THE GREATEST SERIES: The 10 Greatest Actors of All-Time

Best Actor

Tackling a definitive list like this is something I’ve generally avoided in the past, but for a while I’ve felt drawn to this project. For several weeks I’ve went back and forth, adding and removing, considering and reconsidering, all for the purpose of putting together a list of who I think are the 10 greatest actors of all time. This is the first installment of a series I’m simply calling “The Greatest”. I hope you enjoy it and take time to share you’re thoughts below.

There are some brilliant actors who are favorites of mine but who don’t yet have the body of work to be considered a member of THE GREATEST. I’m talking about actors such as Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jean Dujardin, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Fassbender, and Tom Hiddleston. I love the guys and with a few more great performances under their belts they could join this list. But for now let’s get started by listing #11 – #20:

#20 – Denzel Washington
#19 – Spencer Tracy
#18 – Clint Eastwood
#17 – Leonardo DiCaprio
#16 – Joseph Cotten
#15 – Gregory Peck
#14 – Sidney Poitier
#13 – Gary Cooper
#12 – Al Pacino
#11 – Tom Hanks

Now let me introduce my 10 Greatest Film Actors of All Time:

#10 – Henry Fonda

FONDAIt may surprise some people to know that Henry Fonda’s acting was only truly considered great after his death in 1982. Personally I’ve always thought he was an incredible actor and his wide body of work spoke for itself. He had a sharp and unique style that often saw him playing similar roles throughout his long career. But regardless of the film or the decade, Fonda always gave an incredible performance and he was never above branching out into new areas. Fonda’s name is attached to some movies that are forever favorites of mine including “12 Angry Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath”. But he also shined in war films and westerns. In fact, he stunned the world with his villainous turn in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” (my all-time favorite western). Fonda had tremendous acting chops and he is truly one of the greatest.

#9 – Robert De Niro

BOBBYWhen you speak of someone possessing a natural acting gift Robert De Niro should automatically come to mind. Few actors are able to make things look as easy and fluid as De Niro. His career took off in 1972 and 1973 when he showed his top-notch abilities in “The Godfather II” and in “Mean Streets”, his first of many fine collaborations with director Martin Scorsese. De Niro would go on to make one beloved movie after another including “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”, “The Deer Hunter”, “The Untouchables”, “Cape Fear”, “Heat” and that just scratches the surface. Unfortunately his filmography has soured recently due to a number of poor choices, but we are still seeing glimpses of what made him such an amazing actor. It is his natural talent, unabashed spunk, and huge charisma and there are very few that can do what he has done on screen.

#8 – Russell Crowe

CROWEWould it be a stretch to call Russell Crowe the greatest period actor of all-time? I don’t think so. While the actor has made several ‘present day’ movies, a brief scan of his filmography shows that he has visited nearly every period you could imagine. But there is a reason for that. He is amazing in every one of these films. He won an Oscar for his role in “Gladiator” (Rome in 180 AD). He should have won the Oscar for his work in “A Beautiful Mind” (the film begins in 1947). He was brilliant in “Master and Commander” (on the high seas during 1805). He was fantastic in “3:10 to Yuma” (the 1884 old west). I could go on and on. Crowe has the knack for delivering powerful performances regardless of the time period. He has an amazing screen presence and you never doubt what he brings to the role.

#7 – Paul Newman

MEWMANHe may have the most recognizable pair of blue eyes in movie history, but he is also one of the greatest actors to ever grace the big screen. Paul Newman caught people’s attention very early on. In no time he was earning critical acclaim and numerous awards. In fact, while he only won one Academy Award, he received eight other acting Oscar nominations. One of my favorite Newman performances came early in his career with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. But what set Newman apart from so many other actors was the high quality work he did at an older age. He would earn five of his Oscar nominations after 1980. I never recall seeing Newman struggle with a role. Sure he was a cool and good-looking fellow, but he was also a tremendous actor who always picked good roles and then knocked them out of the park.

#6 – Marlon Brando

BRANDOTalk about a wacky film career that mirrored an equally wacky personal life. Marlon Brando played his share of weird characters in bad films, but he is also credited with bringing an entirely new and realistic acting style to the movies. A great example of that came in 1951. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was only his second film but the stirring contrast between his performance and anything else at the time was clear. It introduced method acting to audiences and it was a signature of Brando’s style. He would earn Oscar nominations each of the next four years finally winning for his brilliant performance in “On the Waterfront”. The 60’s weren’t kind to him but he would win another Oscar for his iconic work in “The Godfather”. Brando was unique but he was also highly influential and his contributions to the art of acting can still be felt today.

