Samuel L. Jackson has appeared in around 100 movies that have brought in more than $6 billion in box office receipts if you count his starring roles, his cameo appearances in the Marvel movie universe, and his brief appearances in Jurassic Park and the Star Wars franchise.
Because of this expansive resume, it’s not surprising that Jackson has died in so many of his films. But while the frequency of his on-screen deaths often gets the bulk of the attention, the impact of many of those scenes is what’s really notable.
Warning: There Are Samuel L. Jackson Movie Death Spoilers Throughout
Stacks Edwards had a simple task that he royally f*cked up. When that happened, Tommy (Joe Pesci) shot him in the back of the head, leaving Stacks to die on the floor of his sh*tty apartment while Frankie Carbone fiddled with the coffee pot. Jackson wasn’t on the screen enough to contribute much to this Scorsese classic, he didn’t even shout at anyone, but the character’s death signified the begining of the end for Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy’s crooked nirvana, ushering in an era of paranoia and even more violence.
Here’s Jackson in an interview with Esquire about his personal connection to the role of Gator Purify:
I was the crackhead in Jungle Fever. I was two weeks out of rehab. I’d been smoking cocaine for a year and a half, two years, and I understood the nature of the disease. I had done the research. So when I started talking to Spike [Lee] about it, I said, “You don’t see him high that much. You always see him when he needs something. He’s on a mission to get some sh*t. That’s what I wanna do.” And that was my breakthrough. That got me into Hollywood. It was the perfect marriage of experience and opportunity.
Unfortunately, that “mission” took Gator back to his family home where his father (Ossie Davis) passed judgement on him for his wicked ways and shot Gator in the gut for trying to shake a few extra dollars out of his mother (Ruby Dee). The death is shocking and it alters the film, but Dee’s heartbreaking emotional explosion is what really stays with you.
Despite the fact that Jackson worked his way into our consciousness as a character actor, he’s never really felt like part of the scenery. The guy has always been one of the most interesting parts of every scene that he’s been in and Jurassic Park is the perfect example. As was the case in Spielberg’s Jaws, the awe inspiring effects are the star of Jurassic Park, but Jackson’s “Hold onto your butts” line is almost on par with Roy Scheider’s “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” line, and it’s all in the delivery and Jackson’s magnetism. Because of this, it’s easy to give a damn about his relatively minor character. Which makes his death the most impactful one in the film. Sorry, Newman.
Jackson plays a deeply traumatized teacher who winds up shooting himself in the head while trying to get through to a student/gang banger during a game of Russian Roulette. “Macho is bullsh*t!” yells Jackson before he grabs the gun and unleashes the fatal shot. Not exactly a feel good romp and barely something that fits as an impactful death due to the bleak ending. But it’s still a powerful scene and a good bit of acting by Jackson.
Ordell Robbie is a bad man who runs guns, shoots his friends, and both collects and uses broken women. He gets what he deserves when he is gunned down in a dark room by Michael Keaton after being outplayed by Pam Grier’s title character and a bail bondsman with dope musical taste, but it’s hard to not feel a small bit of sympathy for him when you stare at the chilling image of his lifeless face.
Deep Blue Sea
In hindsight, it’s almost comical to watch Jackson’s Russell Franklin get devoured by a super-smart shark while delivering a speech about the need for the team to come together to escape their under sea (and siege) lab, but it was completely shocking at the time since Jackson was the biggest star in the film. That kind of stunt might seem cliche, but it managed to keep the audience off-balance and aware that no character was safe back in 1999.
Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith
The idea of Samuel L. Jackson playing a Jedi sounded incredibly badass when he was originally cast in The Phantom Menace, but the end result was somewhat disappointing. As was the case in Goodfellas, Jackson’s character’s biggest impact came when the purple-lightsaber wielding Jedi-master went flying out of a window after Chancellor Palpatine convinced Anakin Skywalker to come to his aid and embrace the dark side. Mace might still be falling.
The Other Guys
Nope. He landed.
In The Other Guys, Jackson and The Rock play a pair of super cops whose bravery is a bit grander than their senses. It’s a glorified cameo, but had they not taken a LONG drop to the pavement, Officer Ron Burgundy and Officer Dirk Diggler wouldn’t have had their chance to shine. Also, what f*cking bushes?
Quentin Tarantino’s characters are rarely reserved, so having Jamie Foxx’s Django paint the walls of Candie-Land red with the blood of slavers before shooting Stephen (Jackson) in the leg and blowing up the building wasn’t a surprising choice, and it wasn’t out of line when you consider the things that Stephen had done to Django and his wife. Truth be told, it’s the only satisfying way that Tarantino could have ended his film.
In that respect, Stephen has a lot in common with Ordell Robbie in Jackie Brown. He’s just a bad guy who needed to die so that the end credits could roll. And while that may sound like a crude reason to knock off a character, there’s practical value in that kind of performance and (often, but not always) in the on-screen deaths that exist to inspire action in other characters while advancing the story.
A supremely talented actor, Jackson has shown countless times that he is capable of doing a lot more to positively affect a film besides dying, but it seems clear that his long climb as a supporting actor has also allowed him to be unselfish enough to make the ultimate on-screen sacrifice when a story calls for it. And that’s a really impressive and rarely mentioned part of Samuel L. Jackson’s charm as an actor.