For every role that can be considered “Oscar bait,” there are the roles that are completely out of the norm for the Academy Awards.  The actors on our list all gave performances that have transcended Oscars and are more well-known for their contributions to pop culture.

While the Academy tends to ignore genre movies in favor of stuffy period pieces and weepy dramas, occasionally they honor an offbeat character beloved by moviegoers. Whether it’s a tough-as-nails alien fighter, a telekinetic kid or a Jedi master, these are 10 iconic characters from movie history that were surprisingly nominated for an Oscar.

Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi, ‘The Karate Kid’

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‘The Karate Kid’ is an ’80s staple that launched three sequels (plus a Jackie Chan reboot) and a bonafide kids classic. Much of the film’s success was due to Pat Morita’s portrayal of wise sensei Mr. Miyagi. Morita, who gained notoriety on ‘Happy Days,’ received his first and only Oscar nomination for the role, losing to Haing S. Ngor for ‘The Killing Fields.’  (It’s also not the only surprising Oscar nomination to come from the ‘Karate Kid’ cast– William Zabka (aka “Sweep the leg Johnny” ) was nominated for Best Short Film, Live Action in 2004.)

Anne Ramsey as Mrs. Lift, ‘Throw Momma From the Train’

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Anne Ramsey had a long career dating back to 1971 before she became famous for her role as the nasty Mrs. Fratelli in ‘The Goonies.’  It was that role that led Danny De Vito to cast Ramsey as another nasty mama in ‘Throw Momma From the Train.’  While the film otherwise didn’t make much of an impact with critics or audiences, Ramsey was singled out for her performance and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.  Though she may have looked much older, Ramsey died just a few months later, at the age of just 59.

Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil, ‘The Exorcist’

The Exorcist

‘The Exorcist’ is remembered for a lot of things: pea soup showers, spinning heads, spider walks. But many people forget that Linda Blair, the 13-year-old actress who played possessed schoolgirl Regan MacNeil, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. The film received a total of 10 total Oscar nominations (including two for stars Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller) but it was Blair’s that was the most surprising. She was, at the time, one of the youngest actors nominated for an Oscar. Coincidentally, Blair lost that year to 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal (‘Paper Moon’) who still holds the record for the youngest Academy Award winner.

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, ‘Aliens’


Few action heroes are nominated for Oscars. Very few action heroes in sequels are nominated for Oscars.  Very, very few female action heroes in sequels are nominated for Oscars. That’s why Sigourney Weaver’s nomination in James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’ was so remarkable. As remarkable as it was, though, few people remember it happened, likely because the next year, Weaver was nominated for two Oscars in the same year (for ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ and ‘Working Girl’).

Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, ‘Rocky’

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‘Rocky’ launched the super-stardom of Sylvester Stallone who went on to become one of the biggest stars in the world. He eventually drove ‘Rocky’ into the ground (see: 1990′s ‘Rocky V’) and the franchise devolved into self-parody, but in the beginning, the underdog boxing film was a hit at the Oscars. Stallone was nominated for Best Actor and, perhaps most surprising, for Best Original Screenplay. Sly has yet to be nominated for an Oscar since, though he does hold the record for the most amount of Razzie nominations. (He can thank ‘Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot’ for that.)

Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, ‘Star Wars’

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Though Sir Alec Guinness was a widely respected actor prior to ‘Star Wars’ (he won an Oscar previously for ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’), his Oscar-nominated turn as Obi-Wan Kenobi was no doubt his most memorable. With all the ‘Star Wars’ lore, it’s easily forgotten and perhaps Guinness would’ve wanted it that way.  Though the role made him very rich, he hated the fame that came along with the success and, moreso, disliked the films themselves. Guinness told a reporter in 1999 that he suggested to George Lucas that Obi-Wan should die because he “just couldn’t go on speaking those bloody awful, banal lines.”

Sissy Spacek as Carrie White, ‘Carrie’


Sissy Spacek’s nomination as Best Actress for ‘Carrie’ is easily forgotten because a) it’s a horror film and b) Spacek went on rack up an impressive six Oscar nominations over her career (winning in 1981 for ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’).  Like comedy and sci-fi, horror films are rarely honored by the Oscars. ‘Carrie’ was rewarded with nominations for both Spacek and her on-screen mother Piper Laurie.

Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtupp, ‘Blazing Saddles’

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Despite the Academy doing the right thing and nominating Melissa McCarthy for ‘Bridesmaids,’ comedic performances (particularly ones given by women) rarely get Oscar love. But stage-trained actress Madeline Kahn had already been nominated (1973′s ‘Paper Moon’) before her first collaboration with writer/director Mel Brooks. Her performance in ‘Blazing Saddles’ stood out amongst a cast of comedy heavyweights and may still hold the record for the funniest character name ever nominated for an Oscar.

Gary Busey as Buddy Holly, ‘The Buddy Holly Story’

the buddy holly story

When you watch ‘The Buddy Holly Story,’ it’s not surprising to think that Gary Busey’s performance would be nominated for an Oscar. But when you watch Gary Busey in everything since then, it’s very surprising to think that the actor — currently best known for ‘Celebrity Rehab’ and otherwise just being a little crazy — was ever nominated for anything. But there was a time when Busey was a talented actor and parlayed his former career as a musician into a powerful performance.

Al Pacino as Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice, ‘Dick Tracy’

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Over his legendary career, Al Pacino has scored eight Oscar nominations, delivering iconic performances in movies like ‘The Godfather’, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, ‘Serpico’ and ‘Scent of a Woman’. So it’s a little surprising to see, among those nominations, his performance as mob boss Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice in the cartoonish ‘Dick Tracy.’ Pacino wore heavy makeup and chewed the scenery (as he is wont to do) as the foil to Warren Beatty’s square-jawed detective. It probably won’t go down as one of his best performances, but for one year, the Academy saw fit to recognize Pacino’s work underneath a rubber nose.

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