone’s sweet-toothed childhood. Nostalgia is a tough thing to topple, even with someone as talented as Depp behind the wheel.
11 Bilbo Baggins
Portrayed by: Ian Holm, Martin Freeman
Having played Frodo Baggins in a 1981 radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, actor Ian Holm seemed an obvious choice to tackle a Hobbit onscreen. Holm, a veteran stage performer with a flair for the theatrics, catered to both the age range and saddened regret that made Bilbo such an intriguing cog in this Middle Earth machine. Granted, the part offered limited screen time, but the old saying of no small parts, only small performers, took on a whole new meaning -- given Bilbo is a Hobbit and all. Peter Jackson’s trilogy wound up one of the biggest cinematic stories ever, and a prequel adaptation of The Hobbit series solidified that we had yet to see the last of the elder Baggins.
Sure enough, a younger iteration of the role appeared in 2012’s An Unexpected Journey, and actor Martin Freeman stepped in without missing a beat. Fantastic in matching Holm’s physical appearance and humble exterior, Freeman’s ability to build up to the man he would eventually become is crucial to the franchise’s effectiveness; especially when Holm drops by to tie things together in The Battle of the Five Armies (2014).
10 Rooster Cogburn
Portrayed by: John Wayne, Jeff Bridges
Tackling a role made famous by John Wayne has it's obvious downsides. The Duke’s massive persona applies to nearly all of the his roles; especially when discussing Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed marshall that netted Wayne his only Oscar in 1969. The film was True Grit, and the success proved so potent that the actor even returned for a eponymously-titled sequel six years later. Nearly three decades afterwards, filmmakers Joel & Ethan Coen dusted off its source material novel, and embarked on a remake that dared to reinterpret one of Hollywood’s last golden age westerns.
Donning the eye-patch and drinking problem was Jeff Bridges, an actor whose affable strengths were rarely spoken of in similarity to the Duke. All reservations aside, though, Bridges does his influence justice, intermingling just the right amount of originality to help his Rooster stand on his own feet. When all was said and done, Bridges had not only succeeded, he excelled to the extent of receiving his own Best Actor nomination in 2011. Losing to Jean Dujardin, it was still the capper to one of the great acting combinations.
9 Hannibal Lecter
Portrayed by: Brian Cox, Anthony Hopkins, Gaspard Ulliel, Mads Mikkelsen
Another repeat offender, Dr. Hannibal Lecter has found several skins to call his own over the years. Introduced in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), the good doctor initially took the form of Brian Cox, who laid out the character’s defining quirks: unblinking, perverse, and keenly aware of other’s weak spots. Though onscreen for less than ten minutes, the portrayal moistened the audience’s appetite for more, ultimately setting the stage for a watershed performance in modern film.
With The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, Anthony Hopkins etched Lecter into the fabric of pop culture. Upping the ante through a portrayal that haunts to this day, his Hannibal cobbled together the best bits of Cox and filtered them through an eerie impression of Katharine Hepburn (yikes). Fava beans never sounded so frightening. Hopkins received an Oscar for his killer role, which he would go on to reprise in Hannibal (2000) and Red Dragon (2002). Sir Anthony has since retired the mantle, but as a spectacular Mads Mikkelsen (NBC’s Hannibal) has shown, the cannibal remains alive and well.
8 Lisbeth Salander
Portrayed by: Noomi Rapace, Rooney Mara
Mainstream characters rarely come as damaged as Lisbeth Salander. The Swedish hacker, brainchild of author Stieg Larsson and protagonist of the hallowed Millennium franchise, first arrived onscreen in 2009 through actress Noomi Rapace. Delivered in her native tongue, the Swede conjured up a performance of aching anger, jostling between extreme violence and sweet-natured excursions with reporter Mikael Blomkvist. Though relatively unknown at the time, the performer will forever be remembered as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and, as shown by her developed arc in two sequels, the title is very apt.
