Since the seventies, Steven Spielberg has been at the forefront of pop culture. He’s given us menacing sharks, friendly aliens, an action-adventure icon, and realistic dinosaurs. Spielberg shaped our childhoods from behind the camera and continues to churn out compelling dramas now that we’re grownups.
Whether he was creating the modern blockbuster or introducing audiences to Mark Rylance, Spielberg has directed and produced a ton of classics. And within those classics, there are iconic characters that have stood the test of time. Sometimes the character is more memorable than the film itself. Whatever the case, there are some characters that live forever in our head rent free. So pop your corn and give it an extra squirt of butter because it’s time to count them down.
These are the 25 Most Memorable Spielberg Movie Characters.
10. Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) | A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
I don’t really like A.I. Artificial Intelligence much. It’s full of good to great performances and amazing set pieces and it feels both hollow and jammed with too much stuff at the same time. It’s antiseptic and grotesque in a combination that just doesn’t work for me.
Anyway, my favorite part of the film – by far – is the character of Gigolo Joe (“whattaya know?”) played with welcome grace and humor by Jude Law. Joe is, as his name suggests, a sex robot, and a damned good one. He’s framed for murder, “bad trouble,” by a disgruntled husband of one of his clients and goes on the run, where he becomes an accidental companion of the main character, David (Haley Joel Osment).
His presence lifts the entire narrative for me, as he’s a mecha, like David, but whereas David pushes himself and everyone around him to conform to his desires, Joe changes his needs and plans to help someone he’s just met. He’s the machine who truly becomes something more, to me, while also remaining essentially true to himself. That he does this with self-awareness, a wry sense of humor and dance moves stolen shamelessly from Fred Astaire doesn’t hurt. He’s so entertaining and engaging (and funny) that I couldn’t help but wish that the movie was Joe’s story, but that would be a very different film. At least we had those few scenes. “I am!” he says. “I was.” And that’s enough for me.
09. Celie Harris (Whoopi Goldberg) | The Color Purple (1985)
Because he’s made some of the best blockbusters ever made, it’s easy to forget that Spielberg is also a world class filmmaker. Since he’s a humanist at heart (almost to a sappy degree), he’s long had a fascination with people’s journeys. He’s not interested in snap shots, he wants full character arcs. Even the films of his that don’t have time to fully flesh out a character, he still wedges in a scene or two to give you everything you need to know about a character. Like Brody sitting at the table with his son or the lead of Munich just holding his wife and wondering if they’ll ever be safe. He gives you nuggets if he can’t give you the mine and in the case of The Color Purple, he gives you the keys to Fort Knox.
It’s a veritable treasure trove of great character arcs, with Celie Harris arguably having the greatest of any character he’s ever made. Based on the book by Alice Walker and brought to life by Whoopi Goldberg, Celie deals with just about every damn thing you can think of but never breaks. Abuse, poverty, racism, and sexism are as common to her as breathing but because of the help of two strong female companions (Margaret Avery as Shit and Oprah Winfrey as Sofia) she eventually finds her self worth and transforms into the powerful woman she was always meant to be. As good as the boulder chase from Indiana Jones is or the T.Rex attack from Jurassic Park was, both are just exciting moments that keep you glued to your chair. Celie finally standing up to Mister (Danny Glover) by holding a knife to his throat and declaring “until you do right by me, everything you think about gonna fail”, makes you get out of your chair and cheer while also delivering a satisfying emotional catharsis. Her journey may not be as memorable as Elliott’s or Indy’s but they’re also not as well written either. A fair trade in my book.
08. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) | Jaws (1975)
I love Chief Brody because he’s not some action hero or flawless good guy who always does the right thing. He’s just some guy, you know? A family man and small-town police Chief, who moved to Amity (as you know, it means ‘friendship’) to raise a family away from the crime and chaos of New York City. Hell he’s even afraid of the water – which turns out to be a problem in Jaws because, you know, shark. That Martin struggles with what to do – and makes horrible mistakes in the process (that slap from Mrs. Kintner rattles us as much as it does him) – is what makes him so relatable. The scene almost immediately after that, with Brody and his son is almost as killer to me as that famous Indianapolis speech. It’s the moment that Martin realizes that what he does is important, that the man he is and chooses to be will affect who his son becomes.
Unlike Roy Neary in Close Encounters Martin chooses to do the thing that he least wants to do, in order to protect his family and the people of the town. He has no skills, no experience, not even a really cool scar to compare with his companions (that moment with the appendix scar is also a standout to me, because it reveals just how ordinary a life Martin has, and how very alone he is on the boat), but he goes out on the water to face the shark because he has to. And in the final extremity he’s the one that actually stops the shark. Just an ordinary guy taking his one impossible shot and saving the day.
