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

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Vote 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: Dec. at 69 (1946-2016)
    • Birthplace: Hammersmith, London, United Kingdom
    2,996 votes
  • 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: 41
    • Birthplace: Westminster, London, United Kingdom
    2,975 votes
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger - The Terminator
    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: 75
    • Birthplace: Thal, Austria
    2,184 votes
  • 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: 85
    • Birthplace: Margam, United Kingdom
    2,320 votes
  • 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.

    • Age: 66
    • Birthplace: Vienna, Austria
    1,872 votes
  • 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."

    • Age: 92
    • Birthplace: Arkabutla, Mississippi, USA
    1,822 votes