A graduate of USC who also trained at the famous Groundlings comedy group, Will Ferrell first rose to fame in the '90s on Saturday Night Live, creating memorable characters such as the Spartan Cheerleaders (with Cheri Oteri) and the Butabi brothers (with Chris Kattan), as well doing impressions of actual people, including George W. Bush, James Lipton and Alex Trebek. The sketch featuring the Butabi brothers became so popular that the duo went on to earn their own movie, A Night at the Roxbury, which Ferrell co-wrote with Kattan and Steve Koren.
While working on SNL, Ferrell also appeared in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and its sequel, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, along with roles in Dick, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Superstar, which starred fellow SNL castmate Molly Shannon.
In 2001, Ferrell delivered a memorable performance as the eccentric villain Mugatu in Zoolander, starring Ben Stiller. Two years later, he starred in Old School, stealing scenes left and right as Frank the Tank and helping to further elevate the era of the "Frat Pack" – a group of comedy actors that initially included Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, and Stiller, and later included Jack Black, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and John C. Reilly.
Following Old School, Ferrell delivered several more hits, including Elf, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Step Brothers. It was during this time that he also co-founded Funny Or Die with Adam McKay, showcasing comedy shorts voted on by viewers, and eventually growing into a viral comedy hitmaker. During those years, Ferrell also routinely made unforgettable cameos in films, including as Chazz Reinhold in Wedding Crashers and as Big Earl in Starsky and Hutch.
Behind the scenes, Ferrell has been a prolific producer for close to two decades, working on series like Eastbound & Down and Dead to Me and films like Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, Booksmart, The Menu and this year’s Theater Camp and May December.
Earlier this summer, Ferrell appeared as the CEO of Mattel in the smash hit Barbie. In his latest effort, Ferrell voices a lost dog in Strays, a very adult take on a Homeward Bound-style adventure. Below, A.frame presents 10 essential films showcasing Ferrell's comedic, and in some cases dramatic, range.
Ben Stiller stars as the dim-witted titular model, Derek Zoolander, trying to keep his career alive when he's approached by Ferrell's villain Mugatu, intent on assassinating the prime minister of Malaysia. Mugatu has platinum blond hair and a matching goatee, dons an extravagant gray and black bodysuit, and always carries his small white poodle. Ferrell's performance as the outlandish Mugatu, who also happens to be one of the few smart-ish characters in this wonderfully silly comedy, showed that he was more than ready to move on from SNL and become a star on the big screen.
Old School stars Ferrell, Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughnas as friends in their 30s who start a fraternity to try to recapture their collegiate glory days.
As Frank the Tank, Ferrell delivers a showcase of his physical comedy capabilities, from streaking to rhythmic gymnastics to flailing through a ring of fire in a mascot costume. Old School, directed by Todd Phillips before he went on to direct The Hangover trilogy and Joker, helped set the tone for studio comedies for years to come, and made Ferrell a big-screen superstar.
Elf makes another excellent use of Ferrell’s physicality, casting him as Buddy the Elf, a human towering over the elves who raised him at the North Pole after he was accidentally transported there as a toddler. In search of his actual family, the adult Buddy – still dressed as an elf – journeys to New York City. Ferrell’s delightful, child-like performance imbues the whole film with Christmas cheer, leading it to become a modern Christmas classic.
Elf also boasts an all-star cast, including James Caan as Buddy's father, Mary Steenburgen as his stepmother, Zooey Deschanel as a retail worker who becomes his love interest in the film, Bob Newhart as Papa Elf, and Ed Asner as Santa. The comedy was directed by Jon Favreau a few years before he directed Iron Man, which launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Anchorman is the height of Ferrell's absurdist sensibilities, chock-full of quotable lines that persist in pop culture to this day. Set in the '70s, the comedy stars Ferrell as Ron Burgundy, a blowhard news anchor in San Diego. Ron, according to him, is very important; he has many leather-bound books and his apartment smells of rich mahogany. He is accompanied by a staff played by Paul Rudd, David Koechner and Steve Carell, among others. The status quo of the KVWN Channel 4 news team is threatened by the arrival of the tough, intelligent and beautiful female anchor Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). Countless shenanigans ensue.
The dialogue and set pieces in Anchorman border on live-action Looney Tunes, such as an all-out battle between the rival news anchors from the various stations in the area. Anchorman also marked Ferrell's first collaboration with director Adam McKay, which would lead to four more films together as star and director, in addition to the creation of Funny or Die.
Ricky Bobby is another variation of Ferrell's trademark loudmouth blowhard that still manages to somehow be likable and hilarious. In Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Ferrell is a NASCAR driver who loses to a French rival (played by an overtly-accented Sacha Baron Cohen) and has to rebuild his sense of self to become the driver he was always meant to be.
Talladega Nights, for which Ferrell reteamed with McKay, marked the beginning of another successful partnership, one with the Oscar-nominated John C. Reilly. Here, Reilly co-stars here as Cal, Ricky’s best friend and teammate. Shake and bake!
Stranger Than Fiction finds Ferrell in a more grounded but still comedic role as Harold Crick, an IRS agent who begins to hear the narration of his life by an author (played by Emma Thompson) who also states that he will soon die. Existential doesn’t even begin to describe it! While trying to avoid his fate, Harold finds romance with a baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal), which allows Ferrell to show the softer, sweeter side of his range.
Ferrell and Reilly team up with McKay for perhaps the pinnacle of their man-child antics in Step Brothers. They play Brennan and Dale, two fully adult men living at home whose parents, played by Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen, marry, forcing them to live together. At first they hate each other, but they quickly bond over bizarro shared interests and behaviors.Ferrell and Reilly deliver energetically unhinged performances that make the movie one of the most memorable and quotable in the actor’s catalog.
Ferrell essentially plays the straight man to Mark Wahlberg's hot-headed fellow detective in this action comedy directed by McKay. Relegated to desk jobs while the movie-star cool cops (played by Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson) delight in all the fun action, they eventually stumble onto a massive financial scheme. The hilarious cast is rounded out by Michael Keaton as their TLC lyrics-quoting and paternalistic police captain, and Eva Mendes as Ferrell's wife, who he inexplicably finds completely dull and unattractive in one of the movie's most hilarious running gags.
In his most serious role to date, Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, an alcoholic whose life begins to fall apart after an incident he can’t remember. He finds himself kicked out of the house by his wife and surrounded by his possessions on the lawn. As he contemplates his future, Nick begins to sell everything he owns. Ferrell showed he had the dramatic chops to take on the role, and he stands out in a talented cast that includes Rebecca Hall, Stephen Root, Michael Peña, and Oscar winner Laura Dern.
Born out of his genuine love for the real-life Eurovision Song Contest, Ferrell, who also co-wrote and produced the comedy, stars as Lars Erikson, one half of the titular Icelandic band Fire Saga with co-star Rachel McAdams as Sigrit. The pair don't lack talent, but struggle to break into the competition. They succeed through a hysterical series of events that ultimately places them on the world stage. Together, Ferrell and McAdams make an excellent comedic duo, with Ferrell as a sweeter version of his typically overconfident man, often taking a step back to let McAdams' equally sweet and silly performance shine. Directed by David Dobkins, who had previously directed McAdams and Ferrell in Wedding Crashers, the film features fun appearances by Dan Stevens and Pierce Brosnan.