''House'''s surly lead actor and ''Ugly Betty'''s Wilhelmina make our countdown of the greatest characters in the last 20 years

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


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76. Tyler Durden
The charismatic leader of Fight Club‘s underground, guys-only group has become an icon of unleashed masculinity, thanks to Brad Pitt’s magnetic turn in the 1999 film. ”I had seen Tyler as having an intellect of sorts,” says Jim Uhls, who adapted Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel. ”But the primitive, animal nature of him, blended with that intellect, was something Brad brought to the role.” Uhls just broke Tyler’s first rule: He talked about Fight Club.

77. Mimi Marquez
The reckless, AIDS-infected stripper in the rock opera Rent drew a surprisingly protective response. ”There was an innocence about Mimi’s spirit and desire for life, which was completely antithetical to her death wish,” says Daphne Rubin-Vega, who originated the role on Broadway in 1996. ”You want to protect Mimi and you want to save her. During intermission, you’d hear the blue-haired ladies talking: ‘I just want to take her home and feed her.”’

78. Patty Hewes
Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) is a master of manipulation — the type of lawyer who, for instance, uses incriminating evidence to force a defendant into settling (for billions!) and then forks over the damning info to the DA anyway. The take-charge head of a New York law firm on Damages, Hewes reeks of power. ”She’s somebody that makes you feel, Well, should I love her or should I hate her?” Close told EW earlier this year. ”She’s complex.”

79. Elphaba
In the hit Broadway musical Wicked, loosely based on The Wizard of Oz, the future wicked witch Elphaba is defined by her green skin, pointy hat, and overcoming-the-odds anthem ”Defying Gravity,” a challenging song that nearly tripped up Idina Menzel, who originated the role in 2003. ”I totally cracked,” she says of her audition. ”I screamed the F-word at the top of my lungs, took a breath, and then nailed the note.”

80. Gorillaz
Blur frontman Damon Albarn and comic-book artist Jamie Hewlett (Tank Girl) spent many an hour watching MTV in a London flat in the late 1990s. The videos bored them stiff. ”That was where the spark happened,” recalls Albarn. ”We looked at each other and realized that we were a cartoonist and a musician, and that whatever we did, it would be different.” They envisioned four fictional band members who would send up celebrity culture and serve as the public face of catchy dance-pop tunes, like the 2005 hit ”Feel Good Inc.” Of course, cartoon bassist Murdoc Niccals has a slightly different recollection of the quartet’s origin. ”I put this outfit together,” Niccals claims via e-mail. ”I am Gorillaz.”

81. Melrose Place’s Amanda Woodward
”What can I say? When God was passing out business sense, Jane was in the back of the line getting her nails done.”

82. Tracy Flick
Armed with campaign cupcakes and a formidable blond bob, Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick embodied teenage overachievement in the 1999 film Election, based on the 1998 novel by Tom Perrotta. The author drew inspiration from the 1992 presidential campaign and his then students at Yale. ”I realized there was a new type of girl in the world — the first generation raised by feminist mothers, who felt like they could do anything and were unapologetic about it.”

Thus an archetype of female hyperambition was born. Perrotta’s observations were so on-target that we’ve seen other go-getting women ”Flicked” in the media ever since, from Sarah Palin to Hillary Clinton to Glee’s Rachel Berry (whom Perrotta calls Tracy’s ”spiritual granddaughter”).

83. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s Jen Yu
Arguably the most breathtaking image in director Ang Lee’s 2000 martial-arts epic is a shot of the governor’s stubborn daughter, Jen (Ziyi Zhang), resting on a bamboo tree as its leaves drift in front of her face. ”Jen is the hidden dragon,” says Lee. ”She’s a dream girl, but a dream that doesn’t listen to you, so you’re forever pursuing it.” Yeah, it’s tricky to pin down someone who can leap 30 feet in the air.

84. Dr. Gregory House
”We came up with the idea of doing a medical investigation series, and I literally spent four months stewing about this character,” recalls David Shore, who dreamed up the grumpy, Vicodin-addicted protagonist of Fox’s House. ”There’s a little Sherlock Holmes in there, a little me, and a little bit of me wanting to turn the traditional caring doctor on its head.” The epiphany moment came when British comic actor Hugh Laurie auditioned for the role. When he first read the untitled script, Laurie says, ”I thought Wilson [Robert Sean Leonard] was the main guy and I was just going to be this crotchety figure who slings in from the outfield every now and then. I couldn’t imagine how someone that jagged and complicated and superficially unlikable would be the center of a TV program.” Over time, though, House has grown on the actor: ”I rather relish his independence — the fact that he doesn’t fear criticism or crave applause.”