07. E.T. (Pat Welsh et al.) | E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
What can you say about E.T.? This fallen alien wasn’t looking for world domination or destruction. E.T. just wanted to phone home so his family could come and save him from Earth. How many films can you think of before E.T. that portrayed aliens as sweet, gentle creatures? There aren’t many and I think that’s part of what made E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial so popular. E.T. doesn’t speak English, though he does learn a bit from his friend Elliot, and it’s both heartwarming and hilarious to watch E.T. try and adjust to life on Earth.
From becoming obsessed with Reese’s Pieces to experiencing what it’s like to get falling down drunk, E.T. is by far the most lovable alien in film history. He’s also much more than a displaced, adorable alien. He has the ability to bring things back from the dead, he shares a psychic link with Elliot, and he’s resourceful enough to create a phone to call his home planet by using a Speak and Spell toy. Spielberg is so good at making us love E.T. that it’s simply impossible not to shed a tear when Elliot and E.T. finally say goodbye. “I’ll be right here.”
06. Corporal Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies) | Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Like many of you, for the longest time, I hated Corporal Timothy Upham. He wasn’t brave or cool, he was a “nerd”, he tried bringing a typewriter on the mission with him and the biggest reason most people don’t like him is that he is considered a coward.
However, over the years, my opinion has changed of this character. Much like each character in Romero’s Night of the Living represents a portion of the population and how we would act in a world-ending event, Upham portrays a particular type of person that could be any one of us if we were faced with the same situation. We don’t like to admit we would be a coward or scared, of course. We want to be the leader of high integrity like Captain Miller or the coolest sniper around like Private Jackson. Nobody wants to be an Upham but you don’t know what you would do until you are in his position.
Upham has become one of my favorite Spielberg characters for exactly why people don’t like him and he adds a whole different layer to an already great film. Love him or hate him, he is definitely memorable.
05. Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) | Jurassic Park (1993)
Out of all of the human characters in Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm is arguably the most memorable. Jeff Goldblum brings a unique and humorous take on Dr. Malcolm, an expert in Chaos Theory whose purpose at Jurassic Park is to assess the facility. While a lot of the characters in the movie are fascinated by John Hammond’s achievements, Malcolm remains the voice of reason, even when his opinions are laced with sarcasm or humor.
Goldblum’s body language and stuttering line delivery help create a three-dimensional character that we can all laugh with and root for. Not to mention that he has what are probably the most quotable lines in the movie, one of which pretty much sums up the entire franchise: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
04. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) | Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Back when I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, I couldn’t help but notice what a badass Marion was. Opinionated and strong, she always seemed capable of taking care of herself. Watching Karen Allen go head-to-head with Harrison Ford was always a joy, even in the much-maligned Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
It’s hard for me to think of many memorable female characters Spielberg brought to the big screen, but Marion Ravenwood leads the pack. I think her absence in The Temple of Doom is one of the reasons why I found the movie so disappointing. Trading in someone like Marion Ravenwood for the dumb, damsel in distress Willie Scott was such a head scratcher to me. Marion had longevity as a character and could have easily factored into the entire trilogy instead of attempting to “James Bond the franchise” by giving Indy a new love interest in each film. Marion remains Indy’s most resourceful and put-together love interest and is one of the best female characters in Spielberg’s filmography.
03. Quint (Robert Shaw) | Jaws (1975)
Robert Shaw OWNED this role. He may have been a drunk in real life, but man did he kill it in this performance. You believe every thing this man says like he’s a real deep sea fisherman. And that USS Indianapolis speech is pure gold. His death scene is agonizing to watch still to this day.
02. Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes) | Schindler’s List (1993)
There’s no historical figure as universally reviled as that of the Nazi. They are the go-to word for absolute evil and for good reason. It’s a political party predicated on the complete and total annihilation of an entire race of people. It’s not easy finding a more repulsive group of individuals nor is it easy finding a better example of their vile beliefs than Amon Göth.
Based on the first Nazi to be charged with the crime of homicide and not just being a war criminal (his actions were so heinous, that they needed a new category), Amon Göth is the main antagonist in Schindler’s List and is easily the most detestable person in a film where some people lock other people in gas chambers. When he’s not torturing Jews or shooting at them from his balcony (which he did in real life), he’s complaining to Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler about the difficulties of his job. Which involves ordering a lot of barbed wire and posts. It wouldn’t even occur to him to mention the Jew killing because that’s the banality of evil. Killing human beings is just another mundane aspect of his job. Like taking out the trash or pulling weeds. Which makes it that much more terrifying.
01. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) | Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Hands down the best character Spielberg has ever created. Even if you think he is unessential to the plot of Raiders (which I’ll stay out of that argument), he still rules. Harrison Ford took the coolness of Han Solo, minimized the smugness, and became one of the greatest action/adventure heroes ever. He’s charming, yet masculine and downright undeniably a man’s man. Too bad they made that fourth (and now fifth) film.
What did you think of the selection? Did we miss any other memorable characters from Spielberg films? Tell us your top 10 down in the comments!