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100 Greatest Characters: Nos. 1-25

Homer Simpson tops our list of greatest characters of the last 20 years

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1. Homer Simpson
He rages against inanimate objects. He gets into arguments with his own brain. He has forgotten the names of family members. (”There’s five of us: Marge, Bart, girl Bart, the one who doesn’t talk, and the fat guy. How I loathe him.”) He’s eaten everything from a hot dog at the bottom of a kiddie pool to a jar of petroleum jelly. He’s lazy, rash, and incompetent, not to mention a tragic speller (”I am so smart! S-M-R-T!”).

These are not good qualities in a mate, friend, co-worker, or dad. They can, however, make for great comedy. For that reason — and hundreds more — EW is naming Homer Simpson the No. 1 character in pop culture over the last 20 years. Did the expression ”Woo-hoo!” just jump to mind? And if we had snubbed him, you might’ve thought ”D’oh!,” right? Two more reasons.

Of course, a truly transcendent character is more than a mash-up of catchphrases. The paterfamilias of The Simpsons oozes humanity. He lets his heart hang out like his gut, whether he’s processing bliss (”Mmmm…64 slices of American cheese”) or anger (”Why, you little…!”), often within seconds of each other. ”There’s an emotional obstacle course he’s running in the course of a single sentence,” says series creator Matt Groening. ”People can relate to Homer because we’re all secretly propelled by desires we can’t admit to. Homer is launching himself headfirst into every single impulsive thought that occurs to him. His love of whatever has caught his eye is a joy to witness.” As Dan Castellaneta, who has voiced him for 21 seasons, notes: ”One of the show’s writers, John Swartzwelder, said, ‘Homer’s a dog trapped inside a man’s body.’ He’s loyal, he’s lovable, but he’s got bad grooming habits and loves to wolf down whatever is in front of him.”

While Homer’s innate inanity remains a thing of wonder, it’s usually laced with hope. ”There’s an optimism about Homer that despite his stupidity, he’s forgivable,” says Groening. ”For Homer, it’s an ongoing series of missteps and redemptions. It’s one ‘D’oh!’ at a time.” We’ve enjoyed so many of them, we had no choice but to anoint him as our No. 1. Castellaneta concludes: ”As Homer might say, ‘I’m honored, confused, and hungry.”’ — Dan Snierson

A Q&A WITH HOMER

Who is your favorite character in pop culture?
Mr. Peanut from the Planters can. And my dream in life is to someday meet him, shell him, and eat him.

You’ve worked at a nuclear power plant for years. Can you explain nuclear fusion?
Two hydrogen nuclei react, releasing radiation, according to Einstein’s equation of mass-energy equivalence. Some or all of this answer may have been written by my daughter Lisa.

It’s always funny when you say ”Woo-hoo!” ”D’oh!” and ”Mmmm…,” but don’t you think it’s time you tried something new?
Think of something new?! Why, you little…! [Attempts to strangle interviewer] Sorry, didn’t mean to go all Russell Crowe on you.

Tell us one thing about yourself that you’ve never told anybody.
I play chess online with the Family Guy. — Homer’s answers by Simpsons exec producer Al Jean

2. Harry Potter
He was born in Britain, but he belongs to all of us now, young and old. J.K. Rowling introduced her boy wizard to the world in 1997, and before decade’s end, Harry Potter was a global icon. With his seven-volume saga complete, the tragedy-scarred orphan stands as an inspiring hero for our times. It was thrilling to follow his progression toward maturity — from bewildered yet bedazzled youngster to flawed and angry adolescent to wise, self-sacrificing young man. (Of course, Harry wouldn’t be Harry without the support of best chums Ron and Hermione, the guidance of Professor Dumbledore, and the soul-stirring challenge of villainous Voldemort.) In an interview with EW in 2000, Rowling explained the great theme embodied by Harry and all her characters: ”What’s very important for me is when Dumbledore says [in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire] that you have to choose between what is right and what is easy…. What is easy is often not right.”

In 2001, Harry Potter became a cinematic hero as well, played by Daniel Radcliffe in an always winning and ever-deepening performance. The actor, now 20, believes the character’s main legacy is the Potter fan base, ”a new generation of incredibly literary nerds, of which I am one!” Still, Radcliffe imagines — half-jokingly — that his contribution to Harry Potter might someday be obsolete. ”[The books] will be around for decades to come, which makes me wonder if in 30 years’ time, we will be seeing remakes of all these movies,” he says with a laugh. ”I have a very dark suspicion that that will happen, although I don’t particularly want it to!” — Jeff Jensen

A Q&A WITH DANIEL RADCLIFFE

You were 11 when you were cast as Harry Potter, who was already a global phenom. Did you feel pressure?
If I had been older and slightly more self-aware about the following that Harry had, I would have been slightly more intimidated. Ignorance and confidence of youth — it’s enough to transcend that.

