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The 23 Greatest Actors of All Time According to the AFI


The 23 Greatest Actors of All Time According to the AFI


Summary

  • American Film Institute curates lists of greatest actors, including Robert Mitchum and Sidney Poitier, showcasing legendary talents.
  • Buster Keaton and Groucho Marx also highlighted by AFI for their contributions to cinema as comedy geniuses.
  • A diverse range of iconic actors like Gene Kelly, Laurence Olivier, and John Wayne cement their places as Hollywood legends.

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The American Film Institute was introduced by President Lyndon B. Johnson in order to preserve the legacy of American cinema and has been curating definitive lists of the greatest films, directors, genres, and actors in their “100 years…” series for 25 years. The AFI separates acting into the best actors and actresses, and they are fascinating lists, though the Institute has yet to provide an updated version after its 2008 edition, which had strict criteria regarding actors and their feature debuts before 1950.

Updated April 15, 2024: This article has been updated to provide more actors from AFI’s best actors of all time list.

Whether it’s updated soon or in 20 years’ time, it’s hard to foresee much in the way of change, considering the legendary status of its current occupants. These are cinematic faces that have defined the medium. Every younger viewer who may never have seen a single film starring the people on this list might recognize the names. These are the best actors of all time ranked according to AFI.

23 Robert Mitchum

Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell wearing a dark suit with the word
United Artists 

Adored for his imposing stature, weary gaze, and soulful demeanor, Robert Mitchum is regarded as one of classic Hollywood’s most recognizable antiheroes, whose career transcended five decades and established him as one of the cinema’s most sought-after leading men. Mitchum expertly starred in pictures of all shapes and sizes, yet he ultimately became best known for his fantastic work in film noir.

A Commanding On-Screen Presence

Mitchum became a household name in the 1940s with starring roles in films like The Story of G.I. Joe, Crossfire, and Out of the Past, before going on to work with acclaimed performers including Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, and Gregory Peck in the ensuing years. Some of his most prominent projects include Cape Fear, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, The Night of the Hunter, and River of No Return, and he continued acting up until his death in 1997.

22 Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier as Ben Munceford looking incredulous in The Bedford Incident (1965)
Columbia Pictures

Sidney Poitier made Academy Awards history when he became the first Bahamian and African-American actor to win the Best Actor award, taking home the prestigious accolade for his phenomenal performance in Lilies of the Field in 1964. Poitier achieved widespread stardom with celebrated roles in films such as The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, and A Patch of Blue, and would go on to break boundaries in the 1960s by appearing in three successful pictures that tackled race relations head-on.

Poitier Breaks Barriers

Poitier notably starred in the trailblazing films Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, To Sir, with Love, and In the Heat of the Night, becoming America’s biggest box-office draw and one of the cinema’s most renowned African-American performers. Poitier’s phenomenal career spanned nearly six decades, and he remains a beloved and decorated actor who, along with his Oscar, also received two Golden Globes, a Grammy, and a BAFTA.

21 Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr.
Metro-Goldwyn Pictures

Revered for his fearless physical comedy and signature deadpan expression, Buster Keaton rose to prominence during the Silent film era and dazzled audiences with his commitment to the craft, ultimately earning the nickname “The Great Stone Face.” Keaton proved to be a powerful force in Hollywood, emerging as a major cinema star with a distinct approach to humor, and pushed boundaries by performing his own stunt work in his many silent films.

A Fearless Comedy Genius

Keaton headlined classic silent comedies including Sherlock Jr., The General, The Cameraman, and Steamboat Bill, Jr., and branched out into the world of talkies with films like Speak Easily and Sidewalks of New York. He received an Academy Honorary Award for his contributions to cinema in 1959, and was often favorably compared to fellow silver screen star Charlie Chaplin during his heyday.

20 Groucho Marx

Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, one of the best comedy movies
Paramount Pictures

Actor, comedian, and singer Groucho Marx is generally considered to be one of the greatest comedy performers of all time. Along with his brothers Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, he performed under the name the Marx Brothers, starting off in vaudeville on stage before transitioning to films.

King of Comedy

Between 1929 and 1949, the Marx Brothers made 13 feature-length films, including the critically acclaimed Duck Soup, in which Groucho plays the newly-installed leader of a fictional country, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, and Monkey Business. As well as starring alongside his brothers, Groucho enjoyed a successful solo career, which saw him appear in several film roles, as well as episodes of popular television shows such as I Dream of Jeannie and Julia.

