By C.J. Bunce
Yesterday we started in on what makes a great character, and who and how we determine our favorites, mentioning dozens of favorites from different genres and different media. The challenge? Come up with your top 5 favorite fictional characters from anything. When I was finished selecting them, I was surprised what they all have in common: a desire to protect others and defend the good against the bad. I went through a ton of characters to whittle it down to five. Most of my favorites I see as having some trait I want for myself, or guys I want to be like. Along the way I carved away Boba Fett, the obscure but coolest of the “men with no name” anti-hero Western archetypes, and opted instead for another Star Wars character. I lost Steve McQueen’s too cool cop Lieutenant Frank Bullitt for another cop that made the list and had to cut the other coolest guy (other than The Fonz), the no-named drifter from They Live. I lost Thomas Magnum, the TV show private investigator, that, along with Batman, is up there at the top of my Sherlock Holmes influenced characters. I cut big life-long heroes like the Six Million Dollar Man, Luke Skywalker, Tron, and even the awesome A.A. Milne creation Eeyore. No room for Will Riker and Captain Dathon from Star Trek. I love Dana Andrews’ noir detective Mark McPherson in Otto Preminger’s Laura. Fred Gailey, who defended Santa Claus (successfully!) in court in Miracle on 34th Street, hung to the list almost to the end. A top 10 list would have been far easier!
After a lot of soul searching–and this is not an easy exercise (try it for yourself!)–here is where I finally ended up.
When we first meet Uncle Ben “Obi-Wan” Kenobi, played by Sir Alec Guinness in the original Star Wars, he was an old man. A miser living out beyond the Dune Sea. Luke thought he was long dead. Then he comes out of nowhere in the desert at just the right time to barely save our story’s hero. Ben doesn’t remember the droids he supposedly owned a few decades ago. Is he a bit absent minded? Has the desert gotten to him? Without Uncle Ben, Luke Skywalker would be dead, and he saves Luke’s life six times: first, from the Tusken Raiders in the desert, second, from an alien in the cantina’s hive of scum and villainy, third, from the Empire by getting Luke out of Mos Eisley, fourth, by releasing the Millenium Falcon in the Death Star, fifth, by guiding Luke from afar to destroy the Death Star in his X-Wing Fighter, and sixth, by keeping him alive after he is mugged by a snow beast on the frozen planet of Hoth. Kenobi was part samurai warrior, part medieval wizard, part mystic, a monk, a veteran of the last battle of the Jedi. And later we’d learn he was the reason Luke and his sister survived at all: he’d saved Luke as an infant by bringing him to the remote planet with twin suns. He doesn’t have much time to mentor Luke, but what he does counts for a lot. Kenobi proves nothing is more powerful than wisdom and experience. Ultimately he sacrifices everything to save the galaxy by using his knowledge of the force to convert into a spirit, the only time this ever happens in the original Star Wars trilogy, so he can assist Luke along the rest of his journey. Later on Ewan McGregor put a very nice spin on the character for the prequels, but the original played by Guinness can never be beaten and Guinness received the only acting nod from the Academy for all the great actors of the series.
DCI Gene Hunt was a cop, a cop played by actor Philip Glenister. A good cop that blurred some of the rules of British law enforcement, but who was a product of his times, which was 1973 in the BBC TV series Life on Mars, and 1982 in the series Ashes to Ashes. He is brash, rude, and mouthy. He is kind. He is crude and speaks in local colloquialisms that make non-natives have to rewind and view the closed captioning to understand what the heck he just said, and sometimes you still can’t tell. He protects his team. More than anything, this guy has angst. Yet he wants to help others. He wants to do the right thing. He believes in justice. He believes that sometimes a cop has to break the rules to get to the right result. To find the criminal. To protect the innocent. He’s willing to stop and help a woman having an emergency birth. He falls for a co-worker who herself is a mess and desperately lost. He tolerates his bizarre group of subordinates, as he prefers them to everyone else, and he’ll join them for a drink at any time of day. And he always drives a cool car. He’s like a British version of Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, but with more layers and a lot more problems. He becomes so involved in everyone else’s affairs that he ultimately forgets who he is. I have seen Philip Glenister in little else, and wonder whether I like Gene, or I like Gene because Glenister played him. Either way, nothing is as it seems in Manchester and Salford police departments. And that leaves Gene to rise above it all and become the best cop in the best cop series ever made.
