Ten Best Drug Movie Characters

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Memorable Hollywood drug movie characters include Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, Johnny Depp in Blow, Gene Hackman in French Connection II, Ron O'Neal in Super Fly, Tomas Milian in Traffic, Frank Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm, Javier Bardem in N

Hollywood drug movies date back to the early days of the silent cinema. Here are ten memorable drug movie characters and the actors who portrayed them on the silver screen. Addicts, dealers, cops, hit men, LSD gurus and government officials – they're all represented here in the Hollywood history of the never-ending war on drugs...

Ewan McGregor as Mark Renton, Trainspotting (PolyGram, 1996)

Ewan McGregor is Mark Renton, a young, unemployed resident of Edinburgh, Scotland, who has chosen the alternative lifestyle of heroin addict. Along with fellow users Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) and Daniel "Spud" Murphy (Ewen Bremner), Renton spends much of his time shooting up the big "H" in the apartment of his go-to drug dealer "Mother Superior" Swanney (Peter Mullan). Renton decides to kick the drug habit one day, loading up on soup, pornography, Valium and plenty of buckets, as he locks himself inside a cheap hotel room where he prepares to meet the demonic forces of cold turkey heroin withdrawal. Trainspotting is not a pretty movie, but one that could easily serve as a public service message on the filth, degradation, violence and pharmaceutical insanity associated with drug addiction as so expertly practiced by Mark Renton and his lost Scottish mates.

Japanese B2 movie poster: Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting (1996) - Heritage Auction Galleries

Johnny Depp as George Jung, Blow (New Line Cinema, 2001)

Johnny Depp stars as the real-life George Jung, who heads west to California during the 1960s where he becomes a low-level marijuana dealer. In time, George realizes the immense profits in drug dealing, graduating to the more lucrative cocaine and even traveling to Colombia where he does business with international drug king Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis). Jung is busted several times, with his huge drug money profits later seized while sitting in Panamanian banks. The DEA and the FBI eventually nab Jung, where he is given a 60-year sentence. Penelope Cruz, who plays George Jung's wife in the film, earned a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Actress – but of course the Razzie judges were allegedly on drugs at the time.

Gene Hackman as Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, French Connection II (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1975)

Gene Hackman reprises his Oscar-winning role as Popeye Doyle, the famed New York City Police detective who broke up the fabled French Connection heroin ring in the original 1971 film. This time the gritty Popeye is in Marseilles, France, where he teams with French detective Henri Barthelemy (Bernard Fresson) and his men in the hunt for elusive drug lord Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Slipping his French escorts, Popeye attempts to collar Charnier on his own, but is instead taken captive and subjected to daily heroin injections. Later dumped in front of police headquarters, Doyle is treated surreptitiously by a French doctor and forced to go cold turkey with Barthelemy providing the tough love support.

One sheet movie poster: Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle in French Connection II (1975) - Heritage Auction Galleries

Ron O'Neal as Youngblood Priest, Super Fly (Warner Bros., 1972)

Ron O'Neal is Youngblood Priest, a violent New York City cocaine dealer who wants to retire after he scores a cool $1 million in four months. This blaxploitation thriller has it all, complete with big money drug deals, dirty cops, hopped-up junkies, pimps, the New York Mafia, Harlem hotties and of course the main man himself Youngblood Priest – a.k.a. Super Fly – who wields a mean karate chop/kick and drives a customized 1971 Cadillac Eldorado. The late Curtis Mayfield enhances the production, performing such ghetto/drug-themed songs as "Pusherman," "Freddy's Dead," "No Things On Me (Cocaine Song)" and of course "Super Fly." Ron O'Neal reprised his role as the badass Priest in the 1973 sequel Super Fly, T.N.T.

French lobby card: Ron O'Neal as Youngblood Priest in Super Fly (1972) - Heritage Auction Galleries

Tomas Milian as General Arturo Salazar, Traffic (USA Films, 2000)

Tomas Milian plays General Arturo Salazar, a Mexican military official tasked with waging the American-Mexican war on illegal drugs south of the border. Salazar instructs several of his underlings to kidnap Francisco Flores (Clifton Collins Jr.), an assassin who works for the Obregon Drug Cartel in Tijuana. Under extreme torture, Flores coughs up some prominent names, with Salazar later launching police and army raids against the cartel's stronghold. But the Mexican general is involved in the drug trade himself, taking out the Obregon brothers so another drug cartel can operate more freely and continue to pay him handsomely on the sly for his services. Michael Douglas plays U.S. drug czar Robert Wakefield, with Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Amy Irving and Miguel Ferrer also caught up in the drug war.

Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine, The Man with the Golden Arm (United Artists, 1955)

Frank Sinatra plays Frankie Machine, a heroin addict who cleans up his act while doing a stretch in prison. Frankie returns to the old neighborhood but soon runs afoul of his old habit, acquiring "horse" from slimy drug dealer Louie Fomorowski (Darren McGavin). The Man with the Golden Arm is one of Sinatra's best films, with Ol' Blue Eyes registering a strong, Oscar-nominated performance as the vulnerable Frankie Machine. Two scenes readily stand out in Hollywood drug movie lore. The first is Frankie's desperate assault on Fomorowski, where he steals heroin and injects it to calm his tattered nerves. The second is Frankie's self-induced cold turkey regimen, where he tries to kick the habit in Molly's (Kim Novak) apartment. Sinatra prepared for his role by observing addicts going cold turkey at drug rehabilitation clinics.

