Finding the perfect actor for any given role is a painstaking task. Having to consider what they offer as a performer, what emotional aspects require focus, and, sometimes, what they can provide in a marketing sense; it is far from an exact science, and a poor casting decision can be a disastrous misstep that sees a series fail to connect with an audience. On the flip side, though, the perfect casting of an important character can be the defining hallmark of a series’ success.
Whether they’re the stars of television’s most pulverizing dramas or the ones who make us laugh in our favorite sitcoms, these actors played their parts to such a standard that it’s impossible to fathom anyone else in these roles. We take our hats off to these outstanding performances and throw an appreciative nod to those who cast them.
Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) — ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ (2014-2020)
On the surface, Annalise Keating is a bold, cunning, and incredibly successful defense attorney and an acclaimed law school professor whose prestige befits her brilliance. Dig a little deeper, though — as the series does routinely — and you find a character full of hypocrisy, contradiction, and ambition.
One of the most complex women to have graced television, the role demanded someone who could navigate Annalise’s intricate and complicated personality and her tormented backstory with aplomb. Viola Davis did just that, proving herself to be one of the greatest actors currently working and becoming the first black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead in a Drama series.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) — ‘Mad Men’ (2007-2015)
With a tumultuous family life and a traumatic past that bubbles through his calm exterior on many occasions, the lead role of Mad Men called for someone who could offer an emotionally layered performance while presenting himself as a man enjoying the idyllic life. Plucked from relative obscurity, Jon Hamm is now viewed as the only actor who could have played Don Draper.
Impossible to define, Hamm excelled at bringing the depths of Draper’s complexity to the screen and earned eight Emmy nominations for his efforts, finally winning his first for his performance in the show’s final season. The role may have shot Hamm to stardom, but what he did with it has immortalized Don Draper as one of TV’s greatest lead characters.
Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) — The X-Files (1993-2002; 2016-2018)
Still resonating with audiences today, the ’90s television hit earned a reprise in 2016 due to its longstanding popularity. It can’t be overstated how much of that is attributed to Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Dana Scully, an FBI special agent investigating the supernatural.
Initially a skeptic of the paranormal with a complicated relationship with religion, the brilliance of Anderson’s performance came in the moments when her steadfast convictions were challenged by the things she saw. Winning a Primetime Emmy for the performance, Dana Scully remains a trailblazing inspiration to young women to this day.
Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams) — ‘The Wire’ (2002-2008)
An unaffiliated stick-up man who robs drug dealers at gunpoint and evades law enforcement through the back alleys of Baltimore, Omar Little was never going to be a character who would struggle to be interesting. However, Michael Kenneth Williams’ performance elevated the role from a side part to The Wire’s most memorable character.
Omar also served as a surprising challenge to gay stereotypes, an aspect of the character Williams was proud to depict without it being one-note. Instead, the character is best remembered for his flamboyance, his strong belief in a moral code, and his walk and whistle through the streets of Baltimore.
Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) — ‘Downton Abbey’ (2010-2015)
Casting a distinguished icon of the screen, with over 50 years of experience, in a period-piece production should reap reliable rewards, but what Maggie Smith could do in the role was, even for her, extraordinary. The matriarch of the Crawley family, she never let the constituents of Downton Abbey forget who was in charge.
Imposing her presence with razor-sharp delivery, Smith excelled at bringing Violet Crawley’s barbed confidence to life. She won three Primetime Emmys from six nominations and redefined her talents to a younger audience who knew her as Professor McGonagall.
Michael Scott (Steve Carell) — ‘The Office’ (2005-2013)
With an overwhelming enthusiasm and oblivious insensitivity, it would have been easy for Michael Scott to be the uncomfortable presence audiences hate, but in Steve Carell’s hands, he couldn’t have been more adored. Largely defined by his desperation to be liked, there was something tragically endearing beneath the comedic genius of Carell’s performance.
Perhaps the first true glimpses of the acting ability he would go on to earn acclaim for, his outbursts of unrestrained emotion were able to both warm and break our hearts. Enshrining Michael Scott in the minds of every fan of the series, his departure in season seven was a stinging farewell we were ill-prepared for.
George Costanza (Jason Alexander) — ‘Seinfeld’ (1989-1998)
Potentially the greatest comedic character in television history, Jason Alexander brought every whinge, rant, and outburst of George Costanza to the screen with engulfing gusto. A self-loathing, self-serving liar who conjured ridiculous plots to weasel out of uncomfortable situations, he is about as despicable a character ever created for television comedy, but therein lies his charm.
The fact is everyone has thought, felt, and maybe even acted like George on occasion, and Alexander personifies that brand of desperate discomfort with an honest and endearing hilarity. Honorable mentions go to Estelle Harris and Jerry Stiller for their equally flawless performances as George’s parents throughout the series.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) — ‘Breaking Bad’ (2008-2013)
In 2008, if you had told people that the dad from Malcolm In The Middle was going to play one of the greatest characters in crime-drama history, you probably would have received some odd looks. Today though, it is impossible to imagine anyone else as Walter White.
Announcing himself as one of the greatest actors of the modern-day, Bryan Cranston took Walt from a mild-mannered science teacher to one of the most powerful figures in America’s drug trade in a way that was both terrifying and captivating. Arguably the villain of the series, Walter was hard to love but even harder to hate. Cranston brought such gravitas to the role, making Breaking Bad the unmissable spectacle that it was.
Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) — ‘Game of Thrones’ (2011-2019)
When it comes to characters who could not have been portrayed by anyone else, Tyrion Lannister and Peter Dinklage instantly spring to mind. Tyrion was a cynical, mistreated member of his powerful house, and Dinklage possessed a fantastic ability to blend the character’s wit and resilience with a particular vulnerability.
While not everyone’s favorite initially, he gradually won over a number of allies — as well as the audience — with his sharp wit, tactical brilliance, unexpected bravery, and, above all else, his kindness. With such moral and emotional complexities and turbulent arcs of power and despair, the role saw Dinklage become one of the breakout stars of the 2010s, earning four Primetime Emmys.
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) — ‘The Sopranos’ (1999-2007)
After decades of mobsters getting the movie treatment, HBO brought the complexities of the mafia to the small screen through the lens of Tony Soprano, a New Jersey gangster and one of the greatest characters ever written for the medium. Perfectly balancing his ruthless violence with his more somber moments, James Gandolfini was not only a brilliant casting choice, but he was also instrumental in making television series the force they are within entertainment today.
So flawless was his casting, it’s impossible to determine if he shone more as the intimidating criminal thug, the charming family man, or somewhere in between, as seen in his therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Gandolfini won three Primetime Emmys for his portrayal of the iconic character and re-created the idea of the modern gangster in a way that only he could.
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