#5 – Harold Lloyd

Harold LloydWhenever the silent movie era is talked about the wonderful comedians Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are always mentioned. I adore those two film greats but I was always more drawn to the work of Harold Lloyd. Lloyd was a comic genius who was able to attract audiences with his addictive personality and amazing physical comedy. He made seven talkies but he will always be remembered for his silent features and shorts. His loveable and awkward characters with their nerdy black glasses and unbridled spunk were always able to evoke laughs while offering a surprisingly high amount of character development. Harold Lloyd was an amazing physical comedian and his daring side led him to do most of his own stunts. But he was much more than that. He was an artist and a master of the silent movie era.

#4 – Cary Grant

GRANTIf any actor had the complete package it was Cary Grant. He was suave, debonaire, and he had Hollywood good looks. He had an amazing sense for comedy and comedic timing. He could sweep audiences off their feet as a romantic leading man. He could handle all the curveballs thrown at him by mystery mastermind directors like Alfred Hitchcock. Grant had no weaknesses and his performances were always sharp and perfectly in tune with what the film needed. Watching him on screen was like a master class in acting. He completely understood his craft which explains why he was such a success. He was a huge box office draw and filmmakers loved to work with him. Unfortunately the Academy never seemed to get it. Cary Grant never won an acting Oscar which remains one of the most criminal mistakes in Oscar history.

#3 – Daniel Day-Lewis

DAY LEWISI never cease to be amazed by the work of Daniel Day-Lewis. I believe he is the premiere actor of our time – an actor who draws out every detail of his characters both physically and emotionally. It could be said that no actor puts more into their performance, both in preparation and delivery, than Day-Lewis. He is known for becoming his characters in order to perfectly understand them. For me he is the truest example of an acting artist. He has only twenty movies to his credit but within that filmography lies some of the greatest performances in film history. His work as Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood” remains one of my favorite performances of all-time. Day-Lewis is the only man to have won three Best Actor Oscars and quite honestly he could have deservedly won more. He is tremendous in everything he does and he elevates every movie he is in.

#2 – James Stewart

STEWARTHow can anyone not love Jimmy Stewart? This incredible actor became known for his down-to-earth, everyday guy portrayals that truly resonated with audiences throughout his long and prominent career. There was never anything staged or false about Stewart. His performances always felt natural and authentic and he worked numerous times with some of film’s best directors including Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, and Henry Koster. He not only starred in but he was the key ingredient to some of the biggest movie classics ever made. “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, “Rear Window”, “Vertigo”, and “The Philadelphia Story” are just a few of the great pictures led by this fabulous actor. He loved making movies and his movies are a huge reason why I love them as well. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest.

#1 – Humphrey Bogart

BogartPerhaps there is a touch of favoritism here, but I truly believe that Humphrey Bogart is the greatest actor of all time. Bogie didn’t have the advantages that some actors did. He didn’t have leading man bravado or signature good looks. He brought a personality to his characters which led to typecasting early in his career but eventually to strong personas that bucked the common leading man trends of the time. Bogie was extremely honest in his performances and every bit of his commitment showed itself in his characters. He led some of the greatest movies in history including “The African Queen”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “The Maltese Falcon”, and what I consider my favorite movie ever made “Casablanca”. Humphrey Bogart died too soon, but he left behind an impeccable movie legacy. Whether it was his early gangster pictures and studio-pushed projects or his unforgettable classics that have stood the test of time, Bogie always shined and he was an actor in its truest sense.

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62 thoughts on “THE GREATEST SERIES: The 10 Greatest Actors of All-Time

  1. Great tribute piece, Keith! Oh, I reckon we could go back and forth nit-picking why Paul Newman or Daniel Day Lewis is better than Humphrey Bogart or that Russell Crowe is rated too high and what a nice surprise to see Harold Lloyd rated in your top ten but no mention of Charlie Chaplin? I admire anyone who attempts the impossible.
    Quite enjoyable!

    • Thanks Cindy. I do mention Chaplin in my defense of Lloyd but ultimately I always liked what Lloyd brought to his characters more than Chaplin. In fact I even like Keaton a bit better than CC.

      I do stand by Crowe mainly because he has given some of my favorite modern day performances. He is such a powerful presence in numerous films.

      And I do think Bogart is the greatest actor (as far as anyone is able to conclude such a think). Hopefully my defense of him did my reasoning justice.

      Anyway, fun discussions. It was crazy putting this together. So many arguments with myself over who went where etc! I’ve been tackling this thing for weeks! LOL. It means a lot that you enjoyed reading it!

  2. It must have been quite the challenge even narrowing it down to twenty! 😀

    This is a very insightful list. DDL sitting pretty at #3, wow! I have to agree though, he is a wonderful method actor. And I find #’s 5, 7 and 8 also particularly inspired. Great stuff dude!

