The Best Roles of Samuel L. Jackson’s Career

For four decades, Samuel L. Jackson has remained a constant force in Hollywood, thanks to his talent and versatility. Whether he’s playing a murderous arms dealer in Jackie Brown or a father searching for vengeance in A Time To Kill, he always delivers. Here are the 25 best roles of Samuel L. Jackson’s career.

Samuel L. Jackson

Image via Getty/Jean Baptiste Lacroix

Samuel L. Jackson

The sure sign of a legendary acting career is when fans have a hard time pinpointing your peak; a filmography with so many flashes of brilliance that endless debates are sparked about said actor’s “crowning achievement.” Samuel L. Jackson’s career often sparks this kind of debate; in four decades, Jackson has never ceased to amaze audiences with his greatness.

Jackson has had one of the most prolific careers of any actor in the history of film; in fact, the veteran actor holds the second highest grossing film total of all time. In a catalog filled with blockbusters, Jackson has managed to make viewers both laugh and cry, and has more than cemented his place as the baddest motherfucker in Hollywood.

If we had to sum up Samuel L. Jackson in one word, it would be “versatile.” Not only has he taken on a variety of roles, he has thrived in each of them. His sheer conviction as Carl Lee Hailey in A Time To Kill allowed viewers to feel the pain of a man whose family had been shaken to its core by a hate crime. Then, just as easily, he turned around and won our hearts as Frozone in The Incredibles. Jackson’s range sets him apart from others in the industry, and allows different audiences to enjoy and appreciate his work..

A great actor is one who can bend and adapt to any role, while still retaining the core skills that make them so universally entertaining. Without further ado, here are the 25 best roles of Samuel L. Jackson’s career.

25. Trevor Garfield

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Film: One Eight Seven (1997)

Emotions run high in One Eight Seven, a film about Trevor Garfield, a teacher pushed to his breaking point after multiple run-ins with gangs. Jackson starts off as a defeated man, but by the end of the film he’s hardened, numb, and reaches a point of no return.

24. Abel Turner

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Film: Lakeview Terrace (2008)

LAPD officer Abel Turner isn’t too fond of a newlywed interracial couple moving into his neighborhood, and doesn’t hold back in expressing his disdain for the new couple on the block. He’ll do anything to make them uncomfortable, from throwing loud parties in the middle of the night to using a chainsaw to cut down their trees that are hanging over onto his property. Unlike Jackson, there’s nothing salvageable about Turner; he’s corrupt through and through.

23. Major Marquis Warren

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Film: The Hateful Eight (2015)

Major Marquis Warren earns a spot on this list for his monologue about Sanford Smithers’ (Bruce Dern) son’s death alone. In a film built around dialogue, Jackson provides the wittiest and most entertaining by far.

22. Doyle Gipson

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Film: Changing Lanes (2002)

Doyle Gipson, an insurance salesman and recovering alcoholic, is trying his hardest to turn his life around and hold onto his wife and kids. He has the unfortunate luck of getting into a car accident on the way to a custody hearing for his children, and his wife is awarded full custody due to his absence. When he tries to keep his wife and children from moving to Oregon by buying them a new house, his credit is ruined, and his last-ditch effort to salvage his family falls apart. Jackson is particularly powerful in this role, portraying a man who refuses to let life keep him down.

21. Ray Arnold

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Film: Jurassic Park (1993)

Chief engineer at a theme park featuring cloned dinosaurs—talk about pressure. Jackson’s Ray Arnold oversees the main control center of Jurassic Park; when all hell breaks loose, he does his best to control the chaos—including actually stepping into the park and encountering the dinosaurs. Arnold is the definition of “badass,” a word that happens to be synonymous with Jackson himself.

20. Lieutenant Danny Roman

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Film: The Negotiator (1998)

The Negotiator gives us Jackson as Lieutenant Danny Roman, one of the Chicago Police Department’s top hostage negotiators who, through a series of unfortunate events, becomes a hostage holder himself. Even though he’s the bad guy, he still grabs the audience with his typical charisma.

19. Mitch Hennessy

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Film: The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

In The Long Kiss Goodnight, Jackson helps Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) discover details of her past life that elude her, and provides a bevy of great one-liners and humor throughout the film; of all the different variations of Jackson, foul-mouthed private investigator is one of the best.

18. Mace Windu

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Film: Star Wars Prequel Trilogy (1999-2005)

The only black Jedi? Check. The only Jedi with a purple lightsaber? Check. This is Jackson at his most reserved; we don’t see any of the jokes or wit that we’ve grown accustomed to, but he shines nonetheless. The Star Wars prequel has its flaws, but Jackson isn’t one of them.

17. Richmond Valentine

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Film: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

Jackson is downright captivating as Richmond Valentine in Kingsman: The Secret Service. Between his maniacal plan to wipe out almost all of Earth’s population, his hilarious lisp, and his early 2000s wardrobe, Valentine is surely one of Jackson’s most entertaining roles.

16. Stephen “Big Daddy” Bennett

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Film: Django Unchained (2012)

Jackson steals the show in Django Unchained as the ornery Stephen “Big Daddy” Bennett. While he doesn’t appear in the film until the last hour, his wickedness is a huge part of what makes Django a must-see.

15. Lucius Best/Frozone

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Film: The Incredibles (2004)

Just because Frozone is an animated character doesn’t mean we miss out on the Jackson we know and love. His presence is entirely felt in Disney’s blockbuster The Incredibles, primarily through Frozone’s  humor and charm. This is also as family-friendly as he gets.

14. Louis Baptiste

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Film: Eve’s Bayou (1997)

Jackson’s hasn’t played many unlikable characters, but Louis Baptiste is one of them. A well-respected doctor in Louisiana, Baptiste gets caught cheating on his wife by his young daughter, Eve (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). It’s a good thing Jackson has more roles like the next one to remind us how likable he is.

