In 2022, the Academy presented a Honorary Oscar to Samuel L. Jackson, a worthy achievement for an actor whose body of work boasts some of the most iconic roles (and most quotable quotes) of the past few decades.
Over the course of his career, Jackson has amassed more than 150 credits to his name, beginning with bit roles in everything from Ragtime (1981) and Coming to America (1988), to The Exorcist III and Goodfellas (both 1990). It wasn't long before he'd made a name for himself in films like Patriot Games (1992), Jurassic Park (1993), and True Romance (1993). Now, Jackson is a bona fide movie star (with major franchise appeal, having starred in Star Wars, the MCU, and more) and highly sought after actor, a favorite of directors from Spike Lee to Quentin Tarantino.
Below, A.frame is running down some of his most notable roles for your own at-home Sam Jackson movie festival.
A major breakthrough film for writer-director Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing takes place during a sweltering day in Brooklyn that turns into a charged powder keg. The film features a stellar ensemble cast with an early big role for Jackson. Still billed as "Sam Jackson" at the time, he steals every second of screen time as Mister Señor Love Daddy, the local radio DJ.
As the unforgettably named Gator Purify, Jackson reunited with Spike Lee for the filmmaker's fifth feature film, an interracial love story that earned him some of the earliest critical raves of his career. Here Jackson plays the crack addict brother of Wesley Snipes' Flipper.
Jackson snagged an Oscar nomination for Quentin Tarantino's crime classic. (Which won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.) Here he plays Jules, a scripture-quoting hitman who has second thoughts about his career choice and finds his path diverging from that of his his partner, John Travolta's Vincent Vega — in between ruminations on foot massages, fast food in Europe, and Fonzie.
The third big screen adventure for Bruce Willis' unlucky New York City cop John McClane is also the first real buddy movie in the series thanks to the introduction of Jackson’s Zeus Carver, a Harlem electrical shop owner who becomes entangled in a deadly, citywide game of Simon Says. The film also demonstrated Jackson’s easy ability to carry an action film, something that would serve him well in many films to come.
If you ever wondered what a film noir starring Jackson would be like, this snappy Christmastime action thriller written by Shane Black gives you a pretty good idea. In the film, Jackson plays a low-rent private eye thrown into a wild case with amnesiac schoolteacher Geena Davis, now awakening to her former skills as a top-notch assassin.
An acclaimed mixture of Southern-fried melodrama and Gothic coming-of-age story, Eve’s Bayou stars Jackson as a successful doctor father whose personal weaknesses might tear their family apart. A very young Jurnee Smollett had her first major role in the film, which was also writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ feature debut.
Jackson teamed up with Tarantino for a second time in this Oscar-nominated adaptation of Elmore Leonard's breezy crime novel Rum Punch, playing the antagonist to Pam Grier's titular airline stewardesses and occasional small-scale money smuggler. The director's most subdued film allows plenty of breathing room for the cast, with Jackson showing off his truly villainous side while verbally jousting with Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda.
A compelling character study and action film, F. Gary Gray's large-scale thriller casts Jackson as Chicago's top hostage negotiator, Lieutenant Danny Roman, who finds himself at the other end of the bargaining table when he’s set up for murder. Taking extreme measures to clear his name, he creates his own hostage situation to uncover a rotten secret within his own department.
Jackson easily takes the honor for the most memorable scene in director Renny Harlin's popcorn cult classic about an underground research facility performing unorthodox experiments on sharks. Jackson may not have the most screen time here (you can probably guess why), but his show-stopping monologue will never be forgotten.
When George Lucas revived his legendary space opera franchise, he recruited Jackson to play the high-ranking Jedi Council member and ace swordsman Mace Windu. Jackson would go on to reprise the role several times including the next two films, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).
M. Night Shyamalan's dissection of the superhero genre foreshadowed the current wave of comic book-inspired movies, and proved to be a successful follow-up for him and star Bruce Willis after The Sixth Sense (1999). Here, Jackson proves an effective foil as the fragile Elijah Price, an expert comics collector and exhibitor who believes he’s discovered the real-life root of these timeless stories — a role he reprised in 2019's Glass.
Jackson returned to the Southern melodrama in Craig Brewer's twisted story of music, trauma, and redemption. Jackson plays no-nonsense blues musician Lazarus, whose mission to help — and ultimately save — troubled young Rae (Christina Ricci) goes far beyond the realm of the socially acceptable.
A disturbing hotel room comes to life in this stylish adaptation of Stephen King's short story of the same name. As hotel manager Gerald, Jackson goes toe-to-toe with John Cusack's Mike, a paranormal investigator who is set on finding out the truth about room 1408.
Jackson hasn't played a James Bond villain yet, but he certainly has what it takes based on his turn as the megalomaniacal Richmond Valentine, a man bent on saving the planet by culling the human population. Matthew Vaughn's irreverent comic book adaptation has great fun tweaking the conventions of the spy story formula, with Jackson perfectly in tune with the over-the-top helpings of comedy and violence.
Quentin Tarantino's back-to-back excursions into Western territory started with Django Unchained (2012), which featured Jackson in a supporting role as a malevolent, slavery-abetting butler. In The Hateful Eight, he played Major Marquis Warren, a bounty hunter whose personal letter from Abraham Lincoln helps him traverse the country — at least until he ends up stuck in snowbound general store that becomes the scene of a murder mystery.
This surprise hit returned Jackson to action buddy movie terrain opposite Ryan Reynolds. Jackson stars as hitman Darius Kincaid whose wife, Sonia (Salma Hayek), is being used as leverage for his testimony against ruthless dictator Gary Oldman, and who must make it to the trial with the help of neurotic bodyguard and nemesis Michael Bryce ( Reynolds) tasked with protecting him. Their barbed banter forms the heart of the film and their foulmouthed chemistry proved so winning they came back again for a sequel, Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021).
Jackson's Nick Fury first turned up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a post-credits scene in the first Iron Man (2008), and the role grew over the course of ten subsequent films. His biggest showcase came in Captain Marvel, in which Nick Fury was tasked with guiding Brie Larson's Captain Marvel, a powerful but memory-challenged pilot whose allegiances are upended when she ends up stuck on Earth in 1995, attracting the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. among many others. Jackson was subtly de-aged digitally for the film, which also reveals the origin story for Fury’s distinctive eyepatch.