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men (Miramax, 2007)

Javier Bardem plays Anton Chigurh, a hit man for organized crime interests in 1980. Chigurh apparently loves his job, blowing away the innocent and guilty alike as he pursues Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who made off with $2 million in cash after stumbling on a Mexican brown heroin deal gone bad in the desert. Bardem, complete with a bad 1970s haircut and zombie-like lurch, tracks Moss via an electronic device secreted in the stack of bills, using a cattle gun to blow locks and assorted weaponry to dispose of his victims. "No Country for Old Men...is bleak, scary and relentlessly violent. At its center is a figure of evil so calm, so extreme, so implacable that to hear his voice is to feel the temperature in the theater drop," offered A.O. Scott of The New York Times (11/9/07) in singling out the Anton Chigurh character. Javier Bardem won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the sociopath, robocop assassin.

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh with cattle gun in No Country for Old Men (2007) - Miramax Films

Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, Clear and Present Danger (Paramount, 1994)

Harrison Ford stars as Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst who is unwittingly drawn into an illegal government operation targeting a Colombian drug cartel. The operation includes assassination, a surgical bombing strike and betrayal at the top levels of government. The scene in which Ryan's convoy is ambushed in Colombia by drug cartel hit men wielding automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenade launchers is one of cinematic mayhem and carnage. Willem Dafoe also shines as disgruntled CIA operative John Clark, who with Ryan mounts a rescue operation in Colombia.

Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan in Clear and Present Danger (1994) - Paramount Pictures

Brad Davis as Billy Hayes, Midnight Express (Columbia, 1978)

Brad Davis portrays the real-life Billy Hayes, a young American who winds up in a brutal Istanbul prison after trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey in 1970. Billy's new home is an ancient penal fortress where insanity is the norm, rats prowl the floors and sadistic guards beat prisoners on the soles of their feet. The scene in which young Billy is collared at the airport, caught with several bricks of hashish taped to his body, may well be one of the most intense in drug movie history. Bo Hopkins garners a good secondary role as an American spook known as Tex, who tracks Billy down following an attempted escape from police custody, pointing a loaded pistol at the kid and threatening to blow his head off. 

Bruce Dern as John, The Trip (American International, 1967)

Bruce Dern plays John, an LSD advocate who sets up television commercial director Paul Groves (Peter Fonda) for his psychedelic drug trip through la la land. After scoring some acid, the two repair to John's pad where Paul engages in his own "freak out," with wild visions of love, death, sex, torture, etc., parading through his fried brain. This movie is "a real trip,", featuring the requisite drugs, sex, clothing, dialogue, hippies, music and other accouterments of the psychedelic sixties, complete with the Electric Flag's version of "Softly and Tenderly." The Trip was written by Jack Nicholson and directed by Roger Corman. Like far out, man!

One sheet movie poster: Peter Fonda, Susan Strasberg and Bruce Dern in The Trip (1967) - Heritage Auction Galleries

Fifteen More Memorable Drug Movie Characters

  • Peter Fonda as Wyatt and Dennis Hopper as Billy, drug users and dealers, Easy Rider (1969)
  • Wesley Snipes as Nino Brown, crack cocaine dealer, New Jack City (1991)
  • Michael Douglas as Robert Wakefield, U.S. government drug czar, Traffic (2000)
  • Robert Downey Jr. as Julian Wells, drug addict, Less Than Zero (1987)
  • Al Pacino as Tony Montana, drug dealer, Scarface (1983)
  • Cameron Mitchell as Barney Ross, drug addict, Monkey on My Back (1957)
  • Abbie Cornish as Candy and Heath Ledger as Dan, heroin addicts, Candy (2006)
  • Al Pacino as Bobby and Kitty Winn as Helen, heroin addicts, The Panic in Needle Park (1971)
  • Jared Leto as Harry Goldfarb, drug addict, Requiem for a Dream (2000)
  • Sean Nelson as Michael a.k.a. "Fresh," 12-year-old drug pusher, Fresh (1994)
  • Joseph Forte as Dr. Carroll, physician, Reefer Madness (1936)
  • Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, psychedelic drug user, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

One sheet movie poster: Al Pacino and Kitty Winn in The Panic in Needle Park (1971) - Heritage Auction Galleries

Top Image & Further Reading

  • Lobby card: Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine, left, with Darren McGavin in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) - Heritage Auction Galleries
  • Ten Best Drug Movies

Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved. 

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William J. Felchner
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Posted on Nov 21, 2010
M 5446
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Posted on Nov 19, 2010
Ron Siojo
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Posted on Nov 19, 2010
Sharla Smith
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Posted on Nov 18, 2010