Arnold Schwarzenegger was the Terminator, Mel Gibson was Mad Max, Bruce Willis was John McClane and Johnny Depp is... well, a slightly camp pirate.
Ask an actor to reprise a character more than a few times and, chances are, they'll bolt for the door screaming "artistic credibility!". Thespians flinch at the word "franchise", imagining that any huge commercial enterprise must somehow lack artistry, yet Depp brings the same commitment to his fourth outing as Pirates of the Caribbean's unscrupulous Captain Jack Sparrow as he does for any of his roles, even earning an Oscar nomination for the first film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
What's interesting is that he's still game for more. "Yeah, I think they can wheel me in, have my dreads get tangled in the wheels of my chair," says Depp, 47, talking at a Beverly Hills hotel on the eve of the Hollywood premiere. "Interestingly for me, a character like Captain Jack, you feel like you can just continue. The possibilities are endless and limitless. There is any possibility of madness and absurdity so, you feel like with the character, you're never really done."
He has even been on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. "It's pretty psychedelic actually. I guess we could make it even more psychedelic but we shouldn't go there now!" he quips. "Wandering through that ride and suddenly, there you are three times in the thing. But it's quite an honour, you know, in a weird way – this thing you took part in creating becomes this forever sort of object."
With a script for a fifth Pirates apparently already in the works, Depp warms to the theme, "There's a brilliant idea for Pirates 5 and 6; we're actually gonna shoot them on the ride, just going around in circle, non-stop. Kind of like Andy Warhol's Sleep, with close-ups on everyone."
While the Disneyland premiere of Pirates of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides brought out scores of Jack Sparrow lookalikes, it's typical of Depp to show up to our interview looking as far removed from his swashbuckling pirate creation as possible.
Dressed in a yellow leather jacket, blue striped golf shirt, jeans and a natty black fedora with a bright hatband, he speaks softly: "In terms of any connections to the character of Captain Jack, we are completely different, there is nothing I can relate to Captain Jack whatsoever. With every character you play, there is a part of you which goes, in terms of ingredients of making this stew, so there is most definitely a part of me in Captain Jack and now, fortunately or unfortunately, there is a great part of Captain Jack in me as well. Basically, I can't shake him, he won't leave me alone! He keeps showing up at odd times, in fact he arrived this morning when I was getting my kids ready for school. I had to shoo him away," laughs Depp, whose Sparrow likenesses today compete for space on Hollywood Boulevard, hustling the tourists alongside the Spider-Men and Snow Whites.
Discussing his plans for the future, he continues with ocean metaphor. "Smooth sailing, that's what I hope for. I'm OK with no big ups, no big downs, it's alright, just full steam ahead, all things well and good. As a family man, all you want as a dad, is pure happiness for your kids, that's an universal sort of parent wish. That's my dream. Happy kids," says the actor who experienced enough romantic ups and downs in his past to today enjoy the peace of a settled relationship with French singer Vanessa Paradis, whom he met in 1998 on the set of The Ninth Gate, shortly after the break-up of his relationship with Kate Moss.
He was just 20 years old when he wed make-up artist Lori Anne Allison, they divorced two years later, Depp going on to date numerous Hollywood beauties including Winona Ryder and Sherilyn Fenn.
With Paradis he has a daughter Lily-Rose, 12, and son Jack, nine, the family dividing their time between whatever city Depp is working in and their permanent homes in the Parisian suburb of Meudon and a vineyard outside St Tropez. One of those rare heart-throbs who appeals to multiple generations, his image is just as likely to be found on the classroom wall as it is in a nursing home. And while he's certainly a handsome fellow, his broad appeal must also have something to do with the many nuances he brings to each role.
Or, as Pirates of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides director Rob Marshall puts it: "Johnny is a character actor in a leading man's body. He can do anything. Its astonishing to watch him work because he's such a creative force, he's always thinking. You see how he answers questions. Its not just like 'blah blah blah', he lives in a very creative space. He's always inventing."
Depp's rocker pal Keith Richards shows up once again in the latest Pirates, playing his father, although, according to Marshall, it wasn't originally in the script. "That was Johnny," he recalls. "Johnny said, 'I'd like Keith to be in the film, I'll ask him' and so he asked him and he said yes. Johnny's very good with him and draws it out of him and makes it easy. Keith loved his costumes and his hair."
