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.
90. Maverick (Tom Cruise) | Top Gun (1986)
Highway to the DANGER ZONE!
Top Gun showcased just how cool it was to fly fighter jets. The aviators, the nicknames, the music, the competitive beach volleyball matches, this film had it all. At the forefront of this US Navy ad is Maverick who Tom Cruise plays with infinite amounts of charm. As I mentioned in my write up for Risky Business‘s Joel, Top Gun seems to be remembered more for the soundtrack and beach volleyball scene than the actual story. Maverick maybe sort of a douche, but he also has his own career and ego to worry about. Add in the unfortunate death of his colleague and there’s a whole lot of drama and emotion to counteract the fun parts of the film. Cruise’s career has evolved a lot since Top Gun blew up the box office and with his return to the character in the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick we will be able to see how this character has too evolved over the years. Will he be the same hotshot or will he have grown since 1986?
Humblebrag: I’ve actually seen the Top Gun house Charlie lived in during a road trip through California a few years back. It was pretty cool!
89. The Kurgan (Clancy Brown) | Highlander (1986)
I’ve never understood what “the Quickening” is or why there can “only be one” but you really don’t need to get how awesome The Kurgan is. The film’s mythology may be wonky and his motivations might be convoluted and his punk look might look ridiculous but Clancy Brown’s performance outweighs any poorly written or dated elements of the character. He owns every second he’s on-screen. Not even the flamboyant Spanish Egyptian Scot played by Sean Connery can steal the film away from him and trust me, he’s doing everything in his power to one-up everyone involved. Of all the sequels and TV shows this film inspired, you’d think at least one of them would be a prequel exploring the origins of this character because honestly, even with his limited screen time and lack of backstory, he’s still the most intriguing character in this entire universe.
88. Ariel (Jodi Benson) | The Little Mermaid (1989)
Ariel is the seventh and youngest daughter of King Triton and Queen Athena, rulers of the undersea kingdom of Atlantica. And due to her young age, she’s going through a bit of a rebellious phase. Born with a passionate – yet forbidden – admiration of the human world, Ariel will do just about anything to someday experience life on the surface, even if the consequences are dire. Loosely based on the nameless protagonist of the Danish fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, Ariel is the Disney-fied version of the character.
What they want, how they get it, and who they fall in love with, are all similar but this version fleshes out her character a ton and gives her a much more happy ending. Spoiler alert: the original version of the character ends up as sea foam. She might be a tad bit annoying and her willingness to give up everything for a man she’s never met before is horribly frustrating but beyond her typical dumbass teenage behavior, she’s gets major points for teaching young girls not to be afraid of adventure and that love sometimes requires sacrifices. Oh and she has some of the best songs within the entire Disney catalog, so there’s that.
87. Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) | Airplane! (1980)
Before he transitioned into the lovable buffoon everyone knows and loves, Leslie Nielsen was just a typical leading man in films such as Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure. He made a career out of playing bland vanilla milquetoast motherfuckers that lasted almost three decades before Airplane!, the film that changed everything, was released. But it was those years being super serious that got him that role in the first place.
Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker hired him precisely because he was lame. That was the joke. Give serious actors ridiculous lines to say in the most deadpan way possible and it worked. It worked so well, it would go on to define him from that point forward. No one would ever think of him as the stoic hero ever again but would forever associate him with broad slapstick comedy. He became the face of gag a minute parodies, a sub-genre that would dominate the early to mid-80s, all thanks to the line “… and don’t call me Shirley.”
86. Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) | Tootsie (1982)
An unemployed actor with an impossible reputation, Michael Dorsey, out of options and desperate for work, decides to dress as a woman to try and find any acting gig. Landing a bit part in a daytime soap, Michael (fully inhabiting his fake female persona known as Dorothy) becomes more and more famous in the role until he eventually becomes the lead of the soap and in doing so, inadvertently leads a female revolution. Captivating women from all around the city and inspiring them to break free from the control of men, Dorothy becomes as big a political figure as she does a TV star. The fame of which, lands her (or him) in a hot spot between a female friend/lover, a female co-star he falls in love with, that co-star’s father who falls in love with him, and a male co-star who yearns for his affection.