    • Thanks Tom. This was a chore but a fun one. I tried to give good defenses to each who made it into the top 10. Now the big question: any egregious misses in your eyes?

  3. My favorite are 2, 4, 7, 8, and 10! I love the pattern you pointed out about Crowe. And I adore Henry Fonda’s roles. I will never forget the role Marlon Brando played in A Streetcar Named Desire. Anytime anyone mentions him, “Stttttteeeeeellllllllllaaaaaaa!” comes flying out of my mouth. It’s what I know him for best. Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant are probably a must, must for me. I do notice you only take into account traditional “American cinema” actors. What about Foreign actors? Gotta love Toshiro Mifune! Love this idea and that you tackled it with such conviction! Cheers.

    • Thanks so much for the comments. I have seen a lot of foreign films but this was my predicament – there weren’t many of the foreign actors that I had seen enough of to consider them among the best. I had seen multiple movies from certain actors but not a big enough sample to judge them honestly. Perhaps that is a limitation of this list.

  4. Wonderful post Keith. Nice to see Bogart at the top of your list. I love The African Queen. I also love Sabrina where he plays one of the romantic leads opposite Audrey Hepburn. Have you seen it?

    • I have indeed. I own about 65 of Bogart’s films on some format. Sabrina is an absolute gem. And he has so many others that I love: The Big Sleep, The Enforcer, Key Largo, The Petrified Forest, The Caine Mutiny, High Sierra, Dark Passage, Black Legion, To Have and Have Not, Sahara, I could go on and on. Talk about a tremendous actor. Really glad you appreciate his work as well.

      So tell me, did you see any glaring omissions on this list?

    • It really is subjective. No doubt about it. I love Bogart even in his lesser films. He made some real stinkers while under studio obligation but even then I found him very interesting.

  5. Wow, that’s quite the list mate, and I knew exactly who’d be right at the top! 🙂 Slightly surprised to see Crowe up there so high, especially ahead of De Niro! But you could ask a thousand people and every single list would be different. Top work mate!

    • I figured Crowe would catch a few objections. De Niro is obviously great as indicated by his top 10 showing, but Crowe has a couple of performances that I think are just stunningly brilliant. Master and Commander and A Beautiful Mind. Both show his incredible range and amazing abilities.

  6. Great stuff Keith. I enjoyed reading your reasons for the top 10. I’d personally have Chaplin in there somewhere and I’m pretty sure Jack Nicholson would have a place in my top ten, but I certainly haven’t given it as much thought as you and they are just idle thoughts!

    • Thanks a lot. I certainly can’t argue anyone’s love for Chaplin. He was a genius. And I was waiting for someone to mention Jack Nicholson. He was in and out of my 11-20 and I absolutely hated to leave him off. Great actor no doubt.

      Any name on there that you just can’t buy into at all?

      • I struggle to warm to Tom Hanks but I wouldn’t for one minute deny his ability as an actor! I like your arguments for Russell Crowe too. I’m impressed you got this down to twen…

        HEY WAIT A MINUTE WHERE’S HACKMAN?!!!!

        *Unfollows blog in disgust*

      • LOL! I didn’t know you were such a big Gene Hackman fan. He was definitely in the final cut but ultimately I couldn’t pinpoint enough phenomenal performances. He and Michael Caine both fell into that same category. Love those guys.

        Hanks is interesting. I like him but he wouldn’t be in a list of my favorites. But in a list like this I had to include him mainly because of his amazing range of performances. He has done so many different things and done them well.

      • Yeah, I can’t really argue with your choices – great post and fun to chat about them.
        I am a big Hackman fan – around five decades of work and he never went through a duff period. There are a few bad films in there but by and large he kept up an amazing standard all through his career.

      • Very true. I wish he was still active on the movie scene. Speaking of him, he was a key reason one certain film made yesterday’s Phenomenal 5 – “No Way Out”. Loved him in that flick.

  7. Very impressive post bro! It’s certainly not easy doing stuff like this but I take my hat off to you. I could list my top five but anything other than that takes a lot of thought. I’m very surprised to see the omission of Jack Nicholson, though. For what it’s worth, here’s my top five…

    1: Robert DeNiro
    2: Daniel Day-Lewis
    3: Jack Nicholson
    4: Jeff Bridges
    5: Philip Seymour Hoffman

    • Thanks buddy. You have no idea how long this thing was in the works. In fact, at one point I grew so frustrated that I threw my hands up and stepped away for a few weeks. It really is subjective but it was still a fun project.

      Jack Nicholson was on and off my list. Great actor for certain and there’s no way I could begrudge anyone including him. I hated leaving him off but I knew he would get his due in the comments.

