14 Actors Whose Great Careers Were Overshadowed By One Huge Mainstream Role

List Rules
Vote up the actors who should be remembered for more than just that one super famous role.

It's a basic tenet of performing that you do so for the enjoyment of an audience. Performing alone accomplishes nothing. Actors, especially in film, want their work to be seen by as wide a swath of the population as possible. That isn't the only motivator, of course, although it is a fairly important one. For that reason, actors love getting a major role in a great, big, high-profile blockbuster franchise. It guarantees their work will be widely noticed and, in many cases, it gives them the clout to go make a smaller, more personal project.

The downside is having a huge mainstream role can overshadow everything else they do. You see this a lot in television. Can you ever see Henry Winkler without thinking of Fonzie? Or Jason Alexander without picturing George Costanza? The phenomenon occurs in movies, too. Actors who have long, illustrious careers often find those careers defined by the one franchise role they played. That happened to each of the following actors. And while they're all excellent in their respective blockbusters, their overall bodies of work offer innumerable treasures worthy of recognition.

Which of these actors who are well-known for a single mainstream role had the greatest career overall? Vote up your picks.


  • Willem Dafoe (Green Goblin, 'Spider-Man' Franchise)
    Photo: The Florida Project / A24

    It makes a weird kind of sense so many great actors find themselves heavily connected to comic book movie roles they play. After all, they're matching their personas to well-established characters from another medium. When that combination hits the bullseye, it makes an indelible impression on audiences. Willem Dafoe saw this firsthand. His uniquely intense on-screen manner made him an outstanding choice to portray the Green Goblin in the Spider-Man franchise. Although widely said to be a nice guy in real life, Dafoe's growling voice combines with his ability to manipulate his facial features in menacing ways to make him a viable threat to Spidey. 

    The actor's penchant for playing bad guys emerged at the start of his career, with darkly fascinating performances in Walter Hill's vastly underrated musical Streets of Fire and William Friedkin's tense crime drama To Live and Die in L.A. At the same time, villainous roles are only the beginning of what he can do. Dafoe played no less a figure than Jesus in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, and earned one of his four Oscar nominations playing a motel manager who looks out for the roving children living in his building in The Florida Project. Roles in movies as diverse as Oliver Stone's Platoon, Lars von Trier's shocking Antichrist, and Pixar's Finding Nemo show what a magnificent range he has beyond the Green Goblin. 

    • Age: 67
    • Birthplace: Appleton, Grand Chute, Wisconsin, United States of America
  • Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury, Marvel Cinematic Universe)
    Photo: Jackie Brown / Miramax Films

    Samuel L. Jackson was perfectly cast as Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The character is a tough, no-nonsense guy, and Jackson specializes in projecting those qualities on screen. The fact he's appeared in so many MCU adventures has understandably made Fury his signature role. That's no small feat, considering the actor played Jules in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, which is considered by many to be one of the greatest, most influential films ever made. 

    By all appearances, Jackson loves being so strongly associated with the MCU. His career as a whole is as artistically impressive as the Marvel pictures have been financially impressive. Aside from Pulp Fiction, he's worked with other A-list directors on important works. Among them are Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever; Steven Spielberg in Jurassic Park; and Paul Thomas Anderson in Hard Eight. His work with Tarantino, which additionally includes Jackie Brown and Django Unchained, is always first-rate. Jackson is also a veteran of multiple franchises. He plays Mace Windu in the Star Wars prequels and Frozone in Pixar's Incredibles movies. The cultural dominance of the MCU has guaranteed Jackson and Nick Fury are inseparable in the public's mind, but that character is just one of many iconic roles the actor has embodied over his decades-long career. 

    • Age: 74
    • Birthplace: Washington, D.C., United States of America
  • James Earl Jones (Darth Vader, 'Star Wars' Franchise)
    Photo: The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings / Universal Pictures

    James Earl Jones doesn't even physically appear in the Star Wars movies, and yet he delivers what is arguably the definitive performance of the entire franchise. The veteran actor provides the voice of Darth Vader, and the casting could not have been more spot on. Jones's naturally gravelly tone feels 100% right coming out of the black helmet-wearing figure. He is, in large part, what makes the series work. If the primary villain weren't absolutely terrifying, the drama would have fallen apart. And since Vader frightened entire generations of children, you don't have to think hard to understand why it's impossible to see (or hear) Jones without thinking of Star Wars.

