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.
40. Ash (Bruce Campbell) | Evil Dead II (1987)
Starting the franchise as an unassertive wimp that kind of wins by default, the man formerly known as Ashley Williams pulls a complete 180 in the sequel. Gone is the cowardly boyfriend of the Evil Dead and in his place, a live action cartoon that spouts one liners and kicks an ungodly amount of deadite ass. But make no mistake, even at his most badass, he’s still an idiot. But his idiocy is actually an asset. He’s too fucking dumb to be afraid of all the crazy shit that’s happening around him. With his chainsaw hand, shotgun and the Necronomicon, Ash’s transformation from zero to hero, is one of the most jarring but satisfying arcs in all of horror.
39. Westley and Princess Buttercup (Cary Elwes/Robin Wright) | The Princess Bride (1987)
“As you wish.”
Possibly one of the greatest love stories ever told on film, Westley and Princess Buttercup’s story began when Westley was just Buttercup’s servant. No matter what Buttercup asked of Westley, he would always respond with “as you wish.” Eventually, Buttercup realized that “as you wish” was Westley’s way of saying “I love you.” Years later when Buttercup finds herself in the hands of the Dread Pirate Roberts, it’s those same three words that brings her back to Westley. In a film filled with instantly quotable lines, “as you wish” is perhaps my favorite. Like The Empire Strikes Back, it’s a clever twist on “I love you” and it perfectly sums up Westley and Buttercup’s relationship. These two will die before breaking each other’s wishes. Now that is true love.
38. Joker (Jack Nicholson) | Batman (1989)
Every villain ultimately believes what he or she is doing is right and none of them believe they are the bad guy. Not the Joker. The only reason Joker has for doing what he does is chaos. He has no greater ambition than to create as much mayhem as humanely possible. He’s the living embodiment of anarchy and is a walking, laughing plague of violence and murder. The greatest and most important aspect of his character, is his adaptability. Since he lacks any motivation, actors are given free reign to play them however they see fit and while Ledger and Phoenix both took home the gold for their portrayals, Nicholson will always be the definitive Joker in the eyes of many fans. He’s basically playing himself but since Nicholson himself gives zero fucks, it ends up being one of the best depictions of the character. He’s clearly having a ball and earning every cent of that paycheck and that motherfucker got paid.
37. Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) | Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Pee-wee is the SpongeBob SquarePants of the 1980s. He’s a lovable goofball that finds himself drawn to adventurous hi-jinks. He’s a character that is written both for adults and children, and made the transition to feature films after a widely successful stint on HBO. However, unlike SpongeBob, Pee-wee’s legacy was unfortunately tainted following Reubens legal trouble. While he’s made a slight comeback in recent years, it’s safe to say Pee-wee will never reach the heights he did in the 1980s when he was everywhere you looked. It’s rare for a character to seamlessly make the jump from the television to the theater screen, but Pee-wee had no difficulty juggling TV, film, Christmas specials, and guest appearances on talk shows. The man was born to be a star.
36. Riggs and Murtaugh (Mel Gibson & Danny Glover) | Lethal Weapon (1987)
There are buddy cop movies and then there are Lethal Weapon movies. Since the first film in the long-running franchise hit theaters, all buddy cop movies have strived to replicate its success. However, most of them fail because, while they nail the comedic tensions of having two opposite personalities clash, the characters lack the heart that makes the audiences care for them. Riggs and Murtaugh both have backgrounds that the audience can either sympathize with, connect with, or acknowledge as similar to their own experiences. Riggs may be slightly mad and Murtaugh may be too old for this shit, but their relationship is one that keeps audiences coming back. Their partnership turned into a friendship and that’s what makes their buddy cop relationship so unique. It evolved into something where their differences didn’t separate them, but actually made them stronger. Riggs is nothing without Murtaugh, and vice versa.
35. Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) | Private Benjamin (1980)
Playing like a female version of Stripes, Private Benjamin is another wacky comedy about a strong willed independent who goes into the military but the military doesn’t change her, she changes the military! Or it would be if Goldie Hawn didn’t have complete control over her image and knew exactly how to play against it. For years and years, she was always looked at as the “dumb blonde” and since her roles reflected as much, people just assumed she was. But Hawn, like many other performers, was just good a particular role. She found her niche and rolled with it but unlike other actors who played similar parts, she was actually smart. You don’t have a career in Hollywood that’s lasted for 50 years if you’re only good at one thing.
Private Benjamin was the film and role that proved that her every career up to that point had been an act. There have been about a million fish-out-of-water stories set in the military but not a one of them come close to having as strong a narrative arc as this one does. The military does change her and the person she becomes by the end of it is so radically different than the one from the beginning, that both versions could’ve been split up and made the list separately. She goes from being one of the great underdogs, to one of the strongest females in all of film. Dumb blonde my ass.
34. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) | Die Hard (1988)
The brilliance of Hans Gruber, and why he’s such an enduring villain, is the fact that he’s always the smartest person in the room and the film has no plot contrivance in order for McClane to win. Gruber doesn’t lose because he does something stupid, he’s always one step ahead and in turn, that makes McClane more heroic by osmosis. He saves the day by being just a tad more clever than Gruber and in a genre where every film ends with the protagonist and antagonist punching each other to death, it’s still a rare and refreshing to have a film end with the hero outwitting the villain.
But the intelligent thief we all know and love, almost didn’t happen. In the original script, Gruber was written exactly like William Sadler’s character in Die Hard 2. A no nonsense professional that rules with an iron fist but once the producers saw Rickman’s audition, they quickly rewrote the script to cater more to his intellectualism and low key charm. His performance blew the doors open for every character actor in England because after that film, every action film needed a posh Englishman doing villainous things and the moment that stopped happening, action films went downhill immediately.
33. Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) | Sixteen Candles (1984)
Imagine your whole family forgetting your birthday. For Samantha Baker, that’s exactly what happened. Her sixteenth birthday was overshadowed by her older sister’s forthcoming wedding. However, after some classic John Hughes hi-jinks, everything works out for Samantha. Her family remembers her birthday, she makes some new friends, and she gets the man of her dreams.
Few actors spring to mind more than Molly Ringwald when thinking about John Hughes. Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles; Ringwald starred in numerous coming-of-age ’80s classics. While she almost always ended up playing the popular and/or rich girl, Ringwald managed to humanize what could have otherwise been a one-note character. Samantha may not be as memorable as Claire or Andie, but she definitely has the best story out of the three.
32. Jason Voorhees (Various) | Friday the 13th Series (1980-1989)
The first film had his mother doing all the killings. The second one involved a Jason with a burlap sack over his head. It wouldn’t be until the third film in the series that we’d finally get the iconic look. A look that catapulted him into the upper echelon of horror icons. There’s something about that machete/Hockey mask combination that really struck a chord with audiences and has made him one of the most recognizable figures in pop culture. And that’s just his look. Based on his body count and the variety of kills, Jason might be one of the big screens most violent killers.
31. The Kids (River Phoenix, Will Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman) | Stand by Me (1986)
I’d argue that the best Stephen King adaptations are the ones that dip their toes the least in the horror genre. The Shawshank Redemption, Misery, and Stand by Me all have moments of horror, but they are few and far between compared to King’s other adaptations. Stand by Me takes what could be a horror scene, a dead body, and wraps a coming-of-age tale around it. Although told from the perspective of an adult Gordie Lachance (Wheaton), the story still feels grounded despite the fact its narrator could be unreliable as there is nothing that is entirely out of the realm of possibility. Furthermore, the closing thoughts on adolescence and friendship hold even more meaning in today’s digital-dependent society. Adult Gordie is 100-percent correct when he states that we never have any friends later on that are like the ones we did when we were twelve.
“Jesus, does anyone?”
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!