Top 10 Actors of All Time
How do you begin to determine who the greatest actor of all time is? It’s a challenge that sounds easy enough upon first thought, but as you contemplate, you come to realize it’s a question that’s pretty much impossible to answer. After all, performances come in a variety of different types based on the project, genre, and era by which they took place. How do you judge a great comedic performance next to a great dramatic one? An actor could be phenomenal doing Shakespeare but fall flat on his or her face when asked to make an audience laugh.
Yet, acting doesn’t just differ based on drama vs. comedy. Acting styles have changed over the course of history. Just look at film history itself. There’s the story of stars who rose to popularity in the silent era, due to their immaculate ability to convey emotion through body language, but found trouble transitioning into more dialogue heavy pictures after the incorporation of sound. You see another seismic change occur with the introduction of more realistic method acting. Does that make performances from the golden age of Hollywood less than something from the 1970s? I would argue, no. I would also argue that there are different kinds of actors you hire to deliver different kinds of performances. A character actor, meant to be a great team player, has a different set of skills from a great “movie-star” actor; whose job is to be charismatic and fun to watch.
So there you have it, this is an impossible task, one that essentially comes down to personal opinion, but there still might be a systematic way of reaching a reliable answer. In order to determine our ten greatest actors of all time, we have to lay down some rules - a set of criteria by which to judge them as a performer. Obviously, many fine actors will unfortunately not make the list and, as hinted early, this should not be looked at as an end all be all. Don't come at me Twitter!
1st: What kind of range does this person have as an actor? Can they play both comedy and drama? What about being a key supporting player as well as leading star?
2nd: How many iconic performances does this person have under their belt? We’re looking at volume here. It’s not good enough just to have one memorable role that defines this person’s career.
3rd: How many awards or nominations has this person accumulated over their career?
10. Denzel Washington
There was a moment at the Oscars this year where the camera cuts over to Denzel Washington as Casey Affleck takes home the award for Best Actor over him. Washington's look, one of contempt and disappointment, interestingly enough says a lot about him as an actor. The man is incredibly competitive. In every movie he's in, Washington is striving to be the most dominant person on screen, even when it is a supporting role. Whether you're watching him in an action picture like 'Man on Fire' or a domestic drama like 'Fences', Washington manages to command the screen. He seems larger than life in both his charisma and razor focus.
Key Performances: 'Glory', 'Malcolm X', 'Training Day', 'Flight', 'Fences'
Number of Oscars: 2
Recent Projects: 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.'
9. Dustin Hoffman
When taking a look at Dustin Hoffman's best performances you are immediately struck by two things. One is his ability to bring a sense of naturalism to all his roles, rarely performing in a way that screams acting. His two legendary performances from the 1980s, 'Tootsie' and 'Rain Man' are perhaps the best demonstration of this gift. Ether one of those rolls could have been played over-the-top by most actors but Hoffman manages to make his characters in both movies feel real. I'm embarrassed to say I often forget about him in 'Rain Man' because that performance feels like an actual person with a disability. The second, is a natural gift for both comedy and drama. Hoffman has managed to deliver iconic performances on either side of the acting spectrum. You can see this in his two best performances of the 60s, playing a shy young man having an affair with a much older woman in 'The Graduate' or a spastic drug addict in 'Midnight Cowboy'.
Key Performances: 'The Graduate', 'Midnight Cowboy', 'Tootsie', 'Rain Man'.
