Frasier Crane, Forrest Gump, and more of the greatest characters of the last 20 years

By EW Staff
May 28, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

26. Kavalier & Clay
Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning epic The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) examines the complicated rapport between cousins Josef Kavalier and Samuel Klayman, who dream up a Superman-style comic hit in 1930s NYC. ”I was calling it Kavalier & Clay for a while,” recalls the author. ”I felt like that was perfect. It’s not just about two individuals, it’s also about the ampersand, because it’s a book about their partnership.” Later, Chabon added The Amazing Adventures of to spice up the title — though not without reservations. ”I definitely had a certain amount of anxiety,” he admits. ”Like, ‘Well, I hope people actually think it’s amazing!”’

27. Frasier
To some, Seattle’s radio-host shrink Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) was a pompous wannabe. But behind the Harvard degree, opera outings, and love of Shakespeare was a compassionate brother, son, and friend. Frasier’s blend of intellect and heart first charmed audiences on the Boston-set 1980s sitcom Cheers before the doc took center stage in his own spin-off (1993 — 2004). ”He sometimes was obnoxious, but only to those who didn’t really understand where he was coming from,” says Grammer, who won four Emmys for the role. ”He cared so deeply about himself, other people, appearances, and about things both trivial and big. He maybe cared too much about several things.”

28. Madea
”You know, I only go to church for two reasons: weddings and funerals. Which one we gonna have today?”
”I guess nobody told you I’m Madea — Ma to the damn D-E-A. You understand that? And what I want, I get. I’m from the west end — that’s where we cut a fool first and run like hell afterwards!”
”If you don’t back the hell up off me, I’mma beat you like the dude you look like!”
”I’ll be at church when they get a smoking section.”

29. Vincent Vega & Jules Winnfield
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction has no fewer than three dozen characters shuffled together like a deranged deck of playing cards. But the two we keep coming back to and quoting over and over again are John Travolta’s Vincent and Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules. Whether they are riffing on foot-massage etiquette, expounding on what a Quarter Pounder with Cheese is called in Paris, or preaching brimstone Bible passages before blowing away their victims, these two badly coiffed badasses in black act out their own buddy comedy. They’re also the beating, bloody heart of one of the most talked-about movies of the last two decades.

”The reason I think their chemistry works so well is that these are two guys who’ve known each other for a long time,” says Jackson. ”Jules is the consummate professional, and Vincent is the flighty f— up. They’re like Laurel and Hardy, or Felix and Oscar.” — Chris Nashawaty

30. ”Stephen Colbert”
The blowhard host of The Colbert Report (the alter ego of real-life comedian Stephen Colbert) is a beacon of truthiness in the ever-growing fake-news realm — and one of the most brilliant (and meta) comic creations in recent times. ”I’m not sure why I’m on this character list, since I am a real guy,” deadpans the faux pundit.


Steve Jobs
”iPad, iPhone, iPod, iMac — he’s the only person more obsessed with ‘I’ than I am.”

Mohandas Gandhi
”Though I would’ve added a ton of muscle, a headband, and a machine gun. Wait…can I change my answer to Rambo?”

Betty White
”She’s the sexiest silver-haired beauty on TV. (Sorry, Anderson Cooper — too slutty.)”

RMS Titanic
”One of the biggest movies of all time. Why wouldn’t I want to play the title role? Plus, I would not object to Kate Winslet having a tasteful nude scene on me.”

Rupert Murdoch
”I’ve got a head start on this one: I do a great Australian accent, and I’m already destroying the news.”

31. Forrest Gump
Tom Hanks’ aphorism-spouting innocent is a human time capsule of late-20th-century America, at the heart of events both epoch-defining (Vietnam, Watergate) and personal (his decades-spanning love for his mama and Jenny). ”Forrest had to be a simple Everyman,” says Eric Roth, who wrote the script for the 1994 film based on Winston Groom’s 1986 novel. ”He’s an eternal underdog who has these basic values.”

