The 1980s will always be associated with President Ronald Reagan, and for very good reason. It was “morning in America” again, a time when optimism roared back after President Jimmy Carter’s patented “malaise.” Pop culture often reflected that spirit, brimming with muscular heroes who saved the day without handwringing.
Stallone. Willis. Schwarzenegger. Van Damme. Norris.
The era also featured pop culture characters who embodied, in one shape or another, the decade’s conservative mien. Some thrived on the small screen. Others made their mark (and their day) on theaters nationwide.
Here are ten characters who left an indelible mark on the culture, and did so while embracing smaller government and the American Dream. They weren’t all heroes, though, but each captured a component of conservatism in engaging ways.
1. Alex P. Keaton
The minds behind the NBC sitcom “Family Ties” created the character as the perfect foil for his hippie parents. Michael J. Fox upended those plans, much to the producers’ delight. Yes, Alex didn’t win every battle with progressive Ma and Pa, but he became the show’s breakout star. Fox’s swift wit and indefatigable spirit left even liberal viewers laughing with, not at, the character.
Liberal Slate noted how Fox “made conservatism seem at once upstanding and rebellious.”
2. Thornton Melon
Rodney Dangerfield proved an unlikely conservative hero in the 1986 comedy “Back to School.” The film’s focus stuck to the ultimate sight gag – the gray, out of shape stand-up acting like a college freshman.
Thornton Melon delivered more than killer one-liners. He was a self-made man who built his small business into an empire of “Big and Fat” stores. He hoped his son Jason (Keith Gordon) would follow in his footsteps, but with a twist. Thornton’s immigrant parents bemoaned his academic failures, and he didn’t want Jason to repeat those mistakes.
It’s why he “bribed” his way into college and, later, caused comic chaos in the grand Dangerfield tradition.
3. “Dirty” Harry Callahan
Clint Eastwood’s rule-smashing cop stormed box offices during the 1970s, drawing shrieks from liberal film critics like Pauline Kael. She called Eastwood’s no-nonsense cop a fascist, and worse. Audiences ignored her pleas, turning Dirty Harry into a cultural force alongside Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” anti-hero.
“Dirty Harry” spawned four sequels, pushing the character’s story deep into the Reagan era. In fact, Dirty Harry’s most famous line came from the 1983 film “Sudden Impact.”
“Go ahead … make my day.” Does that sound like a progressive’s approach to crime?
4. John McClane
Bruce Willis’ character smoked, cracked wise and saved hundreds of lives after terrorists commandeered Nakatomi Plaza in 1989’s “Die Hard.” The character’s blue collar bona fides, from his tattered undershirt to his quest to reunite with his feminist bride, are unquestionable.
His self-given nickname? “Roy,” as in Roy Rogers. He spouted western catchphrases and proved more heroic than his estranged wife’s beta co-workers.
The only thing conservatives argue about “Die Hard” now is whether it’s an official Christmas movie or not.
5. George Jefferson
The patriarch of the beloved long-running sitcom “The Jeffersons” (1975-1985) is another example of the American dream in action.
Jefferson, played with panache by Sherman Hemsley, used an insurance settlement to fund his own business, one that eventually led him to a “deee-lux apartment in the sky.”
The show, as well as the characters, explored race and class far more than politics. “The Jeffersons” sprang to life after successful appearances on “All in the Family,” including a 1974 episode where George ran for local office on the Republican ticket.
6. Gordon Gekko
The man who proclaimed, “Greed is good” gave 1987’s “Wall Street” its outsized villain. The role also delivered Michael Douglas his first and only Best Actor Oscar (to date).
Director Oliver Stone created Gordon Gekko to critique Wall Street excess, and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The slick hair. The suspenders. The take-no-prisoners attitude.
For better and worse the image stuck. Gekko didn’t put conservatism in a positive light, but you couldn’t take your eyes off him. It pained co-writer Stanley Weiser that some embraced the character as a hero of sorts, in the years following the film’s release.
7. The “Ghostbusters”
Few films show the folly of government overreach quite like this 1984 comedy classic. There’s nothing political about Bill Murray flirting with Sigourney Weaver, or Harold Ramis tinkering with ghostly traps. Still, the quartet’s war against New York bureaucrats, and their self-determination, make them unofficial Libertarians at the very least.
That was no accident, according to the film’s director, Ivan Reitman.
“I’ve been sort of a Libertarian,” Reitman says. “I’m actually a double immigrant. Coming to Canada from Czechoslovakia and then immigrating to America from Canada did make me believe in the power of capitalism and the power of the intelligent individual which has been a theme from many of my films.”
8. Rocky Balboa
The Italian Stallion’s 1976 debut proved Manna from Heaven for conservatives, especially coming in the wake of President Nixon’s calamitous fall. Sylvester Stallone’s unlikely hero stood toe-to-toe with the champ, capturing the American dream via a sweaty, if imperfect, metaphor. The star fashioned the character’s journey on Christian principles.
“This is a story of faith, integrity and victory. Jesus is the inspiration for anyone to go the distance,” commented Stallone.
Rocky Balboa’s cinematic arc eventually took him to the Soviet Union in 1985 where he squared off against Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in “Rocky IV.” The brawler proved the Italian Stallion’s toughest foe, but the athlete stood for more than boxing greatness.
Drago fought for Mother Russia, and Rocky entered the ring wearing his old pal Apollo Creed’s red, white and blue trunks. Audiences responded by making it the highest grossing “Rocky” film to date.
Rocky didn’t win the Cold War. It took President Ronald Reagan to make that happen. However, Stallone’s most iconic character did all he could to rally conservatives stateside with his most patriotic effort to date.
9. Arthur Fonzarelli
The coolest character on TV from 1974 to 1984 cared more about chicks than trickle-down economics. Still, when “Happy Days” got political on one combustible episode the key characters had to pick sides.
Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) went with Adlai Stevenson, the well-spoken ‘50s Democrat. Why? Richie had a crush on a local girl who also supported the Democrat’s campaign.
Fonzie (Henry Winkler) threw his support behind the Republican in the race, incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower. Why?
“Hey, he won the war for you, didn’t he?” Fonzie told the crowd. “If Ike loses, the Fonz is gonna be maaaaaad.”
10. Arthur Carlson
The “big guy” at “WKRP in Cincinnati” gave this workplace comedy its weekly villain, but the show’s writers afforded him his humanity along the way. Carlson, a former Marine, wasn’t a monster. He epitomized corporate buffoonery, no doubt, and he often seemed clueless compared to his underlings.
Gordon Jump’s character also believed in a higher power and often stood up for his motley crew of DJs and assorted talent.
The far-left AV Club breaks down a critical episode where Carlson comes up big in the battle for free expression. A Jerry Falwell type (Richard Paul) threatens to lead a boycott against the station for its so-called naughty playlist. Carlson was a man of faith, but he stood up to the attacks on his station’s behalf.
“But it’s Carlson—an uptight conservative who had disapproved of rock ’n’ roll since season one — who finds the moral courage to stand up for the station’s freedom of expression.”
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