Jack Sparrow joins a unique line of iconic characters

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From The Marx Brothers to John "Die Hard" McClane, actors have created characters who burst onto the scene, grab a foothold in pop culture and are instantly recognizable ever-after.

Without benefit of a book, play, TV show or any other medium to start them on their way, these iconic characters are created with a unique look and often, a signature line. And best of all for the actor and the studio who collaborate on a popular character, along with adoration comes a sequel or two -- or more.

About those zany Marx Brothers: Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo took their insane brand of humor to the screen from hit plays (George S. Kaufman wrote some of their vehicles) and other early film characters arrived from vaudeville stages: W.C. Fields, Al Jolson, Burns & Allen, Mae West, etc.

They paved the way for the iconic characters of today, who are instantly recognizable by the steely stare, a beatific smile or the slant of a three-corner hat.

Take, for instance, Captain Jack Sparrow and the "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Previous summer blockbusters telling the further stories of Spider-Man (comic book) and the animated Shrek (children's book) came with ready-made backgrounds for talented actors Tobey Maguire and Mike Myers.

For Depp and director Gore Verbinski, there was a Disneyland ride about generic pirates, period.

In "The Pirates of the Caribbean" films -- No. 3 opens tonight -- Johnny Depp captured the imagination of millions of movie-goers as a scalawag of a sea captain with long locks, gold-capped teeth and Keith Richards' swagger.

Richards, in fact, was the inspiration for Captain Jack and has a small role in the new "Pirates" movie, "At World's End."

"He was one of the people I admired for what he's done and how he's handled it," Depp, 43, tells Rolling Stone magazine in its latest issue. Talking to the Associated Press, Depp described Jack as "part rock-star, Keith Richards-kind-of-guy and part Pepe Le Pew."

Jack's a scoundrel whose occasional bouts of conscience allow viewers to go with the flaws because, as played to the larger-than-life hilt by Depp, he owns every scene he is in -- even when faced with Disney-size special effects.

The stark originality of the character initially scared studio heads, producer Jerry Bruckheimer told the AP. "They said, 'He's gay, he's drunk ... what are you guys doing?' But once we cut a scene together, they saw the fun of it."

The first two "Pirates" movies have grossed almost $800 million domestically, and No. 3, "At World's End," has the Memorial Day weekend to make its point about how much a popular character can mean to a film franchise. Next month, Bruce Willis returns in "Live Free or Die Hard," his fourth outing as rogue cop John McClane.

Here's hoping we'll be shouting "yipee-ki-yay" when he's done, and here are a five other characters who reached iconic status with a string of sequels.

The Tramp, Charlie Chaplin
Why him?: The genius of Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin was to infuse dignity, grace and humor into a down-on-his-luck gentleman whom audiences could empathize with and embrace.
The films: The character appeared often from 1915, in Chaplain's "The Tramp," to "City Lights" in 1931. His prospector in "The Gold Rush" (1925) and factory worker in "Modern Times" (1936) also bear a resemblance to the Tramp. Some others: "A Dog's Life" (1918), "The Kid" (1921), "The Idle Class" (1921), "The Circus" (1928).
The look: Baggy suit, bowler hat, toothbrush mustache and cane for twirling or shouldering, signaling happy or dreary moods.
The walk and the talk: The Tramp's jaunty, bow-legged walk has been copied by countless impersonators. No words were needed for one of the most expert mimes of the silent era.
Signature move: That waddling walk.

Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood
Why him?: Through five films, Inspector "Dirty" Harry Callahan took his Magnum and the law into his own hands as he made the streets of San Francisco safe from killers, creeps and punks. The persona perfected by Eastwood in spaghetti Westerns translated well to America's mean streets.
The films: "Dirty Harry" (1971), "Magnum Force" (1973), "The Enforcer" (1976), "Sudden Impact" (1983), "The Dead Pool" (1988).
The look: Squinty Clint has the steely stare that backs up threats, even in a '70s-era slim suit and skinny tie. The cool wraparound sunglasses helped -- they are still marketed today as "Dirty Harry" sunglasses.
The walk and the talk: He walks the confident walk and talks the cold talk of the toughest guy in town, as in facing down a bad guy with a gun that may or may not have a bullet left: "This is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world. It can take your head clean off. You've got to ask yourself one question -- 'Do I feel lucky?' "
Signature line: "Go ahead. Make my day."

Inspector Clouseau, Peter Sellers
Why him?: Others (Roberto Benigni, Steve Martin) have attempted to re-create the bumbling police inspector who tried catch a debonair thief in the "Pink Panther" films, but none have matched Sellers' most well-known character, a part co-written and directed by Blake Edwards.
The films: "The Pink Panther" (1963)," A Shot in the Dark" (1964), "The Return of the Pink Panther" (1975), "The Pink Panther Strikes Again," (1976), "Revenge of the Pink Panther," (1978).
The look: A trench coat, brimmed hat and neatly trimmed mustache.
The walk and the talk: When Inspector Jacques Clouseau wasn't tripping over something or breaking a valuable heirloom, he was mangling pronunciations in a truly awful French accent, as in: "Does Lady Lytton have a swimming pewl?"
Signature action: Trying in vain to fend off planned attacks from his sidekick, Cato.

Ripley, Sigourney Weaver
Why her?: The sci-fi/horror film's tagline was: "In space no one can hear you scream." But if you have to be in space and mean, ugly aliens are out to get you, it's best to have a no-nonsense warrior like Ripley on your side. Director Ridley ("Gladiator," "Blade Runner") Scott took over "Alien" after Walter Hill bowed out. James Cameron directed Weaver in her Oscar-nominated turn in "Aliens," but the voices of writers Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett were constants through the four movies.
The films: "Alien" (1979), "Aliens" (1986), "Alien 3" (1992), "Alien: Resurrection" (1997).
The look: Rugged Ripley's curls give way to Weaver's shaved head in the final film. Her wardrobe was strictly military-issue drab when she wasn't in a muscle shirt.
The walk and the talk: The mother of all sci-fi heroines walks softly and carries a big gun whenever possible, but she'll do whatever it takes to survive. As for the talk, a lot of it is unprintable here.
Signature line: "Get away from her, you bitch!"

Rocky, Sylvester Stallone
Why him?: We love to root for an underdog, and who was more of an underdog than the Italian Stallion, a minor Philly pugilist and reluctant thug who gets the chance of a lifetime -- a shot at the heavyweight title. Like Chaplin's Tramp, Rocky is Stallone's own creation, as writer and star of the original.
The films: "Rocky I-V" (1976-95) and "Rocky Balboa" (2006).
The look: In the beginning, an oversized, worn leather jacket and sweats hide a muscular physique that's later revealed to his lady love while he's wearing a "beater" T. But nothing beats his boxing robes, with advertisement space sold by his future brother-in-law, Paulie.
The walk and the talk: Rocky goes from slouched and slow to a guy on the run -- through the streets of Philadelphia and up the steps of the art museum, as he gets in shape for the big fight and begins a real-life Philly tradition. The gruff and mumbly voice and sometimes slurred speech (partly because of paralysis to the left side of Stallone's face) can be tender and mumbly, too.
Signature line: "Yo, Adrian."


Post-Gazette film critic Barry Paris contributed to this story. Post-Gazette entertainment editor Sharon Eberson can be reached at 421-263-1960 or seberson@post-gazette.com


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