16 '80s Heartthrobs Who Went Dark For A Role - And Nailed It

List Rules
Vote up the best, darkest performances from the most popular actors of the '80s.

The popular culture of the 1980s was defined by emerging youth trends of all kinds. Everything from MTV and wild fashion to video games and skateboarding would go on to lionize the decade in the years that followed. This included all kinds of teen-oriented magazines that fueled celebrity interest years before the internet was in the palm of everyone's hand. SeventeenTeen BeatBop, and Tiger Beat were among just a few of the teen mags that turned Hollywood celebs into heartthrobs overnight. But what happened when those '80s icons turned around later in life to go dark for a performance?

It's always a bit jarring at first, but seeing an actor really go for it can alter your assumptions about their acting talent in the first place. Yeah, that is Risky Business and Cocktail's Tom Cruise as a hitman in Collateral. Yeah, that is Han Solo/Indiana Jones as a murderer in What Lies Beneath. And, yeah, that is the lovable Westley from The Princess Bride as a serial killer in Kiss the Girls.

  • 1
    171 VOTES

    Cary Elwes - 'Kiss the Girls'

    Come on. Anyone in their right mind who has seen 1987's The Princess Bride can see why Cary Elwes was a 1980s heartthrob. This Rob Reiner-directed classic lives on to this very day thanks to an airtight screenplay and near-flawless casting, and that includes Elwes as the honorable, devoted Westley. There isn't a single boy who didn't want to be Westley, and there isn't a single girl who didn't envy Buttercup for ending up with him. With piercing blue eyes and perfect, wafting hair, Elwes wormed his way into the hearts of people across the globe in The Princess Bride.

    Looking at his career directly following the role that made him an idol, it appears Elwes was directly trying to break free of being typecast. He played cartoonish villains in Days of Thunder and The Jungle Book and showed up in satirical farces Hot Shots! and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. 1997's Kiss the Girls showed how far he was willing to go to shed his heartthrob persona. Elwes was alarmingly convincing in his role as Detective Nick Ruskin, who turned out to be the serial killer driving the plot in the twist ending. The man goes from charming to menacing in the snap of a finger, and it's downright delectable. 

  • As far as childhood stardom goes, it would be difficult to find a young actor that could find work as consistently as young Jason Bateman did in the 1980s. He basically spent the entire decade going from show to show in starring roles. It began with Little House on the Prairie. After that, he moved on to Silver Spoons. And, following a year-long stint on It's Your Move, Bateman would star in over a hundred episodes of The Hogan Family to round out the decade. Seriously, when did the kid have time to go to school?

    We all know what happened next as Bateman would bounce around film and television for years until Arrested Development came along and revived his career, sending the actor back to the A-list. Most people know him as the deadpan main character in various comedies, but that is selling his range short. 2015's twisty thriller The Gift is proof of Bateman's ability as an actor as he portrays the manipulative, mean-spirited Simon. No need to spoil this one as it's well worth your time if you haven't seen it.

  • A pair of blockbuster franchises turned the little-known Harrison Ford into one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood history in the blink of an eye. For a good, long while, Ford was kind of the marquee star in Tinseltown. While the 1990s saw the man continue his box office streak with The FugitivePresumed InnocentAir Force One, and the Jack Ryan films (among others) keeping him at the top of the charts, you just can't beat headlining two series like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Whether Ford was the gruff good guy or the affable good guy, he pretty much was always the good guy. Until 2000.

    The dawn of the new millennium was a different time for Hollywood at the box office. After all, a supernatural horror/thriller flick wouldn't get a budget of $100 million nowadays. And even with the then-massive star power of Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer drawing people in, that kind of movie would get nowhere near the almost $300 million it racked in worldwide if it were released in the streaming era. Although, maybe we're selling the idea of seeing Ford play a demented, murderous college professor short. This was back when Ford was, you know, actually trying, and he is quite menacing in his role as Dr. Norman Spencer. It's Han Solo! And he's secretly an adulterous murderer! 

  • When you can pair a smile like Denzel Washington's with acting talent that has seen the man earn two Academy Awards, it becomes obvious why the New York-born actor became the embodiment of "modern movie star." Although his film career would kick off in earnest in the 1990s, the Washington of the 1980s was primarily known as the hunky Dr. Philip Chandler on St. Elsewhere. It's a bit odd to think of Denzel-freaking-Washington as a prime-time television star, but for six years and over a hundred episodes, that is precisely what he was.

    After leaving television behind for film, Washington's rise was astronomical. GloryMalcolm XThe Pelican BriefPhiladelphiaCrimson TideCourage Under FireThe Bone CollectorRemember the Titans... the list of heroic protagonist roles goes on and on and on. Except, when Washington finally broke bad for 2001's Training Day, he did so in one of the most memorable performances of his career. To be frank, Detective Alonzo Harris might be the performance of Washington's storied career. Words can't do it justice. Those who know, know.

  • The 1980s were very kind to Patrick Swayze. After cutting his teeth on very small projects in the late-1970s, the actor from Houston, TX, hit the big time with 1983's The Outsiders and never looked back. Although his relative peak was probably in the early '90s with the one-two punch of Ghost and Point Break, Swayze was an unquestionable heartthrob of the Ronald Regan era. Dirty DancingRoad House, and Red Dawn (and their continued popularity over the decades) solidified him as one of Hollywood's hottest young stars.

    By the turn of the new century, Swayze's career was nowhere near the lofty heights of his breakthrough days. But that doesn't mean the man wasn't putting in good work. Whatever your feelings are about 2001's Donnie Darko, there is no doubt Swayze is giving it his all as motivational speaker Jim Cunningham. And, boy, is Cunningham something to behold. Swayze is utterly perfect as the smarmy, low-level motivational speaker. Cunningham's written works include books like Cunning Visions of Love and Attitudinal Beliefs, which should really tip you off to the kind of predatory prick the guy is. When Donnie Darko rips into him, we're all on Donnie's side. Cunningham turns out to be a pedophile who is arrested for owning child pornography. My, what dastardly secrets lay behind Swayze's perfect smile! 

  • After a few minor roles in film and television, Johnny Depp broke out in earnest with his late-'80s starring gig on 21 Jump Street. His modelesque good looks turned him into a heartthrob sensation, and Depp spent the next decade trying to get away from the teen idol status his role as Officer Tom Hanson granted him. Seriously, outside of a few movies, Depp pretty much only played outsiders and weirdos for years. Off-kilter films like Edward ScissorhandsBenny & JoonEd Wood, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas solidified him as the go-to star for bizarre roles. Even Captain Jack Sparrow is a man made up of eccentric character choices.

    Although early-2000s movies like Blow and Secret Window teeter towards the darker side of the filmmaking spectrum, Depp wouldn't go full-on psychopath until 2007's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Of course, this was a Tim Burton movie based on a Broadway musical, so it wasn't the most straightforward affair ever put to celluloid. Still, Depp gives it everything he has, and he slashes a whole bunch of throats before the credits roll. Is he the best singer in the world? Certainly not, but the movie works anyway.