The new Ben Affleck film “The Accountant” debuts on Friday, and the title character is unlike any numbers-cruncher that’s ever been on screen before. A math genius who falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, Affleck’s Christian Wolff is a CPA who apparently has no ethical qualms about venturing deeply into the criminal underworld. The thriller is expected to be the top film at the box office this weekend.
The film’s release got us thinking about how accountants have previously been portrayed in movies and TV. In most cases, the accountants on screen aren’t the boring automatons they’re stereotyped as in real life: They’re alternately brilliant, clever, silly, frustrated, and devious, and often they are much, much funnier than the guy who does your taxes.
Here are our favorite movies and TV shows that feature memorable accountants.
More than a decade before Broadway fans went insane for “Hamilton,” it was nearly impossible to get tickets to “The Producers, the phenomenally successful Mel Brooks’ musical that starred Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick and won the most Tony Awards ever (12) back in 2001. And before “The Producers” was on stage, there was the 1968 film “The Producers.” It starred Zero Mostel as the oily, incompetent theater producer Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as the nerdy, high-strung accountant Leo Bloom, who unwittingly cooks up the madcap scheme to turn a profit by making the worst musical ever, entitled “Springtime for Hitler.”
The Shawshank Redemption
One of the most beloved, inspiring, rewatchable movies ever, “The Shawshank Redemption” features some brilliant accounting tricks by the wrongfully convicted Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins). Dufresne’s career as a numbers-cruncher and understanding of the tax code helped the crooked warden earn a fortune off the books—and later helped Dufresne fund a second life for himself in Mexico after an incredible prison escape.
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“Norm!” You probably remember the warm greeting Norm Peterson received upon arrival at Cheers, inevitably followed by a clever punchline from Norm (George Wendt), more than the fact that he was an accountant. After all, it’s hard to imagine anyone who spends as much time in a bar as Norm does holding down any job, let alone a mentally demanding one.
Louis Tully, the hilariously geeky accountant played by Rick Moranis in the original “Ghostbusters,” is memorable for locking himself out of his apartment, throwing lame parties (“Anybody want to play Parcheesi?”), and having the bad taste to invite clients rather than friends to his parties in order to write the events off as work expenses. Oh, and he also gets possessed by a horned, dog-like demigod from another dimension, which is not something many accountants can claim.
In this 1987 gangster film from Brian De Palma, the Bureau of Prohibition targets mob leader Al Capone (Robert De Niro) by using a surprising strategy: accounting. The federal accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) memorably helps agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) send Capone to jail by proving he made millions of dollars illegally but never paid taxes. Bookkeepers everywhere must especially love that while Wallace wears glasses and appears to be the stereotypical nerd accountant, he also gets to carry a shotgun.
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Easily one of the best TV shows ever, “Breaking Bad” fascinates viewers because of the astonishing transformation of chemistry teacher-turned-murderous-meth-dealer Walter White. But it’s Walt’s wife, Skyler, who might be the show’s most interesting character. Skyler White proves to be an enormously complicated figure—a protective mother who is appalled by her husband’s behavior, and also the accountant who masterminds the purchase of a car wash to launder Walt’s drug money
The comedic actor Charles Grodin seems born to play an uptight accountant—in this case, Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas, a bookkeeper for the mob on the run after embezzling $15 million from his gangster bosses. In “Midnight Run,” Mardukas bickers hilariously throughout a cross-country road trip with a gruff bounty hunter Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro), all while the FBI, the mob, and other bounty hunters are hot on their tail.
Accountants are known for their expertise with numbers, not for funny one-liners. Ultra-sarcastic Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) may be the exception, always reliable for delivering the best punchlines on “Friends.” But’s it’s not really clear if Chandler was, in fact, an accountant; one of the show’s running gags was that no one knew what he did for a living, other than working in some soul-crushing corporate job that involved inputting numbers.
During World War II in Germany, the opportunistic businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) employs an accountant named Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), who suggests that his boss hire Jews as cheap labor in his factory in newly conquered Poland. By deeming these workers essential for production, Schindler and Stern save the lives of some 1,100 Jews, who otherwise would have gone to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
The accounting department at the Scranton branch of the fictional paper company Dunder Mifflin is something of a microcosm of every office everywhere. The trio consists of one annoying, judgmental busybody (Angela); a dim, inappropriate buffoon (Kevin); and a highly practical, knowledgeable, and efficient worker (Oscar), whose sensible suggestions are usually ignored by the boss.
The Royal Tenenbaums
Like virtually every Wes Anderson film, “The Royal Tenenbaums” is considered a quirky cult classic by some—and a bizarre, overly precious art piece by others. Among the eccentric cast of characters is Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), the bow-tie-wearing accountant who falls in love with the family matriarch, played by Anjelica Huston.
The Good Wife
Many viewers weren’t sure if they loved or hated Clarke Hayden (Nathan Lane), the lawyer-turned-accountant charged with getting Lockhart/Gardner to pay off millions in debt. To play the complicated role, Lane created a dark backstory for Hayden. “He was really good with numbers, so he got into accounting. I think he rose at some corporation. I think he was asked to do things he probably thought were not quite legal. I think he became very successful and the things he did were never caught,” Lane explained in 2013.
At the same time, Hayden was capable of doing good for its own sake. “He does like helping people. He does like figuring things out,” Lane said. “He is a numbers guy. That’s what rules his life in a way.”
To cut the national budget by $650 million, an average Joe standing in for the president (Kevin Kline) turns to—who else?—an old friend who happens to be an accountant for help. And who else should the casting director of this 1993 political satire turn to to play the mild-mannered accountant with a masterful ability to do dry double takes? Yes, it’s Charles Grodin in the role of Murray Blum, a smart, sensible CPA who looks over the government’s budget and observes, undoubtedly to nods in the audience, that it “just doesn’t add up. If I ran my books this way, I’d be out of business.”
Was Milton Waddams, the mumbling drone played by Stephen Root who is cruelly pushed around by a jerk boss in 1999’s “Office Space,” an accountant? We’re not totally sure. But Protexture Accountants declared that his work “sure resembled some sort of bookkeeping,” and named him one of their favorite accountants in the movies. That’s good enough for us. And we can identify with Milton: All the poor guy really wanted was for nobody to mess with him at the office. The least they could do would be to let him keep his beloved red stapler.