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.
25. Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) | Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Mutt is the fucking worst. If this was a top 100 list of best Spielberg characters, he would not even be close to making it. But since we are doing “most memorable” here we are with his dumb ass making the grade. Shia’s shitty acting is the worst performance in any Indiana Jones movie and that’s enough to grant him the last position. Fuck him and the motorcycle he rode in on.
24. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) | War of the Worlds (2005)
We’re used to seeing Tom Cruise play the leading man. The man who throws punches. The man who gets himself out of any situation. The man who runs (a lot). But we’re not used to seeing Cruise play the man who runs away from the danger, and we’re especially not familiar with Cruise as a family man.
War of the Worlds gives audiences a chance to see Cruise play someone outside his comfort zone. Ferrier is a divorced, lazy, deadbeat dad who would rather not have to babysit his own children. When the aliens begin attacking, his mindset isn’t on saving civilians or stopping the aliens, it’s on getting him and his family out of harms way. That includes hijacking the only working vehicle in their neighborhood and leaving everyone behind. Over the course of the film, Ferrier grows into the type of man his ex-wife can respect and the father his children can look up to. It’s one of Cruise’s best performances and one of the main reasons you should watch this film.
23. Truck Driver (Carey Loftin) | Duel (1971)
Can we really include a character in this list that never shows his face? Other than his boots and an occasional arm, the driver of the truck in Duel is never seen. His lack of presence has sometimes led people to speculate that it’s actually his vehicle, a 1955 Peterbilt 281 gasoline truck, that should be considered the main antagonist. It even “roars” at the end, when it goes over the cliff (a sound effect lifted from the 1957 film The Land Unknown – that of a Tyrannosaurus, in an interesting coincidence given Spielberg would go on to direct his own dinosaur film featuring a T-rex). I can’t separate the two, myself, and think of the driver and the vehicle as a single monstrosity, a murderous symbiosis that wouldn’t be dangerous at all without the two elements. Whatever your view, there’s no denying that the truck and its driver are a compelling villain (or villains) and among the most unique in Spielberg’s repertoire.
22. Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) | Hook (1991)
There’s acting and then there’s transformation. Hoffman’s turn as the formidable Captain Hook remains a masterful achievement in every sense of the word.
To think I’ve been rewatching Hook for most of my life and I still find myself surprised that it’s Hoffman under that wig. Because, at least in this movie, he’s not Dustin Hoffman, he’s Captain James Hook. And it stretches beyond the mere boisterous presence, although that is certainly appealing. Hoffman’s Hook is a bold case study in grounded acting choices, self-awareness, voice manipulation, to raw kinetic energy for the screen. He captures as much larger-than-life spirit as he does nuanced inflection and idiosyncratic ticks that take this fairytale icon and make him three-dimensional. Of course, maybe this is just the childhood nostalgia talking, but it takes a performance of this magnitude to steer a film thru the rocky waters of expanded adult-but-still-for-children IP. When I think on the slew of herculean performances from the Spielberg canon, Dustin Hoffman’s take as the handlebar mustached, hook-handed pirate stands out among the best.
21. Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) | Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Every protagonist needs an antagonist and vice versa. If the hero (or villain) has no one to foil or fight then there isn’t really much of a story. Carl Hanratty, an FBI agent who is loosely based on Joseph Shea, is the J. Jonah Jameson to Frank Abagnale Jr.’s Spider-Man. Abagnale just wants to continue being a successful con artist, seducing his way into the hearts of women and avoiding capture from the FBI, but Hanratty believes him to be a menace that must be taken off the streets. The cat-and-mouse shenanigans that follow only work because DiCaprio’s Abagnale has Hanks’ Hanratty to use as a punching bag. The scene where Hanks realizes the con artist is only a kid is second only to when Hanratty mistakenly lets Abagnale escape from right under his nose. It’s a masterclass performance from Hanks and only he could have managed to pull it off opposite DiCaprio as Abagnale.
