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100 Greatest Characters: Nos. 1-25

Homer Simpson tops our list of greatest characters of the last 20 years

1. Homer Simpson
He rages against inanimate objects. He gets into arguments with his own brain. He has forgotten the names of family members. (''There's five of us: Marge, Bart, girl Bart, the one who doesn't talk, and the fat guy. How I loathe him.'') He's eaten everything from a hot dog at the bottom of a kiddie pool to a jar of petroleum jelly. He's lazy, rash, and incompetent, not to mention a tragic speller (''I am so smart! S-M-R-T!'').

These are not good qualities in a mate, friend, co-worker, or dad. They can, however, make for great comedy. For that reason — and hundreds more — EW is naming Homer Simpson the No. 1 character in pop culture over the last 20 years. Did the expression ''Woo-hoo!'' just jump to mind? And if we had snubbed him, you might've thought ''D'oh!,'' right? Two more reasons.

Of course, a truly transcendent character is more than a mash-up of catchphrases. The paterfamilias of The Simpsons oozes humanity. He lets his heart hang out like his gut, whether he's processing bliss (''Mmmm...64 slices of American cheese'') or anger (''Why, you little...!''), often within seconds of each other. ''There's an emotional obstacle course he's running in the course of a single sentence,'' says series creator Matt Groening. ''People can relate to Homer because we're all secretly propelled by desires we can't admit to. Homer is launching himself headfirst into every single impulsive thought that occurs to him. His love of whatever has caught his eye is a joy to witness.'' As Dan Castellaneta, who has voiced him for 21 seasons, notes: ''One of the show's writers, John Swartzwelder, said, 'Homer's a dog trapped inside a man's body.' He's loyal, he's lovable, but he's got bad grooming habits and loves to wolf down whatever is in front of him.''

While Homer's innate inanity remains a thing of wonder, it's usually laced with hope. ''There's an optimism about Homer that despite his stupidity, he's forgivable,'' says Groening. ''For Homer, it's an ongoing series of missteps and redemptions. It's one 'D'oh!' at a time.'' We've enjoyed so many of them, we had no choice but to anoint him as our No. 1. Castellaneta concludes: ''As Homer might say, 'I'm honored, confused, and hungry.''' — Dan Snierson

A Q&A WITH HOMER

Who is your favorite character in pop culture?
Mr. Peanut from the Planters can. And my dream in life is to someday meet him, shell him, and eat him.

You've worked at a nuclear power plant for years. Can you explain nuclear fusion?
Two hydrogen nuclei react, releasing radiation, according to Einstein's equation of mass-energy equivalence. Some or all of this answer may have been written by my daughter Lisa.

It's always funny when you say ''Woo-hoo!'' ''D'oh!'' and ''Mmmm...,'' but don't you think it's time you tried something new?
Think of something new?! Why, you little...! [Attempts to strangle interviewer] Sorry, didn't mean to go all Russell Crowe on you.

Tell us one thing about yourself that you've never told anybody.
I play chess online with the Family Guy. — Homer's answers by Simpsons exec producer Al Jean

2. Harry Potter
He was born in Britain, but he belongs to all of us now, young and old. J.K. Rowling introduced her boy wizard to the world in 1997, and before decade's end, Harry Potter was a global icon. With his seven-volume saga complete, the tragedy-scarred orphan stands as an inspiring hero for our times. It was thrilling to follow his progression toward maturity — from bewildered yet bedazzled youngster to flawed and angry adolescent to wise, self-sacrificing young man. (Of course, Harry wouldn't be Harry without the support of best chums Ron and Hermione, the guidance of Professor Dumbledore, and the soul-stirring challenge of villainous Voldemort.) In an interview with EW in 2000, Rowling explained the great theme embodied by Harry and all her characters: ''What's very important for me is when Dumbledore says [in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire] that you have to choose between what is right and what is easy.... What is easy is often not right.''

