“Don’t Mess with the Bull”: 18 Memorable Movie Assholes

By Niall McArdle

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Last week cinema lost another great character actor, James Rebhorn, who died of skin cancer, but not before writing his own obituary.

Rebhorn was very often cast as a stern authority figure, usually an asshole (the headmaster in Scent of a Woman, the Secretary of Defence in Independence Day). His death made me think of some memorable movie assholes, and prompts the question “is there much of a difference between a school principal and a prison warden?”

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James Rebhorn as Principal Trask, Scent of a Woman

As the headmaster of the snotty private school, he is despised by the student body. When they prank his brand new Jaguar, he tries to pressure Chris O’Donnell into naming the culprits in exchange for a place at Harvard.

John Vernon as Dean Wormer, National Lampoon’s Animal House 

“Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” Wise words from the otherwise loathsome Dean from the comedy classic.


William Atherton as Dick Thornburg, Die Hard and Die Hard 2

William Atherton memorably played a dick in Ghostbusters before his performance as the slimy news reporter who will stop at nothing – even threatening to call the INS on the McClanes’ maid – to get a story.


James Tolkan as Principal Strickland, Back to the Future

He’s only in Back to the Future for a few minutes, but everyone remembers the venom with which he spits out the word “slacker”.


Jeffrey Jones as Ed Rooney, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 

The ultimate petty tyrant. John Hughes really had it in for educators, didn’t he?


Paul Gleason as Principal Vernon, The Breakfast Club

Watching him, you have to wonder “how and why did he ever become a teacher?” Everyone had an asshole like this to deal with in school.


Bob Gunton as Warden Norton, The Shawshank Redemption

Cruelty, sadism, corruption and murder, all wrapped in a sanctimonious Bible thumper


R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, Full Metal Jacket

Stanley Kubrick originally hired the ex-marine as a techinal advisor. When Ermey sent him an audition tape, ad-libbing a diatribe, Kubrick was convinced he should be cast as the vicious drill sergeant.


Patrick MacGoohan as Edward I, Braveheart

The real Edward I instigated punitive taxes, expelled the Jews, invaded Wales and Scotland, and led a Crusade. An all-round prick, really


James Spader as Steff, Pretty in Pink

The ultimate 1980s Yuppie Scumbag


Tom Cruise as Les Grossman, Tropic Thunder

The studio head you love to hate proved so popular in Ben Stiller’s comedy that there is talk of a spin-off.


Philip Seymour Hoffman as Dean Trumbell, Punch Drunk Love

Another wonderful rant from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.


Strother Martin as the Captain, Cool Hand Luke

The line “what he have here is failure to communicate” was listed at #11 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 most memorable movie lines.


Thomas F. Wilson as Biff, Back to the Future



Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood

He is an oilman. And he likes milkshakes.


Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher, Gangs of New York


Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

When Fletcher won the Academy Award for portraying the bitch in charge of the mental hospital, she declared “I’ve loved being hated by you!”


Gary Cole as Bill Lumbergh, Office Space

Perhaps the most odious boss in the history of cinema. When he’s not going on about TPS reports, he’s loudly slurping coffee and browbeating his employees, especially Milton.


2 thoughts on ““Don’t Mess with the Bull”: 18 Memorable Movie Assholes

  1. Good idea Niall, though I have to protest (mildly of course…) about the inclusion of R. Lee Ermey. Without his wonderful character, and accomplished acting in the part, ‘Full Metal jacket’ would never have worked as well as it did. He remains the definitive drill sergeant, and to my mind, will never be bettered.
    Cheers mate, Pete.


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