If there is a theme to Giancarlo Esposito‘s ever-growing body of work on the small screen — and there is one — it’s that he plays men not to be trifled with.
Breaking Bad‘s estimable and intimidating Gus Fring, of course, is famously emblematic of that pattern, but over the past decade he has added many other men of means to his repertoire, including a real-life politico, the leader of a post-apocalyptic empire, a Moff in a galactic empire, and the overseer of a legion of superheroes (though not the Legion of Super-Heroes, to be clear).
And to think that Esposito’s star first started rising with his role as Buggin Out, the catalyst for Do the Right Thing‘s game-changing conflagration. Talk about a firebrand.
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With the sophomore runs of The Mandalorian and The Boys now in the rear view mirror and Better Call Saul‘s farewell season not due until early 2022, TVLine thought it time to take stock of the consistently entertaining and oft-mesmerizing actor’s body of small-screen work.
Review our ranking of the well-lauded actor’s 10 best TV roles, then chime in on your personal favorites!
Mike Giardello, HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET
Esposito joined the highly acclaimed NBC crime drama in its seventh and final season, as the son of Yaphet Kotto’s Shift Commander Lieutenant Al “Gee” Giardello. Relocated from Phoenix to serve as the Baltimore PD homicide division’s FBI liaison, Mike’s motives and allegiances were often under scrutiny by those working beside him, making for intense scenes between Esposito and Kotto. Amid a stacked cast that also included breakout star Andre Braugher and Richard Belzer, Esposito made a small but lasting mark in his first major dramatic TV role.
Detective Paul Gigante, BAKERSFIELD P.D.
While not one of Esposito’s more memorable showcases — it was cancelled after one season — the single-camera Fox comedy stands out as one of his decidedly lighter roles, as a police detective who abruptly moves away from Washington, D.C. (the cold open of the pilot embedded above explains why) to join up with the titular police department. Gigante comes to realize that his new partner, Det. Wade Preston (Ron Eldard), specifically requested to ride with a Black officer, obsessed as he is with African American culture. But as a disappointed Preston soon learns, Gigante, because of his upbringing, is nearly as white as he is!
Charlie Baudelaire, JETT
In the one-and-done, gone-too-soon Cinemax caper drama, Esposito played the crime boss ex-lover of Carla Gugino’s Daisy “Jett” Kowalski, a skilled thief. In the series’ stylized, murky world, Esposito’s Charlie almost seemed pulled from the world of John Wick, so calm, cunning and very, very cool. And as Jett’s sometime lover, Charlie gave Esposito one of his most sexual roles — even if he is just forking bites of pie off her bare backside.
Moff Gideon, THE MANDALORIAN
Another formidable Esposito character who enjoyed a grand entrance, Moff Gideon was first seen emerging from his personal TIE fighter to engage in a standoff with Mando, who was huddled inside a cantina with Greef, Cara, IG-11 and, of course, the one then known simply as The Child. In the Season 1 finale’s closing moment, Gideon leaped from mere baddie to enigmatic adversary, when we realized he was in possession of the legendary Darksaber. Season 2, with surprisingly sparse appearances by Gideon, hinted a bit more at the character’s ruthlessness (as well as his ability to swing his saber), while his last moment — firing his blaster at wee Grogu (!) — was far from his best.
Magic Mirror/Sidney Glass/Genie of Agrabah, ONCE UPON A TIME
Esposito was suitable sassy as Evil Queen Regina’s Magic Mirror, while the character’s Storybrooke alter ego, hapless newspaper reporter Sidney Glass, never got much of a showcase. But in exploring the Genie of Agrabah’s origin story — first found (and freed!) by King Leopold (Richard Schiff) and then fated for a disastrous affair with the king’s wife, Regina — Esposito was given some delicious notes to play. All the genie sought was everlasting love, but what he found instead was a very different sort of “permanent” arrangement with the queen.
Stan Edgar, THE BOYS
As the CEO of Vought International, the conglomerate that founded The Seven and manages all licensed Supes, Stan Edgar is neither Tony Stark nor even Nick Fury. He’s simply a super-savvy businessman, one who trades not in heroes but in pharmaceuticals (like Compound V) — as he coolly made clear in Season 2, when a dissed Homelander threatened to walk. Yet despite the power he wields, Edgar is pragmatic, as he revealed when grilled about backing closet Nazi Stormfront: “I can’t lash out like some raging, entitled maniac. That’s a white man’s luxury.” Even amid such a fantastical world and themes, it’s one of Esposito’s most measured performances.
Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, GODFATHER OF HARLEM
Esposito has said he feels “extra responsibility” when portraying real-life figures, and that added commitment is evident in Epix’s drama inspired by the true story of Bumpy Johnson (played by Forest Whitaker), a crime boss who in the early 1960s formed an alliance with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch). With Powell, a pastor and politician, Esposito gets to play a man of many appetites, someone who is as quick with the Bible verse as he is with a right hook. All told, Powell is easily one of Esposito’s most textured (and stylish) characters.
Narrator/Dr. Edward Ruskins, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE
The writers of this program are depending on my ethnic, but non-threatening, voice to explain things they are too lazy to set up traditionally. So began Netflix’s series adaptation of Justin Simien’s critically acclaimed film of the same name, as voiced by Esposito’s unseen Narrator. Setting the stage for this take of racial unrest at a predominantly white Ivy League university, the Narrator was omniscient and perfectly judgy, using inflections and tone of voice to underscore his points. As such, he was an integral part of this storytelling experience. (Come Season 3, Esposito also appeared on-screen, guest-starring as former professor Dr. Edward Ruskins.)
Tom Neville, REVOLUTION
Then a captain of the Monroe Republic militia, Neville made quite an entrance in the post-apocalyptic NBC drama’s pilot, arriving on horseback to put the fear of God (watch his famous “I’m in a mood” speech above) — and ultimately a bullet — in Ben Matheson, before kidnapping his son Danny. Neville was very much an adversary for the first season, though concerns about his own son (played by J.D. Pardo) and later the introduction of his wife (Kim Raver) gave the character some interesting layers, eventually landing him in a Season 2 alliance with Billy Burke’s Miles Matheson.
Gus Fring, BREAKING BAD and BETTER CALL SAUL
Between Breaking Bad and its prequel spin-off, Esposito has thrice been Emmy-nominated for what is arguably his most quietly flashy role, as Chilean drug distributor/Los Pollos Hermanos owner Gustavo “Gus” Fring. “Gus is the coolest cucumber that ever walked the Earth,” Esposito has said, likening the not-to-be-methed with villain to Miami Vice‘s unflappable Lt. Castillo (played by Edward James Olmos). “I thought, how is this guy just standing in this fire and doing nothing? … He’s just confident… That’s a pretty powerful human being that trusts himself in that way.”
Breaking Bad in and of itself saw Esposito break on through to a new echelon of go-to actors. That he has been able to revisit the character, via his earlier years on Better Call Saul, is but icing on the cake.