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In the summer of 2008, Harrison Ford dusted off his fedora for another outing as Indiana Jones. It was a significant decision, and not just for the franchise; it may have tipped the scales on Ford's legacy. Since the 1980s, he has been identified with a pair of iconic screen heroes: Indiana Jones and Star Wars' Han Solo. Three films apiece. Neither role defined him more than the other. But that may be changing now that a new generation has experienced Indy on the big screen.

Some stars will always be associated with a particular character. When we think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, it's as a cyborg from the future. Judy Garland? Skipping down the yellow brick road. Roy Scheider? The everyman sheriff battling great white sharks. And no matter what Henry Winkler does from here on out, he'll always be The Fonz.

That got me thinking about the many roles in which we cast ourselves and how they can define us. Like busy actors, we often play multiple parts simultaneously. For example, today I'll be playing supporting roles as husband, father, web editor, podcast host and softball coach. I'll also try to make good impressions in bit parts such as "patient bank customer" and "neighbor borrowing weed whacker." I may even have an uncredited cameo as "kind stranger in parking lot." How many roles did you juggle today?

When all is said and done, however, we will be remembered for a key part or two. And with so many of them competing for our time and energy, it helps to decide in advance which ones we'd prefer to have define us as we seek to follow Christ. As much as we'd like to win public applause and critical acclaim in every role, that's rarely possible. Therefore, we have to make conscious decisions about which will take priority—and encourage our kids to do the same—or be prepared to face unintended consequences …

The late Sir Alec Guinness had a distinguished career in theater and film. He appeared in Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and even won an Oscar in 1958 for The Bridge on the River Kwai. But in 1977 all of that faded into obscurity when audiences met an elderly Jedi named Obi Wan Kenobi. This actually frustrated and annoyed Guinness. I once read that the actor discarded Star Wars fan mail without reading it. He was quoted as saying, "Apart from the money, I regret having embarked on the film."

Of course, Guinness had no way of knowing what wielding a lightsaber would do to his legacy. But isn't that the way life often works? As we review the roles we've accepted (some by choice, others by default), we should apply the Sir Alec Guinness test to prevent similar regret. Ask, "Why am I investing here?" "Is this decision something I'll be proud of later?" "Would I be content to have this role represent me when I'm gone?" If not, it may be what folks in Hollywood call a bad career move, be it a dead-end pursuit, an unhealthy relationship or an empty diversion keeping us from a blockbuster opportunity.

Not long ago, actor Alan Thicke and his Growing Pains co-stars appeared on NBC's Today show to talk about their popular '80s sitcom. Of his years as TV dad Jason Seaver he said, "If I'm only known or remembered for one thing, and on my tombstone it says 'Growing Pains' or 'Jason Seaver,' I can live with that. I'm proud of what the show stood for."

Very cool. But here's the kicker: Once the tombstone goes up we don't get to choose which role we'll be remembered for. For better or worse, it will be the one that had the most impact. I can't help but think of two actors at opposite ends of that spectrum. Gregory Peck will always be associated with Atticus Finch, the principled Southern lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird. A paragon of virtue. Then there's Anthony Hopkins. After choosing to make The Silence of the Lambs and two sequels, he cemented his place in the public consciousness as cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter.

The casting calls we answer today can shape our legacies tomorrow. Let's learn from Hollywood and avoid accepting parts that will diminish the lasting impression of the roles we value most.

Published May 2010