22 October 2020

The Most Memorable Accountants in Movies

by Michael Zimmel

Most of us know that Al Capone was brought to justice because of income tax violations. And sure, many remember that the effort was led by Elliot Ness (who might have been as shameless a self-promoter as Capone himself). But how many of us remember the accountant who did the work to put Capone away?

Accountancy has a reputation for being dry as dirt, something we start doing in our twenties and keep doing until retirement. But Hollywood has been surprisingly generous about portraying the dramatic effects accountants have on our lives. If money makes the world go ‘round, after all, it’s accountants who work the machinery.

Here are the top most memorable accountants throughout Hollywood’s history:

  1. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in The Shawshank Redemption
  2. Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) in The Untouchables
  3. Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) in The Royal Tenenbaums
  4. Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) in Ghostbusters
  5. William Blake (Johnny Depp) in Dead Man
  6. Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) in The Accountant
  7. Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) in The Other Guys
  8. Loretta Castorini (Cher) in Moonstruck
  9. Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) in Midnight Run
  10. Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) in D.O.A.
  11. Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) in Schindler’s List

Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in The Shawshank Redemption, Directed by Frank Darabon

Andy began his career as a whiz kid, becoming president of a Portland bank at a young age. Life was good until he discovered that his wife, Linda, was having an affair with—who else?—her golf instructor, Glen. After drunkenly confronting Linda, Andy leaves his revolver behind, leaving him with precious little alibi when Linda and Glen are murdered shortly thereafter. Despite his innocence, Andy is found guilty of the double murder and sent to the brutal Shawshank Prison.

A corrupt warden becomes Andy’s unlikely savior…at least for a while. Putting his accounting skills to work, Andy helps the captain of the prison guard with his taxes, and is later pressured into helping the warden launder money. After a harrowing first year in prison, Andy manages to curry enough favor to survive his life sentence. Meanwhile, with a little help from his friend, fellow inmate and master smuggler Red (Morgan Freeman in one of his iconic roles), Andy chips away daily at the wall of his prison cell, finally escaping after nearly 20 years and making his way all the way from Maine to the safe side of the Mexican border. The warden, meanwhile, is left with proof of his crimes, and kills himself in his office.

The Shawshank Redemption fared poorly at the box office, despite being based on a short story by Hollywood favorite Stephen King. Its reputation grew through the years, though, and it is now considered a minor masterpiece. As Andy himself remarks to Red, “Hope is a good thing. Maybe even the best of things. And good things never die.”

Looper published a great in-depth article if you want to learn more about the movie.

Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) in The Untouchables, Directed by Brian DePalma

Oscar Wallace was based loosely on Frank J. Wilson, the real-life forensic accountant who built the case against Capone by analyzing nearly two million documents—none of them a tax return.

Wallace, as the movie portrays him, was born in the late 19th century and grew up in the heyday of the American mob. An unassuming accountant working from the Treasury Department’s Washington D.C. offices, Wallace is surprised to find himself named to a task force devoted to curtailing Capone’s criminal empire. It is Wallace who comes up with the idea of charging Capone with tax evasion, a plan whose success he never witnesses. When the pressure begins to mount, Capone sends his most ruthless enforcer, Frank Nitti, to execute Wallace. As the accountant bleeds out, Nitti scrawls the word “Touchable” on an adjacent wall.

Smith’s portrayal of a nebbish office worker turned steely mob-hunter in The Untouchables earned him universal acclaim. The real-life Wilson, though, may have made an even more interesting character. His own boss at the IRS claimed that Wilson “fears nothing that walks,” and despite the threat he posed to the most powerful criminal syndicate in the country, Wilson outlived nearly all his adversaries to die peacefully at age 87.

Up for the real thing? Want to dig deeper into Al Capone’s trial? The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration has made the criminal case file accessible through their online portal. The file includes an indictment, appearances, bench warrants, citations, dockets, mandates, motions, notice of appeal, petitions, orders, statement of proceedings, subpoenas, and a verdict. Enjoy digging through the materials!

Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) in The Royal Tenenbaums, Directed by Wes Anderson

Stable and dependable Henry is the opposite of Royal Tenenbaum, the hedonistic ex-husband of Etheline. Henry goes from being her long-time accountant to her second husband in the space of the 109-minute movie. This despite Royal and the rest of his eccentric family’s bizarre attempts to stop him.

The Royal Tenenbaums is still considered Wes Anderson’s best film to date. And, although there’s barely enough screen time for Glover’s portrayal of Henry amongst the panel of peculiar characters, I think his is arguably the most important role in the classic, quirky 2001 comedy.

Esquire magazine agrees with me (but for slightly different reasons). They say his is one of the most overlooked but best styles in the whole fashion-forward film: “The ever-stylish Henry Sherman pulls off the deep-blue papillon better than any man ought to.”

It would seem that even when Hollywood honours the accountant cliché (i.e. Henry), they still manage to be the hero and get the girl.

Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) in Ghostbusters, Directed by Ivan Reitman

You just knew this one was coming. Moranis plays a deliriously devoted accountant for whom the cost of things isn’t just a profession: it’s the way he sees the world. Heck, it’s even the way he plans his meals: “Gee, I think all I got is acetylsalicylic acid, generic. See, I can get six hundred tablets of that for the same price as three hundred of the name brand. Hey, this is real smoked salmon from Nova Scotia, Canada. $24.95 a pound! It only cost me $14.12 after-tax, though.”

Of course, Tully is eventually possessed by the demon Vinz Clortho, who causes him to run around declaring “I am the Keymaster! Are you the Gatekeeper?” When he finally finds the right answer to that ham-handed double entendre, the world is nearly destroyed. And when the Ghostbusters avert disaster, Tully is left with no memory of his brief turn as one of the most powerful forces of evil in the universe.

Ghostbusters, which was close to being called ‘Ghost Smashers‘, spawned a sequel and more than 30 years later a reboot. Tully’s character still earns his share of laughs, but mostly when he’s possessed by evil spirits: nerdy-accountant jokes were a bit thin even in 1984, and don’t land nearly as well today. Be that as it may, Moranis’s wide-eyed earnestness makes this a landmark performance, and a deeply memorable one.

William Blake (Johnny Depp) in Dead Man, Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Jarmusch made his mark by directing laconic, understated independent films that played with conventional Hollywood tropes. Stranger Than Paradise put the road movie on its head, Down by Law deconstructed film noir, and Dead Man reimagined the Western.

Blake travels to a frontier company town, Machine, on the promise of a new job at Dickinson Steel Works. Once there, he discovers that the mill’s owner, John Dickinson, has given the position to someone else. Not even a bit of time stolen with an attractive flower girl can put things right…especially when the girl’s ex arrives to shoot her dead. Soon after Blake discovers that Dickinson’s son is the murderer, he himself is shot by Dickinson’s security detail.

Blake is nursed back to health by Nobody (Gary Farmer), a Native American man who becomes convinced that Blake is the reincarnation of his namesake, the English poet. The two travel through the West on an increasingly dangerous quest to reach the Pacific Ocean, where Nobody believes that Blake can return to the spirit world.

By associating his main character’s role as an accountant—an engineer of the financial machinery that drove the settling of the West—the poet Blake’s visionary critique of the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath, in Dead Man Jarmusch gives us a trenchant and startlingly new depiction of America in the raw. And an electrifying new demonstration of the dramatic potential of accountancy.

Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) in The Accountant, Directed by Gavin O’Connor

Accountants in movies – as in life – tend to take on a supporting role. But that all changed in 2016 and there’s no going back. For once, the accountant isn’t a supporting character! This thriller was so keenly observed that many viewers believed that it was based on a true story.

