The Batman’s nemesis is as storied as the famous hero. Discover pop culture history with five legendary actors who have embodied the Joker onscreen.
The Joker, one of DC Comics’ most well-known villains, first showed his sinister smile in 1940 in the debut issue of the Batman comic book. While Batman has had many noteworthy villains — Catwoman, Two-Face, The Scarecrow — the Joker has proved to be the Caped Crusader’s most psychotic and mesmerizing menace. Batman can’t exist without the Joker; they are the antithesis of one another. In fact, DC Comics listed the Joker in the series Greatest Stories Ever Told in 1987.
The Joker has also been immortalized in film and television, almost as much as Batman himself. The actors who played him are legends, Oscar winners, and box office sensations. With the Joker’s origin story coming to screens in October, let’s revisit the great performers who’ve put on the white mask to become Batman’s perfect adversary.
1. Cesar Romero
Dubbed the “Latin of Manhattan” at the start of his career, Cesar Romero was a surprising choice for the role of the Joker in the 1960s television show. He began acting in the 1930s, often cast as the “Latin Lover” for leading beauties like Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda. During the 1940s his dancing skills were put to good use as he swung and seduced Betty Grable in the musicals Springtime in the Rockies and Coney Island.
By the time Batman hit television screens in 1966, Romero was a fifty-nine year old actor known for his roles in romantic comedies. Yet, his rendition of the mad villain for the series’ three-year run made him a legend: “It’s the kind of part where you can do everything you’ve been told not to do as an actor,” he said in a 1966 television interview. “You can be as hammy as you want.” From the time Romero put on the white makeup and flaming red smile, he developed a cult fan base that still hails him as the original and the best Joker, even to this day.
2. Jack Nicholson
Born in 1937, Jack Nicholson was still in grade school when Cesar Romero began his career. Nicholson hit Hollywood in 1954 when he was seventeen, and became the most nominated male actor in the history of the Academy Award with twelve wins under his belt.
Tim Burton took the reins to direct the Caped Crusader in the 1989 film, Batman. If Romero’s Joker was kooky and mischievous, Nicholson’s rendition was sinister and dark. Before plunging to his ultimate demise at the end of the film, Nicholson punched out one of cinema’s best one-liners: “What are you laughing at? You wouldn’t hit a man with glasses, would ya?” Needless to say, the Joker didn’t really wear glasses.
It had been twenty-one years since audiences last saw the villain on the screens, and this time he was just as show stopping, helping the film to make $400-million at the box office.
10 years later
3. Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger became every teenage girl’s fantasy when, in 1999, he starred opposite Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You. He cemented his role as the rebel with a heart of gold in 2001’s A Knight’s Tale and Casanova in 2005. Yet, the Australian actor left audiences breathless when he went against his “type” to give talented performances in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight.
“The Joker was the most fun I’ve ever had, will have playing a character,” Ledger said during a television interview. “It was hard stamina wise, because a high level of energy was needed and required every day.” Ledger won an Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night. Sadly, the twenty-eight year old’s untimely death a year later saw his award being accepted by his parents and sister.
4. Jared Leto
A dreamy look is one thing that Heath Ledger and Jared Leto have in common. In 1994, Leto was cast as a heartbreaker in the teen television drama, My So Called Life. From there he catapulted onto the big screen with supporting roles in Fight Club, Girl Interrupted, and Requiem for a Dream while still maintaining a successful career as a musician in his band, Thirty Seconds To Mars.
Following Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning performance as the Joker would have been terrifying shoes to fill for any actor, even Jared Leto. Yet, the Oscar-winner said that he saw it as an “opportunity to go and say something else, something new, something different.” The difference was that this Joker wore tattoos and slick leather jackets to join Harley Quinn and other DC Comics supervillans in the film Suicide Squad. As for Batman, he was nowhere in sight.
5. Joaquin Phoenix
“For me the attraction to make this film was we were going to approach it in our own way. I didn’t refer to any past iterations of [The Joker].”
Doing it his own way could be the tag phrase for Joaquin’s Phoenix’s career. This forty-four year old actor is hard to define, whether he’s portraying Commodus in Gladiator, Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, or a man who develops a relationship with an intelligent computer voice in Her. In order to play one of DC Comics’ most infamous villains, Phoenix lost fifty-two pounds.
Joker, written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, will hit theaters worldwide in October. The film tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a man who has dreams of becoming a successful stand-up comedian. But living on the verge of poverty in a rat-infested Gotham City slowly pushes Fleck to madness.
“I don’t think,” Phillips said, “this Joker’s goal was to watch the world burn. This Joker had an entirely different goal in mind.” Phillips said that this Joker tells a story that audiences haven’t seen told on the screen. And, already, it’s one that has been met with critical acclaim and Oscar buzz after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
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