32. Beavis and Butt-Head
It started out as two separate attempts to draw a guy I went to high school with. He was actually a straight-A student who had a crush on a teacher, and he would laugh biting his lower lip — kind of a spastic laugh. When I looked at two of the drawings, I liked them both. I redrew them and they became Beavis and Butt-Head.

A lot of comedy writers pride themselves on being clever, and I like being the antidote to that sometimes. All the writers were watching a Sir Mix-A-Lot video once and coming up with these things that Beavis and Butt-Head wouldn’t say because they were too clever. And I just blurted out, ”He’s standing on a butt.” And it got a bigger laugh than anything clever. So I was like, ”Okay, that’s what Butt-Head will take away from this.” Maybe it’s another level of clever to really get inside the head of a stupid person. — Mike Judge, creator and voice of Beavis and Butt-Head

33. Terminator 2‘s Sarah Connor
”The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope, because if a machine — a Terminator — can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”

34. Cher from Clueless
I was 18 when we made Clueless. Before that I had done a film called The Crush and some Aerosmith videos, which is where [director] Amy Heckerling saw me. I met her at this little café in Beverly Hills, and I remember she was really taken with the fact that I was drinking from a straw and I wouldn’t bring the drink up to my mouth; I’d move my head down to the table to get to the straw. She loved that and asked me to play Cher.

When I first read the script, I thought it was really funny, but I didn’t know if I could be funny. But I guess I showed Amy I was by how I drank from my straw. I didn’t really like Cher at first. I thought, What a horrible girl! I had nothing in common with her at all. But what I connected to was her heart. I thought, If I could make her someone I could love, so what if she happens to love clothes? What she really is deep down is this sweet little spirit. — Alicia Silverstone

35. Dexter Morgan
In Jeff Lindsay’s novels and the Showtime drama starring Michael C. Hall, Dexter is a blood-splatter expert by day, serial killer by night — and deceptively relatable. ”I grew up with what one of my teachers called the illegal laugh — you make the audience laugh and then instantly make them think they did something illegal,” says Lindsay. ”I want people to like him and then go, ‘Whoa. What am I liking here?”’

36. Gollum
The Ring-craving mole man of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings epic was a seminal blend of CG effects and human acting. Andy Serkis, who delivered a great motion-capture performance, says he based Gollum’s movement on frogs, spiders, and Francis Bacon paintings. The voice? ”Like a cat coughing up fur balls,” he says. ”I played him like an addict, a craven junkie, but without judgment.”

37. Keyser Söze
Who is Keyser Söze? A man? An idea? A walking, talking spoiler? Söze’s identity is the single loose thread that, when pulled, unravels The Usual Suspects‘ whole complexly woven fabric of fabrication, so by the time the audience finally realizes the truth — and 1996 Oscar winner Kevin Spacey’s true role — it’s less a plot twist than a magician’s disappearing act. And like that, he’s gone.

38. Elmo
Elmo was a Sesame Street flunky, a so-called ”anything monster” used in ensemble skits before puppeteer Kevin Clash instilled a tittering falsetto in the scraggly red Muppet in 1985. By the 1990s, the monster Clash calls ”the 3½-year-old who wanted to learn about everything” became one of children’s most adored characters. ”When I travel with Elmo, airport security doesn’t [always] know what it is,” says the puppeteer. ”They’re pulling it out by the eyes and I’m saying, ‘Be careful, please! That’s Elmo from Sesame Street.’ Then they lose their minds. After that, I’m on the cell phone of every single security person, leaving messages for their kids in Elmo’s voice. It’s a lot of fun.”

39. Gob Bluth
Fox’s cult comedy about a wealthy family on the skids teemed with quirky characters, none more delightfully absurd than deluded illusionist Gob (pronounced like the biblical Job) Bluth. ”Two real people and one screen character inspired me,” Will Arnett told EW in 2004. ”There’s a touch of entitlement that comes from Withnail in the film Withnail and I. And it’s a mixture of Tom Cruise and Suzanne Somers. Obviously, in the looks department, you say, ‘Yes, you are Tom Cruise’s look-alike.’ As for Suzanne Somers, I’ll let you find the similarities.”

