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Actors You Didn't Realize Played The Same Character

November 11, 2020 1.3k votes 266 voters 79.2k views15 items

List RulesVote up the coolest examples of two actors playing the same person.

Studying actors who played the same role offers the opportunity to see how approaches vary, and to compare very different takes on the same character. You can study what the individual stars bring, or how they find their own angles to come at the part. In some cases, one actor might do something brilliant, while the other is weak. Other times, you get lucky and see two really unique, effective takes. 

The reasons for the "same character different actor" phenomenon are varied. It can be because the same source material was adapted for the screen more than once. Another reason is that occasionally actors play a real person in separate films. A few cases on this list are even kind of bizarre coincidences. In almost every instance, though, one of the performances is better-known than the other. 

Whatever the reason, we suspect you either don't know or don't remember that these famous folks played the same character onscreen. Vote up the connections you think are coolest.

  • 5

    Ray Liotta And Steve Martin ('Goodfellas' / 'My Blue Heaven')

    Released in September 1990, Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas is considered to be the definitive gangster movie, equaled only by Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. Ray Liotta plays Henry Hill, a guy who grows up idolizing the mob and eventually works his way up the ranks. After getting inextricably entangled in all manner of crimes, Hill turns into an FBI informant, ratting out his cohorts and going into the witness protection program. Goodfellas is based on Wiseguy, author Nicholas Pileggi's biography of Hill. 

    One month before that picture's release, in August 1990, another movie based on Wiseguy hit theaters, and it could not have been more different in tone. My Blue Heaven is a goofy comedy that stars Steve Martin as Vincent "Vinnie" Antonelli, a former mobster who enters the witness protection program after - you guessed it - ratting out his cohorts. Whereas Liotta's character is a dangerous, substance-addicted guy, Martin's is a mischievous troublemaker.

    How did we end up with two radically different versions of Hill's tale? The answer is simple. My Blue Heaven was written by Nora Ephron, the late comedy writer who just happened to be married to Pileggi.

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  • 6

    Aaron Eckhart And Billy Dee Williams ('The Dark Knight' / 'Batman')

    Harvey Dent is a significant character in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. He's a hotshot, morality-driven district attorney determined to rid Gotham of its crooks. Dent is targeted by Heath Ledger's Joker, who believes he can get Dent to fail morally, thereby creating resentment and distrust among the city's residents. That, in turn, will give him something to exploit. By the movie's end, his plan works, as Dent is facially disfigured and well on his way to becoming the notorious Batman villain Two-Face.

    You may have forgotten that Harvey Dent appeared on movie screens long before Eckhart embodied him. Everyone remembers Tommy Lee Jones's turn as the villain in Batman Forever, because he was in full-on Two-Face mode. Less memorable is that Billy Dee Williams played him in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman. That is not Williams's fault; he does a fine job. The issue is that Dent is a minor part of the story, and he hasn't morphed into his bad guy form yet. Making an impression amid iconic performances from Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson was difficult, to say the least.

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  • 7

    Robert De Niro And Donald Sutherland ('Goodfellas' / 'The Big Heist')

    The case of Goodfellas and The Big Heist marks one of those occasions in which a real person factored into two very different films. Robert De Niro plays Jimmy Conway in the 1990 Martin Scorsese classic. He's a gangster who, at one point in the story, organizes a heist of the Lufthansa vault inside JFK Airport. They make off with millions in cash and jewelry. Even though De Niro had played mobsters before, there is something particularly scary about him here.

    Although the name was changed for the movie, Jimmy Conway was based on Jimmy Burke, a mobster with ties to the Lucchese crime family. The Lufthansa raid was only one part of Goodfellas, but was the primary subject of The Big Heist, a 2001 made-for-TV movie in which another veteran actor, Donald Sutherland, plays Jimmy Burke. His take on the role is much different than De Niro's, although wholly appropriate for the film, which is generally more lighthearted than Scorsese's dark and brutal picture.

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  • 8

    Samuel L. Jackson And Mos Def ('Jackie Brown' / 'Life of Crime')

    Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown is based on Elmore Leonard's crime novel Rum Punch. Samuel L. Jackson plays Ordell Robbie, a gun runner and all-around sleazy guy. He gets the title character, played by Pam Grier, into a pinch when she's nabbed by the ATF while smuggling cash for him. Any time Jackson and Tarantino work together, it yields gold, and Jackie Brown provided the actor with one of his signature roles. He was required to go "big," and he delivered.

    Sixteen years later, actor/rapper Yasiin Bey (better known as Mos Def) played Ordell Robbie in Life of Crime. This movie is an adaptation of another Leonard book, The Switch, that takes place before Rum Punch but features characters who would reappear in that later novel. Bey received good reviews for his work. Andrew O'Hehir of Salon wrote that he "draws your attention whenever he’s on-screen, and also captures Ordell with considerable subtlety, as a guy who’s both irresistible and untrustworthy." Nevertheless, few people saw his performance, as Life of Crime fizzled at the box office, earning just $1.1 million domestically.

    Incidentally, in Life of Crime, John Hawkes plays Louis Gara, the character Robert De Niro portrayed in Jackie Brown, while Isla Fisher takes over for Bridget Fonda in the role of surfer chick Melanie.

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