      Hard to argue with Day-Lewis isn’t it? And I knew Bobby would be your number one. Yep, I have him ahead of Pacino and my wife didnt care for that. LOL.

      • Aaah! The age old Bobby and Al debate? Glad to see where your loyalties lie! 😉
        It is very difficult to deny Day-Lewis. The man really is a powerhouse.

  8. Tough task you took on, eh? The only name that felt like an egregious omission from the top 20 was Nicholson. I could make a case for a bunch of others not mentioned: Buster Keaton, James Cagney, Gene Hackman, Paul Giamatti, PS Hoffman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, and some more that aren’t coming immediately to mind.

    As for what you have, it’s well thought out and your reasoning is solid, plus a blast to read. I’ve only seen maybe a dozen Bogey flicks (including Casablanca but The African Queen) and other than The Treasure of Sierre Madre and possibly The Caine Mutiny, he hasn’t done anything I thought was great . Still your passionate about his ability so that’s good enough.

    Any chance you’ll tackle a companion list for actresses?

    • Thanks so much for for the comments. Nicholson was so incredibly hard to cut (heck, his image is even on the banner). I think that is why this project was frustrating. I hated leaving guys like him off. Robert Mitchum was another one that I desperately wanted to include.

      I have seen tons of Bogart films. I loved him in each of the movies you mentioned along with Key Largo, The Maltese Falcon, Sahara, High Sierra, and The Petrified Forest. But I think he was excellent in a number of smaller pictures as well including movies like Black Legion and The Enforcer. For me he stole practically every scene, at least until he met his match in Bacall.

  9. Awesome, awesome!! I love lists and this is a GREAT one Keith! 😀 Nice to see Gregory Peck made your top 20, it would’ve been higher on mine but I can’t argue against having Grant, Newman and Brando even if I haven’t seen as many of their work.

    I haven’t seen any Henry Fonda performance tho, that has to change eh? Why am I not surprised to see who made your #1. Apparently my late dad was a huge Bogart fan, in fact his pals gave him the nickname Bogey according to my mom.

    Btw, stay tuned for my music break post later today that I guarantee you will love 😉

    • Peck had to be in my top twenty and to be honest I could never settle on where to put him. I would keep moving him around especially when I would think of one of his great performances.

      Yes ma’am, Bogart is my number one but I do believe it is more than simple favoritism. I think he was remarkable for a number of reasons (some I listed).

      Oh yes, look up some Henry Fonda movies. “!2 Angry Men” is fantastic and I never get tired of “The Grapes of Wrath”. But THE performance that literally stunned audiences was his turn in “Once Upon a Time in the West”. Please see this film! He went so against his usual role and he is chilling! Sergio Leone’s direction is breathtaking and it the very best score out of Moricone’s great work. HIGHLY recommended!

      • Hi ya Keith! I actually own 12 Angry Men dvd as it’s part of a legal movies set I got from work (the company I work for made products for attorneys/legal professionals) so I should get on that soon. And I believe Greg Peck is also in “Once Upon a Time in the West” right? In any case, will have to see that too 😀

      • No Peck wasn’t in that one. I bet you’re thinking about “How the West was Won”. He and many others were in that one. Similar titles but very different movies.

  10. I’m not going to nit pick, all of the actors you have listed are outstanding and it is your list. I do have to say that I was surprised by the absence of my personal favorite. I’m not sure he ever gave a bad performance even when he was in bad films. Norman Dale, Harry Zimm, Bill Daggett, Rupert Anderson, John Herod, Sam Clayton, Harry Moseby, Popeye Doyle, Harry Caul, Gene Garrison, Buck Barrow and the most Amazing Blindman Comic Performance of all time. Surely these deserve a nod somewhere on your list. Bogart and Grant rule.

    • Hackman is a great actor, no doubt about it. For me he’s always consistently good and as you say, he has never given a bad performance that I can think of. Where I struggled with him was with truly great performances. But I guess it could be said that being consistently good at your craft is a sign of greatness. Very interesting to chew on.

      Thanks for the great comments!

  11. Fantastic list Keith I must say. Though for Mr DiCaprio would be right up there… Some might call THAT favouritism right there 😛

    Definitely no easy task you took on here!

  12. All of these names are definitely great actors. The ten best of all time? Who knows? So many good actors over so many years, which (as you said) makes these sorts of things very hard to compile. And very fun to read!

  13. After a brief scan, I agree with many on this list. My own touch of favoritism would be to put Russell Crowe at the top of my list. I think of him as the greatest and still going, adding Noah to his list of great films. I’d have to put Christian Bale on there somewhere as well.

    • Glad to hear someone share my enthusiasm for Crowe! While I didn’t like Noah, he was great in it. And I really like Bale a lot. I think his body of work argues well that he belongs on the list.

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