When an actor takes on a huge, break-out role, he or she runs a huge risk of getting typecast. This is what leads to things like Leonard Nimoy writing I Am Not Spock. But occasionally, an actor won't just play one iconic, famous character – they'll play two, or three. Here's a list of the genre actors who were either just that good, or just that lucky.
A little over a month ago, it was announced that Peter Capaldi will be the twelfth (? Depending on how the whole John Hurt thing plays out) incarnation of the Doctor, a role that's been career-defining for almost every actor that's stepped into the TARDIS. The choice was interesting for a number of reasons, among them the fact that Capaldi had just finished playing what, for most actors, would be a career-defining role: Malcolm Tucker on The Thick of It. Malcolm started out as a more peripheral character, but by the time the show ended, he'd pretty much stolen the spotlight. Capaldi won three awards for his portrayal of the foul-mouthed, angry political spin doctor. And there is absolutely no way his Doctor can be that similar to Malcolm. Well, he could, but his lines would consist mostly of bleeping.
How iconic Capaldi's Doctor will be remains to be seen. But here are some other actors who already have most incredible two (or three!) seats in the character pantheon.
Arnold Schwarzenegger: Conan and the T-800
On some level, any role played by the former governor of California are iconic because of how memorable his look and voice are. But, nevertheless, it's hard to put together a list of people with several icons under their belt and not include him. These are the inspiration for many a Halloween costume and attempts at an Austrian accent – necessary to either describe the greatest pleasure in life, or inform someone that you'll be back.
Patrick Stewart: Jean-Luc Picard and Charles Xavier
Did anyone seriously think that, after playing Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stewart would ever play a character as recognizable as that again? That's in no way a comment on Stewart's acting ability, by the way. It's that casting a Starfleet captain as Professor X would seem to be risky. You really have to believe that audiences will get over the novelty of that quickly, and not dwell on "Picard is Professor X" the whole time. But Stewart nailed it – probably helped along by the fact that he was a dead-ringer for the comic character.
Ian McKellen: Gandalf and Magneto
While we're talking about X-Men characters, we also have to include Stewart's co-star (and real life BFF) Ian McKellen. Especially since we're not even done with McKellan as either of these yet. We'll see Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug at the end of this year and McKellen's Magneto in X-Men: Days of Future Past in May, 2014.
Keanu Reeves: Ted Logan and Neo
Going from actors lauded for their acting chops, to one who, fairly or not, isn't so much. Reeves' stoner-slacker Ted in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey certainly seemed to be his defining role. Reeves certainly thought so — he once answered a question about his fears by saying, "I used to have nightmares that they would put 'He Played Ted' on my tombstone." In the early nineties, that may have been true. But in 1999, The Matrix made Reeves' tombstone a less certain bet. Whether your first thought when you "Keanu Reeves" is him travelling time in a phone booth or fighting Hugo Weaving in a long black coat probably depends on which movie you saw first.
Alan Rickman: Hans Gruber and Severus Snape
Alan Rickman's baddie in the original Die Hard was his very first film role. He's obviously played a lot of great characters since then (the Metatron in Dogma, Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest, and Marvin in Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy to name a few memorable examples), but Gruber is an iconic part. Who hasn't uttered the line "He won't be joining us. . . for the rest of his life"? But Severus Snape is also an iconic role played very well. In fact, J.K. Rowling gave Rickman some secret information on his character that guided his performance, giving Snape a more subtle arc than almost any of the other adult Harry Potter characters.
Harrison Ford: Han Solo and Indiana Jones (and, sure, throw Rick Deckard in there, too)
It's possible that Harrison Ford may be the King of iconic genre defining roles. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Blade Runner? Yeah, that's pretty much all that needs to be said here.
Richard Dean Anderson: MacGyver and Jack O'Neill
Kind of like Patrick Stewart, it was probably hard at the time to think that Richard Dean Anderson could ever play a character with as much staying power as MacGyver, a role he played for seven years. Especially a role that was played by a different actor in a movie. And yet, Anderson played Jack O'Neill, off and on, for more than a decade. The Stargate universe may have started with the movie, but SG-1 ran for ten seasons and led to two spinoffs. And a large part of the connective tissue of that universe was Anderson's glib-but-competent O'Neill.
LeVar Burton: Kunte Kinte and Geordi LaForge (and Reading Rainbow)
Burton's star-making role in Roots was the first of his professional career, and it got him and Emmy nomination. And not to downplay how important that work was, but there's also a whole generation of young people who can't tell you if the first time they saw Burton was as Geordi LaForge in Star Trek: The Next Generation or as the host of Reading Rainbow.
Johnny Depp: Edward Scissorhands and Jack Sparrow
One of the true marks of an iconic character is whether you'll run into him while walking around Hollywood Boulevard. And Depp is one of the few actors who has several parts that fit that bill. Edward Scissorhands' titular character, with Depp's portrayal and unique design, is hard to forget.
And while it may be that the success of Jack Sparrow is the exact moment that Johnny Depp stopped playing characters and started playing caricatures, it's also a performance that was so surprisingly charming and engaging in film based on a ride, it's no wonder it took off. Such is Jack Sparrow's popularity that they've retconned that character into the ride.
Micheal Keaton: Beetlejuice and Batman
Hey, speaking of Tim Burton and characters you can run into on Hollywood Boulevard. . . Yeah. It's Beetlejuice and Batman. They're instantly recognizable.
Zachary Quinto: Sylar and Spock
Remember the first season of Heroes? Zachary Quinto's Sylar was a revelation of a villain. He was so good that the writers couldn't let go of the character, even when it made sense. And remember when he was announced as playing a Spock in the Star Trek reboot? Playing a character who was already an icon, who has been played by only one actor before, and playing that character in the same film as the original actor? That's a tall order for anyone. And yet, Quinto was so good, his performance didn't just get a sigh of relief, it got approval.