For the last three decades, the 80s have had a stranglehold on all things pop culture. It’s gobbled up nostalgia like so much Pac-Man and for good reason. It might be the last decade to actually have a distinct personality. From the memorable (albeit pretty terrible) clothing, to the groundbreaking music and iconic video games, the 80s had it all but no piece of entertainment left a bigger impact on pop culture than movies. It was the decade that gave birth to the modern blockbuster, introduced us to the last great auteurs and was arguably the last time studios took chances. It was a glorious time that produced a ton of classics and within those classics, iconic characters that have stood the test of time. So put on your leg warmers or best Michael Jackson outfit, it’s time to countdown the best characters the decade had to offer.
This is the 100 Greatest 80’s Characters Of All Time.
100. Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) | A Christmas Story (1983)
Since the film is as its title implies, a story set on/or about Christmas, it has become an annual tradition for most and because of this, a minor classic by default. But I don’t think it’s longevity or lasting impact should be solely attributed to the popularity of the holiday. People return to it year after year not because of tradition but due to it being the best depiction of childhood ever. A Christmas Story is the closest anyone has ever gotten to a live action Calvin & Hobbes.
It’s one of the only films to accurately depict nostalgia and what it’s like to see the world through the eyes of a child. Ralphie daydreams a lot, as children do, and because of this, the film at points becomes a live action cartoon. It doesn’t shy away from the more fantastical elements of a young boys life nor does it sugarcoat how obnoxious we’ve all gotten when we become obsessed with something.
Ralphie wants more than anything else, a Red Ryder Carbine-action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and something that tells time (a sundial) for Christmas and unlike the similarly themed Jingle All the Way, we see his obsession from his point of view. This isn’t a tale about a kid who’s refused something because it’s too expensive or about a father desperately trying to get his boy the gift he wants, it’s about that one gift we’ve all wanted that everyone knows will inevitably and immediately hurt us (mine was a bitchin’ pocket knife) and what happens when we finally get it.
Ralphie goes through many adventures throughout the course of the film but his desire to get that toy gun is arguably the most relatable thing in any Christmas movie ever. Unless of course you’ve had to singlehandedly take on an entire office building of terrorists, in which case disregard.
99. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) | Withnail & I (1987)
Although the film Withnail & I was largely autobiographical with all the characters based in part on people the writer knew, there’s clearly some artistic licence taken when it comes to Withnail because no one on Earth (including Hunter S. Thompson) could survive the two week bender the film takes place during. A flamboyant failed thespian turned hardcore alcoholic, Withnail (played brilliantly by Richard E. Grant) is what would happen to Arthur (Dudley Moore) if he lost all of his money. He’s a miserable drunk who masks his sorrow behind jokes but since he isn’t wealthy, the constant drinking seems a lot less fun and a whole lot more sad.
He’s still hilarious mind you, but since he’s doing all of this insane behavior without a safety net, you actually worry about his well being. Which is actually quite the accomplishment considering he’s a Tasmanian devil fueled by liquor and chaos. Grant’s lovable charm keeps him from ever tipping over into a sad sack like Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. He somehow walks the line of self destruction between making you care for him and wanting him to get better while simultaneously rooting him on to go even further. Just don’t try to match him drink for drink because you’ll be dead long before he decides to chug lighter fluid.
98. Tetsuo Shima (Nozomu Sasaski/Joshua Seth) | Akira (1988)
Both victim and monster, Tetsuo is a living example of the old adage “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A sensitive gang member who suffers with an inferiority complex and constant bullying from other kids his age, Tetsuo is not unlike Carrie (Sissy Spacek) in that he’s an outsider who’s suddenly gifted the power to wreak havoc on his oppressors but unlike Carrie, he’s being manipulated by other forces beyond his control. The plot of Akira is extremely convoluted, so I’m not going to get into it but suffice it to say, he starts off as the world’s strongest puppet, until he takes control of his own strings and starts doing whatever he wants until the strings get all tangled up and he becomes a hideously grotesque giant Kaiju baby monster. I swear it makes sense when you watch it.
