Clown Car1 of 8
Joaquin Phoenix is getting ready to take the Joker to the one place on the big screen he’s never been – a starring role.
But Phoenix isn’t the first A-lister to turn the Joker into a prime part (Heath Ledger anyone?).
The Joker is kind of a villainous James Bond – every actor who puts on the greasepaint makes the role their own, but they all stick within certain fundamental frameworks.
Phoenix is just the latest actor to take on the Clown Prince of Crime on film – a growing list of talent that has helped define one of the most iconic villains in pop culture. Here’s our ranking of the greatest Joker actors – in order.
Jared Leto2 of 8
Jared Leto’s performance as the Joker in Suicide Squad may be polarizing (and what about the DC Extended Universe hasn’t been?), but he did offer a new take on the character as less of a supervillain mastermind and more of a sociopathic gangster.
Though he was overshadowed by Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn – and rightly so, as she was a primary protagonist of the film – his lilting, affected laughter and sleazy, oozing criminality cut a wide swath through Suicide Squad setting up a very different picture of Batman’s nemesis.
Kevin Michael Richardson3 of 8
Kevin Michael Richardson's bombastic take on the Joker for The Batman wasn't quite as defining of the show as some Joker voice actors have been, but he took Joker in a wildly different direction than previously seen, leaning harder into his abject insanity than most other actors dared.
Richardson's Joker was drawn almost apelike with his long, straight-jacketed arms and acrobatic antics, and Richardson reflected the circus-like nature of the character's visual aspect with a modulated, madcap take on the Joker's voice.
Jack Nicholson4 of 8
When Michael Keaton was cast as Bruce Wayne in 1989’s Batman, fan outcry was palpable (sound familiar?), but Jack Nicholson’s casting as the Joker seemed to make perfect sense.
Nicholson took the role 20 years after Cesar Romero had redefined the Joker as Batman’s arch-enemy, and while his shockingly Technicolor version of the Clown Prince of Crime took more than a few nods from those campy days, Nicholson’s Jack Napier (a name taken from the term “Jackanapes” and which is now used in comic books) was decidedly more “criminal” than “clown” with a murderous streak and a flair for the dramatic.
Nicholson’s Joker is also the first onscreen version of the character to receive an origin – one that fairly faithfully adapted the version created in 1951 by Bill Finger.
Mark Hamill5 of 8
There’s no question that, next to his role as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, there’s no role actor Mark Hamill is better known for than as the voice of the Joker throughout Batman: The Animated Series and the subsequent DC Animated Universe and in the Arkham Asylum video game franchise.
Hamill’s take on the Joker is instantly recognizable, and perfectly suited to square off against Kevin Conroy’s unassailable rendition of the Caped Crusader. Hamill is the Joker actor who has best mastered every aspect of his personality, from maniacal motley fool, to cold-hearted criminal mastermind, to scenery chewing jackanapes.
Building off the performances of Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson before him – and setting the stage for every actor who has taken the role since – Hamill is synonymous with the Joker for an entire generation of fans.
Cesar Romero6 of 8
Get your jokes about Cesar Romero refusing to shave his mustache to play the Joker in the 1960s Batman TV show out of the way now, because the fact is, despite the inherent campiness of the show he was on, Romero largely defined the character of the Joker as we envision him now.
The first live-action actor to play the Joker (not counting Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs, the film that helped inspire the character), Romero took on the role at a time when the villain hard become largely unknown in comic books.
With complicated death traps, colorful minions, and his raucous, howling laughter, Romero’s Joker took true glee in challenging Adam West’s Batman week after week – a true Clown Prince of Crime.
While others took Romero’s version of the character back to comic books and sunk him back into the shadows of the noir-ish Golden Age version of the Joker, it was Romero that put the “laughter” in Joker’s “slaughter.”
Heath Ledger7 of 8
While some fans could make a case that any of the top three Joker actors deserve the top honor, Heath Ledger did what no one else has done: he won an Oscar for playing a super-villain.
Considering just how demented Ledger’s agent of anarchy actually came across in The Dark Knight, it’s no wonder Ledger won the Academy Award for his performance. Who can forget his cackling laughter, or the bone-chilling coldness in his voice when he said “Let’s put a smile on that face”?
And, with Hollywood legend forever linking the strain of playing Batman’s ultimate enemy with Ledger’s untimely death, the power and pain of his atypical yet definitive performance are sure to endure for posterity.
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