40. Ron Burgundy
Ron Burgundy is the man that all men would love to be. He’s terribly confident. He has a way with women. He leads an exciting life. He really doesn’t have a lot of the facts, and he’s wrong a lot of the time — but he doesn’t care. The character was a by-product of being a kid in the ’70s. The local news guy was so popular. It’s obviously diminished now with cable and everything, but these guys would come to a supermarket opening and 20,000 people would show up to meet them. As a little kid, for some reason I loved watching the local news. It felt like the comforting end to your day. Even though we were doing a comedy, it was really fun to live in that world.

He is my favorite character I’ve played, if I have to choose one. It took [director/co-writer Adam McKay and me] three years to get anyone to bite. People thought it was too weird. They didn’t understand a movie set in the news world. And now it’s a beloved thing. Looking back, that makes it the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done, in a weird way. — Will Ferrell

41. Harold & Kumar
When screenwriter Jon Hurwitz told John Cho that he had co-penned 2004’s Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle with him in mind, the actor was wary. ”I’d never had a white man write anything for me,” says Cho, who was previously best known as the ”MILF guy” from American Pie. ”I was afraid it was going to be a bucktoothed, kung fu houseboy.” Instead, Harold Lee turned out to be a sweet, lovelorn stoner who, together with Kal Penn’s equally weed-blasted Kumar Patel, went on a dazed and confused quest for late-night burgers. The pair’s hilarious, racial-stereotype-subverting adventures have inspired two sequels, 2008’s Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay and the upcoming A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas. ”It looks like we’re doing it in 3-D,” says Cho. ”I’m not joking.”

42. Sydney Bristow
While brainstorming ideas for his college drama Felicity, J.J. Abrams conceived Alias (2001 — 06) and a very different sort of heroine: a CIA operative (Jennifer Garner) with deadly skills and a dimpled smile. ”Sydney looked like the friend you had, the girl you’d want to date, but what you didn’t know is she could kill you,” says Abrams. ”She faced the most horrific conditions and always kept her spirit.”

43. Cal Stephanides
The word hermaphrodite has its roots in Greek mythology, so it’s fitting that Jeffrey Eugenides considered the intersex heroine-turned-hero of his 2002 novel, Middlesex, to be the protagonist of ”a modern American myth.” Still, the most remarkable aspect of Cal Stephanides, born Calliope, may be his surprising universality. ”I wasn’t writing about somebody who was a freak,” says the author. ”I hope that when people read the book, they don’t think it’s about someone that’s all that different from themselves.”

44. Jack Bauer
The character of Jack Bauer was not fully established until 24‘s first-season finale, when the tough but flawed counterterrorism agent saved the world — but not his own wife. The show’s real-time conceit was cutting-edge, and Bauer’s head-busting interrogation skills popped up in unlikely places. (Abu Ghraib, anyone?) ”My perception of a hero is someone who is victorious at the end of the day,” says star Kiefer Sutherland. ”I don’t think Jack was ever that.”

45. Stewie Griffin
Animated babies are typically sweet, innocent cherubs. Then, in 1999, came Family Guy‘s Stewie. The youngest of the Griffin clan not only speaks in a haughty accent but routinely plots the death of his mother, Lois. Oddly, those qualities turned him into the show’s breakout. Even more oddly, Stewie’s inception can be traced back to creator Seth MacFarlane’s love of the musical My Fair Lady. ”Like most young people, I was a huge fan of Rex Harrison,” quips MacFarlane. ”I had this thought of putting that voice in the body of this baby. I don’t know what quite possessed me to do it. It just seemed funny and off the beaten path.” Stewie’s matricidal impulses, insists MacFarlane, are not at all autobiographical. ”My mom is fantastic.”

