Instep Today

Meet the players behind the clown prince of crime

By Omair Alavi
Thu, 10, 19

As Joaquin Phoenix creates Oscar buzz for his performance in the latest Joker film, Instep looks at some of the most prolific actors who have played the role in the past.

Joaquin Phoenix may be the new Joker in Hollywood, but there have been others before him who have done a fantastic job – at the time – as the clown prince of crime. Be it Jack Nicholson’s Jack Napier, who became the first modern-day Joker or Heath Ledger’s darker representation, the character has kept audiences terrified since forever. With Joaquin Phoenix acing the role at the moment and winning the box office as well, it’s time to remember all those who have ‘been there, done that’.

Cesar Romero (1966)Film: Batman: The Movie

Actor Cesar Romero was the most popular Joker for the longest duration; he played the character in the famous Batman series on TV in the ‘60s and reprised the role in the first Batman: The Movie in 1966. Till the next Joker’s arrival in 1989, Romero’s Joker was considered the definitive clown prince of crime. Even with a gun in his hand, he wasn’t taken seriously and that’s why he was remembered more as a Prankster than the ‘Joker’ we learned about later. For years, he was as popular as Joker as Adam West and Burt Ward were as Batman and Robin until Jack Nicholson changed it all.

Jack Nicholson (1989) Film: Batman

When it was announced that Jack Nicholson would play the character of Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman, he was rated as one of the world’s finest actors. And only the world’s best would have been able to do justice to the role of Joker, which was till then taken lightly. He not only brought the darkness that would have made the creators of Batman happy but also upstaged the Caped Crusader as people were found cheering for the antagonist. The white skin, the green hair and the red lips became his trademark and when Batman: The Animated Series was launched, Jack Nicholson’s likeness was retained.

Mark Hamill (1993) Film: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

There was also Mark Hamill, who made the character of Joker his own, so much so that people now remember him as both Luke Skywalker and The Joker. When the animated series was launched after the success of two Batman movies, the producers went for Mark Hamill because they wanted someone who sounded dark but was still acceptable to children. Not only did he bring a wide range of laughs along with his darkness, but he also kept Nicholson’s eccentricities alive and was there to play the character when the first animated film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was released in 1993. He subsequently kept appearing in other DC Animated films (direct to video and DVD) including Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker where his character came back from the dead to haunt a retired Bruce Wayne, but was eventually defeated by the new Batman (Terry McGinnis).

Heath Ledger (2008) Film: The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger literally gave his life to the role of The Joker, but one must remember that he could have become Batman instead. Before Christian Bale became the ultimate Caped Crusader, Heath Ledger was offered the role by director Christopher Nolan but the actor wasn’t interested. He came on board as the antagonist in The Dark Knight, working with the same director and taking the character to iconic heights. By far, his Joker was the darkest, the meanest, most chaotic and obsessed with Batman than any other film before. He died six months before the film was released (due to accidental drug overdose) but still lives on, in the hearts and minds of all DC Comics fans, because of his iconic performance. In fact, he was posthumously awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, which was the first-ever win for any character based on a comic book.

Jared Leto (2016)Film: The Suicide Squad

He is no Jack Nicholson but when Jared Leto was chosen to play the character of Joker, he was an Academy Award winner and a great prospect to carry on the legacy of The Joker forward. The method actor in Jared Leto decided to modernize the role by donning tattoos, spending time with psychopaths and discussing character preparation with doctors. The failure of Suicide Squad hurt him the most as he was not considered for the Todd Phillips’ version of Joker. Joaquin Phoenix’s rendition effectively put an end to whatever chances Jared Leto had of playing the clown prince of crime in future films.

– Omair Alavi is a freelance broadcast journalist who can be contacted at