    His career is way more extensive than one blockbuster franchise, though. Jones's first big-screen role came in Stanley Kubrick's classic comedy Dr. Strangelove. A few years later, he broke out further, earning an Oscar nomination for the boxing drama The Great White Hope. During a period of cinematic history where relatively few Black stars were featured, he broke barriers in films like The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings and Claudine that were aimed at African American audiences. In the '80s, he was instrumental in making the comedy Coming to America and the baseball fantasy Field of Dreams smash hits. And in the '90s, he voiced Mufasa in The Lion King, once again demonstrating his vocal prowess. Jones can work in any genre and has proven himself as one of those performers who is reliably good in whatever he does. He is a true legend. 

    • Age: 92
    • Birthplace: Arkabutla, Mississippi, USA
  • Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth, 'Dark Knight' Franchise)
    Photo: The Muppet Christmas Carol / Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

    Michael Caine has had a very long career, with most of his finest films coming during the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Younger audiences may not be familiar with his work from those eras, so they most closely associate him with the character of Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne's trusted butler, in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight franchise. Nolan certainly knew what he was doing by casting Caine in the role. He has the kind of rock-steady on-screen presence needed to convey how devoted Alfred is to Bruce. Caine also grounds all the over-the-top action and superhero mayhem the stories contain, ensuring a human element.

    Look at the entire scope of his career and you realize just how esteemed he is. Caine is a six-time Oscar nominee, winning twice for The Cider House Rules and Hannah and Her Sisters. The list of celebrated movies in which he's appeared is impressive. Among them are Alfie, Get Carter, Dressed to Kill, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and Children of Men. Those titles give you an idea of how varied his work has been. He has worked in just about every genre imaginable. Even when he makes a total dud like Jaws: The Revenge, Caine rises above the weak material. He may be Alfred to the young crowd, but to older audiences, he's a consummate performer with a long string of fantastic performances. 

    • Age: 89
    • Birthplace: Rotherhithe, London, England, UK
  • Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort, 'Harry Potter' Franchise)
    Photo: Schindler's List / Universal Pictures

    It's no surprise the producers of the Harry Potter franchise hired Ralph Fiennes to play the evil Voldemort in their adaptation of the beloved fantasy book series. After all, the actor's breakthrough role was playing Amon Goeth, the infamously evil SS lieutenant in Schindler's List. He knows how to bring depth to a villain while still making them terrifying. Buried under makeup that makes his face look disfigured and reptilian, Fiennes is, in many ways, the center of the Harry Potter cinematic universe. The malice he infuses Voldemort with looms over the whole franchise, even when he's not on screen. Given the overwhelming popularity of the series - and the number of installments it generated - it's no surprise Fiennes is so associated with the character. 

    Playing baddies is far from the only thing he can do, though. Fiennes is an extraordinarily accomplished actor who works on high-end fare like The English Patient, Quiz Show, and The Constant Gardener, but also routinely makes mainstream Hollywood pictures, including the Kingsman series, Maid in Manhattan, and No Time to Die. Even more impressive is he's worked across genres, making comedies, dramas, romances, and action flicks. He even has a sci-fi adventure, Strange Days, on his resume. You can't think of Fiennes without thinking of Voldemort, but he's got a slate of performances just as compelling as that one. 

    • Age: 60
    • Birthplace: East of England, Suffolk, Eurasia, Ipswich, United Kingdom
  • Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn, 'Lord of the Rings' Franchise)
    Photo: Eastern Promises / Focus Features

    For years, Viggo Mortensen was a character actor who disappeared into so many different types of roles it was easy to either not recognize him or not believe he was “the same guy from that other movie.” The horror film Prison could not be more different from the crime drama Carlito's Way, and that could not be more different from the period drama The Portrait of a Lady. One thing you could always count on, though, was Mortensen would deliver excellence. His work as a Russian mobster's “cleaner” in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises made excellent use of his on-screen intensity, as well as his ability to master accents. A History of Violence, G.I. Jane, A Walk on the Moon, and Oscar-nominated turns in Captain Fantastic and Green Book are a few of his other career highlights.

    Despite that distinguished body of work, Mortensen will forever be Aragorn in many people's minds. As one of the big heroes in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings franchise, the actor was suddenly in front of way more viewers than normal, given how he essentially had smaller films, not blockbusters, on his resume. It's a solid performance, too, as he invests Aragorn with a sense of bravery that helps drive the saga. The Fellowship faces a lot of danger on their mission, but with Aragorn on their side, nothing will stop them. The role represents another in a string of memorable Mortensen characterizations.

    • Age: 64
    • Birthplace: Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States of America