Being a sidekick used to be a lot simpler in the old days. Sure, you had to let the main character play quarterback, but you still got to be the ironic truth-teller, the one who would call the hero on his character faults and hare-brained schemes. And even then, you still got credit for loyalty and bravery, as long as you had the protagonist's back when it counted. Those were the basic rules of sidekicking as laid down by the father of all modern sidekicks, Sancho Panza.
These days, however, the sidekick role is in flux. More and more, the second banana wants to be the top banana. Case in point: the new The Lone Ranger, which should probably be called Tonto, as charismatic, flamboyant Johnny Depp steals the spotlight from the blander Armie Hammer's masked do-gooder.
Is this sidekick revolution a good thing, one that will liberate the poor proletarian underlings from indentured servitude and stale genre conventions? Or will it ruin hero-sidekick narratives forever? What would Sancho do? Ponder these questions as you peruse this list of the greatest movie sidekicks of all time.
Chewbacca (Star Wars)
Princess Leia dissed him as a "walking carpet," but Han Solo's wookiee co-pilot is everyone's favorite sidekick. As played by Peter Mayhew throughout the Star Wars saga, Chewie is more than seven feet tall, strong, silent (well, not silent, but unintelligible), loyal, hypercompetent, fearless, and well-accessorized with that bandolier. Even Leia came to rely on him as indispensible to the rebels' cause. He was unjustly denied a medal at that ceremony at the end of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, but maybe he'll settle for being named King of the Sidekicks.
Samwise Gamgee (Lord of the Rings)
The indomitable, almost insane perseverance that Sean Astin brought to Rudy is present in his Lord of the Rings hobbit, too. No matter what happens, he won't let Frodo (Elijah Wood) get lost, either geographically or spiritually, on his way to Mordor to destroy the corrupting ring of power and save Middle-earth. As Sam tells Frodo, in the most moving moment in the trilogy, he can't carry his master's burden, "but I can carry you."
Dr. John Watson (Sherlock Holmes)
In the Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson has always been the audience stand-in, the translator who explains to us regular folk the eccentric, inscrutable, brilliant mind of the world's greatest sleuth. He's been played by such venerable actors as Robert Duvall and James Mason, but in the current Holmes movies, Watson is a young, vigorous Jude Law. For once, Watson isn't just the only guy who understands Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.), but also the only one who can keep up with him in the franchise's action set-pieces.
Gromit (Wallace and Gromit)
Inventor Wallace would be nowhere without his faithful dog. Gromit is silent (he doesn't even have a mouth), but he's even smarter and more resourceful than Wallace, helping him out of the scrapes that arise whenever Wallace's contraptions inevitably go awry. Plus, he's helped Wallace win three Oscars, two for Best Animated Short and one for Best Animated Feature, for The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
Short Round (Indiana Jones)
Of all of Indiana Jones' (Harrison Ford) helpers, traveling companions and love interests, it's the 11-year-old boy (Jonathan Ke Quan) who may be the most competent. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, he saves the swashbuckling archaeologist time and again, whether by driving the getaway car or deprogramming the brainwashed Indy in a flash with deft use of a flaming torch.
Goose (Top Gun)
Sometimes the sidekick has to take one for the team. In Top Gun, Anthony Edwards' Goose is Maverick's (Tom Cruise) ideal wingman, drinking buddy and fighter-jet support. But it's his death in the line of duty, in a freak jetwash accident, that spurs the grief-stricken Maverick toward greatness and destiny.
Cledus Snow (Smokey and the Bandit)
Sure, Bo "Bandit" Darville (Burt Reynolds) gets to drive the cool Trans Am, not to mention getting the girl and the glory. But someone has to do the heavy lifting and drive that semi full of bootleg beer across the country. Who else can Bandit rely on to move the merchandise and watch out for Smokey (in this case, Jackie Gleason's relentless Sheriff Buford T. Justice) except the Snowman (Jerry Reed)? Bonus points to Reed for co-composing and singing what would become the Smokey and the Bandit theme song, "East Bound and Down."
Yes, the 1942 Warner Bros. classic Casablanca appears to be the tale of a rekindled affair between nightclub owner Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and World War II fugitive Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Really, though, it's about Rick's bromance with piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson). They're together in Paris when Rick first meets Ilsa, and they're still a team in Morocco when Sam tries to protect Rick from heartbreak when Ilsa reappears. But that heartbreak is all over his rendition of "As Time Goes By." (No wonder Rick doesn't want to hear it – or that the unforgettable tune became the theme played before all Warner Bros. movies to this day.) Rick comes to realize that a noble gesture is required of him, one that will force him to abandon both Ilsa and Sam (though he does get to start a new bromance – er, "beautiful friendship" – with police captain Louis), but at least he makes sure before he goes that Sam has a permanent gig at Rick's Cafe.
Mini-Me (Austin Powers)
For Austin Powers nemesis Dr. Evil (Mike Myers), Mini-Me (Verne Troyer) is an ideal sidekick. Not only is the tiny clone a distillation of his own most villainous impulses, but he's also more concentrated and focused in his viciousness, like a rabid ferret. Plus, he never talks back – indeed, he never talks at all. No wonder Dr. Evil's son Scott (Seth Green) is jealous.
Passepartout (Around the World in 80 Days)
"No man is a hero to his valet" goes the saying, and no one illustrates this better than Passepartout, who follows his boss, tweedy Englishman Phileas Fogg, on his 19th-century Amazing Race quest in Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. As played by Mexican comedy legend Cantinflas in the 1956 movie, Passepartout does some world-class eye-rolling and mugging whenever Fogg (David Niven) drags them to some new trouble spot. By the time the movie was remade in 2004, Passepartout gets top billing (as he's played by Jackie Chan) and proves himself an able Kato cleaning up after a clearly buffoonish boss Fogg (Steve Coogan).