20. Agatha Lively (Samantha Morton) | Minority Report (2002)
I’ve always been a massive fan of Samantha Morton. When she turned up in a Spielberg blockbuster, I was excited to see her get the chance to show off her talents to a wider audience. In Minority Report she plays Agatha, one of three human Precogs who predict future crimes. She doesn’t get the majority of screen time, but she’s undoubtedly a key character. When she has a vision that differs from the other two Precogs things get complicated. This leads to her being kidnapped by protagonist John Anderton and events revolving around her and the information she possesses. Agatha is dehumanised at the start of the film, part of a machine. But as the plot progresses and her personality starts to shine, we can’t help but empathise with her. A really interesting character, expertly played by an underrated actor.
19. Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) | Jurassic Park (1993)
Yes, Dennis Nedry is a weaselly, backstabbing, morally bankrupt human being and if that was the entirety of the character then perhaps he wouldn’t be on this list. Thanks to actor Wayne Knight, he’s also an antagonist that’s fun to watch – a nerd with a sense of humor and some joie de vivre to go along with this mercenary sensibilities and lack of personal (and work) hygiene. Sure his humor comes at the expense of others – giving Dodgson the business, for instance, and even his “Uh uh uh! You didn’t say the magic word!” ‘hacker shit,’ to quote Arnold – but it makes him more than a one-note bad guy and his obvious glee with the shaving can/cold storage device is almost childlike. No, he’s not a good guy, and he gets a lot of people killed because he can’t manage his finances, but he manages to be both entertaining AND despicable enough that we’re happy when he gets his comeuppance. And seriously – do you think you could find anyone else who can network eight connection machines and debug two million lines of code for what he bid for that job? Because if you can I’d like to see him try.
18. Tintin (Jamie Bell) | The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Tintin is a reporter with a sense of adventure. Unlike Indiana Jones, Spielberg’s own creation who seems to always find himself in a dangerous situation much to his exasperation, Tintin seems to actively seek it out. Over the course of the film, Tintin seems to always be up for anything whether it is trekking across the dessert, doing extreme parkour, or solving a puzzle, the young chap never falters. Tintin feels like the embodiment of childhood spirit, always raring to go and ready to use that imagination to conjure up endless adventures. It’s a shame a sequel to the 2011 film has been stuck in development hell for a decade, because with Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and Edgar Wright all involved, the possibilities of where Tintin could have gone next were truly endless.
17. Rexy | Jurassic Park (1993)
There are like three or four entries on this list that aren’t human, and it’s a testament to Steven Spielberg’s abilities as a filmmaker that this is the case. He’s able to take antagonists (or protagonists, in the case of E.T.) and anthropomorphize them to the degree that we buy in. The shark from Jaws is always going to be the most notable of his non-human characters, of course, but I’ve always been partial to the Tyrannosaur from the Jurassic Park series. She’s neither good nor bad, she’s just an animal doing what she does. And what she does is chompity chomp chomp the shit out of things. From cars to lawyers to other dinosaurs, Rexy is an equal opportunity muncher.
She’s also one of the few non-human characters to show up in multiple Jurassic Park properties – including the Netflix show Jurassic World Camp Cretaceous and even in the unlikely role of inadvertent hero at the end of Jurassic World. Unlike the engineered Indominus, Rexy isn’t a murderous beasty beyond her territorial (and feeding) instincts, and this means the audience can root for her even when she’s chasing our heroes. It may be that whatever personality the T-rex seems to posses is just what we, the viewers, impose on her – but we enjoy and love her enough that the filmmakers keep bringing her back.
16. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) | Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Your appreciation of Roy Neary probably depends on your family and circumstances. The everyman character has an encounter with a UFO and it leads to an obsession that sees him abandon both his family and his planet. When I was a younger man this all seemed eminently reasonable – what was the mundanity of family life, work and responsibilities when compared against the opportunity to travel to the stars? In that context Roy makes a certain kind of loony sense – his is a story of escape as much as it is one of obsession and aliens. Since adulthood, though, It’s hard not to see him in a harsher light, where his obsession and his resulting abandonment of his family are signs of a personality that hasn’t matured enough to make rational decisions. Yes, his head is full of strange thoughts and shapes, but as the movie progresses it’s obvious that he wants to make choices that are personally satisfying, rather than ones that are responsible or that help the ones he loves. In some ways his character is the opposite of Ray Ferrier from War of the Worlds – becoming less responsible and dedicated to his family as he goes along. It’s a testament to Richard Dreyfus’ performance that a man so weak and self-oriented remains an interesting and identifiable character, and one that I still somehow feel happy for as he enters the alien craft.