Which is even more remarkable when you consider the plot. Wolff is presented as a mildly autistic math genius whose skills and singular focus make him a model accountant. At the same time, his father, an Army PsyOps officer, raises Wolff to be proficient in both hand-to-hand combat and gunplay.

His math skills are enough for Wolff to build a successful career as a forensic accountant in suburban Chicago. There, he helps all comers—even criminal organizations—by tracking down the causes of missing funds and other irregularities.

Things take a turn when Wolff’s identity is uncovered by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network; a parallel plot line follows Wolff as he reveals the mystery of a brazen case of embezzlement at a robotics company.

Is that enough plot for you? Some reviewers found that The Accountant tried to do too much, but nearly all commended Affleck’s performance as a very different, but utterly compelling, type of hero.

Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) in The Other Guys, Directed by Adam McKay

For an actor best known for broad physical comedy, Will Ferrell, one of my favourite goofballs and famous doppelgänger of Chad Smith, has successfully played against type throughout his career, including two roles as accountants: first as an IRS agent in 2006’s Stranger Than Fiction and later as a forensic accountant in the 2010 buddy-cop movie The Other Guys.

Here, he plays Allen Gamble, a deceptively mid-mannered accountant whose partner, hotheaded Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), has been assigned to Gamble as punishment after accidentally shooting Derek Jeter in the World Series. Gamble is perfectly content to handle permit violations and other low-level crimes, filling his days with paperwork, until a routine investigation lands him in the thick of a billionaire’s shady financing schemes. As Gamble and Hoitz untangle an ever-widening web of intrigue, we meet their families, hitmen from various countries, and even Gamble’s streetwise alter ego, Gator.

The movie’s whip-smart one-liners have earned it some standing as a cult classic, and Ferrell’s portrayal of an accountant so hopelessly complacent that he just had to be hiding a dark side is a hilarious send-up of the usual one-note accountants we usually see on the screen.

Loretta Castorini (Cher) in Moonstruck, Directed by Norman Jewison

In most developed countries, more than 55% of accountants are women. Yet, the film industry hasn’t done much to reverse the stereotype that accountancy is a male-dominated profession (which it isn’t). But back in 1987, Moonstruck featured Cher in the leading role of fast-talking financial wizard.

We’ve seen accountants as T-men, nebbishes, and noodges, and now Cher balances things out with her Oscar-winning portrayal of an accountant as a tough-minded romantic. Widowed young, Castorini seems to account for her personal fortunes the same way she keeps the books: “I met a man. I loved him. I married him. He wanted to have a baby right away. I said no. Then he got hit by a bus. No man. No baby. No nothing! I did not know that a man was a gift I could not keep.”

Eventually, Castorini strikes up a new relationship with Johnny, who proposes marriage. Things change when she meets Johnny’s brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage in one of his highest rated movies), and the two begin a torrid romance, seemingly against their own wills.

The rest of the story unfolds through various acts of betrayal and forgiveness, fear and courage, before reaching a hard-earned happy ending. Through it all, it is Castorini’s belief in candor and balance—qualities that make her a perfect bookkeeper—that let her negotiate the rudest of shocks and the most unsuspected of temptations.

Technically, Loretta was a bookkeeper, but she was a pretty progressive character for the late 80s and her efficient, assertive portrayal of a female finance professional is worth top mention in this list.

Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) in Midnight Run, Directed by Martin Brest

No one does deadpan better than Grodin. Which makes his accountant, Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas in Midnight Run, one of the funniest characters in recent movie history.

The Duke bided his time while serving as an accountant to Chicago mobster Jimmy Serrano, then made his move by embezzling $15 million. Unfortunately for him, Mardukas was better at working for the mob than at ripping them off, and he soon hits the road as a fugitive from both the syndicate and Jack, a bounty hunter hired by the bail bondsman who’d put up nearly half a million dollars before The Duke skipped town.

Jack—Robert DeNiro in one of his earlier comedic turns—easily catches up with The Duke. Bringing him back to Los Angeles, where he’s to repay the money and face trial, is another matter. Especially considering Mardukas’ blithe obliviousness to the dangers he faces and his general inability to keep his mouth shut.

