The Best Actors In Hollywood History
Talk about a powerhouse list!
Dating back to the beginning of the movie business, big stars have been the driving force behind people pouring into theaters around the world and handing over money for a ticket. Whether it’s a dead-serious dramatic powerhouse, someone with brilliant comedic timing or a hulking action star, everyone has a favorite actor whom they’d pretty much pay to see in anything.
We’ve gone back through the years and come up with a ranking of the best actors in Hollywood history. We used measurable markers like awards earned, acclaim drawn and staying power to help guide us, but acting is largely subjective, so we didn’t base everything on simple numbers.
We already ranked the best actresses in history — now take a look at our picks for the best actors to ever grace the silver screen.
30. Harrison Ford
Notable Performances: “Witness,” Indiana Jones films, Star Wars films
If you look up “Movie Star” on Google, a photo of Harrison Ford should probably be the first to pop up. He hasn’t earned the kind of hardware that others on this list have, but his movies have earned more money at the box office than nearly any actor in history.
Ford’s rugged looks and effortless style made signature roles like Han Solo and Indiana Jones into beloved entertainment icons. He never won an Oscar or a Golden Globe but he starred in five different movies in the American Film Institute’s prestigious list of the 100 greatest movies ever, which is a testament to his skill for portraying characters you love spending time with.
29. Frederic March
Notable Performances: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Death of a Salesman”
The only male actor in history to win two Oscars and two Tonys, Frederic March was a mainstay of the Academy Awards from the 1930s through the early 1950s. He was nominated for best leading actor a total of five times at the Oscars and also earned three nominations each at the Golden Globes, Emmys and BAFTAs (Britain’s equivalent to the Oscars).
He was brilliant at playing anguished men, which he did in the three acclaimed roles listed above, as well as in 1937’s “A Star is Born.”
28. Gregory Peck
Notable Performances: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Twelve O’Clock High,” “Roman Holiday”
Forever linked to his Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch in 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Gregory Peck represented strength and confidence every time he appeared on the screen. That was one of five Oscar-nominated roles for him and he also won a Golden Globe for it, one of three wins for him at that event.
Peck was a bonafide box-office lead in his day, proving equally adept in romantic fare like 1953’s “Roman Holiday” as in rugged roles like 1956’s “Moby Dick” and, later, as a villain in 1976’s “The Boys from Brazil.”
27. Bryan Cranston
Notable Performances: “Breaking Bad,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Trumbo”
You could call Bryan Cranston the best television actor of his generation — or possibly any — and it’d be tough to disagree. Since the early 1990s, Cranston has been showing he’s got range for days, from his hilarious roles on “Seinfeld” and “Malcolm in the Middle” to his powerhouse dramatic turn in “Breaking Bad.” His work in the latter series has been called the best single performance in history by some people.
He’s won four Emmys so far in 11 nominations, proving his mastery of TV storytelling. But he’s also proven himself on the big screen, earning an Oscar nomination for his work as writer Dalton Trumbo in 2015’s “Trumbo.”
26. Sidney Poitier
Notable Performances: “Lillies of the Field,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” “In the Heat of the Night”
Sidney Poitier has more onscreen presence than entire casts of actors could ever aspire to achieve. The strong, steady leading man who dominated the box office in the mid-1960s was the first black man to ever be nominated for best leading actor at the Oscars and also the first to win it.
Poitier has been magnetic every time he’s taken the screen, especially in 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night,” where he played a fiery Philadelphia detective working a case in the deep south. Poitier also won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA during his heyday and was nominated for two Emmys. In 2009, he earned America’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, becoming one of few actors to do so.
25. Peter Finch
Notable Performances: “Network,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “The Nun’s Story”
As gifted a British screen star as there’s ever been, Peter Finch racked up a mind-boggling seven nominations for best leading actor at the BAFTAs, winning a record five times in the category.
He became a major star in 1959 after starring alongside Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story,” becoming a magnet for intense roles after that. Performances don’t get much more fiery than Finch’s role as a burned-out TV news commentator in 1976’s “Network.” He unfortunately died in early 1977, just weeks before he’d win his only Oscar for that role.