How did you go about creating Harry? And how has your preparation changed over the years?
In the beginning, creating the character was all about the costume and the look. That’s how people thought of him. In terms of what I did to prepare, it was very much: Just learn the lines. I’m aware now that there are so many different ways to play any one line.

What makes Harry interesting to play for you?
That he is not perfect. He’s capable of being quite arrogant, quite stubborn, pigheaded, and a little bit selfish. He can make himself something of a martyr when he really doesn’t have to. All those characteristics are wonderful because it separates Harry from the archetypal superheroes that you so often get in children’s literature.

Has J.K. Rowling offered you advice on playing Harry since the first film?
I did ask her for some advice on the fifth film. I talked to her about Harry’s emergence as the leader of Dumbledore’s Army. She said it was very important because it’s the first time we see Harry be a leader, and eventually he’s going to have to lead large numbers of people.

If you could have spent your adolescence playing any other character, who would it be? I was always unbelievably jealous of Tobey Maguire playing Spider-Man. I do think Spidey is the coolest of the superheroes.

3. Buffy
One thing you can’t claim with vampires is first. I do feel Buffy was part of a watershed moment. Somebody’s always going to tap that well and find a way to reinvent it, and ultimately my show was less about vampires than most shows with vampire in the title. The show’s about growing up, which for her was basically ages 15 through 22, but the kind of 15 through 22 where you fight wars. She went from an adorably hapless Everyman to a struggling grown-up leader, from someone who felt very, very young to someone who felt very, very old — which, oddly enough, is the experience at that age. There’s a whole recipe for how to make a Buffy. Take one cup Sarah Connor from the first Terminator movie; one cup Ripley [from Alien]; three tablespoons of the younger sister in [the 1984 postapocalyptic comedy] Night of the Comet; a few sprigs of A Little Princess — the book, not the movies; and a pinch of Jimmy Stewart for pain, because nobody does better pain. Sarah Michelle Gellar brought that pinch of Jimmy Stewart, which was our nickname for her. She could connect with the audience while in the throes of what could be an overblown story line and just ground it and make it human and desperate and lovely. That’s Sarah. Also, she was way more girly. — Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer

4. Tony Soprano
From the very beginning, The Sopranos creator David Chase knew Tony Soprano was not exactly your average lead TV character. ”Other television protagonists didn’t kill people for their own benefit,” says Chase. But the mob boss/dysfunctional family man became the template for a new kind of TV staple: the antihero. Describing Tony as an amalgam of ”part of every gangster movie I ever saw, part my dad, part me, part all my uncles,” Chase created a character who was reprehensible (chopping up Ralphie Cifaretto in a bathtub) yet oddly relatable (struggling with both job pressures and surly teens). In the hands of James Gandolfini over six memorable seasons (1999 — 2007), Tony became TV’s most compelling criminal ever. ”He gave it everything,” Chase says of Gandolfini. ”He didn’t let pride or narcissism stand in the way of his performance at all. He just went there, wherever Tony needed to go.” And we went with him. — Dalton Ross

5. The Joker
Within seconds of his shambling on screen as Batman’s psychotic nemesis in 2008’s The Dark Knight, it was clear that Heath Ledger wasn’t joking around, delivering a frightening and anarchic performance that earned him a posthumous Oscar. ”You saw someone who was just soaring,” says costar Gary Oldman. ”It was a privilege to be around.” There have been other Jokers, but none left such an indelible impression.

6. Rachel Green
Friends made instant stars of the six comely Manhattan comrades at its center — but from the moment Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel Green stumbled into Central Perk in a wedding dress fresh from fleeing her own nuptials, we knew there was something special about her. ”When we were sitting down to come up with character ideas, one of the types we started with was someone who was not prepared to deal with the world as an adult,” recalls Marta Kauffman, who created the 1994 — 2004 series with David Crane. Aniston’s portrayal, however, turned the dial on Rachel from whiny to sympathetic — and allowed the onetime daddy’s girl to become a fully actualized character worth remembering. Viewers adored her for that widely imitated shag and stuck with her as she matured. ”The fact that she became a single mother was not something we would have envisioned for her,” Kauffman says. ”But it was something we loved about her, and thought was so brave.” — Jennifer Armstrong