15. John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) | Jurassic Park (1993)
It would have been easy to make John Hammond the kind of nefariously enterprising businessman too greedy to see the flaws in his plans. We have seen that time and time again. Instead, Richard Attenborough’s Hammond is a wondrous old man with enough money to make his dream, Jurassic Park, a reality. He is a Walt Disney sort of figure, truly proud of his creation and excited to share that wonder with others. And when things go wrong, he doesn’t double down. He realizes the mistake that has been made and spends the rest of the movie trying to help in the survival. Hammond would have been an easy villain, but steering in this more nuanced direction elevates Jurassic Park to new heights.
14. Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) | Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Spielberg’s ability to feature the right person is second-to-none. What separates him from the pack is his uncanny ability to fashion impeccable performances from talented icons who seem to be hitting the roles at just the right time. Because when you’re after layered richness to the degree of Spielberg, timing is everything.
Perhaps no better case and point may be found than with Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn as Frank Abagnale, Jr. in 2002’s, Catch Me If You Can. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see Leo giving a great performance in a Spielberg talkie. The man’s a modern legend. And yet, I can’t help but wonder if even just 18 months earlier or later either way that somehow the character wouldn’t have quite landed. Sure, Abagnale’s story is fascinating (and a true one to boot). But what makes this movie tick, beyond the impeccable pacing, is Leo. Here he sets at the intersection of established movie star and earnest, lovable young man. The bold, glitzy energy radiates from the screen in that way we’ve grown to know from Mr. DiCaprio. But he never sacrifices that genuine pull of budding youngster. He’s so damn likable but still a chameleon without settling for the low hanging fruit of showy acting. Leo threads the needle perfectly and Spielberg found his camera loving face and raw yet tender energy at the exact right moment. A tour-de-force performance that is remarkably and intentionally unlike any other tour-de-force; if that’s even a thing.
13. Henry Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery) | Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones is pitch perfect casting. Sir Sean Connery himself as Henry Jones, Indy’s father, is somehow more perfect (if that’s possible). I mean, in the arena of Best Dads in American Cinema, this one sets near the top of the list, right? Kitschy as it may sound, I struggle to find a better word for this actor-and-role pairing than iconic. The voice, the titanic movie star lore, the patterned Connery glare, the reputation, and impeccably sharp line delivery. Indeed, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade isn’t just one of Hollywood’s greatest sequels, it’s a landmark work in that it captures a truly transcendent moment in which the biggest movie star of the time is one-upped by the movie star of all modern movie stars. And if that’s not inherently Spielberg-ian I don’t know what is. Here’s to Sean Connery; the only man who could be James Bond, an Oscar winner, and Indiana Jones’ dad and still be the cooler than the rest of us.
12. Bruce | Jaws (1975)
Bruce the Shark, thankfully you barely worked and caused Spielberg to minimize the use of your fakeness. Seriously, if that thing worked, I don’t know if the film would have been as successful. The minimalism of seeing the actual shark created such a depth of dread, that never would have worked if we saw more of him early on.
11. Rufio (Dante Basco) | Hook (1991)
Alright all y’all nostalgia babies, time for some tough love. Hook is not a good movie. There’s a good movie in there somewhere but you’d have to have a trained editor to skim through all the bullshit to find it. Maybe I’d you’d cut the first 45 minutes down to like 10 and remove a bunch of Spielberg schmaltz, the fantasy world work better and the father and son relationship would be tighter. Or you could eliminate the son entirely (who no one really likes anyways) and just focus on the real star of the movie: Rufio. Played by Dante Basco, Rufio is the leader of the Lost Boys in Pan’s absence. He’s a insult spewing machine who can fight with flair and has the best hair of the 90s. He’s the kid we all wanted to be, which made his death all the more powerful. He’s the reason you’ve convinced yourself this movie is good for decades. He’s one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dud of a movie.
Rufio! Rufio! Ru-Fi-OOOOOOOOOOOOOh!
What do you think of the selection so far? Who are some of your favorite movie characters from Steven Spielberg? Maybe they will show up in the top ten!