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14 Times Actors Became A Really Big Deal After Playing An Iconic Villain

Updated April 23, 2021 14.7k votes 2.1k voters 223.4k views14 items

List RulesVote up the best career-changing villain roles.

There are many different ways to break into the big time as an actor - and one of them is to play an unforgettable villain. Sure, it may lead to typecasting, and sometimes, a particularly potent bad guy performance is as likely to nix a career as kickstart one, but there are plenty of actors who have begun their careers - or given them a much-needed boost - by playing an iconic villain in movies or TV.

Some of these great villain roles launched an actor's career, or became permanently associated with that actor, or otherwise changed their career in some irreversible way. Some actors parlayed villain roles into, well, more villain roles in big-budget movies, while others went on to play leads, or converted the buzz they generated into more substantial parts that earned them critical renown. Other actors found themselves transformed from "legitimate" thespians who "trod the boards" into genuine movie stars who headlined big-budget blockbusters, while still others made the leap from TV to movies (or vice versa) or made a splash in international markets.

While each one is different, all of these actors found their careers drastically altered after playing a villain that we know and love - or love to hate - today. Remember to vote up your favorites.

  • The prime example of an actor whose career can be traced to a single, iconic role - at least for English-speaking audiences - the Austrian-born Christoph Waltz was already a prolific actor on German TV when he was catapulted to international stardom following his turn as the affable yet nefarious Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds in 2009. The performance netted him an Academy Award - a trick he followed up just a few years later with another, this time for his turn as a good guy bounty hunter in Tarantino's next film, Django Unchained.

    Waltz has since worked extensively in Hollywood, appearing in The Green HornetThe Three MusketeersBig EyesThe Legend of Tarzan, and Alita: Battle Angel, among others. In 2015, he played the role of James Bond's nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld - a part previously essayed by the likes of Donald Pleasence, Telly Savalas, Charles Gray, and Max von Sydow, among others - in Spectre, later reprising the role in No Time to Die.

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  • A longtime character actor, Giancarlo Esposito had already appeared in dozens of movie and TV roles - including frequent collaborations with Spike Lee  - before his iconic turn as Gustavo "Gus" Fring in the hit series Breaking Bad and its prequel follow-up, Better Call Saul, a role that nabbed Esposito several Emmy nominations as well as a place on Rolling Stone's list of the Greatest TV Villains of All Time.

    Esposito has since become synonymous with Fring, the bad guy so meticulous and Machiavellian that he infamously straightens his own tie even at the moment of his death. The role catapulted him to new fame that has seen him play recurring roles in TV series like CommunityThe Get DownOnce Upon a Time, and Disney's The Mandalorian, not to mention major parts in big-budget films, from the Maze Runner franchise to the recent live-action The Jungle Book and beyond.

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  • He was the villainous Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian and the voice of Mufasa in The Lion King; he was in Dr. Strangelove and Roots: The Next Generations. But for James Earl Jones's most famous role, we never see his face. Long before he voiced Simba's father, just about everyone in the world already knew Jones's unmistakable voice as Darth Vader, beginning with the first Star Wars film all the way back in 1977.

    In fact, Jones was originally uncredited - by his own request - on the first two Star Wars entries, in spite of the fact that his voice work might be one of the most iconic parts of one of the most iconic movie franchises ever. "When Linda Blair did the girl in The Exorcist," Jones told Newsday, "they hired Mercedes McCambridge to do the voice of the devil coming out of her. And there was controversy as to whether Mercedes should get credit. I was one who thought no, she was just special effects. So when it came to Darth Vader, I said, no I'm just special effects."

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  • Standing nearly six-and-a-half feet tall, with an unmistakable voice and a cultivated personality that could slip into savagery at a moment's notice, Christopher Lee already had an established career as a performer before his first work with Britain's Hammer Films. He initially played the silent monster in 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein - also the first of more than 20 films he would make alongside his friend Peter Cushing - but it was 1958's Horror of Dracula that cemented Lee in the role for which he is best remembered.

    "Lee's Dracula is a force of nature," Empire magazine writes in their entry for the character, which they rank as the 7th greatest in horror movie history, "red-eyed, blood dripping from fangs, often in the grip of rage. He's hypnotic, physically powerful, well-spoken, but Lee also understood - crucially - that an important layer from Bram Stoker's novel had been missing from Lugosi's performance: sexuality."

    Since his (many) turns as the Count, Lee has also played countless other unforgettable characters, including starring in innumerable other Hammer features, as well as playing the villainous Francisco Scaramanga in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, and Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels - not to mention playing Lord Summerisle in the original The Wicker Man, which Lee considered the best film he ever made.

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