85. Daniel Plainview
From the opening of 2007’s There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview seems as obsessive as the actor who plays him. Daniel Day-Lewis labored tirelessly over the ruthless man’s vocal cadences. When oil baron Plainview gripes, ”There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking,” he appears to drink up human weakness as if it were, well, a milk shake.

86. Will & Grace‘s Karen Walker and Jack McFarland
”What’ll I wear?”
”Oh, I don’t know. We can go as a team, like Donny and Marie or Sonny and Cher.”
”Oh, honey, you’d be cute as Sonny!”
”No, no. I’d be Cher!”

87. Tony Stark
Superheroes are often dour, stoic types, burdened by their responsibility to uphold truth, justice, and the American way. Not Tony Stark. As vividly brought to life by Robert Downey Jr. in 2008’s smash Iron Man and this summer’s sequel, the billionaire playboy is a boozy, rakish, deeply flawed charmer who clearly enjoys being a superhero — sometimes too much. ”[Iron Man co-creator] Stan Lee says Marvel got more fan mail from girls for Iron Man than any of their other comics,” says Downey. ”There’s this twisted, tragic element to Tony, while still being glamorous enough to seem like Ryan O’Neal to their Farrah.”

88. Napoleon Dynamite
He knows illegal ninja moves from the government. His skills include shooting wolverines and drawing ligers. He’s Napoleon Dynamite, the frizzy-haired teenage geek whose awesome dance routine propelled him to fame in the eponymous 2004 film. ”Napoleon is a composite of myself and my younger brothers,” says co-writer/director Jared Hess. ”I’ve lived with this character my whole life.” Jon Heder, who brought the awkward to every scene as Napoleon, says he had an inkling during the shoot that his character would have a cult appeal. ”It was the same vocabulary I had as a kid — ‘gosh,’ ‘freaking idiot,’ ‘sweet,”’ says Heder, who grew up mostly in Salem, Ore. ”I remember thinking, This would totally be a quotable movie.” And thousands of fans wearing Napoleon’s ”Vote for Pedro” T-shirt would undoubtedly agree.

89. District 9‘s Wikus
Bumbling South African bureaucrat Wikus van de Merwe wasn’t meant to be memorable. Actor Sharlto Copley invented the persona on the fly while shooting test footage for District 9 with his pal, co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp. ”Later on, Neill called and said Wikus was going to be the main character,” says Copley. ”That’s also when he told me Wikus was going to turn into an alien.” And give prawn cocktail a whole new meaning.

90. Marge Gunderson
Marge Gunderson, the pregnant small-town police chief investigating a triple homicide in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 noir Fargo, is as strong a moral compass as the movies have ever seen. ”I looked like a huge turd out there in the snow, waddling around,” Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for the role, told EW in 1996. ”Joel said, ‘You know, the character does not have to be as unattractive as you’re making her.’ But I love the way I look as Marge.”

91. Hancock
In 2008’s summer blockbuster Hancock, Will Smith gave the traditional superhero a fresh antihero makeover, playing an invincible do-gooder with a foul mouth, a bad attitude, a drinking problem, and a serious need for PR rehab. ”The idea of an alcoholic superhero, you know, it’s funny but it’s also poignant,” says Smith. ”There’s a part of all of us who feels like we are that guy, not living up to the potential we have.”

92. Christopher Boone
f you’re seeking the absolutely most reliable narrator, look no further than Christopher Boone. The 15-year-old autistic protagonist of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time simply does not know how to lie. He also cannot read social situations, dislikes being touched, hates the colors yellow and brown, and is determined to use his unswerving logic to solve the sub-Holmesian mystery of who killed his neighbor’s poodle. Haddon has said that he drew from his own experience working with physically and mentally disabled children to craft Christopher’s unique voice. 93. Game Boys

Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake
The modern treasure hunter in Uncharted is like a younger version of Indiana Jones, but one who hasn’t nuked the fridge. Nolan North, who acted in a motion-capture suit and ad-libbed many of Drake’s sardonic lines, thinks gamers can relate to the average-Joe hero. ”Nathan will punch someone and then shake his own hand in pain,” says North, 39. ”And what does he want? A little money and a cold beer — who couldn’t identify with that?”

God of War‘s Kratos
As the ultimate badass — a revenge-seeking Spartan warrior who’d make 300’s King Leonidas go weak in the knees — this God of War antihero finally gave Sony a mascot worth all those hours of (bloody) button-mashing. ”Kratos is pissed,” says TC Carson, 51, who starred on the 1990s sitcom Living Single before voicing the testosterone-heavy brute. ”Everybody has a dark place inside of them, and working on these games really helped me get rid of some things. But it was a little scary to go there.”

