Any old actor can play a hero. Since the audience is on your side right from the start, all you need to do is show up, kick a little ass, maybe crack a one-liner or two, and ride off into the sunset. But being a great bad guy is a lot harder. They have to make us hate him, but at the same time enjoy hating him.
Here's our rundown of some of the actors who have the skills to play the jerks, thugs, a**holes, bullies, and punks in some of the best loved movies of all time.
Source: Columbia Pictures
10. William Zabka
If you were making a teen movie in the 1980s and you needed a bully to terrorize the main character, there was only number you needed to look up on your Rolodex - William Zabka's. Tall, blonde, handsome, and sporting the kind of arrogant smirk that could make even Shaq jealous, William Zabka was the king of the bullies. In classic flicks like The Karate Kid, Back To School, and Just One Of The Guys, Zabka had an almost preternatural gift for playing incredible pricks. Whether he was pouring a milkshake on the head of the nerdy hero, treating his sensitive cheerleader girlfriend like garbage, or sweeping the leg for Cobra Kai, Zabka was a bully's bully - willing to do anything to humiliate the main character.
In Rodney Dangerfield's Back To School, Zabka's character is even willing to throw a diving competition just to screw with Dangerfield's geeky son. This commitment to pure jerkiness made Zabka great, but it also typecast him. He still continues to work in Hollywood, but mostly in minor roles and direct-to-DVD junk. William Zabka's heyday may have passed, but for a few short years in the '80s he was the undisputed master of the art of playing a total douchebag.
But Zabka's a good sport about it. In No More King's video for their single "Sweep The Leg," Zabka celebrates his mastery of '80s villainy:
9. William Atherton
Source: Columbia Pictures
American actor William Atherton has played a lot of tools in his long Hollywood career. From the selfish professor who exploits Val Kilmer and that other dude in Real Genius to the preening reporter Dick Thornburg in Die Hard and countless other film and television appearances besides, Atherton can really ooze smarm. Most people, however, know him from his most famous smarmy character, the jerk role that first aroused the public's scorn- EPA Agent Walter Peck in Ghostbusters. Yes, William Atherton had the grave misfortune to be the stuck-up, pushy bureaucrat that tries to take on Bill Murray and the Crew.
First of all, anybody going up against Bill Murray in any flick is going to suffer. It doesn't matter how well trimmed your beard is or how tight your three-piece suit is, when you're going up against The Crown Prince of wiseguy slackers, you're going down. Hard. In the film's finale, Peck gets buried under a ton of molten marshmallow. It's a great sight gag, and Atherton suffered for it. He actually had to have 200 pounds of shaving cream dumped on him for the shot. The guy is such a professional, that he wouldn't even use a stunt jerk. Now that's how a pro plays an prick.
8. Charles Dance
Source: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
There's something about a British accent that makes it perfect for villains. The most evil sentences in the world just sound more evil when they're delivered in an snooty, upperclass English accent. Maybe it's the hint of arrogance, maybe it's the perfect enunciation, or maybe it's our natural American hatred of anyone who thinks they're better than us. Whatever it is, seeing a sophisticated British man on screen just makes you want to see them get punched. Put a beard on that sophisticated British guy and forget it. Even your grandma will want to kick his teeth in then. That's why Hollywood loves its sophisticated, bearded, British villains. And nobody in the world does sophisticated, bearded, British villain quite like Charles Dance. He played the sophisticated, bearded, British villain who tried to rule the world in Eddie Murphy's The Golden Child, the totally different sophisticated, bearded, British villain who tried to kill Schwarzenegger in The Last Action Hero, and a yet another sophisticated, bearded, British villain who only tries to take over Britain in Ali G: In Da House.
Dance doesn't only play sophisticated, bearded, British villains. In his long career he's played all manner of sophisticated British characters...some of whom only had moustaches or no facial hair at all.
7. Clancy Brown
Source: Columbia Pictures
Not all great villains have to be sherry-swilling Noel Coward fans. We grow some pretty sweet bad guys on this side of the Atlantic, too. Case in point, Clancy Brown. Most well known as the sadistic prison guard who only stops tormenting Tim Robbins long enough to make him do his taxes in The Shawshank Redemption, Clancy Brown is really good at playing characters who bring the hurt to the hero, American-style. They're big, mean, and seem to get an almost religious satisfaction from being sadistic motherf***ers. Besides playing the sadistic guard captain in The Shawshank Redemption, Clancy also played the sadistic drill sergeant in Starship Troopers, and in his breakthrough role, the sadistic immortal warrior The Kurgan in Highlander. With his imposing 6'2'' frame, Brown makes a perfect movie bad guy. But even more than that, his deep, resonant voice and piercing stare are creepy as hell. Brown sounds so malevolent that for the last several years he's voiced one the ultimate bad guys, Lex Luthor, for Superman and other DC Comics cartoons. You know a guy plays a good villain when all he needs is his voice to be evil.
6. Mark Metcalf
Source: Universal Pictures
Playing a great jerk is an amazing skill, but it can also be a mixed blessing. Sure, you can always find work, but the better you do it, the more likely it is that that's all you be asked to do. Typecasting is the bane of any famous actor, but it hits the guys who play bad guys hardest. Most of the other actors on this list have faced this problem to a certain degree, but none perhaps as much as Mark Metcalf.
