The most important part of any story is the characters. Characters are the ones who have to win the audience’s interest and investment in a movie. Our favorite characters are inseparable from the story. They react to the conflict, serve as the audience’s point of view and let us see our best selves in them.
But which characters have accomplished that the best throughout the history of movies? Who are the ones we remember, and can watch again and again because their stories are so enjoyable and the characters themselves are so resonant? For this list we’re looking at characters from any era, not just the ones capturing our praise and attention recently. Also, we’re focusing on characters, mostly protagonists, who are more traditionally heroic or at least admirable. No villains or anti-heroes.
With that in mind, here are The 15 Most Loved Movie Characters Of All Time!
15. PHIL CONNORS (GROUNDHOG DAY)
Honestly, if it wasn’t for the part where Bill Murray and Marita Geraghty scream their characters names at each other in the movie, we wouldn’t even distinguish between Phil Connors and Bill Murray. You could debate between Ghostbusters, Caddyshack and Groundhog Day as Bill Murray’s most famous movies but Groundhog Day’s Phil Connors is arguably his most interesting and ultimately admirable character.
Phil Connors is kind of a misanthrope when he first arrives in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the town’s annual Groundhog Day festivities. The day goes horribly, but only gets worse. After he goes to sleep on February 2nd, Phil’s surprised to wake up to February 2nd again. And again, and again, and again. How would any of us react to being immortal and ageless but stuck reliving the same day every day over indefinitely? For a while Phil takes advantage of the situation, knowing there will be no long term consequences. In the end, he uses the day to learn as much about the town as possible, help as many people as possible and earnestly win over Andie MacDowell. Bill Murray’s endearing sarcasm with the eventual maturity brought on by his situation make for a great character.
14. FORREST GUMP (FORREST GUMP)
Forrest Gump was born to an average single mother in Greenbo, Alabama, with a crooked spine that called for leg braces. In grade school, he broke out of those braces and discovered his incredible gift for running really fast. Running got him through college, Vietnam, and let him work through his troubled past. Life’s a box of chocolates and we never know what we’re gonna get.
One of the most refreshing things about the film is Forest’s completely oblivious perspective on all the political events of the setting. Forrest lived through 4 decades of some the most tumultuous sociopolitical events in American history. Not to mention plenty of personal tragedy among friends and family. But that never really got to him. He always stuck to what he understood to be right and did it no matter what it took. Despite his dim wits, his commitment to his loved ones and his earnest nature make him sympathetic and funny no matter how many times we watch the movie.
13. ROCKY BALBOA (ROCKY)
Rocky Balboa started out like a lot of working class Italian-Americans. Though he’d fought in club matches, he worked just as a meatpacker or a debt collector for a loan shark in the slums of Philly.
But one day he got his big break. The reigning heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed holds a match in Philly and opens up the fight to the local talent. After seeing news clips and papers of Rocky calling him the Italian Stallion, Creed decides to give him a shot.
It takes some serious introspection and a fire under his butt from Mickey Goldmill, but Rocky dedicates himself to preparing for this once in a life time fight. The training sequences in all the Rocky movies are some of the most inspiring scenes in movie history. However, Rocky’s easygoing relatability and drive to do his best make him easy to root for throughout the movie.
12. JACK SPARROW (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN)
Captain Jack Sparrow is, without a doubt, Johnny Depp’s best character with a funny hat. He stole the show in the first Pirates trilogy playing off the more conventional heroics of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan. You never know what he’s going to do or what scheme he’s acting on, or even whether he’s just totally unhinged or secretly brilliant.
We first see him stepping off a ship that sinks right as it nudges the dock and it only gets sillier from there. He carries a pistol with only one shot, and a compass that doesn’t point North. He feeds his own legend with misinformation and frequent spats with authority. When he teams up with Will to go after the kidnapped Elizabeth, it seems like his only concern is getting back the Black Pearl, his prized ship. Eventually we do see the nobler side of Jack Sparrow, who doesn’t leave his friends behind and who doesn’t run away when it counts.
11. RALPHIE (A CHRISTMAS STORY)
The only thing Ralphie wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and the thing that tells time. If he doesn’t shoot his eye out with it. In that sense, Ralphie is completely relatable as a kid in an early 1940s middle-class American family. As our voice-over narrator, he’s infused with a retrospective wisdom. He makes humorous observations about childhood, family antics, and minutia that he both observed and participated in.