24. Leonardo DiCaprio
Notable Performances: “The Revenant,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Aviator”
Arguably the biggest movie star of his generation, Leonardo DiCaprio has been showing his brilliance as an actor since he was just a teenager. He earned his first Oscar nomination at 19 years old for his work in 1993’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” He’d eventually earn four more Oscar nominations for acting, finally winning one for 2016’s “The Revenant,” in which he played a frontiersman who seeks revenge after being left for dead by companions in the wilderness.
DiCaprio has given strong performances for some of the best directors in the business, including Steven Spielberg (“Catch Me If You Can”), James Cameron (“Titanic”) and Martin Scorsese (“The Aviator”). There seems to be no role too large for DiCaprio to nail.
23. Peter O’Toole
Notable Performances: “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Lion in Winter,” “Venus”
Born with possibly the most piercing eyes in cinema history, Peter O’Toole backed them up with serious dramatic skills and a deep sense of empathy on screen. He was nominated for a stunning eight Oscars in the category of best leading actor, somehow never winning one. The Academy did relent and give him a lifetime achievement award in 2002, which probably went on the shelf with his four Golden Globes, one BAFTA and one Emmy.
O’Toole carried a quiet intensity in his roles, which included his iconic performance in 1962’s epic “Lawrence of Arabia” and his work opposite the formidable Katharine Hepburn in 1968’s “The Lion in Winter.” He continued to attract great roles until his death in 2013, earning his final Oscar nomination in 2006 at the age of 74.
22. Jeff Bridges
Notable Performances: “Crazy Heart,” “The Big Lebowski,” “The Last Picture Show”
Few leading men can play an everyman as well as Jeff Bridges. He’s become one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars for his ability to bring the same level of relatability to roles like the underachieving Dude in 1998’s “The Big Lebowski” and the wise Texas ranger in 2016’s “Hell or High Water.”
No matter what part Bridges plays, you seem to always feel like you deeply understand his characters and want to hang out with them. He finally earned an Oscar — one of seven nominations — for his role as a broken-down country music artist in 2009’s “Crazy Heart.”
21. Sean Penn
Notable Performances: “Mystic River,” “Dead Man Walking,” “Milk”
One of the biggest powerhouses in recent Hollywood history, Sean Penn has proven himself capable of virtually any role you can imagine since the 1980s. Not many actors could go from playing a dim-witted stoner in 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to a terrifying criminal in 1986’s “At Close Range” and earn praise for both.
His two Oscars so far have also come for wildly different roles: as a grieving father bent on revenge in 2003’s “Mystic River” and as gay rights icon Harvey Milk in 2008’s “Milk.” Those were just two of Penn’s five Oscar nominations in the category of best leading actor.
20. Henry Fonda
Notable Performances: “The Grapes of Wrath,” “12 Angry Men,” “On Golden Pond”
In a Hollywood career that spanned 50 years, Henry Fonda singled himself out as one of the great leading men of all time, especially when it came to serious dramatic material. He somehow only won a single Oscar during his career — and he had to wait until 1982 for it, a year before his death, for his work in “On Golden Pond” alongside fellow legends Katharine Hepburn and his daughter, Jane Fonda.
The heavyweight movies he led to critical acclaim, including 1939’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” 1943’s “The Ox-Bow Incident” and 1957’s “12 Angry Men,” were all movies that focused on fighting society’s injustices.
19. Michael Caine
Notable Performances: “Alfie,” “Get Carter,” “Sleuth”
Perfect at playing aloof or intense, funny or dramatic, British star Michael Caine has been one of cinema’s most bankable stars since the 1960s. His work across genres has earned him two Oscars in six nominations for roles spanning three decades.
He defined cool in British classics like 1966’s “Alfie,” 1969’s “The Italian Job” and 1971’s “Get Carter,” while also flexing his dramatic muscle in films like 1964’s “Zulu,” 1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” and 1999’s “The Cider House Rules.” As he’s gotten older, he’s only gotten more in-demand thanks to his work as Alfred in the blockbuster Dark Knight trilogy.
18. Charlie Chaplin
Notable Performances: “City Lights,” “The Great Dictator,” “Modern Times”
Arguably the king of silent cinema, Charlie Chaplin was a master not only of acting but of writing and directing his own films. It takes a truly gifted actor to elicit a range of emotions from viewers without the use of his voice.
