Samuel L. Jackson films are always worth seeing. Charismatic, infinitely cool, and capable of flipping seamlessly from deadpan comedy to terrifying intensity, the actor is brilliantly watchable whether popping up in a cameo or anchoring an entire movie. That’s why, to date, his films have netted just shy of $6billion, making him one of the most bankable film stars on the planet.
But with such a prolific and entertaining CV, which are Samuel L. Jackson’s most iconic roles? We’ve made the call and we invite you to join us as we celebrate the actor’s 72nd birthday with 10 essential performances from an incredible career.
40 years after Samuel L. Jackson recalls first taking to the stage as a Sugar Plum Fairy (aged 3), and 20 years after his debut big-screen appearance, Jackson scored this extraordinary breakout performance as Flipper Purify’s (Wesley Snipes) crack-addicted older brother Gator in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever.
It’s an uncomfortably authentic and impressively nuanced performance by Jackson – Gator is ingratiating and charming when a habit-feeding handout is on the cards but there’s a desperate undercurrent of hopeless hair-trigger rage ready to explode when his next fix is threatened. It was (is) such an outstanding performance that the jury at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival created a special supporting actor prize to honour the actor.
Gator has a special place in Jackson’s heart for another reason. When he shot Jungle Fever he’d only been out of rehab himself for a couple of weeks. Famously, he was almost escorted off set when some of the craft services staff figured he must be a neighbourhood addict hanging around. Speaking to theundefeated.com Jackson recalls how art and life co-mingled at what turned out to be an important turning point in his life and career:
“Gator is really close to me because [he] signified me killing that part of my life and moving on. So when Ossie Davis, the Good Reverend Doctor, killed me in that movie, it kind of freed me from all those demons I had in my real life. That was kind of cool.”
More than any other role, Pulp Fiction’s Jheri-curled, Ezekiel-quoting hitman Jules Winnfield, established Samuel L. Jackson as the epitome of Hollywood cool. No doubt about it, Quentin Tarantino’s script is fantastic, but Jackson doesn’t just wear Jules’ suit, he inhabits the character in a way that’s magnetic to watch.
Jackson had previously auditioned for Reservoir Dogs (with Tarantino and his producer Lawrence Bender reading the other parts in the scene). He didn’t get the role but he made an indelible impression on the young director. So much so that Tarantino ended up writing the character of Winnfield specifically for Jackson. It wouldn’t be the last time a creator would be directly inspired by Samuel L. either (see Nick Fury and Elijah Glass below).
Jackson and Tarantino have continued their mutual coolness exchange in five further films (six if you count an uncredited voiceover for Inglourious Basterds). But Pulp Fiction’s Jules is the only role that’s become an infinitely quotable cultural meme. Altogether now: “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger...”
Pulp Fiction got people talking about Jackson (and established his rep for effortless cool), but his performance as Zeus Carver in Die Hard with a Vengeance is the film that made him a global star. The third – and, for our money, the second best – Die Hard was the highest grossing film in the world in 1995 and is all about the relationship between Zeus’s reluctant good samaritan and John McClane’s burnt-out NYPD detective.
It takes quite a personality to go toe to toe with Bruce Willis in charismatic action hero mode but Jackson is never overshadowed, with Zeus giving McClane every bit as good as he gets with a heady mixture of incredulity, intelligence and principled self respect. Their chemistry is off the charts and their developing relationship as McClane’s very bad day gets progressively more nuts for the both of them makes this an extraordinary threequel.
1996 John Grisham legal drama, A Time to Kill doesn’t just boast a stellar Samuel L. Jackson performance, it’s a great example of the actor’s extraordinary ability to breathe authentic, believable life into characters, even when they’re woven into a glossy, big-budget Hollywood star vehicle.
Playing a father who takes the law into his own hands when the legal system utterly fails his family, Jackson’s Carl Lee Hailey’s righteous anger is tempered by his desire to return to the loved ones he stepped up to protect. Refreshingly unrepentant and smarter about how the law actually works in the South than his naive lawyer (played by a very fresh-faced Matthew McConaughey), Jackson ensures Hailey never presents as a victim awaiting a white knight. He’s a hardworking man committed to protecting his loved ones come what may. Phenomenal.
Written by Shane ‘Iron Man 3’ Black and directed by Renny Harlin, The Long Kiss Goodnight is almost certainly the best action movie you’ve never heard about. What’s more, it features Samuel L. Jackson’s own favourite performance as a low-life Private Investigator with a heart of gold and very poor art skills – Mitch Hennessey.