Keeping all this in mind, David Fincher was between a rock and a hard place when casting his American remake in 2011. Requiring an actress of flooring commitment and likewise ability, the filmmaker struck gold with Rooney Mara, a delicate flower who blossomed into a mohawked outcast in record time. Another recipient of an Academy Award nomination, Mara gets even weirder than Rapace, putting out a person with barely enough normality to function, let alone carry on a relationship. Applying different strokes for different folks, these ladies provide equally excellent iterations.
7 Obi-Wan Kenobi
Portrayed by: Alec Guinness, Ewan McGregor
The Star Wars prequels sucked, let’s just get that out of the way now. Plot holes, poor pacing, placid dialogue -- it’s a rabbit hole of sadness and regret that we all wish we could forget. But there were positives, and one that most fans tend to agree upon was the recurring performance of Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Introduced as a pony-tailed trainee in The Phantom Menace (1999), the Scottish actor immediately turned heads for his spot-on dialect and charisma, evoking Alec Guinness’ blueprint without breaking a sweat.
Granted, anyone would look good opposite Hayden Christensen and a green screen, but McGregor only improved with age, arriving as the spitting image of the original Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith (2006). As for Guinness, there isn’t much to be discussed, aside from the fact that he basically defined onscreen wisdom for generations to come. Despite his dislike of A New Hope (1977), the Jedi gave his all, and the results are something we can graciously return to at any time. Especially when one needs to wash the prequel taste out of their mouths.
6 Robin Hood
Portrayed by: Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Sean Connery, Cary Elwes, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, etc.
Dating back to the silent days of cinema, it’s easy to see why Robin Hood has remained a Hollywood staple. So much of the Medieval bandit is admirable, from his charm and bravery to his romantic dazzling of Maiden Marion. As a leading man, it’s a prime piece of performing real estate, guaranteed to make one look awesome with a bow and arrow. Errol Flynn was the second actor to don the green tights in 1938, and his swooning bravado provided what many still consider to be the definitive representation of the character.
In recent years, Oscar winners Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe have sought out darker, less refined approaches to the Robin Hood story. 1991’s Prince of Thieves found Costner sporting a seediness that seemed unnecessary and a little ill-advised. Even worse, the 2010 version saw Crowe and director Ridley Scott transform the character into a mean-spirited bore, backed by supporting villains far more charismatic by comparison. The performing pedigree may show on paper, but few could deliver the goods when it came time to strap on the green tights.
5 Mad Max
Portrayed by: Mel Gibson, Tom Hardy
Director George Miller pulled the character of Mad Max from western mythos, citing Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and Joseph Campbell’s Hero Cycle as direct influences on his outback action saga. Elements can be spotted in the original Mad Max (1979), but Miller and lead actor Mel Gibson wouldn’t fully realize this vision until The Road Warrior arrived in 1982. Fitted with a signature look and minimal dialogue, Gibson’s former cop became a worldwide phenomenon, both in aesthetic and the earthy presence he brought to aged archetypes. Third film Beyond Thunderdome (1985) was poorly received, but there was little doubt that the superstar would always be idolized as Max Rockatansky.
Three decades later, Miller rejuvenated the hero with the same cynical air, but a different cynical mug; now belonging to Tom Hardy. Initially hesitant to take the role, the British performer received Gibson’s blessing, and became a worthy, if soft-spoken, successor through Best Picture nominee Fury Road (2015). Exploring new areas of the character, Hardy’s acting chops has ensured the Mad Max mantle is on top of exceptional shoulders.
Portrayed by: Sissy Spacek, Angela Bettis, Chloë Grace-Moretz
Playing the title role in 2013’s Carrie, Chloë Grace-Moretz has some bloody big shoes to fill. And she puts in a solid effort, harnessing insanity at the senior prom that hits the viewer right where they scare. There is, however, a distinct difference between oddball and outcast, and Moretz simply comes off a bit too well adjusted to fully sell Stephen King’s source material. Moderately well received by critics and fans, this remake would’ve fared much better had it not been the follow up to an American classic.