Stuck with the thankless job of playing the nemesis of the lovable slobs in Animal House, Metcalf rose to the occasion. Playing the hated leader of the ROTC Doug Neidermeyer, Metcalf imbued the character with such pure prickishness that it was almost impossible to see him as anything else. Some of the biggest laughs in the movie involve his character being horribly injured and humiliated. He did such a good job that he probably killed his chance of ever being a romantic leading man. Metcalf parodied the character in a couple of Twisted Sister videos, proving he had a sense of humor about his uncanny ability to convey evil and sanctimonious bulls***. Metcalf is still working in Hollywood and is by all accounts a great guy. But we prefer to remember him like this:
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5. John Vernon
Source: Universal Pictures
Doug Neidermeyer wasn't the only jerk-off played by a pro in Animal House. John Vernon also turned in a tour de force performance as Dean Vernon Wormer--the Crusty Dean to end all Crusty Deans. Although he first came to widespread attention in Animal House, Vernon was already a veteran actor when he was cast as Wormer. In his native Canada he was even a star, playing a hard-nosed Medical Examiner who solved crime years before Quincy ever hung out his shingle. But it was in Animal House that he found his true talent:
With his sharp features, clipped speaking style, and rage-filled eyes, Vernon dripped with frustration and anger as the Dean of Faber College. As the members of Animal House break every code of conduct and decency imaginable, Dean Wormer tries and fails repeatedly to have them expelled. John Vernon was so good at playing an impotent authority figure in the movie that he went on to play crusty killjoys in Herbie Goes Bananas, Ernest Goes To Camp, and once he got tired of bossing around imbeciles, the '80s sexploitation women-in-prison classic Chained Heat.
4. Louise Fletcher
Source: United Artists
To be a good evil character, you got to have creepy eyes. Sure, being built like a brick s***house, or having a vaguely Middle Eastern accent doesn't hurt, but the best bad guys are the ones who freak you out just by looking at you. And boy, does Louise Fletcher have some creepy eyes. Large, piercing, and icy blue, Fletcher has the kind of eyes that look permanently disappointed. That, along with her pissed off mom voice, makes her perfect for playing ball busters, hysterics, and all kinds of evil characters.
Louise Fletcher played a severe, tightly wound nurse in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (for which she won an Oscar), a severe, tightly wound grandmother in Flowers In The Attic, and a severe, tightly wound religious leader in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. She had severe and tightly wound down pat, but one of Fletcher's greatest strengths is how she uses her voice. Dripping with false kindness and passive aggressive concern, Fletcher's plays her characters with such conviction that you almost understand when they murder children, lobotomize difficult patients, or even try to destroy the universe. If an actor can make you sympathize with a monster, they've got some serious chops.
3. Anthony Heald
Source: Orion Pictures
It takes a special kind of actor to make audiences cheer for a sadistic mass murdering cannibal. At the end of Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal Lecter, free after years of captivity, is preparing to eat his former jailer, Dr. Chilton. Played for laughs, the scene is only going to work if the guy playing Dr. Chilton has made him a world class smarmy jerk. And in Silence Of The Lambs, Anthony Heald plays one hell of a world class smarmy jerk. In tons of TV shows and movies, Heald has specialized in playing preening officious blowhards who are only interested in listening to the sounds of their own self-aggrandizing voices. With his impeccable wardrobe and s***-eating grin, Heald has a face you just can't help but despise. Add to that his cultured, I'm-so-much-better-than-you voice, and you've got an actor custom made for playing characters that the audience can't wait to see eaten alive by murderous psychopaths.
2. Michael Ironside
Source: Republic Pictures
With his supremely grizzled face and manic eyes, Michael Ironside looks like Jack Nicholson if he had spent twenty years in a Thai prison for running guns and heroin. He's got all of the menace and manic energy that makes Nicholson dangerous, but none of the playfulness that makes Nicholson a leading man. And lucky for us, because Michael Ironside plays a terrific bastard.
The classic tough guy, Ironside played the villain or lead henchman in tons of movies like Scanners, Total Recall, Highlander 2, and a bunch of others. More than almost any other Hollywood bad guy, Ironside actually looks like he'd enjoy wasting punks, terrorizing innocent civilians, and generally adding to the general level of misery in the world. A big fan of the genre, Ironside has appeared in lots of sci-fi flicks, spreading pain throughout the universe and creating a loyal fanbase of people who really like watching him beat the snot out of people. He doesn't always play killers, though. But even when he does play a nice guy, it's a nice guy who's not afraid to kick a little ass if that's what it takes. With a name like Ironside, what else is he going to do?
1. Michael Emerson
One of the most underrated kinds of bad guy is the seemingly weak, nerdy guy who looks like he'd rather organize his stamp collection than terrorize a sexy doctor or hatch a masterplan for world domination. They slide under the radar just long enough to completely surprise the hero when they grab him by the balls and start to do serious damage. Actors who plays these kinds of characters have to pull off a pretty tough balancing act. Sometimes, they have to appear to meeker than an asthmatic library assistant, while others, they have to be threatening enough to lay waste to a Hollywood action hero.
In the last few years. Michael Emerson has made a name for himself (and bagged a few Emmys) playing these types of guys. Whether it's the serial killer William Hinks on The Practice, or as the master manipulator Ben Linus on Lost, Emerson excels at playing deeply wounded bad guys who hide their evil under a thin veneer of respectable geekiness.