Number of Oscars: 2
Recent Project: 'The Meyerowitz Stories'
8. Tom Hanks
When one thinks of a quintessential movie star; someone whose charisma can carry an entire film, Tom Hanks is likely top of the list. His every-man charm has led to one of the greatest runs of any actor, with nearly every film during this period becoming a classic and demonstrating a range of comedy, drama, and romance. How many others could pull off a romantic comedy like 'Sleepless in Seattle' and a gritty war film like 'Saving Private Ryan'? Yet, Hanks has also managed to pull back and act as supporting player if need be. It doesn’t happen often but the two best examples are arguably Spielberg’s 'Catch Me If You Can' and 'That Thing You Do', which Hanks directed himself. In a recent interview, Hanks admitted he felt beyond his peak as an actor; and yes, it’s been over two decades since the back-to-back Best Actor punch that was 'Philadelphia' and 'Forrest Gump', but the man can still surprise, as this scene in 'Captain Phillips' clearly demonstrates. If you ask me, he’s underrated by today’s standards. After all, it’s hard to understate just how much life he can bring out of a movie, even when doing very little.
Key Performances: 'Philadelphia', 'Forrest Gump', 'Sleepless in Seattle', 'Saving Private Ryan', 'Cast Away'
Number of Oscars: 2
Recent Projects: 'The Post'
7. James Stewart
Similar to Hanks, there’s a kind of every-man charm to Stewart that made him one of the top actors of Hollywood’s golden age. You see an innocence in these early defining roles such as 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington', 'The Philadelphia Story', and most notably 'It’s a Wonderful Life'. It’s that innocence that allowed him to create the image of an average American, one who faced challenges and had aspirations not to similar from the typical moviegoer of the time. Other stars could sell a picture on dashing sex appeal or heroic machismo but with Stewart you always felt you were seeing someone more down to earth and noble in his intentions.
That being said, Stewart was also able to subvert this wholesome persona and toy with shades of darkness in his work with Alfred Hitchcock, bringing a voyeuristic aspect to characters in both 'Rear Window' and 'Vertigo'. The latter is particularly fascinating because it allows Stewart to transform from his typical every-man into someone consumed by lustful fantasy. By the movie’s last fourth, his character has taken a dark turn; becoming someone who is so obsessive and out of line with reality, that they are now unstable.
Key Performances: 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington', 'The Philadelphia Story', 'It's a Wonderful Life', 'Vertigo', 'Rear Window'
Number of Oscars: 1
6. Lawrence Olivier
A thespian of the stage, Lawrence Olivier was the king of Shakespeare at the movies. In fact, nearly all his adaptation's from the playwright's work, many of which he directed as well as starred in, are considered among the very best ever put to screen. During Hollywood's golden age, there was arguably no one finer; capable of being a commanding leading man or simply a great supporting player to have in your tool box. it's almost unimaginable to think that he never won any kind of Best Actor Oscar, though he later received an honorary award in 1979.
Sometimes it takes years to realize greatness.
Key Performances: 'Rebecca', 'Spartacus', 'Richard III', 'Hamlet'
5. Daniel Day-Lewis
No other actor in film history has gone to such lengths for the sake of staying in character. Day-Lewis does not have the extensive library of projects as some of our other contestants (can’t blame the man for being picky) but his reputation for completely transforming into characters, both on and off screen, has made him a legend. So what about range? Well, this is probably no better demonstrated than the two films Day-Lewis has done with Martin Scorsese.
In “The Age of Innocence” we see Day-Lewis give a very restrained performance, but it is one that is also incredibly romantic. It’s a complete 180 from his role as Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York”, where Day-Lewis is much more menacing, brutish, and sporadically violent. Sadly, when it comes to how iconic his performances have been in the lexicon of pop-culture, Day-Lewis has fallen a bit short. The one performance that’s a no-brainer for this category is his Oscar winning turn in PT Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” (still probably the actor’s best performance).
Key Performances: 'My Left Foot', 'Gangs of New York', 'There Will Be Blood', 'Lincoln'
Number of Oscars: 3
Recent Projects: 'Phantom Thread', which will reportedly be his final performance on screen.