Chaplin broke immeasurable ground in the 1920s and ’30s with insightful and hilarious comedies like “The Gold Rush,” “City Lights” and “Modern Times,” all of which still hold up nearly a century later. But his work in 1940’s “The Great Dictator,” which saw him making fun of Adolf Hitler at the height of the Nazi ruler’s power, was as gutsy and artistic as Hollywood comedy has ever been. Chaplin never won an Oscar for his acting but was given two honorary statues from the Academy for his legendary career.
17. Robin Williams
Notable Performances: “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Good Will Hunting”
Capable of savagely funny work as well as devastating emotional depths, Robin Williams showed that he had more range than nearly any actor in movie history.
His comedic roles in beloved movies like 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire,” 1996’s “The Birdcage” and 1992’s Aladdin” are master classes in high-energy comedy. Meanwhile, his dramatic work in films like 1989’s “Dead Poets Society” and 1997’s “Good Will Hunting” is downright moving, with the latter earning him his only Oscar in four nominations.
His tragic death by suicide in 2014 brought an end to one of the most celebrated and unforgettable acting careers in Hollywood history.
16. Spencer Tracy
Notable Performances: “The Power and the Glory,” “Boys Town,” “Woman of the Year”
Only two men have ever earned nine Oscar nominations in the category of best leading actor and Spencer Tracy was the first to pull it off. He proved himself to be one of Hollywood’s most versatile and effortless performers in history, starring in everything from dramas and comedies to adventure films and romances — all to rave reviews.
Tracy ended up winning Oscars in back-to-back years, for 1938’s “Captains Courageous” and 1939’s “Boys Town.” His long onscreen partnership with Katharine Hepburn led to nine movies between them and the legendary actress herself telling Tracy she considered him the greatest actor in history.
15. Cary Grant
Notable Performances: “The Philadelphia Story,” “Charade,” “North by Northwest”
Guys like Cary Grant make acting look so effortless that it makes everyone in the audience feel like they could be up there. With his easy style and prototypical leading-man looks, Grant made every movie he was in a joy to watch. It’s shocking that he never won an Oscar, a Golden Globe or a BAFTA in his storied career, which culminated in Grant being named the second-greatest actor in classic Hollywood history by AFI.
Opposite legendary leading ladies like Audrey Hepburn in 1963’s “Charade,” Ingrid Bergman in 1958’s “Indiscreet” and Katharine Hepburn in 1940’s “The Philadelphia Story,” Grant never took a back seat but also was far from an over-actor, making him as natural a star as there’s ever been.
14. Humphrey Bogart
Notable Performances: “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Casablanca,” “The African Queen”
Humphrey Bogart is another actor whose legendary status was not defined by the awards he earned. He only won a single Oscar in three nominations and never won a Golden Globe or a BAFTA, but he did enough to be named the biggest screen legend in Hollywood history by AFI.
That stature came through his lead roles as stoic heroes in classics like “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon” in the early 1940s. He later proved to be equally adept at playing more beleaguered characters, like in 1948’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and 1951’s “The African Queen,” the latter of which saw him going toe-to-toe with Katharine Hepburn and finally winning his Oscar.
13. Al Pacino
Notable Performances: “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Insider,” The Godfather trilogy
The definition of a powerhouse, Al Pacino has been as magnetic as any actor in cinema history during the high points of his career. He dominated the screen in films like 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” 1983’s “Scarface” and 1992’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.” But he played with a quieter intensity in 1999’s “The Insider” and especially in the first two movies of The Godfather trilogy, which became his signature role.
He’s won virtually every award on the planet at least once, including the coveted triple crown of acting, which includes an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony Award in competitive categories. His lone Oscar win, for 1992’s “Scent of a Woman,” was one of eight nominations he’s earned.
12. Paul Newman
Notable Performances: “Cool Hand Luke,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Verdict”
As smooth, cool and effortless as any actor in history, Paul Newman came to define what an American movie star was in the 1960s and ’70s. Just because it looked easy for him doesn’t mean it was, however, and Newman was honored for his countless memorable performances with a whopping nine Oscar nominations, including eight in the category for best leading actor.
Like some other great actors on this list, Newman had to wait a long time to finally win an Oscar, doing so for 1986’s “The Color of Money,” reprising a role he first played in 1961’s “The Hustler.” He also won two Golden Globes, a BAFTA and an Emmy in his lengthy career, the likes of which has been unrivaled by many actors in history.