97. Joel (Tom Cruise) | Risky Business (1983)
Let’s all come clean and be honest for a minute. If you’ve ever slid across the floor in your socks and underwear, you were imitating Joel from Risky Business whether knowingly or unknowingly. On some level that’s sort of a shame that the character played perfectly by Cruise is remembered for a brief comedic scene in an otherwise serious coming-of-age film. The film is less about Joel’s freedom while his parents are out of town, and more about dealing with adult issues like money, career, and love. Joel becomes entangled with each of these things during the course of the movie and what he learns from them actually secures his future. I don’t think every kid should start a pop-up brothel to make money, but that’s part of the film’s charm. It takes a laughable premise and wraps it with characters with motives and dreams that we see ourselves in.
I’ve said this before plenty of times, but I always enjoy watching Cruise in his earlier roles. The characters always feel more human and relatable. They aren’t trying to complete an impossible mission, break a time loop, or accomplish any other action-packed heroic feat. They have real problems, real dreams, and real emotion. Cruise still has the necessary dramatic chops to pull that off, he just hasn’t shown them that often lately. Joel is a great example of what Cruise can do as an actor and what all teenagers struggle with as they approach adulthood.
96. Madison (Daryl Hannah) | Splash (1984)
Splash‘s box office success in 1984 launched the careers of Tom Hanks, Daryl Hannah, and Ron Howard into the stratosphere. The film showed Disney that the Touchstone banner for more mature films for adult audiences was a viable business for the studio. If Splash had bombed, it’s unlikely we would have seen The Color of Money, Ruthless People, or Who Framed Roger Rabbit exactly as we know them today. A lot of the film’s success can be attributed to the Hanks-Hannah-Howard talent combo. However, while Howard and Hanks went on to have major film careers Hannah was never able to have another character as recognizable or iconic as the mermaid Madison. That’s unfortunate, but also proves how popular the character was back then. Disney initially rejected The Little Mermaid pitch because they were working on Splash Too and didn’t want two mermaid movies out around the same time. Obviously the studio changed its mind, but Madison almost stopped Ariel from existing. That’s huge.
Also, Splash to the best of my knowledge is one of the first mainstream mermaid movies. Children dressing up and pretending to be a mermaid probably be traced back to this film. Ariel may be the most well-known mermaid, but Madison came first.
95. Clubber Lang (Mr. T) | Rocky III (1982)
Much like how the Fast and the Furious franchise got progressively more outlandish with each subsequent movie, the further the Rocky sequels got from the first film, the more comic booky they became. The second Stallone decided to turn this into a franchise, he immediately looked at them like superhero films. Each boxer Rocky goes up against is a super villain with their own back stories and origins and each threaten him in some way that makes him have to come out of retirement for one last fight. James “Clubber” Lang isn’t that far removed from Batman’s Bane.
He was an orphan that was in and out of prison and looked at Rocky as a form of inspiration — not to be like him mind you, but to beat him. He zeros in on him and decides to make it his mission to beat the shit out of him. Like Bane, he must break the Bat and since he’s played by Mr. T, you really think he might be able to. His penchant for gaudy jewelry might be the only thing this generation knows about him now but there was a time when he was the baddest mother around, so when he answers that sports commentators prediction for the fight simply with the word “pain”, you believe it.
94. Buck Russell (John Candy) | Uncle Buck (1989)
John Candy may have only been good at playing one archetype (that of the lovable loser) but he played it better than anyone else. Whether he’s obnoxious, crude or annoying (or all three), Candy still manages to imbue every character he plays with a heart of gold. It’s impossible to dislike him when he’s onscreen; he’s like a big ol’ basset hound you just can’t help but love and Uncle Buck might be him at his most basset hound-y. Or lovable, either or.
Having to babysit for his brother’s kids when an emergency suddenly pops up, Buck — an unemployed degenerate gambler with no people skills — must grow up quick if he’s to survive the younger hellions and the rambunctious teenage daughter. It’s classic tale of an immovable object (the daughter) bumping up against an unstoppable force (Uncle Buck) that predicably ends with both parties coming together over common ground but Hughes and Candy make the film and character much better than the clichés the film is littered with. They somehow find new ways to make a character that was old hat long before W.C. Fields ever did it, enduring and lovable.
93. Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie) | Labyrinth (1986)
Big juggling balls. A huge cod piece. A desire to steal a baby. The attempted seduction of an underage girl. All of these things would be significantly creepier if Henson went with his first pick, Michael Jackson but since Bowie was cast, all of those things seem perfectly logical. You never question why he does what he does or even the horrible implications of his actions (you do however, notice that cod piece because, my God) because Bowie is awesome and like the Goblin King, does whatever the hell he wants.
He’s clearly an amalgamation of a bunch of different things Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) cobbled together to create the perfect male fantasy and I gotta say, her conscious or subconscious mind did a hell of a job because Jareth is about as perfect a creation anyone could possibly conjure. Girl, forget Toby and just live in that damn labyrinth with them puppet monsters and Jareth because if you don’t, I will.
92. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) | Psycho II (1983)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho told a complete story. From the first moment we meet Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates to his last, when his mother has seemingly won and taken control of his mind, we ask for nothing more. We don’t wonder what led to Norman’s dissociative identity disorder nor do we wonder what happened to him after the events of the 1960 movie. This put future franchise installments like Psycho II (and the later A&E series Bates Motel) in a tricky spot. How do you capitalize off the success of Psycho while not making it look like an easy money grab? The answer is to reveal what happened to Norman before and after the events of Psycho… and actually make the audience care about what’s being shown to them.
Psycho II could have been any run-of-the-mill ’80s slasher. No offense to Freddy, Jason, or Michael, but we know that when we see them on screen they’re the reason behind the killings. However, more importantly, we know they want to be behind the killings. In Psycho II, Norman Bates just wants to live a normal life. After 22 years in a mental institution he just wants to move on with his life and put the events of Psycho behind him. However, his past continues to haunt him, and unlike the killings in Psycho, Norman knows it’s not his mother doing the dirty deed. It’s him. He’s aware of his disorder and tries actively not to lose his grip on sanity. That’s what makes Psycho II (and Bates Motel) such compelling properties. The audience is constantly rooting for Norman to beat the disorder and not succumb to it. We want Norman to succeed, and watching his downfall is both heartbreaking and fascinating to watch. Yet, none of it would be believable if it wasn’t for the great acting performances of Anthony Perkins (and Freddie Highmore for Bates Motel). Perkins is Norman Bates, and seeing him embody this iconic character again after 23 years makes watching Norman’s ups and downs all the more rewarding.
91. The Time Bandits (Various) | Time Bandits (1981)
The most impressive trick Gilliam pulls off in this epic time travel fantasy has nothing to do with its bizarre tone or its huge cast of historical and fictitious characters populated with fantastic character actors or its impressive scale made with a budget of precisely nothing, it’s the fact that he made the time traveling dwarves at the center of the film, somehow endearing and likeable even though they’re horrible little monsters. Each and every one of them is a selfish, greedy asshole who constantly fuck over the child they technically kidnap for their journey. It’s bad enough that poor eleven year old Kevin (Craig Warnock) gets dragged into their time hopping bullshit but when they get to a time period he actually likes and wants to stay in, they naturally abduct him thus killing any potential that he’d ever have a happy childhood.
They’re rotten jerks but somehow, it’s impossible to hate them. Including their leader Randall (David Rappaport), there’s five of them: Fidget (Kenny Baker), Strutter (Malcolm Dixon) Og (Mike Edmonds), Wally (Jack Purvis) and Vermin (Tiny Ross) and while Randall and Fidget get most of the screen time, they all have distinct personalities. Some are comedic, some are cowardly and others dimwitted but by the end of the film, they’re all heroes. They may fuck over Kevin every chance they get (he’s a two time orphan because of their actions) but they do ultimately save the day (kind of) and if wasn’t for them, he never would’ve met Robin Hood, Napoleon or gone on the Titanic in the first place, so I’m going to count that all as a draw.
What do you think of the selection so far? Who are some of your favorite 80’s characters? Maybe they will show up further on the list!