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.
30. Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) | 48 Hrs. (1982)
A convict with six months left on his sentence, Reggie plans on serving the rest of his time quietly and without trouble but trouble finds him anyway in the form of Jack Cates (Nick Nolte), a grizzled cop who needs his help capturing his old partner who, in Reggie’s absence, has become a dangerous thief. With a time limit of just two days, a partner he can’t stand and having to go up against some shady individuals who all want him dead, Reggie was just given the world’s worst hand of poker but since he’s played by a hungry Eddie Murphy, he doesn’t fold, he doubles down.
When Murphy was cast, he was just the funny kid from SNL but after his “nigger with a badge” speech, he became the biggest star on the planet. It is one of the few instances where you can literally see a movie star being born right before your eyes. When walks into that club to give that monologue, he’s a TV actor and you know before he steps foot outside, you’d be watching him for the rest of your life. Few actors owned the 80s more than Murphy and this is the role that bought him that decade.
29. Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) | The Princess Bride (1987)
“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
If you’ve been following this Top 100 from the beginning, you’ll know that Inigo Montoya is greatest character from The Princess Bride, and for good reason. He has the best backstory, quotable line, and fight scene. From the moment he is introduced, the audience knows what to expect from him. His father was killed by a man with six fingers on one hand. Later we meet the man with the six-fingered hand and know that the two will cross paths before the movie’s end. When that finally happens, Inigo repeats the above quote over and over to give him strength and to keep him motivated. He may not be the primary focus of The Princess Bride, but he’s certainly the fan favorite.
28. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) | Escape From New York (1981)
In a famous deleted opening, we see how Snake was arrested at the beginning of the film. The scene takes place in the middle of a heist of futuristic bank chips that ends with a foot chase to get to a subway. It’s about five minutes of tense action that most likely would’ve offset the film’s pace but that’s not why it was cut. Carpenter did away with it for two reasons: to keep Snake mysterious and to remove the one scene where he actually feels remorse. See, he wasn’t alone during that heist. He had a partner that unfortunately dies during the escape and Snake feeling sad for about a minute was deemed too much humanity for the character. And that’s Snake in a nutshell. Seeing just five minutes of his back story is too much and him showing the slightest hint of emotion feels wrong. He’s the ultimate antihero — he’ll get the job done but it ain’t gonna be pretty.
27. Robocop (Peter Weller) | Robocop (1987)
After being killed in the line of duty by a vicious crime gang, Alexander James “Alex” Murphy is transformed into the cyborg entity RoboCop by the megacorporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP). The first in a planned series of robotically enhanced Detroit police officers, RoboCop is an expensive prototype designed to supplement the police force which is overwhelmed with crime. Inspired by the look of Iron Man and Judge Dredd’s no nonsense way he dispatches criminals, RoboCop is a fascist super cop who shoots first and asks questions never.
I know Paul Verhoeven’s intention was to make a subversive film filled with satirical elements and biblical allegories (seriously, RoboCop is Jesus) but all I see is cool ass ultra violence and a badass looking cyborg kicking copious amounts of ass. The Terminator is definitely cooler but honestly, how many of you actually pretended to be the Terminator? You might’ve dressed up like him for Halloween but on the playground, you pretended to move stiff and even attached a thing to your leg in order to holster your toy gun in a cool way. Kids had much different role models in the 80s.
26. Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) | Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Life can move pretty fast, so it’s important to stop and look around every once in a while. But life comes with responsibilities, so how is one supposed to go about enjoying when there’s stuff like school to worry about? Well, the answer is to just blow it all off. Ferris may have elaborate plans that always seem to end up working themselves out no matter how ridiculously implausible they may seem, but deep down he’s a kid that understood that life wasn’t about to get any easier the older he got so he best enjoy it while he still could. The older I get the more I realize how much time I wasted at school or doing school-related activities. I now preach the motto “never sacrifice a potential memory for school” to all my younger cousins. However, it wasn’t until writing this blurb that I realized that Ferris was already living that motto thirty years prior. Ferris knows that one missed day of school, one failed test, one C+ will not ruin your future. As long as you get good grades, it’s okay to hit cruise and enjoy what life has to offer. So kids, take a page out of Ferris’s book next semester, because you’re only young once.
25. Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) | Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
In a film littered with great characters (most of which were all played by soon to be movie stars), it’s the perpetually stoned Spicoli that stands out the most. Phoebe Cates coming out of the pool in slow motion might be an all time great scene but her character lacks the impact of Spicoli. I would argue that this performance, even more than Cheech & Chong, has defined the cinematic stoner for all time. You can see the ripples of it in everything from True Romance to Pineapple Express, and while both of those performances (and all the other ones I didn’t mention) are great, neither hold a candle to Sean Penn’s work in this film. It’s a perfect example of “invisible acting”, where an actor is so deep into character, that not only are they not acting, you don’t even see the actor anymore. I don’t see Sean Penn in this film, I only see Spicoli. Which is doubly impressive considering how much of a humorless dick he’s become since the film’s release.
24. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) | Scarface (1983)
Depending on your age, this is either your older brothers favorite film, the film you were obsessed with in high school or the film you’re obsessed with now. There’s something about Tony Montana’s rise to power that has had a stranglehold on men of a certain age. Maybe it’s the excessive drug use or the ultra violence or his moral code or snappy attire but something seems to resonate with a certain generation.
Rappers have been cherry picking elements from this film for almost as long as it’s been out, which is ironic considering the message seems to be lost on all of them. Tony Montana doesn’t just rise to power in this film, he falls. When you build your throne on the backs of corpses and bags of cocaine, it will eventually fall. You don’t have to be an engineer to know that that is an unstable foundation for any chair.
23. Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) | Blade Runner (1982)
It’s almost ironic that the most emotionally complex character on this list is the one that isn’t a human. What makes Blade Runner so fascinating (among other things), is that if you look at the film from the reverse angle, Deckard is clearly the villain of the film. Batty doesn’t want to take over the city or lead an android uprising, he just wants to live. Every person he kills is out of frustration with the fact that he was born with a time limit and he’s not going gently into that good night.
But the film isn’t from his perspective. He may be sympathetic and the film may focus on the wrong character but Deckard is the protagonist. Which means Batty is the antagonist. He commits multiple heinous crimes throughout the film but at the end (after the greatest monologue in film history), he ends up the punchline to a terrible joke. That, whether your good or bad, man or machine, life ends for all of us. He was born a machine, lived the life of a killer and died a man.
22. The Goonies (Various) | The Goonies (1985)
When all hope is lost, remember that anything is possible if you’ve got a good group of friends to lean on. The Goonies centers on the titular group of friends as they gather for one final weekend together before their neighborhood is turned over to an expanding country club. After rummaging through the Walsh’s attic, they uncover a treasure map which leads them on a great adventure.
The titular Goonies have been a part of pop culture since they first hit big screens in 1985. They’ve been parodied or paid homage to numerous times, and the phrase ‘truffle shuffle’ has become part of the English lexicon. Seriously, the ‘truffle shuffle’ probably became every overweight kid’s worst nightmare. I know my class kept asking our one friend to do it (and I think he did). Just like the Goonies never say die, the truffle shuffle isn’t about to die either.
21. Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) | Beetlejuice (1988)
What can you say about Beetlejuice (or Betelgeuse) that hasn’t already been said? He’s a rude, crude, perverted, crazy trickster ghost played to perfection by Keaton.
It’s interesting to look at Keaton’s filmography and track his transformation as an actor. After establishing himself as a comedic performer, Keaton began to take on more serious roles. Beetlejuice may be a character in a horror comedy, but he still has plenty of darker moments. Seeing how Keaton’s career has progressed since it’s fascinating to see how different Beetlejuice is to someone like Mr. Mom or Ray Kroc. Keaton is a versatile actor and Beetlejuice is one of his most memorable and iconic characters (and the man was Batman for pete’s sake!).
Just remember not to say his name three times if he don’t want him to appear.
40-31 | 20-11
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!