Eventually, the two begin to recognize a common cause. Even while The Duke spouts immortal lines like “You ever have sex with an animal, Jack? Remember those chickens on the Indian reservation? There were some good-looking chickens there, Jack. You know, between us….” Only an accountant could have gotten himself into the mess that The Duke did.

And only Grodin could turn a near-stereotype—an accountant so laconic you sometimes wonder if he’s about to nod off—into a cutting, hilarious parody of conventional wisdom. Chicken jokes and all.

Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) in D.O.A., Directed by Rodolph Maté

A classic from the heyday of film noir, Maté’s 1950 masterpiece D.O.A. begins innocently enough, with accountant Bigelow booking himself an elaborate vacation in San Francisco. From there, the plot unfolds in ways that would echo throughout movie history.

Bigelow is poisoned shortly after beginning his vacation, and knows it. Making his way to the nearest police station, he informs an officer of his own murder. “You knew who I was when I came here today. But you were surprised to see me alive, weren’t you? But I’m not alive, Mrs. Philips. Sure, I can stand here and talk to you. I can breathe, and I can move. But I’m not alive. Because I did take that poison, and nothing can save me.”

With the police baffled as to what to make of his announcement, Bigelow takes matters into his own hands, using his analytical skills in a race against the clock to uncover the mystery behind his poisoning.

O’Brien won an Academy Award for his supporting role in the 1954 drama The Barefoot Contessa. But his performance in D.O.A. still remains one of his all-time greats, and Bigelow’s mad dash to solve his own murder gets extra credence when we consider that his day job involves reconciling messy tangles of information.

Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) in Schindler’s List, Directed by Steven Spielberg

When Itzhak Stern‘s company was turned over to a group of Nazi trustees, it set in motion one of the most dramatic stories of World War II. A colleague of one of the trustees, Oskar Schindler, met Stern while weighing the purchase of a Kraków factory. Impressed by his business acumen and local connections, Schindler followed Stern’s advice to buy the factory outright rather than becoming one of its trustees.

At Stern’s suggestion, Schindler staffed the factory with Jewish laborers. There, he argued, they could be at least somewhat protected from the threat of deportation to concentration camps. Even when Kraków’s ghetto was liquidated in 1943 and Stern was sent to the Płaszów concentration camp, he continued to correspond with Schindler.

His efforts led Schindler to open the Brünnlitz labor camp, which would pose as a concentration camp while actively preserving the lives of those sent there. Schindler’s famous list of people to be transferred to Brünnlitz included Stern, who reunited with Schindler toward the end of the war. It also included Stern’s mother, who like the other women on the list were sent to the Auschwitz death camp instead.

Schindler was a member of the Nazi party, as all businessmen in Germany needed to be at the time. He had a higher profile than Stern and ran perhaps a greater risk of his plans being revealed. But it was Stern’s ideas, drive, and resolution that impelled Schindler to take those risks, and his role as the effective manager of Schindler’s factories that allowed those risks to pay off. In Schindler’s List Ben Kingsley portrays Stern as an outwardly retiring man who works tirelessly and effectively behind the scenes to resist an overwhelming evil. The result is one of the most heroic characters—regardless of profession—ever portrayed on film.

That’s all folks…

The one-dimensional, two-lines-and-done stereotypical accountant is still something of a Hollywood staple. But accountants know how to follow the money, and following the money is at the heart of countless movies produced each year. Accounting can be full of ironies, laughs, intrigue, and heroism. When screenwriters look for those qualities, the results can speak through the generations.

Michael Zimmel
Founder & CEO
My recent work centers on analyzing and communicating how financial leadership principles can be applied to create value. Building on two decades of financial management experience, I founded Volve to offer solutions for streamlining corporate spending and accounting workflows. This is my commitment to help improve the work and value-add of finance and accounting departments.

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