All due respect to Ms. Moretz, but Sissy Spacek remains the quintessential Carrie White. From her gangly physique to her immature attitude, the actress absorbs the character with commitment and (literally) soul-splitting eyes. Few glares could instill the fear of God in the viewer, but that’s precisely what Spacek conveys over the course of this 1976 version. Awarded an Oscar nomination for her efforts, the actress even got the notoriously critical King to admit Carrie was a “good movie.” Now that’s some powerful performing.
3 Sherlock Holmes
Portrayed by: John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Christopher Lee, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr., Johnny Lee Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian McKellen, etc.
From tradition to modern spins, Sherlock Holmes is the world’s greatest detective. He remains the blueprint for murder-mystery conduct, whether pointing out the flaws in those around him or flashing his iconoclastic code to assistant Dr. Watson. Oh, and he’s also a drug addict with one of the most brilliant fictional minds ever conceived. All things considered, it’s no surprise that Holmes holds the record for most screen portrayals of all time, dating back to the glory days of John Barrymore and Basil Rathbone.
Brilliant actors like Christopher Lee, Jeremy Brett, and Ian McKellen have offered their distinct takes, further blurring the line between classical and revisionist Holmes. As a character, he's provided such a grand slate of traits that playing up the drugs (Jonny Lee Miller) or the action (Robert Downey, Jr.) can prove equally as rewarding. More recently, Benedict Cumberbatch has found adoration on the BBC series Sherlock, adding a thick layer of modernism and eccentricity to the mix. As for who the definitive detective is, the answer is anything but elementary.
2 James Bond
Portrayed by: Sean Connery, George Lazenby, David Niven, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig
Ignoring the conspiracy theory that James Bond is merely a codename, 007 has had quite the varied history over the years. Second only to Sherlock Holmes in acting turnover, Ian Fleming’s super spy initially hit paydirt with the casting of Sean Connery in 1962. And, as we all know, the Scottish star was perfection in the part, mixing magnetism and manliness like few men could. It was a noble standard to even attempt to uphold, yet such was the case for subsequent Bonds George Lazenby, Roger Moore, and Timothy Dalton. Each actor carried the role to varying success, while adding their own sense of swagger to the 007 brand.
But by the time Pierce Brosnan ended his tenure in the early 2000s, the James Bond name had weakened irreparably. Cheesy gadgets and glossy fights left things in dire need of a reboot, which Casino Royale granted to great acclaim in 2006 under brutish Brit Daniel Craig. Nontraditional as he may be, this recent array of Bond releases (Skyfall, Spectre) have proved the most successful in the entire fifty year franchise. It’s any wonder people are freaking out about who his replacement will be.
1 Vito Corleone
Portrayed by: Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro
Marlon Brando’s performance in The Godfather (1972) is perfection. Every tick, every word, every tragic pause arrives ideally placed, making for a character who commanded the screen even when he was nowhere in sight. Under the detailed eye of director Francis Ford Coppola, the notoriously difficult Brando was finally reeled in, and the results were staggering, to say the least. Instead of inhibit, the actor’s Oscar winning antics only aided in his portrayal of Vito Corleone; from dentures to the mannerisms that have since been standard anytime there’s mention of a godfather.
When it came time to make The Godfather Part II (1974), Coppola was put in the impossible situation of finding an actor to convey Vito’s early years. But then, as if the Movie Gods decided to show a glimpse of their almighty power, Robert De Niro came into the fold and gave what is still one of his greatest supporting turns. Tiptoeing the line between imitation and inspiration, De Niro matches his elderly counterpart in quality, and received a Best Supporting Actor statue to prove it. As the only time in history that two actors have won Oscars for the same role, it is all the convincing that’s needed to award these titans the top spot. It’s an offer we simply couldn’t refuse.
Did we forget any of your favorites? Sound off in the comments.
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