The Role of a Lifetime

Some actors fall victim to typecasting, but others have a single character they can’t disassociate themselves from.  Sometimes that means always being cast as a character similar to the one they made famous or that made them famous, or not really being cast at all.

A boy’s best friend is his mother. Anthony Perkins had established himself as a respected actor of stage and screen with skillful portrayals noted for their sensitivity and genuineness. But no one wants to play the sensitive guy forever. Perkins took the role as Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho to show audiences and directors alike that he was good at being bad too. Unfortunately for Perkins, he did his job so well that became known for Norman Bates and seemingly Norman Bates alone.

There are worse roles one can be remembered for than the Man of Steel, but once you’ve worn the cape and the big red S, it’s hard to get people to see you without it. In Christopher Reeve’s case, much of the problem stemmed from being a virtual unknown when he scored the break of a lifetime. Despite great acting (see: “Remains of the Day), nothing could supplant Superman in people’s minds.

Even before the new sequels brought his character back, Luke Skywalker was an ever-present part of Mark Hamill’s life. Unlike a lot of thespians on our list, Hamill regards the role fondly, saying that even if he weren’t recognized by millions as Luke Skywalker, he would still be “the hugest fan” of the epic film franchise, maybe even doing cosplay.

No one could have imagined how big of a cult sensation “The Evil Dead” would become when it was made by a group of friends on a shoestring budget in 1981. While it served as a springboard for director Sam Raimi, late of the first Spiderman reboot, the film’s star, Bruce Campbell, was not as lucky. Campbell spent a lifetime trying to distance himself from the iconic role – so much so that he’s been known to sign autographs as Bruce “Don’t Call Me Ash” Campbell.

Playing a nerd is easy. Escaping that nerd is not. Don’t believe me, ask Jaleel White, aka Urkel. His lot is shared by Jon Heder, forever known to most as Napoleon Dynamite, star of the ‘little indie film that could.’ Heder wisely leveraged his 15 minutes of fame by booking as many gigs as possible over the next few years, including some high-profile films with Reese Witherspoon and Will Ferrell. Even with divergently different looks, it was nearly impossible for audiences not to see Napoleon.

The less said about Macauly Caulkin, the better. Jake Lloyd, who played Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels didn’t have the chance to see if he would be cast again. He was put on a tortuously busy press circuit, allegedly doing sixty interviews in a single day, but that was nothing compared to the scornful hatred heaped on him by fans. Jack Gleeson, best known as Joffrey on Game of Thrones, saw the same path laid out for him. Joffrey epitomizes the villain you love to hate. After the first episode aired, author George R. R. Martin sent him a text saying, “Congratulations on your marvelous performance, everyone hates you.” Fans literally cheered when he finally died. Gleeson walked away from acting altogether.

Alfonso Ribeiro says he has been overshadowed by his 90’s alter-ego Carlton Banks. “I would like to try some stuff that is different from how the world sees me … But I doubt someone would automatically think of me when they go, ‘We need to cast a killer, let’s get the dude who played Carlton.'”

Though it premiered in 1966 and only ran for three years, Star Trek launched a franchise that left an indelible mark on popular culture, including the first widely-used nickname for a fan base. What it didn’t do was provide a lot of options for the cast afterwards. But as they say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. William Shatner had the most successful career overall not from trying to outrun Captain Kirk, but by embracing the kitsch. Though having been a focal character in the ensemble cast didn’t hurt. His analog in The Next Generation, Sir Patrick Stewart faced the same love-hate relationship with his captain character.

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