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

Updated April 23, 2021 13.8k votes 2.0k voters 208.1k 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.

  • When your first role in a feature film is the unforgettable bad guy in Die Hard, you're probably on your way to a career playing a whole lot of villains. Such was certainly the case for Alan Rickman, who would go on to play the likes of the Sheriff of Nottingham, Severus Snape, and Judge Turpin in Tim Burton's cinematic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.

    But Rickman, who was already in his 40s by the time he took Nakatomi Plaza hostage, had already enjoyed a distinguished career on stage before ever breaking into pictures. As part of the Royal Shakespeare Company, he played the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, for which he was nominated for a Tony. Unfortunately, Rickman passed in 2016 at the age of 69, shortly after finishing the Harry Potter film series.

    • Age: 75
    • Birthplace: Hammersmith, London, United Kingdom
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  • Hopkins was already a respected British actor of stage and screen before his turn as the diabolically brilliant Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, the role that won him his only Academy Award. In fact, he had played future king Richard the Lionheart in Anthony Harvey's adaptation of The Lion in Winter as far back as 1968, performing opposite Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole.

    But it was Lecter's sibilant hiss that planted Hopkins in the forefront of mainstream consciousness. While he continued to appear in plenty of more roles - Howard's EndThe Remains of the DayNixon, and others - he also began showing up in major parts in more mainstream action and genre fare, including recently playing Odin in Marvel's Thor movies.

    • Age: 83
    • Birthplace: Margam, United Kingdom
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  • Prior to playing the villainous Loki in Marvel's Thor, Tom Hiddleston had primarily been in British TV series and plays. It was director Kenneth Branagh who encouraged Hiddleston to audition for the part, having worked with him before on stage in Chekhov's Ivanov and on screen in the BBC series Wallander. "It was massive and it's completely changed the course of what is available to me to do," Hiddleston said of playing Marvel's most popular recurring villain.

    Since then, Hiddleston has played Loki several more times, not to mention appearing in numerous other major movies and television series, from appearing as Henry V in The Hollow Crown to leading roles in Kong: Skull Island and Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak, to name just a few.

    • Age: 40
    • Birthplace: Westminster, London, United Kingdom
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  • Photo: The Terminator / Orion Pictures

    Sure, bodybuilder-turned-actor (later turned governor of California) Arnold Schwarzenegger had already broken into the major Hollywood scene with the lead role in 1982's hit Conan the Barbarian, but his image changed forever when he played the eponymous cyborg in James Cameron's 1984 sci-fi/horror classic, The Terminator. Originally, Mike Medavoy, then the president of Orion Pictures, had pitched Schwarzenegger to Cameron as the film's good guy lead, Kyle Reese. But when Cameron sat down with Schwarzenegger, he was impressed by the former Mr. Universe's thoughts on how the Terminator should be portrayed, and ultimately ended up offering Schwarzenegger the part of the cyborg from the future.

    Though he had some reservations about playing the film's villain, Schwarzenegger ultimately took the part. While he might well have continued as a Hollywood star even without Terminator, it's impossible to imagine his role as the unstoppable killing machine didn't affect his image as the gun-toting tough guy in a decade's worth of movies like Commando, Predator, and Total Recall.

    • Age: 73
    • Birthplace: Thal, Austria
    • Alternative Name: Arnold Strong
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