The Long Kiss Goodnight’s premise is fully bonkers. A car crash revives the memory of an amnesiac CIA assassin – played by Geena Davis (Thelma & Louise) – who’s been living a quiet life as a suburban homemaker, just as her former enemies realise she’s still alive and set out to finish the job.
Jackson’s Hennessey comes to Charly Baltimore with clues to her former existence only to become her sidekick and conscience as she tries to distance herself from her amnesiac-period family life. Frequently inept but genuinely good and full of the kind of over-compensating swagger that comes from a life of never quite hitting the mark, Jackson makes Hennessey so believable that it’s no surprise test audiences revolted when – during the initial cut of the film – he died. Happily, Mitch got a last-minute reprieve and lives on to be a hero to his adorable little boy.
Samuel L. Jackson wanted to be in a Star Wars film from the moment he saw A New Hope in the cinema – an anonymous stormtrooper sprinting across a scene would do, he just wanted to be part of the universe.
22 years later – after ‘dropping’ that he’d love to work with George Lucas some day during an interview – Samuel L. got his wish and then some, playing Master of the Jedi Council and Yoda’s mate, Mace Windu. Not only that but, despite ultimately succumbing to Palpatine’s “UNLIMITED POWER!” Jackson also comes closer than anyone this side of Episode VI’s redemption-Darth to ending the Emperor’s evil plans.
Famously, when getting kitted out for the epic Geonosian arena battle in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Jackson asked for (and got) a purple lightsaber – historically they’d always been red, blue or green. But do you know why he asked for it? During an appearance on the Graham Norton show Jackson revealed that he asked for the unique colour so he could easily spot himself in the final chaotic battle scene. The Force is strong in Master Windu...
Despite playing a pivotal character in the super-powered Marvel Cinematic Universe, it took writer/director M. Night Shyamalan to make Samuel L. Jackson a ‘super’ in his own right. Springing from a script written specifically with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in mind, Elijah Price AKA Mr Glass is a wonderfully malevolent character: self-assured, stylish, incredibly intelligent and a master of manipulation. With Jackson’s iconic bombast and sarcastic humour stripped away, what remains is the actor’s soft-spoken and magnetic intensity. The effect is nothing short of brilliantly chilling.
One more thing: in an echo of his request that Mace Windu have a purple lightsaber, apparently it was Jackson who suggested that Mr Glass be defined by the colour purple, and David Dunn by the colour green.
Samuel L. Jackson is one half of a fantastic performance in Pixar’s Incredibles I and II. Allow us to explain. Lucius Best AKA Frozone is – pun fully intended – an incredibly cool guy. Unflappable in a crisis, grounded and real with his friends the Parrs, it’s no wonder he’s The Incredibles’ go-to super ally.
And yet, while we love to see Frozone skate into action, we live for the scenes in which Lucius bickers affectionately with his heard-but-as-yet-unseen wife, Honey (played by Pixar regular, Kimberly Adair Clark). Frozone may be able to create ice out of thin air but if he’s late for one more dinner party, his beloved Honey Best is going to show him a cold shoulder he may never recover from.
So here’s how it went down. Historically, S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury had been portrayed in Marvel comics as white, but when Mark Millar was working on the new Ultimate Marvel comic series in 2002, he decided that ‘new Fury’ should look uncannily like a certain Samuel L. Jackson. He was/is after all the coolest man on the planet.
Little did Millar know, however, that Jackson was a comic book fan, saw his unmistakable likeness and queried it through his people with Marvel. By way of apology, Marvel let Jackson know that should any film adaptation be made in the future, they promised the role to him.
18 years and – as of 2020 – 11 big-screen appearances as Nick Fury later, it’s hard to imagine a character who’s more influential to the MCU’s continuity. An extraordinary leader who can cut superheroes and egotistical billionaires down to size with a few words and inspire the best from a global network of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents? Only Samuel L. Jackson could make it look easy.
Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as Calvin J. Candie’s twisted house slave and mentor Stephen is terrific. Molded by generations of internalised racism and driven by a shrewd understanding of what’s required to protect his own position as Candyland’s de facto manager, Stephen is the true power behind Candie’s throne. And when he identifies a threat to Calvin’s interests (and therefore his own), he’s quick to betray Django (Jamie Foxx).
Jackson truly doesn’t pull any punches, making Stephen deeply unlikable. And yet his performance is anything but cartoonishly one-note. The stakes are way too high for that. Stephen’s by far the smartest resident of Candyland – until Django and Schultz turn up of course – and while he’s relentlessly despicable, you understand how the system that raised him has warped his world view so badly.