In 2001, Harry Potter became a cinematic hero as well, played by Daniel Radcliffe in an always winning and ever-deepening performance. The actor, now 20, believes the character's main legacy is the Potter fan base, ''a new generation of incredibly literary nerds, of which I am one!'' Still, Radcliffe imagines — half-jokingly — that his contribution to Harry Potter might someday be obsolete. ''[The books] will be around for decades to come, which makes me wonder if in 30 years' time, we will be seeing remakes of all these movies,'' he says with a laugh. ''I have a very dark suspicion that that will happen, although I don't particularly want it to!'' — Jeff Jensen

A Q&A WITH DANIEL RADCLIFFE

You were 11 when you were cast as Harry Potter, who was already a global phenom. Did you feel pressure?
If I had been older and slightly more self-aware about the following that Harry had, I would have been slightly more intimidated. Ignorance and confidence of youth — it's enough to transcend that.

How did you go about creating Harry? And how has your preparation changed over the years?
In the beginning, creating the character was all about the costume and the look. That's how people thought of him. In terms of what I did to prepare, it was very much: Just learn the lines. I'm aware now that there are so many different ways to play any one line.

What makes Harry interesting to play for you?
That he is not perfect. He's capable of being quite arrogant, quite stubborn, pigheaded, and a little bit selfish. He can make himself something of a martyr when he really doesn't have to. All those characteristics are wonderful because it separates Harry from the archetypal superheroes that you so often get in children's literature.

Has J.K. Rowling offered you advice on playing Harry since the first film?
I did ask her for some advice on the fifth film. I talked to her about Harry's emergence as the leader of Dumbledore's Army. She said it was very important because it's the first time we see Harry be a leader, and eventually he's going to have to lead large numbers of people.

If you could have spent your adolescence playing any other character, who would it be? I was always unbelievably jealous of Tobey Maguire playing Spider-Man. I do think Spidey is the coolest of the superheroes.

3. Buffy
One thing you can't claim with vampires is first. I do feel Buffy was part of a watershed moment. Somebody's always going to tap that well and find a way to reinvent it, and ultimately my show was less about vampires than most shows with vampire in the title. The show's about growing up, which for her was basically ages 15 through 22, but the kind of 15 through 22 where you fight wars. She went from an adorably hapless Everyman to a struggling grown-up leader, from someone who felt very, very young to someone who felt very, very old — which, oddly enough, is the experience at that age. There's a whole recipe for how to make a Buffy. Take one cup Sarah Connor from the first Terminator movie; one cup Ripley [from Alien]; three tablespoons of the younger sister in [the 1984 postapocalyptic comedy] Night of the Comet; a few sprigs of A Little Princess — the book, not the movies; and a pinch of Jimmy Stewart for pain, because nobody does better pain. Sarah Michelle Gellar brought that pinch of Jimmy Stewart, which was our nickname for her. She could connect with the audience while in the throes of what could be an overblown story line and just ground it and make it human and desperate and lovely. That's Sarah. Also, she was way more girly. — Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer

4. Tony Soprano
From the very beginning, The Sopranos creator David Chase knew Tony Soprano was not exactly your average lead TV character. ''Other television protagonists didn't kill people for their own benefit,'' says Chase. But the mob boss/dysfunctional family man became the template for a new kind of TV staple: the antihero. Describing Tony as an amalgam of ''part of every gangster movie I ever saw, part my dad, part me, part all my uncles,'' Chase created a character who was reprehensible (chopping up Ralphie Cifaretto in a bathtub) yet oddly relatable (struggling with both job pressures and surly teens). In the hands of James Gandolfini over six memorable seasons (1999 -- 2007), Tony became TV's most compelling criminal ever. ''He gave it everything,'' Chase says of Gandolfini. ''He didn't let pride or narcissism stand in the way of his performance at all. He just went there, wherever Tony needed to go.'' And we went with him. — Dalton Ross

5. The Joker
Within seconds of his shambling on screen as Batman's psychotic nemesis in 2008's The Dark Knight, it was clear that Heath Ledger wasn't joking around, delivering a frightening and anarchic performance that earned him a posthumous Oscar. ''You saw someone who was just soaring,'' says costar Gary Oldman. ''It was a privilege to be around.'' There have been other Jokers, but none left such an indelible impression.

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