13. Shaft

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Film: Shaft (2000)

Only Jackson could make being a cop look cool, and that’s exactly what he does as Shaft. The smoothest cat on the block, Shaft kicks ass and takes no prisoners, and shows the audience just what makes him such a “bad mother (shut yo mouth).”

12. Lazarus Redd

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Film: Black Snake Moan (2006)

In Black Snake Moan, Jackson plays Lazarus Redd, physical and spiritual healer to Rae Doole (Christina Ricci), whom he finds left for dead on the side of the road. Jackson shows his darker side as a man defeated and bitter about what his life has come to, but eventually finds a purpose in saving Doole’s life and helping her overcome the demons that have afflicted her since her childhood.

11. Zeus Carver

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Film: Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995)

Jackson is excellent as Zeus Carver, a black shopkeeper who isn’t too fond of white people. But when John McClane (Bruce Willis) is dropped off in Harlem wearing a sandwich board that reads “I Hate N*****s,” Carver actually comes to his aid and saves him from an angry group of black men. From this point forward, Carver and McClane form an unlikely partnership and attempt to take down a terrorist who has placed bombs throughout New York City. Jackson is the sidekick that every hero needs when trying to save the world.

10. Nick Fury

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Films: Marvel Cinematic Universe Films (2010-2015)

The most important cameo appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films haven’t been made by Stan Lee, but by Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson appears as Nick Fury, the head agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. He became so recognizable in the role that Marvel ultimately retired the original Nick Fury character and replaced him with a new Nick Fury, in Jackson’s likeness.

9. Mister Señor Daddy Love

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Film: Do The Right Thing (1989)

Jackson’s smooth-talking DJ serves as the perfect narrator for a heartbreaking film about race relations in Brooklyn in the ‘80s. In a film that tracks one hot day Brooklyn, in which an entire neighborhood reaches its boiling point, Jackson remains calm, cool, and collected. We need Mister Señor Daddy Love to narrate all of our summers.

8. Agent Neville Flynn

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Film: Snakes On A Plane (2006)

The premise of Snakes On A Plane is so outrageous, there’s only one man who could get us to come along for the ride. Jackson plays Agent Neville Flynn, who is tasked with escorting Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) to Los Angeles to testify against gang boss Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson) for the murder of a U.S. Prosecutor—that is, until Kim releases a crate of venomous snakes on the flight to ensure that Jones doesn’t make it to court. “I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane,” has become one of the most iconic lines of Jackson’s career, and officially made him the rightful owner of the word “motherfuck”—in all tenses.

7. Coach Ken Carter

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Film: Coach Carter (2005)

The bigger picture is often hard for the youth to see. Enter basketball coach Ken Carter, whose end goal isn’t to win basketball games, but to provide a group of young men with the tools necessary to succeed beyond basketball. Carter stands firm in his goal of helping these young men off the court and in the classroom, even forfeiting games in an undefeated season to get his point across. Of all the roles Jackson has played, Carter has one of the higher moral compasses.

6. Sam

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Film: Fresh (1994)

Jackson’s role as the father of a 12-year-old drug courier in New York doesn’t earn him as much screen time as other roles in his career, but he still proves to be impactful. Fresh also provides one of the most remarkable scenes of his career, in which he describes the strategy behind the game of chess to his son (Sean Nelson); it may not sound all that riveting, but it’s incredibly powerful.

5. Elijah Price

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Film: Unbreakable (2000)

Unbreakable features Jackson as Elijah Price, AKA Mr. Glass. Price suffers from Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease that makes him susceptible to bone fractures. He ultimately finds his “unbreakable” counterpart (Bruce Willis) by orchestrating various acts of violence and terrorism. This is one of the more bizarre roles of Jackson’s career, but even as the villain, he still manages to earn the audience’s compassion.

4. Ordell Robbie

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Film: Jackie Brown (1997)

Jackson’s chemistry with Quentin Tarantino is undeniable, and Jackie Brown is no exception. In the film, Jackson plays Ordell Robbie, a Los Angeles gun runner whose operation comes crashing down on him when Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) gets caught by the FBI. Through a series of twists and turns, Ordell becomes unhinged, even killing his partner in crime (Robert De Niro) when an exchange for $500,000 dollars goes awry. Jackie Brown is the most underrated film in Tarantino’s catalog, and it features one of the best performances of Jackson’s career.

3. Carl Lee Hailey

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Film: A Time To Kill (1996)

One of the more gripping roles of Jackson’s career, Carl Lee Hailey takes the law into his own hands when he feels that the two white men who abducted and raped his daughter are going to get away with their crimes. Jackson’s portrayal of a father hell-bent on revenge earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and caused viewers to ask themselves just how far they would go to protect their family. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned…or Jackson wielding a shotgun in a courthouse.

2. Gator

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Film: Jungle Fever (1991)

In Jungle Fever, Jackson plays Gator, a crack addict who will resort to any means to get his high. Jackson perfectly toed the line between making the audience laugh and earning their empathy, and thus created one of the most memorable characters in Spike Lee’s long and illustrious filmography.

1. Jules Winnfield

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Film: Pulp Fiction (1994)

As any self-proclaimed film buff can tell you, Jackson owned the role of the hitman Jules Winnfield, and outshined every other actor who shared a scene with him, including John Travolta, Ving Rhames, Christopher Walken, and Uma Thurman. No scene captures Jackson’s magnetic ability to draw in viewers quite like “say what again,” which has become one of the most iconic scenes in film history. The role earned Jackson a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the 67th Annual Academy Awards.

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