4. Al Pacino
When discussing Pacino’s career, you really have to look at two incredible runs he's had. The first of these runs came during the 70s and early 80s. It’s here Pacino did arguably his finest work in movies like 'Panic at Needle Park', the first two 'Godfather' films, 'Dog Day Afternoon', 'Serpico', and 'Scarface'. The second run came after nearly a decade in the dark during the 80s. Pacino’s 90s run includes a slew of great movies, such as 'Heat', 'The Insider', 'Donnie Brasco', and 'Glengarry Glen Ross'.
In terms of bringing intensity and commanding the screen, Pacino is phenomenal. You always get the feeling that this man simply loves the craft of acting and being able to perform. However, Pacino rarely became a character; he was always playing himself to some extent or at least the persona he had developed as over the years. This pattern is especially noticeable in his performances after winning the Oscar for 'Scent of a Woman' in 1992. Yet, Pacino has proven, even at old age, to throw curve-balls to his persona. He played an aging rock star in the movie 'Danny Collins' a few years ago showcasing a gentler side to him as a star that most have not seen.
Key Performances: 'Dog Day Afternoon', 'The Godfather' trilogy, 'Carlito’s Way', 'Heat'
Number of Oscars: 1
Recent Projects: 'The Irishman' (currently filming)
3. Jack Nicholson
With Nicholson, you never knew what you were going to get. The man was a wild-card, unpredictable, hilarious one moment and terrifying the next. He has a fearlessness to him; a willingness to be unlikeable or play off-putting characters. In any one of the many films he has starred in over the years, you often worried whether or not he was going to go too off the rails, I mean, how far was he going to take it.
I think Nicholson also is a master of range. There’s a great youtube video from the Nerdwriter channel about how Nicholson not only demonstrated a range of different emotions within his various roles but found ways to add depth a hidden meaning behind the emotions themselves, especially anger.
Key Performances: 'One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest', 'The Shinning', 'Chinatown', 'A Few Good Men'
Number of Oscars: 3
Recent Projects: 'Toni Erdman' remake (alleged)
2. Robert DeNiro
If Nicholson was an explosive piece of dynamite, DeNiro was a surgical knife. Every mannerism, line delivery, and bit of body language feels calculated to the tee. Yes, DeNiro’s career in recent years has not been the finest but when he was at the top of his game, working with exceptional directors and taking roles that fascinated him, he was without equal. Similar to Pacino, DeNiro’s career holsters two incredible runs in the 70s and 90s. For years, there has even been a debate as to who was the better of the two Italian-American actors; a debate that reached its apex with the movie 'Heat' in 1995. I would argue DeNiro takes the title simply for his ability to be unexpectedly funny when need be (see 'The King of Comedy') and completely transform himself into the characters he played. Pacino, in a way, always played Pacino. DeNiro's dedication could be seen as he transformed his body into that of a prized fighter and an over-weight slob for 'Raging Bull' and researched the mannerisms of his character in 'Goodfellas' down to how he would hold a bottle of ketchup.
Key Performances: 'Taxi Driver', 'Raging Bull', 'The Godfather: Part II', 'The Deer Hunter'
Number of Oscars: 2
Recent Projects: 'The Irishman' (currently in production)
1. Marlon Brando
It’s hard to sum up just how large of an impact Brando had on the world of acting, and especially male actors in the movies. His rise to stardom came in the 1950s and continued to flourish well into the 1970s. What made Brando such a draw in the beginning was a kind of bad-boy sex appeal, mixed with raw intensity that made his performances feel more real and emotional. His roles in the 70s are perhaps even more fascinating because of how off-the-rails Brando could be on set. Film's such as 'Apocalypse Now', where he played a supporting role and notoriously came to set without lines memorized, offers moments of lightning-in-a-bottle greatness. Even when this guy was phoning it in, there is something captivating about him to watch. Brando set a gold standard for actors in the movies, creating something mythic that the most talented of performer would try and achieve throughout the decades.
Key Performances: 'Streetcar Named Desire', 'On the Waterfront', 'The Godfather', 'Apocalypse Now'
Number of Oscars: 2