Kato (The Green Hornet)
Kato is perhaps the first contemporary sidekick to outshine his boss. It didn't start out that way, when The Green Hornet was a radio serial. But on TV, Kato was played by Bruce Lee, who could out-fight and out-charm the now-all-but-forgotten lead, Van Williams. The recent Green Hornet movie pays tongue-in-cheek homage to Lee's overachieving by making Kato (Jay Chou) an engineering whiz, a tactical genius, a skilled fighter, and a person generally much better at everything than bumbling Britt Reid (Seth Rogen). All Reid has is massive wealth (to pay for the cars and gadgets), childlike enthusiasm and fearlessness born of recklessness, which in turn comes from his faith that, however badly he screws up, Kato can rescue him. Which one is the hero and which one the sidekick becomes the running gag on which the whole movie is built.
Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) was bred to be a sidekick. Her self-styled superhero dad, the Batman-esque Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), taught her everything he knew about weapons and martial arts. Once he fell, it was not hard for her to become sidekick to another self-styled superhero, Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Then again, Moretz was so charismatic as the pint-sized, foul-mouthed, bone-crunching 11-year-old that many moviegoers thought she stole Kick-Ass from its title character. With Kick-Ass 2 due in August, we'll see if the balance of power has shifted.
Most superheroes are loners, and indeed, Robin sometimes seems more trouble than he's worth to Batman. As played by Burt Ward in 1966's Batman (essentially, a supersized episode of the campy ABC TV series), he's full of gee-whiz earnestness, but he's also a magnet for any supervillain who wants a hostage in order to extort the Caped Crusader. Chris O'Donnell, in Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, has acrobatic skills, but he's also an annoying, snotty pup. At least the putative Robin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in The Dark Knight Rises is discreet enough to stay out of Batman's way. An orphan, he understands Batman's sense of mission as well as anyone, and he proves a worthy heir to Batman's legacy. Given how many Batman tales suggest an aging hero who's contemplating hanging up the cowl before he gets himself killed, heir apparent seems the most fitting role of all for any Robin.
Garth Algar (Wayne's World)
Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) may be overflowing with personality, especially for a guy still living at home and hosting a public-access cable show from his Aurora, Illinois basement. But who would he be without the more pensive Garth (Dana Carvey) to bounce off of? Sure, Garth's nerdy and scared of girls, but he's as quick with a pop-culture quip as Wayne, and he's a supportive wingman to Wayne throughout the misadventures of two Wayne's World movies. So party on, Wayne.
Silent Bob (Jay and Silent Bob)
Kevin Smith may be the writer and director of most of his films, but he's happy to take a backseat as the nearly wordless half of Jay and Silent Bob, the stoner Greek chorus in many of Smith's films. After all, Jay (Jason Mewes) talks enough for both of them, and he usually has something funny (if wildly inappropriate) to say. Still, Bob's silence suggests a rich, hidden inner life, a fragment of which he finally reveals during the long monologue about a tragic love story that gives the movie Chasing Amy its title.
Cal Naughton (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby)
NASCAR racer Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) is a tough act to follow, except for lifelong friend Cal (John C. Reilly), who comes in second behind Bobby in every race. Nothing can break up their "Shake and Bake" duo – except for cocky gay French racer Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), or Ricky's smokin' hot wife, who marries Cal after Ricky loses his mojo. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby sets up a grudge rematch between Ricky and Jean, but when the winner of that race turns out to be Cal, it's a sweet moment of victory for sidekicks everywhere.
James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Iron Man)
Tony Stark's Air Force pal may be a key player in the Iron Man mythology, but in the first movie (when he's played by Terrence Howard), he doesn't get much to do. It's not until Iron Man 2, when Don Cheadle's Rhodey gets to don the black armor and become War Machine, that he starts to kick ass as a sidekick to the self-made superhero.
Pedro (Napoleon Dynamite)
A sidekick should make his partner look cool, and Pedro (Efren Ramirez) is about the only kid in school who can make Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) look cool. He's a Mexican in rural Idaho, he doesn't say much, and he's not terribly charismatic. Then again, his run for class president affords Napoleon an opportunity to show off his sweet dance moves. Admit it: you still have a "Vote for Pedro" T-shirt in your closet.
Cameron Frye (Ferris Bueller's Day Off)
Perpetually truant high schooler Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) can always count on the morose Cameron (Alan Ruck) to accompany him on his misadventures, impersonate Ferris' girlfriend's father on phone calls to the school principal, and even purloin that awesome Ferrari of Mr. Frye's for a joyride into downtown Chicago. Ferris may be exploiting Cameron's spinelessness, but he's also doing him a big favor, not just forcing Cameron to stand up to his neglectful dad, but also giving him a day of fun in the hope of elevating him out of what may be a suicidal depression. Who knows what happens after the end of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but let's hope the gangly guy in the Detroit Red Wings jersey is inspired to fly on his own.
Dr. Frankenstein's lab assistant (named Fritz in 1931's Frankenstein but Igor in many later movies) wasn't the most reliable or competent guy, what with bringing back an abnormal criminal brain instead of a less antisocial one for the creature to use. Still, when the villagers storm the castle with pitchforks and torches, who else would you want at your side? (By the way, everyone's favorite Igor is probably Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein, even if he insists on pronouncing it EYE-gor.)
Puss in Boots is too self-reliant and narcissistic to be a good sidekick to Shrek, but Donkey (Eddie Murphy) is so loyal to the ogre that he's practically co-dependent. He doesn't even have a distinctive name to suggest a unique identity. His friendship is unconditional, and he always has Shrek's back, no matter what kind of peril the two encounter in their world of grim fairy tales. That he won't ever stop yammering seems a small price to pay.