Like all the previous Pirates films, the fourth one makes the most of filming in exotic locales, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico, although it was sequences shot at Pinewood, doubling for historic London, which proved the most disconcerting for Depp. "It was horrible, it was gruelling," he recalls, tongue in cheek. "It was a very strange little sequence. I thought about doing many things in my life under the influence of... life, but never actually thought of straddling two carriages while they are moving, jumping on people's heads, and then the thing catching fire. It's all a bad dream, isn't it? And this is how daddy brings home the bacon."
Being one of Hollywood's most loved icons doesn't prevent Depp from turning up in the occasional flop – most recently with Angelina Jolie in The Tourist – although his audience forgives him. In fact, he takes a certain pride from his failures, early on his career famously claiming that none of his movies would ever make any money. Ask him if he regrets that prediction in the wake of the multi-billion Pirates franchise, and he laughs. "It's not my fault. I did my best, you know, even to the point to try to get fired in the first one but they couldn't bring themselves to do it. It's kind of interesting to experience that kind of ride after essentially 20 years of enjoying a career based on failures and then, suddenly, something clicks. The weird thing is, I never changed a thing, the process is the same process as it ever was, so the fact that the people decided to go and see a movie I was in was probably the most shocking thing that I've ever been through," says the actor who has nevertheless received much artistic acclaim for his work, earning a Golden Globe for Sweeney Todd and Oscars nods for Finding Neverland and Sweeney Todd.
Frequently collaborating with Tim Burton – with whom he made Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Sleepy Hollow and Ed Wood – he enjoys an equally fertile union with Gore Verbinksi, who directed the first three Pirates movies as well as Depp's recent animated outing Rango, with plans already going ahead for Depp to star as Tonto in Verbinski's revisioning of The Lone Ranger.
The fourth Pirates has given birth to another promising union, Depp helping select Rob Marshall for the director's job, and the pair are now looking to collaborate on a remake of the Thin Man movies of the 1930s.
"Its going to be a re-imagining of The Thin Man," says Marshall. "We're writing it now and Johnny is also co-producing. It will be set in the Thirties but we'll do our own version. I would never take The Thin Man out of that era of speakeasys, Martinis and murder. Johnny asked me half-way through working on Pirates because we have a very similar sensibility about making films. We both believe that not only do you work very hard and be creative, but also need a place where people are having a good and happy experiences because its your life, so it has to be a great experience."
While studio assistants talk breathlessly of Depp's "crazy, hectic schedule", the man himself never gives the impression of being anything other than laid back with no particular place to go.
His relaxed demeanour gives the lie to the fact he has a stack of projects on the boil. While taking a brief break from filming Burton's gothic thriller Dark Shadows in the UK, he recently shot an uncredited cameo in 21 Jump Street, a big-screen reboot of the 1980s TV series where he got his start, as a teen hunk in an undercover-cops-in-high-school show.
Over the next six months he will be seen starring in a further two big-budget movies, both producing and starring in the adventure drama The Rum Diary, based on Hunter S Thompson's novel, and as the lead in Martin Scorsese's mystery Hugo Cabret, set in 1930s Paris. He has also directed a documentary on his friend Keith Richards, set for release early next year.
He claims to have no further desire to again pursue that ultimate of Hollywood vanities, directing and starring in your own film, having crossed that off the list 14 years ago when he directed and co-starred with Marlon Brando in The Brave.
"Leading in my own movie? No, I tried that once," he smiles. "The idea of directing is a strange idea for me because I sort of feel anti-mathematic in that way, I don't like when things make sense, I prefer when they don't so if I'll make a film, it wouldn't make any sense and no one would see it. I might just maybe make little films at home with my phone, never to be released."
Being so in demand is not without its downside. "The problem with my situation is that my dance card has been very full over the last couple of years and I've been working pretty much non-stop. It would be nice to take some time off."
Busy or not, he says he would still find time for Hamlet should the opportunity arise. "Hamlet is one of those, I don't know, actor cliché things that bounces around in your head. Many years ago, Marlon Brando planted that seed in my skull. The thing I'd like to do with Hamlet is to do it as under the radar as possible, in a very tiny theatre, unannounced and different names and if it caught on then you could just move it somewhere else."
'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' is released next week