11. Robert De Niro
Notable Performances: “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver,” “The Deer Hunter”
In an era full of brilliant actors who redefined what movie stars could look and act like, Robert De Niro stood tall as one of the absolute best. His intensity, with something brooding always bubbling under the surface, was evident in unforgettable star vehicles like 1976’s “Taxi Driver,” 1978’s “The Deer Hunter” and 1980’s “Raging Bull,” all of which landed in AFI’s list of the 100 greatest movies ever made. He ended up starring in five films on that list and has racked up two Oscars in his career on seven total nominations.
He proved to be potentially the ultimate tough-guy actor with his roles in gangster classics like 1974’s “The Godfather Part II,” 1990’s “Goodfellas” and 1995’s “Heat” before switching gears into more comedic roles that earned huge box-office returns, starting in the late 1990s.
10. Tom Hanks
Notable Performances: “Philadelphia,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Forest Gump”
There might be no actor in Hollywood history — certainly not since the Golden Age — that’s as likable as Tom Hanks. But just because everyone loves him doesn’t mean he’s a boring actor. Hanks has put together a remarkable career, always playing the lead, with roles across many genres over four decades.
If you ask five different people to name their favorite performance of his, you’ll probably get five different answers depending on if they prefer his comedic side (“Big”), his dramatic side (“Philadelphia”) or a mix of both (“Forest Gump”). Few actors can say they’ve moved audiences to tears of joy and laughter in equal measure but Hanks certainly has in a career that’s earned him two Oscars in five nominations so far.
9. James Cagney
Notable Performances: “White Heat,” “Angels With Dirty Faces,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy”
James Cagney might be the only actor in history who could go from playing a genuinely terrifying criminal to tap dancing and belting show tunes with equal aplomb. He was the first actor in history to be given AFI’s prestigious lifetime achievement honor, being honored with it in 1974, as a testament to his nearly unmatched career and talent. Cagney was one of the pioneers of the gangster genre, lighting up the screen in movies like 1931’s “The Public Enemy” and 1949’s “White Heat,” which essentially asked audiences to align themselves with a villain.
He won his lone Oscar in three nominations for playing Broadway icon George M. Cohan in 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which let him show off his considerable skills with singing, dancing and comedy. The legendary Orson Welles once said Cagney was “maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera.”
8. Laurence Olivier
Notable Performances: “Hamlet,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Marathon Man”
Today, Laurence Olivier stands as the model for technical excellence in acting and certainly the most dedicated to keeping the legacy of William Shakespeare alive on screen. He and Spencer Tracy are the only actors to ever be nominated at least nine times for the best leading actor Oscar and Olivier picked up another in the best supporting actor category to give him an even 10 — and that’s not even including the ones he earned for directing.
Olivier directed and starred in several Shakespearean movie adaptations in the 1940s and ’50s, all of which were heavily acclaimed. He won his only acting Oscar for 1949’s “Hamlet” and was later nominated again for playing a menacing villain in 1976’s “Marathon Man.” Olivier took his acting chops to TV, where he was equally acclaimed as he was on the big screen and in theater, winning five Emmys for his work in TV specials like 1983’s “Brideshead Revisited.”
7. Jack Lemmon
Notable Performances: “Some Like it Hot,” “Save the Tiger,” “Glengarry Glen Ross”
In the fickle business that is Hollywood, Jack Lemmon remained a major star and box-office draw for more than 40 years, racking up a ton of accolades in the process. While later audiences got to know and love him for his roles in comedies like 1993’s “Grumpy Old Men” and 1995’s “Grumpier Old Men,” both of which were major hits, they were just more in a long line of fantastic performances.
Lemmon earned two Oscars in eight nominations over his career, seven of which came in the category for best leading actor. He also won four Golden Globes out of a mind-blowing 22 nominations, three BAFTAs in eight nominations and one Emmy in five nominations for acting.
One of those rare actors who seemed able to naturally gain an audience’s trust, Lemmon flexed his considerable dramatic muscle in movies like 1960’s “The Apartment,” 1973’s “Save the Tiger” and 1992’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
6. Dustin Hoffman
Notable Performances: “The Graduate,” “Rain Man,” “Tootsie”
There may never have been an actor better at subtly crossing the lines of comedy and drama than Dustin Hoffman. Since his breakout role in 1967’s “The Graduate,” which was one of seven Oscar-nominated lead performances for him, he’s been walking the line between those genres with nearly every performance, making audiences and critics love him every time. He’s won two Oscars so far, for 1980’s “Kramer vs. Kramer,” where he shared the screen with Meryl Streep as a divorcing couple, and 1989’s “Rain Man,” where he helped create one of cinema’s most beloved characters as Ray.