7. Edward Scissorhands
As the locker-pinup star of Fox’s late-’80s cop show 21 Jump Street, Johnny Depp seemed an unlikely candidate to be cast as a misunderstood teenage Frankenstein with shears for fingers in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands. But director Tim Burton — who’d first sketched the pale, leather-clad character when he himself was a socially awkward teenager in Burbank — sensed that underneath the teen-idol exterior, Depp was ready to let his freak flag fly. ”My impression was that Johnny was actually what the character was: someone that people perceived as being something else,” Burton says. His darkly skewed vision of suburban alienation meshed beautifully with Depp’s quiet soulfulness as the misfit monster, marking the beginning of a partnership that has produced other memorable oddballs, from Ed Wood‘s cross-dressing hack director to Alice in Wonderland‘s Mad Hatter. Says Burton, ”It’s all been like a series of big dares.” — Josh Rottenberg

8. Hannibal Lecter
Nearly 20 years after he taught us which human body part pairs best with fava beans and a nice Chianti in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Anthony Hopkins’ brilliant murderer still haunts our dreams. But what makes the well-heeled cannibal — introduced in Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel, Red Dragon — so unshakable? ”I think it’s the shadow part of ourselves that we’re all attracted to,” says Hopkins.

9. Carrie Bradshaw
She has commitment issues. She can be self-absorbed. But it’s because of those very flaws that in 1998, a new kind of feminist icon was born: a romantic-comedy heroine allowed to be as complex as the real-life modern women who would become her biggest fans. Over six seasons on HBO and in two big-screen adaptations, Sex and the City‘s shoe-obsessed Manhattanite has destigmatized the single girl; made it okay for female characters to talk frankly about sex; and celebrated, again and again, the importance of friendship. No wonder Sarah Jessica Parker, who’s played the role for 13 years now, feels an unconditional sense of protectiveness toward Carrie. ”I’ve had trouble relating to some of her more indulgent [behavior],” says the actress. ”But I’ve been in her bones so long that even when she was having an affair with Big or spending money foolishly…I see virtue in her.” — Missy Schwartz

10. Spongebob Squarepants
It all started with a character called Bob the Sponge that I drew in an educational comic I wrote back when I was teaching marine biology. It didn’t get published beyond me Xeroxing it and handing it out to friends. After I went back to school for animation, I worked for a while on Rocko’s Modern Life [1993 — 96]. It dawned on me that if I was going to do a show on animals, I’d do a show about undersea animals — all the ones that I’m interested in and know a lot about. I focused on the sponge because it’s one of the more peculiar creatures. Bob the Sponge wasn’t exactly SpongeBob, but he was the germ for the character.

For the voice, I had worked with Tom Kenny on Rocko and I knew I wanted him for the show. I told Tom I wanted the voice to be basically like a Munchkin from The Wizard of Oz. And he imitated, on the spot, this Christmas dwarf he had overheard in the mall. I said, ”That’s it!” And that’s really how we got there. The line he had overheard was ”If it wasn’t for Christmas, I’d never bleepin’ work.” So thanks to some Santa’s elf somewhere, we have SpongeBob. — Stephen Hillenburg, the former marine biologist on creating the beloved pineapple-dwelling fry cook

11. Cosmo Kramer
There was nothing conventional about the alarm-haired, scheme-hatching goofball who burst into Jerry’s apartment each week on Seinfeld (1990–98). ”The way that New York comes at you — the traffic, the people — is very much like the way Kramer comes through the door,” says actor Michael Richards. ”It’s a wonderful momentum, the swing of New York, and I think that’s what I was after. The K-Man had the swing.”

12. Fox Mulder & Dana Scully
No one would mistake Fox Mulder, the alien-hunting FBI agent on The X-Files (1993–2002), for a slick MTV VJ. But David Duchovny says that’s exactly how the part was pitched to him by series creator Chris Carter. ”I teased him about that for years,” says the actor. ”And yet from that description, I got the sense that Mulder was supposed to have an irreverent streak, which proved to be a key to the character: the sense of humor.” Duchovny pauses, then deadpans: ”Not that MTV VJs are ever very funny.” Mulder’s partner, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), started as a science-based voice of reason but gradually came to share his yearning for the spiritual and, later, to develop a yearning for Mulder, too. ”Our chemistry was always a mystery, even to us,” says Duchovny. ”From the beginning, it just flowed naturally.”