46. Jerry Maguire
Think of Jerry Maguire, the redemptive sports agent Tom Cruise memorably played in the 1996 hit, as the antidote to Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko. He emerged from Cameron Crowe’s fertile brain after the writer-director had palled around with businessmen ”feeling hungover from the whole ‘greed is good’ era of the ’80s,” recalls Crowe. ”I spent a lot of long days around these wildly successful characters making multimillion-dollar deals who by about midnight were nearly catatonic with grief, self-loathing, and personal emptiness. In our movie, Jerry would have his big revelation in the first scene and then spend the rest of the time trying desperately to live up to the best version of himself.” And what was it about Cruise that made the star the perfect embodiment of Crowe’s vision of an earnest big-screen hero? ”He brought a hilarious level of personal anxiety and romantic ache to the part,” says Crowe. ”I still cringe for him when he’s desperately trying to keep his clients.” — Nicole Sperling


McLovin, Superbad (2007)
”Every movie needs a McLovin, that classic guy who rolls into a scene and you know one thing for sure: He will say or do something utterly classic. When Christopher Mintz-Plasse enters as McLovin, you just feel the entire audience get giddy with appreciation.”

Amélie Poulain, Amélie (2001)
”The movie is a shrine to the character Audrey Tautou creates with her simple looks and expressions of love. You can literally get high watching her. Tautou will probably never travel more than six feet in her life without hearing somebody shout out ‘Amélie!”’

Ben, Knocked Up (2007)
”A modest, funny stoner with a situation to deal with. Seth Rogen makes it look easy, and he accomplishes it without a lot of fireworks. You’re laughing so hard you don’t even notice the moment where you start to really care about this guy.”

Kirk Lazarus, Tropic Thunder (2008)
”Robert Downey Jr. nails every corner of every joke as a pompous actor playing ‘black.’ Writer Justin Theroux must have celebrated when he wrote the speech about ‘playing full retard,’ but when he saw Downey crush it…now that’s when you pop the champagne.”

Royal, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
”I’m singling out Gene Hackman’s annoyed, cranky, and sentimental scoundrel patriarch, but hell, can I just list the entire cast? Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke and Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, and are you really going to leave off Pagoda? Not me.”

47. Corky St. Clair
Corky is definitely a compilation of people I’ve seen or met over the years, some of whom worked in regional theater. The heart of that character is how guileless he is. He has no concept of his lack of talent. I thought it would be funny if he had a toupee. There was this box of…I’ll loosely call them wigs. It was just the silliest-looking one and clearly didn’t match the sides.

We were shooting a scene where I’m doing this dance, and there were several pairs of pants in this dressing room. I put on these jeans and I said, ”These are so big I could wear them backwards.” So I put them on backwards and I thought, This is his late version of a hip-hop thing.

Corky is definitely a favorite of mine. Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and I were doing a tour. I sang ”Penny for Your Thoughts,” which is from Waiting for Guffman. People would ask strange things like ”Where is he working now?” I’d say, ”It was actually a film.” At one of the performances, a group called the Blaine Players or the Corky St. Clair-something Society showed up. It was about 12 people, and they have meetings…. Well, I don’t know exactly what they do. The movie is discussed, I guess. They had T-shirts and a lot of, well, information. — Christopher Guest

48. Red
In 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption (based on a 1981 novella by EW columnist Stephen King), Morgan Freeman was the voice of hope as an inmate who can get things: cigarettes, a rock hammer, and, of course, a Rita Hayworth poster. ”I was simply reading,” says the actor, but the lines ”were so engaging that it was easy to give it character.”

49. Vivian Ward
Over the years, Hollywood has produced plenty of gold-hearted hookers — but none entranced audiences quite like Julia Roberts’ slinky, quick-witted Vivian Ward in 1990’s Pretty Woman. With her big hair and even bigger laugh, Vivian established the quintessential Julia performance. The actress was just 21 when she slid into Vivian’s skintight, peekaboo minidress. ”This was a big part for me,” she told EW in 1995. ”Not only was I the girl in the movie, I was supposed to be dazzling! I was supposed to be funny! I was young. I was scared. Who wouldn’t be, wearing that dress?”

50. Pearl the Landlord
Few toddlers can shout down a grown man the way 2-year-old Pearl McKay did to Will Ferrell in April 2007’s viral-video smash ”The Landlord” (71 million views so far). Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay — Pearl’s real-life dad — cast her as a pint-size bully after noticing her precocious memorization skills. ”This crazy idea in the back of Adam’s head led to this cult-status character,” Ferrell laughs.