In the western movie Silverado, at the beginning of the film, Paden is dead. At least he is left for dead, like real-life Beck Weathers in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Paden is played by Kevin Kline. You can’t start much worse off than Paden, prior to being rescued by Scott Glenn’s character, Emmett. All Paden has to his name is his 1800s long underwear. He was trusting, befriended some cowboys who turned on him, stole his horse, his saddle, his hat, his ivory-handled Colt. The whole rig. But he really missed the bay horse the most. They were laughing when they left him. Thought it was real funny. He walked for a little while but there was no use, so he gave it up. Figured it was just bad luck. He lies down to die. And he gets a second chance. But he’s not so much about revenge as looking out for the little dog one of his fellow riders mistreats. He’s trying to find his place in the world, which just so happens to be managing the affairs of a saloon. And you never know what Paden will care about. Even if that means he must stop looking the other way. He is a hero so he must act. If that means risking his footing in a new town to defend a man against a racist saloon operator, so be it. And if that means killing the men who run Silverado and the sheriff himself, his old friend, well then so be it. Kline plays Paden as funny, serious, smart. Sometimes warm, as when he is taking care of new friends, sometimes cold, as when he has to shoot a man. Sometimes puzzling, like when he flirts with a woman the night her husband is shot dead. Sheriff Cobb is using Stella to get to Paden. “I don’t want you to get hurt,” Paden says. Stella responds: “He can’t hurt me… if he’s dead.” Paden is a complex guy who changes his luck in a time when getting by was good enough.
I’ve read everything I could get my hands on related to Oliver Queen, aka Green Arrow, as re-developed in DC Comics’ silver age, from 1971 forward. Queen was a billionaire who lost it all. He became “everyman.” He ended up fighting crime as a vigilante and donned the outfit of Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood and took his bow and arrow as well to fight crime. He’s a bit like Batman, a sleuth in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes. He became a force for social change and fell in love with a beautiful woman, Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary, and they ended up together in Seattle running a floral shop. They were members of the Justice League and rubbed elbows with the best superheroes around. Oliver always was outspoken, sometimes offending everyone around him, yet everyone around him always respected what he had to say and they often took his lead. He always fought for the underdog. My favorite incarnation is my first revisit to comic books, Green Arrow written and drawn by Mike Grell, but O’Neil and Adams’ version is a close second. In his first scene of the modern era, he must convince Green Lantern that he needs to stop protecting a slumlord and instead protect the tenants. With his on-again/off-again, fiery relationship with Dinah, he became part of the only crime-fighting superhero couple, together ridding the streets of every kind of baddie.
The only one of the five of my favorite characters listed here that never veered from my #1 spot is Captain Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce. As the leading character in the TV series M*A*S*H over the course of eleven seasons, Alan Alda became the best actor on any TV series, and soldier/doctor Pierce became my favorite character. He is defined by triage. Triage in his job as he must discriminate between who has a chance to live and who won’t live. Triage is his circumstance as he must decide to make the best or worst of being stuck in a place no one, even the local Korean refugees, wants to be. His tools consist of scalpels, forceps, alcohol, and humor. He takes the most depressing of dramatic situations and makes everyone laugh, and when the brilliant writing team gives us a serious story, he leaves us silent. He gives us gut-wrenching performances, via a simple salute to Radar O’Reilly as he leaves for home to take care of the farm, to his reaction to the death of Colonel Henry Blake, to his interview responses for Movietone news. He makes us laugh at his unending supply of practical jokes, against Hot Lips, Frank, Winchester, or B.J. He is a hero, he’ll save the life of a North Korean soldier without flinching, and at his worst he freaks-out, asking those questions everyone wants to ask in the middle of a war, but doesn’t. Why can’t we all just get along, as bunkmates, as co-workers, as Americans, as humans? And he is calm when he needs to be. Even when he is being bombed while trying to save lives after hours without rest. With more than a dose of inspiration from Groucho Marx, Alan Alda conducted a one-man band of chaos in the middle of a stellar cast of characters. It’s hard to believe M*A*S*H was a 30-minute show. Never before or since has anyone come close to packing so much emotion, drama, comedy, and energy in such a small period of time, for so many years. Although the writing of his character bottomed out in the last episode, what came before is what matters, and it explains why the series finale was the most-watched show ever.
Editor’s note: Tomorrow… we will take a day away from our favorite characters and Jason McClain will run down his recommendations to the Academy for the Ten Best Picture nominees, who will be announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Tuesday, January 24. Come on back Tuesday bright and early for Jason McClain’s top five favorite characters, followed by Art Schmidt on Wednesday and Elizabeth C. Bunce on Thursday.