13. Jack Sparrow
Captain Jack kind of came to me from here and there. I was just interested in exploring — I didn’t know at first how far I would explore. I was thinking of pirates as rock & roll stars, so Keith Richards was already in my mind. Then came Pepe Le Pew. And then Lee Marvin’s performance in Cat Ballou — it doesn’t get any better than that. I knew somebody somewhere along the line was going to panic and have a problem. I expected it. When I had the fake gold and silver teeth put in, I put in extra so I’d have some leverage, some room to negotiate.

Then we started shooting, and [the Disney executives] got really scared. They kept calling [director] Gore [Verbinski], saying, ”You’ve got to do something about Depp. You’ve got to talk to him.” Gore, bless his heart, said, ”Look, I happen to like it. If you want to talk to him, you talk to him. I ain’t doing it.” He stood his ground. My agent, poor thing, was getting calls from Disney, saying, ”He’s ruining the movie!” Finally, I just made the call to them and said, ”What’s the problem?” They said, ”We can’t understand a word he’s saying. He walks funny. Is he gay? Is he drunk?” I was just like, ”Wow, holy God, this is really mental.”

In the end, I just had to present it to them the way I saw it: ”Look, it may seem strange to you now, but you’ve got to trust me. I have a real strong feeling about it. And if you can’t trust me, you have to replace me.” It felt like it was our duty to see how much we could get away with, to push the boundaries. Because audiences like to see new stuff. They like to be surprised. — Johnny Depp

14. Jeff ”The Dude” Lebowski
A generously girthed, perpetually high bowling nut named Jeffrey may be the unlikeliest cultural icon of the last two decades. After all, the Coen brothers’ 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski, which introduced Jeff ”The Dude” Lebowski to the world, had only tepid box office returns. But over time, the Dude has become a legendary figure to bowlers, stoners, and ”beverage” hoisters everywhere thanks to his eminent quotability and Jeff Bridges’ brilliant, drug-free acting. ”I certainly have enough experience to know what smoking pot is like,” says the Crazy Heart Oscar winner. ”But with the Coen brothers’ script, there was no improvisation. Each ‘man’ and each ‘f—‘ was exactly where they wrote it. And pot would numb that attention to detail.”

15. Shrek
The delightfully gruff Scottish ogre, star of four animated flicks, didn’t always sound Scottish. ”I originally did it with a thick Canadian accent, and I wasn’t as connected to it,” says Mike Myers. ”It didn’t seem old-world enough. Steven [Spielberg] said, ‘Try it.’ Afterwards he wrote me this unbelievably beautiful letter saying, ‘You’re 100 percent right, it is better. Thank you so much for caring.’ I have that letter still.”

16. Bridget Jones
”Unless something changed soon, I was going to live a life where my major relationship was with a bottle of wine…and I’d finally die, fat and alone, and be found three weeks later half-eaten by wild dogs.”

17. Lara Croft
She started out as a male adventurer named Fletcher Christian. But then British computer-game artist Toby Gard drew bosoms (”Four polygons — perfect triangles,” he remembers) and she became Lara Croft, a video-game sensation who’s sold more than 35 million units to date. There have been Tomb Raider novels, comic books, theme-park rides, and two movies starring Angelina Jolie as the archaeologist with the great polygons. Not even Mario can match that.

18. Sue Sylvester
It takes more than just boldly colored athletic wear for Jane Lynch to transform herself into cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester on Fox’s breakout musical-comedy hit Glee. ”I remove all kindness from my body,” the actress says of her prep work to portray the queen of mean at Ohio’s fictional McKinley High School. ”She’s a warrior. If there isn’t a fight, she will create one. I always have my antenna up, my sniffer up, looking for trouble where I can make trouble.”

Trouble is never far away on Glee, and it usually arrives with a venomous barb from the head of the Cheerios. ”I might buy a small diaper for your chin,” she once told her archnemesis, youthful fellow teacher Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), ”because it looks like a baby’s ass.”