Other movies he’s led that were greatly acclaimed include 1969’s groundbreaking “Midnight Cowboy,” in which he played a con man, 1982’s “Tootsie,” in which he played a desperate actor who cross-dresses to land a part, and 1997’s “Wag the Dog,” in which he played a slick Hollywood producer. His filmography is as varied as anyone’s on this list.
5. Denzel Washington
Notable Performances: “Training Day,” “Glory,” “Malcolm X”
Few actors have combined traditional leading-man looks with dramatic power and intensity like Denzel Washington. In a career that’s been going strong since the 1980s, and only seems to keep getting better, Washington has played dozens of wildly different roles, typically nailing every one of them. He’s been nominated for eight Oscars for acting so far, winning two of them, one for 1989’s “Glory,” in which he played a member of an all-black regiment in the Union Army during the Civil War, and another for 2001’s “Training Day,” in which he played a ruthless cop who is more bad guy than good.
Washington has also won two Golden Globes on nine career nominations and his five career nominations for best leading actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards is the most ever, showing how much respect he’s earned among his fellow actors.
4. Daniel Day-Lewis
Notable Performances: “There Will Be Blood,” “My Left Foot,” “Lincoln”
Despite being a quiet guy in the rare interviews he’s given, British screen icon Daniel Day-Lewis is able to project characters that are truly larger than life when he gets in front of a camera. Known for his method acting style, he’s about as intense as they come and you can see that in the most menacing roles he’s played as a ruthless oil driller in 2007’s “There Will Be Blood” and as a terrifying gangster in 2002’s “Gangs of New York.”
He’s been awarded a record three Oscars in the category of best leading actor, out of six nominations, and his three SAG Award wins in the same category are also a record, showing how much other actors are floored by his talent. He’s proven equally capable of playing quieter and more likable roles, like he did as Irish painter Christy Brown in 1989’s “My Left Foot” and as the quintessential American icon, Abraham Lincoln, in 2012’s “Lincoln.”
3. Jack Nicholson
Notable Performances: “Chinatown,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “As Good as It Gets”
Equally able to be a total menace and a trustworthy friend on screen, Jack Nicholson has had a career that any actor would probably give a body part for. He’s one of very few actors to win three Oscars — out of a staggering 12 nominations he’s racked up, which is a record among men — earning each in a different decade. His work as a deranged writer in 1980’s “The Shining” and as a brutal gangster in 2006’s “The Departed” showed him at his most frightening, but he’s proven to be totally vulnerable at other times.
His work as free-spirited characters in 1970’s “Five Easy Pieces” and 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” show some of the best acting in modern cinema, as well as his Oscar-winning role as an obsessive-compulsive writer in 1997’s “As Good as It Gets.”
2. James Stewart
Notable Performances: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Vertigo,” “Anatomy of a Murder”
Jimmy Stewart was Tom Hanks about 50 years earlier, proving himself capable of any leading role one could imagine and remaining as likable as any actor has ever been all the while. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single movie lover who doesn’t have a glowing memory of watching Stewart’s work, whether it’s as a desperate private eye in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece “Vertigo,” as an idealistic U.S. senator in 1939’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or as the generous soul George Bailey in 1946’s beloved “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
For his incredible career, which includes more classic films than probably any actor on this list, he was nominated for five Oscars, winning one, and was named the third-greatest screen legend in classic Hollywood history by AFI.
1. Marlon Brando
Notable Performances: “On the Waterfront,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Godfather”
When it comes to screen acting, you can pretty much define the eras as pre-Brando and post-Brando. His pioneering use of method acting and the depths of emotion and vulnerability he proved capable of onscreen were pretty much unheard of before he became a household name in the 1950s. Just pick one of those early movies and you’ll see a virtuosic performance: 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” 1953’s “The Wild One” and 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” just to name a few.
All that’s not even to mention his titular role in 1972’s “The Godfather,” which remains among the single most revered performances in movie history. Brando earned two Oscars in eight nominations, two Golden Globes, three consecutive BAFTAs and an Emmy in a screen career that spanned 50 years.