Who Has Played Their Iconic Character the Most?

With all the talk of Marvel Studios recasting Wolverine, we try to answer the question, “Who Has Played Their Iconic Character the Most?” Whether it’s Tarzan, Thor, or C-3PO, the answer is trickier than you think.

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint

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Most actors dream of getting work. When those jobs become a regular thing, it’s a big win. When a role becomes something that you can comfortably revisit, then that performer has entered a completely different realm of celebrity. Quite a few actors have played iconic characters a few times, but the rarer air is saved for the ones that revisit the same role many times, sometimes across decades. With discussions raging about Marvel’s inevitable recasting of Wolverine and the identity of the next person to don the cowl of Batman, it’s a great time to answer the question, “Who Has Played Their Iconic Character the Most?” Follow the footnote to see how we set our rules and to learn more about some of the people that made dozens of appearances in the cheaper Westerns of the day.

From here on in, we’re going to break it down from a cut-off of SEVEN appearances or more. So sorry to the likes of William Powell and Myrna Loy (The Thin Man series), Ian McKellan (Gandalf), and the rest of the 6-Timers.

The Sevens:

  • Tobin Bell (Jigsaw in the Jigsaw series).
  • Vin Diesel (Dominic Toretto of the Fast and Furious franchise).
  • William Shatner (Captain Kirk, of course).
  • Patrick Stewart (Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men films; he was Captain Jean-Luc Picard in only four Star Trek films).
  • Brad Dourif (Chucky).
  • Peter Cushing (Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Studios films).
  • Sean Connery (James Bond).
  • Roger Moore (also James Bond).
  • Judi Dench (M from the Bond series).
  • Some people will try to convince you that Doug Bradley belongs here or on the Eight list for his turn as Pinhead in the Hellraiser series, but those started to go straight-to-video at about the mid-point. However, we’ll recognize five Harry Potter cast members here: Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), Mark Williams (Mr. Weasley), Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), and Alfred Enoch (Dean).

The Eights:

  • Chris Hemsworth as Thor (get used to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, readers; Hemsworth racked up his appearances in the three eponymous Thor films, the soon-to-be-four Avengers films, and his brief appearance in Doctor Strange).
  • Percy Kilbride (Pa Kettle in the series of the 1940s and ’50s films).
  • Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto in that detective series.
  • Robert Englund as Freddy Kruger (plus a TV series, and possibly another film).
  • Leonard Nimoy as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock (remember that he skipped Generations but was in the reboot and Star Trek: Into Darkness).
  • Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa (the Rocky series, plus the recent Creed films).
  • Fourteen members of the cast of the Harry Potter franchise have played their roles eight times, including Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione), Rupert Grint (Ron), Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Bonnie Wright (Ginny), James and Oliver Phelps (Fred and George), Alan Rickman (Snape), Warwick Davis (Flitwick), Devon Murray (Seamus), Josh Herdman (Goyle), and Geraldine Somerville (a bit of a technicality, but she’s Lilly Potter in some form in every film, even as a photograph or a ghost).
Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson. (Photo by Georges Biard; Wikimedia Commons)

The Nine: We’ve got one nine, but she’ll be a 10 soon (no pun intended). That’s Scarlett Johansson, who has appeared as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in nine MCU films since 2009 (including this April’s Avengers: Endgame). She will be headlining a Black Widow solo film around 2020, which will take her to 10. For the record, the films are: Iron Man 2, all four Avengers films, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok (the Hulk watches the video of her message to him), and Spider-Man: Homecoming (a bit dicier, and certainly archive footage, but she’s clearly in the phone video that Spider-Man took of the airport fight in Germany).

The Tens: This is rare air, but still a surprisingly big group.

  • Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man (three Iron Man, four Avengers, Incredible Hulk, Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming).
  • Chris Evans as Captain America (three Caps, four Avengers, Spider-Man Homecoming [love those safety videos], Thor: The Dark World [Loki in disguise, but he had to show up and put on the costume], and Ant-Man).
  • Marjorie Main as Ma Kettle (Kilbride was only in eight because he left the series and was recast).
  • Christopher Lee as Dracula in the Hammer Studios films.
  • Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury across the MCU (plus two episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on TV).
  • Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (you might be surprised by this one, but remember that he was in three solo Wolverine films in addition to the other X-Men movies. We’re also counting that archival appearance in Deadpool 2 because it’s hilarious).
Poster for "Madea Goes To Jail", starring Tyler Perrt
Madea Goes to Jail film poster. (Lionsgate)

The Elevens: Anthony Daniels has played C-3PO in 11 Star Wars films; he appears in all three films in all three trilogies (Star Wars IX is due in December), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and voices the character in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated theatrical film. He also deserves recognition for doing the character for the Star Tours ride at the Disney Parks, the universally reviled Star Wars Holiday Special, an episode of The Muppet Show, The Lego Movie, Ralph Breaks the Internet, on radio adaptations, and as a voice actor in every Star Wars animated series from 1985’s Droids to the present. In other 11 news, Bernard Lee played M in 11 James Bond installments. We’ve also got Tyler Perry, who will be playing his famous creation Madea for the 11th time in March’s A Madea Family Funeral; Madea is another character with a rich multi-media life, having also appeared in a number of Perry’s plays, TV series episodes, and a direct-to-video animated film.