”Everybody loves to be kind of torn apart by Sue Sylvester,” says Lynch, though she admits that her character’s acid tongue occasionally takes its toll on the cast. ”When Sue says terrible things to Quinn Fabray about being pregnant, I always give [actress Dianna Agron] a little hug before we roll.” We’re not sure how Sue would see that. — Tim Stack

19. Morpheus
Laurence Fishburne spent eight months learning how to fight like a Hong Kong action hero before he played Morpheus in 1999’s The Matrix. ”I showed up for rehearsal and there were eight Chinese guys in the room, stretching,” he recalls. ”I’d never trained like that before. We trained like athletes. I’m really glad that I didn’t know what I was in for, because had I known, I probably wouldn’t have done it.” In the end, Fishburne was thrilled to play the captain of the rebel hovercraft Nebuchadnezzar — a role, incidentally, that Sean Connery had turned down — and be part of a major sci-fi milestone in turn-of-the-millennium cinema. ”When I finally saw the movie, I was really blown away by how smart it was,” Fishburne says. ”All the ideas that are in the movie — I had forgotten about that stuff. We had to work so hard on the physical stuff, I had forgotten that it wasn’t just an action movie.” — Benjamin Svetkey

20. Ally McBeal
What began as a dramedy about a young Boston lawyer (Calista Flockhart) exploded into a phenomenon, from her supershort skirts to her dancing-baby hallucinations. ”She really was designed to be a bundle of contradictions, to be strong and weak in the same moment,” says David E. Kelley, who created the 1997 — 2002 series. Before you could say ”unisex bathroom,” a 1998 TIME cover blamed Ally for the death of feminism. ”She was never meant to be representative of all women,” Kelley says. ”Ally was Ally. We weren’t comparing her to anyone else.” And we wouldn’t even try.

21. Roseanne Conner
In nine groundbreaking seasons, the brash blue-collar mom tackled taboos and took no guff from anyone — least of all her family. Now Roseanne Barr imagines what her sitcom alter ego would be up to in 2010.

Roseanne wrote a book, and the rights to it were bought by Oprah and turned into a mildly successful reality show starring Jackée Harry. The show lasted two seasons, made millions for Harpo Studios, and relaunched Harry’s television career. Roseanne made enough money from that — and from selling her café and her house — to move to Hilo, Hawaii, where she opened a shop selling crystals, spiritual books, and DVDs. Her youngest son, Jerry Garcia Conner, runs it. They live upstairs from it in a large apartment next to the Center for the Church of Cannabis.

She dates an old surfer named Johnny, who also manages the night-club in the Hilo Hotel and plays jazz piano in a quartet with her son, who plays lead guitar.

Roseanne had a scare with her heart, takes Lipitor, and still halfheartedly tries one diet after another. She goes to a gym and pedals an exercise bike listlessly, ambles along on a treadmill, bored and dutiful, while chatting with whichever girlfriend talks her into meeting her there. She eats sorbet but looks around, as if someone is watching, and then douses it with chocolate syrup.

She got excited about running for Hilo town council for a while, but the reality of a full-blown campaign just seemed too demanding — what with all the showing up for appearances and kissing people’s butts that she wouldn’t even want to shake hands with. Today, she is getting more and more interested in joining the Church of Cannabis and launching her own anarchistic ministry called Seriously Revolting Women!

22. South Park‘s Cartman
”Why is it that everything today has involved things either going in or coming out of my ass?”

”I’m not fat. I’m big-boned.”

”Mmm, your tears are so yummy and sweet!… Oh, the tears of unfathomable sadness!”

23. Austin Powers
My parents are from Liverpool. Around the time that my father passed away, I started thinking about the different gifts he had given me. One of them was a love of Peter Sellers and a love of James Bond. And I’d always wanted to be in a comedy series like the Pink Panther movies. So in a weird way I came up with my own Clouseau. I listened to [Burt Bacharach’s] ”The Look of Love” on the way home from hockey practice one day and the character just tumbled out of me.

My mom always talked about how her favorite characters are ”happy survivors.” I love happy survivors too, whether it’s Bugs Bunny, Barney Rubble, or Pee-wee Herman. That’s what I think he is. He’s a Rip Van Winkle character. He was frozen and then unfrozen. He’s a man out of his time and he’s trying to make it work, and he still manages to be happy. I thought that you would have had to have grown up in my house to get this movie. I was very pleasantly surprised that other people got it too.

24. Felicity Porter
In 1998, Felicity‘s heroine (Keri Russell) became the quintessential awkward, brainy romantic by ditching Stanford premed for UNY and a cute guy she barely knew. Plus, she did it with the best hair since Farrah Fawcett — until 1999, when Russell got a pixie cut. ”We thought, naively, that people would love it because it was such a college-girl thing to do,” the actress laughs now.

25. Woody
The star of three Toy Story films was conceived not as a vintage cowboy but as a ventriloquist’s dummy in a tux. Early drafts of the script also painted him as a selfish lout. Luckily, Woody emerged as ”benevolent, trustworthy, and very, very loyal,” says director John Lasseter. No wonder he’s beloved.