The childhood immediacy and episodic nature of the film make A Christmas Story almost like a cartoon. We get incidental yet meaningful glimpses into Ralphie’s life and family revolving around one particular Christmas. The bonds that Ralphie builds with his father and mother during the film are truly endearing, not to mention Ralphie’s heroic fantasy sequences. All of us have either cheered for Ralphie by the end of the movie or wished we had a holiday season as fulfilling and affirming as his. It reminds us of simpler, happier childhood times.
10. E.T. (E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL)
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is perhaps Steven Spielberg’s very best effort in regards to awe-inspiring emotional storytelling. And a big part of that appeal is the realization of E.T. on screen. E.T.’s introduction and his interactions with Elliot Michael and Gertie make him instantly sympathetic. He’s obviously not of this world, not to mention alone and helpless.
As the connection between Elliot and E.T. deepens and their plans to return E.T. to his home advance, they find themselves in greater and greater danger- never mind Mom finding out. The ominous government officials in their suits appear to be the most inhuman characters in the story.
But then there’s the bicycle chase with E.T. riding basket. It’s amazing how dynamic and engaging this scene gets, with plenty of help from John William’s spectacular score. We feel just as conflicted as Elliot does to see E.T. leave for home.
9. GEORGE BAILEY (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE)
The canonization of It’s A Wonderful Life in American dramatic cinema is beyond contest. However dated its social or moral sensibilities is, the movie still delivers an inspirational uplifting tale of a man who finds meaning in his life through harsh introspection.
We learn right from the start of the film that George Bailey is planning on taking his own life on Christmas Eve and a Guardian Angel is learning about George’s life before intervening. We see all these frustrating and harrowing moments in George’s life and especially how they build on one another. He saved his brother from drowning when he was 12, but the loss of hearing in one ear prevents him from joining the army and getting a chance to travel. All these successive and compounded tragedies lead him to wish he’d never been born, but the Angel Clarence shows him how destitute and hopeless life in Bedford Falls would be if he had never existed.
8. JOHN MCCLANE (DIE HARD)
Yippee ki-yay, Mother F**ker!
John McClane was an average New York City cop visiting his estranged wife in Los Angeles before Christmas Eve. His reconciliatory plans got completely rained on when Hans Gruber and his squad of criminals take over the Nakatomi Corp. Tower, and take McClane’s wife hostage. Hans was prepared for police or SWAT teams but he didn’t expect the streetwise McClane to outmaneuver his henchmen and undermine his operation with disarming banter and skin-of-his-teeth luck.
Bruce Willis as John McClane was a pretty revelatory action hero when Die Hard debuted in 1988. He was virtually unheard of in major Hollywood releases and was working against the popular look of the biggest action heroes of the eighties, like Schwarzenegger and Stallone. But his schlubby, everyman look and demeanor combined with his improvisational old-school heroics made him immediately relatable. John McClane turned out to be one of the most transformative action movie heroes of the late 20th Century.
7. DOROTHY GALE (THE WIZARD OF OZ)
We’ve all been in Dorothy Gale’s shoes. Maybe not her particular ruby slippers, but we’ve all been stuck in a boring place we didn’t want to be. Just when she starts to realize how much she’s truly needed at her Kansas farmhouse home, a twister whisks her away to the merry Land of Oz. There she becomes kind of an involuntary pawn between Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West. But with the Wicked Witch already after her for accidentally killing her sister, she has no choice but to follow the yellow brick road for a chance to get back home.
The Wizard of Oz continues to capture audiences’ imaginations, even today. We see how Dorothy does her best to help all her new friends, how she stands up against wicked witches and powerful wizards. In the end, we learn through Dorothy’s eyes that home is wherever the people you love are, whether it’s Kansas or Oz.
6. INDIANA JONES/HAN SOLO
We honestly could not pick between these two career defining characters for Harrison Ford – so we didn’t! Our favorite wisecracking adventurer comes in two flavors of world-weary snark. One has a ship and a blaster, the other a fedora and a whip.
On a deeper level, Han Solo starts out a bit more cynical but discovers a cause he believes in when he joins the Rebel Alliance and falls for Princess Leia. His devotion to those he considers friends shows throughout the Star Wars movies. Indiana Jones became more and more relatable with each of his successive movies but he always exuded the casual confidence and physical wherewithal to take us on exciting globetrotting adventures. And that John Williams theme march always makes you want to whistle along.