Grand Theft Auto IV‘s Niko Bellic
Spurred by the promise of the ”American dream,” this Serbian immigrant arrives in Liberty City (a thinly disguised New York City) and quickly rises in the criminal underworld. According to actor Michael Hollick, 37, who spent more than a year playing the character at a Long Island motion-capture studio, Niko is an unexpectedly multilayered protagonist. ”He’s a bad guy, but he’s also got redeeming qualities without being a pushover,” says Hollick. ”Like a good film, the game sucked people in.”

94. Truman
I thought The Truman Show was the next step after Network, checking in on where we could possibly go as far as taking the life of a human being against their will and making them part of our entertainment. Truman is the most famous person in the world, a person we think we love, and a person who makes us feel safe. My performance was inspired by my father, who was that type of person who would do anything to make everyone happy. So when Truman says, ”Good morning, and in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night,” that is my father’s soul in one line.

Truman is a pleaser who sets out on a journey to liberate himself from the expectations of others. Everybody has to set off eventually on a Magellan-type voyage into the abyss and face their fears without any knowledge of the outcome. We have to disappoint our parents’ and everyone else’s expectations in order to become ourselves. If you’re going to be a whole person, you have to have that moment.

A lot of people ask me where I think Truman would be or what he would be doing now, on the outside. I think he was inundated by attention at first, but now he meets every photo request with a friendly, high-quality ”No.” Over time, it’s been really illuminating to see that I’ve kind of grown into the story of The Truman Show myself. It becomes more and more prescient to my life.

95. Wilhelmina
Mode magazine’s conniving creative director — and constant foil to nearly everyone on Ugly Betty — is renowned for her sarcastic quips. ”N!” she once yelled. ”I don’t have the energy to say ‘no’ anymore!” But Vanessa Williams could be cutting without uttering a sound (bite). ”Sometimes I didn’t have to say anything,” says the actress. ”It was just a look or a sigh or a roll of the eyes or a turn of the back.”

96. Bernie Mac
As a comedian-turned-father figure on the Fox sitcom The Bernie Mac Show (2001-06), the late comic played a version of himself who was rude, crude, and — thanks to a nuanced performance — ultimately loved for his unflinching candor. ”Bernie had this specific cadence and delivery, like a black Rodney Dangerfield,” his friend Cedric the Entertainer told EW in 2008.

97. Violet Weston
The pill-popping, brutally honest matriarch Violet Weston in Tracy Letts’ 2007 stage drama August: Osage County can seem like a monster. ”I was always looking for the ways to humanize her,” says Letts, who based Violet on his own grandmother. ”On the one hand, she’s fiercely protective of her family, and on the other, she hates them for instilling that kind of maternal quality in her.”

98. Lisbeth Salander
The heroine of Stieg Larsson’s best-seller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (and its two sequels) is full of contradictions: Lisbeth Salander is a genius and a high school dropout, a sociopath and a loyal friend, a five-foot-tall weakling who can hold her own against a champion boxer. One thing is certain: With millions of fans worldwide, she’s a newly minted classic of modern fiction.

99. Kill Bill‘s The Bride
The Bride was created while we were doing Pulp Fiction. It was late one Friday night after shooting, and Quentin [Tarantino] and I went out. Somehow we just started talking about this character. I gave her the first name, Beatrix; he gave her the last name, Kiddo; and Beatrix Kiddo was born that night. We came up with the idea of a woman in a blood-soaked wedding gown driving into L.A. on a mission of revenge. And that image, which never quite made it into the film, was the starting point. While Quentin was writing the script, I read it scene by scene. Once it was finished, the hard work began. There was a huge amount of martial-arts training. And, of course, I’d just had a baby and I had a lot of weight to lose. We watched a lot of different films to help prepare, but the one that really spoke to me was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with Clint Eastwood, because he says almost nothing but somehow manages to portray a whole character.

100. Tim Riggins
It’s hard not to envy Tim Riggins, the not-so-elegantly wasted Dillon Panthers football star on NBC’s Friday Night Lights. ”I live vicariously through the cat,” admits actor Taylor Kitsch. ”He gets the gal, he gets the winning touchdown, he does what he wants. He just reacts on instincts, which aren’t the best ones at times. [But] a lot of people are scared to take a risk, and Riggs just does it. I think that’s commendable. Most of the time.”

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Hugh Laurie and Lisa Edelstein star in the hit medical mystery series
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