Critics' Picks: 10 Best Onscreen Lawyers

9:00 AM 4/1/2019

by Daniel Fienberg and Todd McCarthy

Hollywood Reporter's film and TV critics pick their favorite attorneys who have graced the big and small screens, from Robert Duvall in 'The Godfather' to Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark.

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Not all fictional attorneys are created equal. The Hollywood Reporter’s critics Daniel Fienberg and Todd McCarthy break down their favorite lawyers in TV and film, respectively.

  • Perry Mason (Raymond Burr)

    CBS' original take on Erle Stanley Gardner's Los Angeles-based defense attorney ran for over 270 episodes and earned Raymond Burr a pair of Emmys as the ultimate crusader for the wrongfully accused. You could set your clock by the familiar twists and turns and inevitable vindications of the Perry Mason formula. Plus, if you hire Perry Mason, you're also getting dogged investigator Paul Drake and the resourceful Della Street. Matthew Rhys has big shoes to fill in HBO's gestating remaking.

  • Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn)

    Don't be fooled by the fancy, cinematic ads telling you who you'd better call. If you're 100 percent guilty with no ethical qualms about what's required to get you sprung, Bob Odenkirk's Jimmy McGill is probably your ideal attorney, but if there's any ambiguity, Kim Wexler is an advocate willing to work herself to distraction — and, if necessary, cut a couple corners. You simply can't hire another attorney with Kim's knowledge of banking law and willingness to play-act in elaborate con games.

  • Victor Sifuentes (Jimmy Smits)

    Over 30 years after Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher's NBC smash premiered, one might forget how progressive Sifuentes' journey from public defender to white-shoe lawyer was. No matter the glitz or glamour of the show's Los Angeles milieu, Sifuentes never lost his passion for the common man, making him the standout from a show that also gave us a true dream team of TV lawyers including Arnie Becker, Michael Kusak, Jonathan Rollins and Tommy Mullaney.

  • Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson)

    Outside of the Law & Order franchise, TV does better with defense attorneys than prosecutors; they make better rogue antiheroes. Still, look at how well Ryan Murphy and Paulson rehabilitated the image of the woman best known for an ill-timed haircut and for letting The Juice, um, loose.

  • Lionel Hutz (Phil Hartman)

    Ambulance chasers don't get much more versatile than this shopping-mall shyster. Despite minimal legal qualifications — but an unexpected background in cobbling — Hutz was capable of suing billionaires or defending 10-year-olds against charges of murder. He may not work on contingency — No! Money down! — but if he doesn't win your case in 30 minutes, your pizza is free. We're still waiting to hear the result of Hutz's fraudulent advertising suit against the makers of the film The Neverending Story.

  • Amanda Bonner (Katharine Hepburn)

    This sophisticated take on a married couple — he an assistant district attorney, she a defense lawyer — battling in the courtroom and at home over an attempted murder case represents a high water mark in the annals of romantic comedy. The professional and personal are perfectly balanced in the script by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, as are the sexual politics. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy give as good as they get, and when she proclaims, “There's no difference between the sexes,” he retorts, “Vive la difference.” The debate, and the film, are perennials.

  • Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton)

    For sheer enjoyment's sake, the most entertaining lawyer ever impersonated onscreen is Charles Laughton's master barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts. Billy Wilder built up the part considerably from the play and Laughton seized and squeezed it for everything it was worth. The climax of his interrogation of Marlene Dietrich's character in the Old Bailey is unforgettable: “The question is, Frau Helm, were you lying then, are you lying now, or are you not, in fact, a chronic and habitual LIAR?!”

  • Paul Biegler (James Stewart)

    Can it be a coincidence that arguably the best Hollywood studio film about the American judicial process was made by a doctor of law from the University of Vienna? Otto Preminger's famous “objective” style made him the perfect director to adapt this drama about an army officer up on a murder charge and defended by a small-town lawyer played by James Stewart at his very best. The latter displays a common decency and desire for truth that, at least at the time, seemed to represent an ideal of the American character.

  • Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall)

    Is there a more decisive example of how significant a supporting actor can be to the gravitas of a film than the absence of Robert Duvall from The Godfather Part III? Duvall was essentially unknown when the original was released in 1972 and Francis Ford Coppola brilliantly handled the character of Tom Hagan, the Mafia clan's Irish-bred lawyer, often placing him on the edge of the frame, quiet, observing everything, then discreetly whispering in the Don's ear. Rarely has an actor made such an impact, and emerged as a star, while remaining mostly in the shadows.

  • Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson)

    There have been countless films centered on righteous figures engaged in hopeless causes, and one of the best, and most affecting, is Bruce Beresford's military courtroom drama Breaker Morant. The ever-forceful Australian actor Jack Thompson plays a lawyer engaged to go through the motions of defending three soldiers being scapegoated for murder at a distant outpost. An example is to be made with an inevitable outcome, but Thompson's small-town attorney mounts a resourceful, scorching defense of a kind anyone in dire straits would appreciate.

    This story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.