Johnny Weissmuller performing his Tarzan yell
Johnny Weissmuller performing his Tarzan yell. (Wikimedia Commons)

Twelve: Olympian Johnny Weissmuller won five golds for the United States as a swimmer. As Tarzan, he found box office gold in a popular series of films from 1932 to 1948. Amazingly, that’s NOT the character he played in the most films. We’ll get there.

Fourteen: The duo of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce played, respectively, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in 14 films from 1939 to 1946; many modern artistic interpretations of the characters draw from their appearance in the films. Also at 14, Lois Maxwell played Miss Moneypenny the most in the Bond franchise.

Desmond Llewelyn as Q
Desmond Llewelyn as Q. (Photo by Towpilot; Wikimedia Commons)

Sixteen: Johnny Weissmuller knew that he couldn’t play the shirtless Tarzan forever. In 1948, he began the role of Jungle Jim in a film adaptation of the comic-strip character’s adventures. He’d go on to play Jim 16 times on film through 1956, and then in 26 episodes of a television series. Another 16 entry is Mickey Rooney, who played Andy Hardy in a series of family comedies; the films stretched from 1937 to 1946 with a final installment in 1958.

Your Solo Winner at Seventeen:
From 1963 to 1999, Desmond Llewelyn played the beloved Q in 17 of the James Bond films. The inventor of Bond’s gadgets, Q’s frequently humorous demonstrations of his inventions delighted audiences.

Penny-Singleton and Arthur Lake from "Blondie"
Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake from “Blondie.” (Wikimedia Commons)

Tag-Team Champions at Twenty-Eight: Though we’ve waffled a bit in terms of some of the cheaply made films of earlier decades, this overall achievement needs to be noted. Together, Arthur Lake and Penny Singleton played the characters of Dagwood and Blondie Bumstead in 28 movies from 1938 to 1950. Moreover, the duo would continue their roles on the radio, and Lake would go on to the play the comic-strip character on television for a 26-episode series in 1957.

There you have it. As you can see, the list is constantly in flux, and a number of actors (notably Stallone, Diesel, and those still active in Star Wars and the MCU) have a chance of increasing their ranks in the next few years. And though it takes longer than a week to make a movie these days, we shouldn’t completely discount those early days of Hollywood. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that the familiar can be fun, and we’ve been on the sequel train for a long, long time. The showbiz axiom may be to leave them wanting more, but very few studios went broke by giving the people what they want.

Roy Rogers as the Carson City Kid
Roy Rogers in 1940. (Photo by Joseph Kane; Wikimedia Commons)

Footnote: Here’s an explanation of some of our criteria. We’re not counting serial installments of the 1930s era as individual films, which some people do when they tackle this question, or straight-to-video releases (sorry, Jim Varney/Ernest). We’re also going to keep the focus on American films (or co-productions where U.S. studios were a partner); that excuses Japanese actors Shintaro Katsu, who played the blind swordsman Zatoichi in 26 films and a 98-episode TV Series, and Haruo Nakajima, who donned the Godzilla suit in 12 movies. Also, we’re leaving out people that essentially played themselves, like Western mainstay Gabby Hayes (27 times) and Laurel and Hardy (an astounding combination of 107 feature films, silent films, and shorts with sound).

The early Westerns present some challenges for this kind of round-up, too. We’re also going to set aside an interesting but bizarre subcategory of actors that played the “same” character as sidekicks to various heroes across several series of Westerns; that includes Robert Blake (Little Beaver), Dub “Cannonball” Taylor, Smiley Burnette (aka Frog Milhouse), and Al St. John (Fuzzy Q. Jones) who played their sidekick roles a respective 23, 52, 62, and 85 times alongside the likes of Red Ryder, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Wild Bill Hickok, and more. Similarly, we’ll acknowledge a few actors that played their western leads an incredible number of times, but the truth is that many of these films were shot so quickly in succession, some in a week, that it defies the expectation of what it takes to play a character across an ongoing series of films when you’re also working on other projects. For many of these actors, their job was to “be” this character on a near constant basis, which is a brand of filmmaking that’s more closely associated today with television. Among those actors are Roy Rogers (79 as “Roy Rogers”), Gene Autry (also as himself, 87), William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy, 65), and Charles Starrett (The Durango Kid, 61). The Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys comedy series did something similar, with the likes of Huntz Hall (47 as Sach; 17 as Gimpy) and Leo Gorcey (41 as Slip; 21 as Muggs). Back to top.

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