5. THE TRAMP (CHARLIE CHAPLIN)
The Tramp is Charlie Chaplin’s most famous on-screen persona. The Silent Era icon played the character most commonly referred to as The Tramp in several of his movies and dozens of short films. The character was infused with Chaplin’s gift for physical comedy, bumbling and sometimes mischievous but always striving to be a gentlemen.
The Tramp gets into multiple situations meant to provide commentary on some of the biggest issues of Chaplin’s time such as labor, classism, capitalism and social disillusionment. His repeated plights resonated with working class Americans, especially with the ample exploration of industrial dehumanization and the earnest pursuit of the American Dream. Few other actors or characters throughout the history of movies captured a particular aspect of Americans’ aspirations so thoroughly as Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp.
4. SNOW WHITE (SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS)
Your favorite Disney princess is probably determined by your age. 90s kids might say Belle or Ariel, millennials might say Rapunzel or Elsa. But the all-time most loved and influential Disney princess is still arguably Snow White. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age what it was like for audiences seeing Disney’s first feature length animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the first time. That instantly recognizable musical humor and big emotional moments enraptured audiences of the day.
In fact, we still love Snow White so much that we keep going back and trying to modernize her character to make her appeal to contemporary sensibilities. In Snow White and the Huntsman and ABC’s Once Upon a Time, Snow White is more of a leader of the resistance to the Evil Queen, instead of just a fleeing victim who’s an A+ at home making. Snow White as a character may have lost her lustre to contemporary viewers but she set the foundation that would be built on or subverted by every Disney Princess after her.
3. ATTICUS FINCH (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD)
Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird is probably one of the most automatically associated portrayals with a literary source in movie history, even considering that Harper Lee’s beloved novel debuted in 1960 and the movie came out only two years after. Gregory Peck embodied all the qualities we love and admire about Atticus Finch. He is a devoted single father to his children. He treats them with respect and didn’t condescend to them.
When a black man, Tom Robinson, is accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, Atticus Finch is appointed as Robinson’s defender. He and his kids suffer plenty of harassment from the townsfolk for this appointment. Nonetheless, Atticus rises to the legal and social challenge because he is firm in his beliefs of equal treatment and civility. He even sets up in front of Robinson’s cell and stares down a lynch mob that comes to kill Robinson before his trial, all alone.
2. JAMES BOND
“Vodka Martini. Shaken, not stirred.”
Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007 is among the longest-running characters portrayed in movies. Between 1962 and 2016 Eon Productions have produced 24 James Bond films from Dr. No to Spectre. How has this franchise endured for so long, through five decades of changing action sensibilities and six different actors playing the part? Simply put, James Bond being one of the greatest power fantasies ever conceived.
He’s an international superspy, an effortless ladies man, a top tier marksman, pilot, athlete and martial artist. He drives the sleekest cars around the most fascinating and beautiful locations in the world, gets outfitted with all manner of inventive gadgets and saves the world on a daily basis from the plots of omnicidal baddies. Who wouldn’t want to be James Bond for a day, the classiest gent in the room?
1. SUPERMAN (SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE)
The most iconic superhero of all time. It’s been nearly forty years since the first Hollywood blockbuster incarnation of Superman appeared on screen, but Christopher Reeve’s Superman is still regarded by many as the best realization of the character.
By now we all know the origin story of Kal-el. Seeing the bizarre blend of family drama and pulpy space sci-fi and comic book characters on the big screen was pretty new to movie goers in 1978. Superman: The Movie laid the groundwork for the genre bending feature-length superhero genre that’s become ubiquitous in movies today.
A lot of that is thanks to Christopher Reeve’s legendary performance. He shows all the doubt that comes with being different and isolated in Smallville. He portrays all the reassuring, wise strength that we would expect from Superman. When he says he’s here to fight for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” you believe him. His out-of-place-ness as both Superman and Clark Kent makes for natural humor throughout the movie. He goes through a relatable arc of understanding his relationship to humanity and the responsibilities of his powers. And again, John Williams’ soaring score highlights the themes of the highest ideal of heroism.
Are there other classic heroic characters that you love just as much as those above? Let us know in the comments!
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