There are a million legal movies that have been produced across the years; however, there are only a handful of individual characters that have cut through the clutter in being considered All-Time Greats. With that, we at Keyser Law build build on our earlier list of Greatest Legal Movies of All Time and highlight the much more elite list of best legal movie characters of all time.
- Atticus Finch
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
Amongst the greatest characters in all of literature, Atticus Finch from the 1962 film rendering of To Kill a Mockingbird, also tops this list of top roles in cinema. Played by Gregory Peck, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor for this role, Atticus is a character that displays all that is noble, moral and courageous in an otherwise misguided era of deep-south racism and bigotry.
In the Name of the Father (1993)
Noted as one of the most compelling roles ever played by one of the best actors of our time, Daniel Day-Lewis’ role of Gerry Conlon in the 1993 film In the Name of the Father is truly one of the greats. Based on a true story, Day-Lewis plays a Belfast boy that was falsely convicted as being a part of the IRA bombing sprees outside London and, as a result, needlessly served 15 years in prison. Although Day-Lewis was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, another injustice was served when he did not win.
12 Angry Men (1957)
Standing as another beacon of beaming hope in humanity, Juror #8 in the 1957 adaptation of 12 Angry Men is a character that represents all that we should aim to be. Played by Henry Fonda, this single juror refuses to hastily condemn a man without a thorough evaluation of the facts. As a result, he bravely stands against 11 of his “angry” peers and slowly chips away at their egos on his way to persuading them, one by one, to see the ultimate truth.
Liar Liar (1997)
Entering the list as one of the more light-hearted legal characters in the bunch, Fletcher Reede is a lie-ridden lawyer that, due to his son’s birthday-wish-come-true, cannot tell a lie for 24 hours. Despite the fact that this character lacks some of the depth and complexity that is expressed by some of these other character greats, the fact that the role is played by Jim Carrey (in his prime), well, that’s enough to make him more than memorable.
Carl Lee Hailey
A Time to Kill (1996)
When a black man, Carl Lee Hailey, is accused of murdering the white men who raped and nearly killed his 10-year-old-daughter in the 1996 adaptation of A Time to Kill, he’s got a lot to mad about – of course, nobody plays angry better than Samuel L. Jackson. Although the most memorable character could easily be Hailey’s defense lawyer (played by Matthew McConaughey) who cunningly crafts a case that leads to a verdict of innocent, there’s something hauntingly memorable about Hailey as he yells, “Yes, they deserved to die and I hope they burn in hell!”
Primal Fear (1996)
Noted as the role that uncovered another of the greatest actors of our time, Edward Norton’s depiction of Aaron Stampler in the 1996 film Primal Fear, is one of the more underrated performances on this list. In his first feature film, Norton acts as a simpleton altar boy that is charged with the murder of a Catholic archbishop and while he appears to be painfully innocent, in a final bone chilling moment, we come to find that the deviant has been acting all along. Norton’s remarkable portrayal of Aaron Stampler earned him the nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards.
My Cousin Vinny (1992)
Making his mark as another of the more light-hearted entrants on this list, movie buffs will always remember Vincent “Vinny” Gambini’s and his shortest opening statement in the history of law, “Everything that guy just said is BS” (except using the actual expletive). Played by Joe Pesci, Vinny is an unrefined lawyer from Brooklyn who after just barely passing the bar exam (on his sixth try) represents his cousin and a friend on a colorful murder trial in rural Alabama – a trial that he somehow manages to win. Definitely a memorable character!
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Noted as the first female character on this list, the darling Julia Roberts offers an Academy Award-winning performance as her role as Erin Brockovich, in a 2000 movie by the same name. Based on a true story, Brockovich is single mother that is given a job as paralegal and after discovering a number of troubling documents, showing that a major power corporation is trying to sweep a bundle of malpractices under the rug, she boldly takes on the corporate giant on in a fight for the little guy. This character is so great that, in addition to the Academy Award, Roberts also won a Golden Globe, Screen Actors’ Guild Award and BAFTA for Best Actress!
Ted & Joanna Kramer
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
While the rest of these memorable characters have been individuals, it’s nearly impossible to name a single star when picking between Ted and Joanna Kramer in the 1979 legal drama, Kramer vs. Kramer. Acting as a divorced couple that launches a bitter battle over the custody of their son, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep both deserve mention for their memorable roles due to the fact that they both won Oscars (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress) for their parts.
Col. Nathan Jessep
A Few Good Men (1992)
Last, but certainly not least, who doesn’t remember the resounding “You can’t handle the truth!” quote from Col. Nathan Jessep in the 1992 military courtroom drama A Few Good Men? Played by Jack Nicholson, Col. Jessep is an unapologetic commander that gives a few chilling responses while under questioning that’ll make the hair on the back of your neck stand up and will forever ring out loud in movie history.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this list of best legal movie characters of all time. In the end, there have been all kinds of good legal movies made in the past but these are the individual characters that made them great.