It’s ironic that a soap opera star would find himself in more personal drama than the show he’s starring in. So the fact that he’s an idol to women all over the world even though women, for the most part, hated Michael when he was a man, is part of the brilliance of Tootsie. It’s far more than a comedy about a man in a dress, it’s a brilliantly constructed comedy filled with layer after layer of perfectly executed social commentary and at the center of it all, has one of the best character arcs in all of cinema. The journey of Micheal into Dorothy back into Michael is expertly executed and is as funny as it is smart.
85. Totoro | My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
The king of the forest who lives in the largest camphor tree in a small village, Totoro is a giant grey cat spirit who helps distract two little girls (Dakota and Elle Fanning) who are trying to deal with their mother’s illness. There’s a popular fan theory that suggests that the girls are actually dead and that he’s actually a grim reaper but that’s all bologna. He’s just a benevolent monster who pops in and out of the story and every time he does, it’s always a treat. Among the most iconic characters to come out of anime (he belongs in the same conversation as Astro Boy, Hello Kitty, and Pikachu as one of the recognizable figures within the medium), Totoro is the mascot for Studio Ghibli, the most popular Japanese animation studio in the world and the one that produced this film. If Miyazaki is Japan’s Walt Disney, Totoro is his Mickey Mouse.
84. Hobson (John Gielgud) | Arthur (1981)
Sardonic English butlers are nothing new; they’ve been a staple of film since its Inception but few have left as big an impact as Hobson. As butler to spoiled drunken man-child Arthur (Dudley Moore) in Arthur, Hobson projects an air of sarcasm and contempt but the tough-love act is fooling no one. Everyone (including the constantly inebriated Arthur) can see that he only has his best interests at heart. Even when Arthur decides to risk his entire fortune on love, a decision of which would leave him without a job, does he do the right thing.
He puts his career in jeopardy to play cupid just because he cares that deeply about Arthur. He’s the rock at the center of the movie and I’d argue an invaluable element to the film’s success. It rightly won Gielgud the only Oscar of his 75-year career and truth be told, the film is never as great as it is when he’s on-screen. Moore and Minnelli’s chemistry is amazing and the jokes and one-liners are great but Gielgud is the thing you’ll remember the most about it. Well, that and that Goddamn theme song.
83. Jessica Rabbit (Kathleen Turner) | Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
If you were born between ’85 and ’95, there’s a strong chance that Jessica Rabbit (Kathleen Turner) was your first movie crush. Although she’s a cartoon, she’s everything a man (or in the case of Roger—a rabbit) could dream of. With that husky voice, red hair, and big umm… lips, she’s sex incarnate. At the center of a conspiracy involving competing cartoon studios, a rabbit, and a highway, Jessica puts herself in harm’s way multiple times to protect the rabbit she loves. She may be drawn bad but she’s got a heart of gold.
82. Ren (Kevin Bacon) | Footloose (1984)
Imagine moving to a new town and finding out that one of your favorite pastimes (listening to music and/or dancing) was outlawed. You’d be pretty pissed and want to overturn that dumb law wouldn’t you? That’s exactly what Ren sets out to do and it doesn’t come easily. He’s got to contend with the town minister who happens to be the father of his crush. And there’s also the matter of teaching his new best friend how to dance. Bacon has had a lengthy career in Hollywood, but it’s unlikely that he will ever have another role that tops the iconic status of Ren McCormack. He won his first time playing chicken with tractors; he had a killer dance montage in an empty warehouse, and he taught everyone how to cut loose. Ren liberated an entire town and reminded them that tragedy does not have to mean the end of something great.
81. Bill and Ted (Keanu Reeves & Alex Winter) | Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Anyone who has ever had to write a report on a historical figure from centuries ago knows how difficult it can sometimes be to find enough information on them to even write the damn report. At that moment, we all pray that we could just talk to this figure and ask them all the questions we need to be answered. Sure our bibliography page would be unbelievable, but we’d have written the best damn report that teacher would have ever read.
Excellent Adventure sees a similar scenario play out with the two main characters Bill and Ted. In order for the utopian society they help create in the future to exist, Rufus heads back in time to ensure Bill and Ted pass their high school history presentation. This eventually leads them to travel throughout time to gather historical figures like Napoleon, Billy the Kid, and Socrates for their presentation. It’s a genius strategy and one only surfer dudes could come up with.
Like Top Gun‘s Maverick, Bill and Ted also have a long-awaited sequel coming out in the near future. Let’s hope Reeves and Winter can still embody these characters with ease and bring back Bill & Ted with all their excellence!
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!