19 Burt Lancaster

Burt Lancaster as Jim Bledsoe standing with saluting sailors in Run Silent, Run Deep
United Artists

Over the course of his 45-year-long career, Burt Lancaster made a name for himself as one of Hollywood’s most reliable leading men. His breakthrough film role came in 1946 when he starred in The Killers opposite Ava Gardner. From then, he became typecast as a soft-hearted tough guy, which was apparent in films such as Brute Force, Desert Fury, Vengeance Valley, and The Crimson Pirate.

A Decorated Performer

Later in his career, Lancaster was able to display his diversity as an actor, taking on more challenging roles in movies such as Judgment at Nuremberg, Birdman of Alcatraz, Atlantic City, and Field of Dreams. In total, Lancaster was nominated for four Academy Awards, two of which he went on to win, as well as two BAFTAs and one Golden Globe.

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18 James Dean

A still of James Dean
20th Century Studios

Hollywood heartthrob James Dean was only 24 years old when he tragically lost his life in a car accident in 1955. Though his film career was brief, he still managed to establish himself as a cultural icon and one of the best acting talents of the time. A figure of youthful rebellion, Dean’s most famous role was as unruly teenage Jim Stark in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, which premiered shortly after his death and garnered critical acclaim upon its release.

An Immortalized Screen Icon

Meanwhile, Dean’s other famous film, East of Eden, earned the star a Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Actor, as well as his first Oscar nomination. His second and final Oscar nomination was for the 1956 western, Giant, which was released a year after Dean’s death. As well as his film roles, Dean made several television appearances in episodes of popular shows of the time and is fondly remembered to this day for the impact he had, not only on film, but on rock and roll and youth culture.

17 Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas in Spartacus
Universal International 

A frequent collaborator of Burt Lancaster and father to Michael Douglas, Kirk Douglas is one of the most prevalent actors in Hollywood. Beginning his film career with a supporting role in the 1946 noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Douglas went on to star in more than 90 titles over the course of his almost 70-year-long career.

A Diverse Acting Repertoire

Some of his most notable roles include Spartacus in the 1960 film of the same name, Doc Holliday in the 1957 Western, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Vincent van Gogh in 1956’s Lust for Life, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. In total, Douglas was nominated for three Oscars but didn’t win a single one. Nevertheless, he proved to be a multi-faceted performer, equally adept at doing all-out action films and gritty dramas.

16 Orson Welles

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941)
RKO Radio Pictures

Few individuals have had as much influence on film as Orson Welles. Known for his writing and directing as much as his acting, he helped to shape modern cinema and created some of the finest films along the way. Welles’s first feature was 1941’s Citizen Kane, a film he wrote, directed, starred in, and produced. Considered by many to be the greatest film of all time, it revolves around the death of a wealthy newspaper publisher (played by Kane) and an investigation into his last words.

Welles’s other films that he starred in include The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, and Touch of Evil. Meanwhile, he also appeared in titles such as The Third Man and A Man for All Seasons, which he had no hand in making. With an enormous screen presence and a wealth of versatility, Orson Welles was as much an accomplished actor as he was a filmmaker.

15 Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly stars in Anchors Aweigh
Loew’s Inc.

Gene Kelly may be here for his acting, but he is one of the most renowned dancers of all time. Kelly was a dancer, actor, and choreographer, and he even did some directing. Like Fred Astaire, Kelly is one of the most incredible dancers in cinema, so many of his films had, well, a lot of dancing. He is known for An American in Paris, Anchors Aweigh, and also started and co-directed the renowned musicals On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain.

A Man of Many Talents

Kelly shared the screen with some of Tinseltown’s most sensational stars like Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, and Debbie Reynolds, and throughout his dazzling career he earned two Golden Globe nominations and an honorary Academy Award for his versatility as an actor, singer, director, and dancer. Indeed, Gene Kelly could do it all.

14 Laurence Olivier

Hamlet - Laurence Olivier
Two Cities

Laurence Olivier, one of the most Oscar-nominated actors of all time, also won one and received two honorary Oscar awards. He was nominated for ten Oscars, including a nomination for Best Director in 1949 for Hamlet, which he also starred in, and won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Master of the Screen & Stage

Olivier was just as accomplished on stage as he was on-screen, appearing in British stage productions of Richard III, Oedipus, and The Entertainer, while also founding the Royal National Theatre in 1963. Some of his most notable films besides Hamlet areMarathon Man, Henry V, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. He was awarded an honorary Oscar for his lifetime achievement and one for his outstanding achievement as an actor, producer, and director for Henry V.

13 John Wayne

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards standing without his hat in the desert in The Searchers
Warner Bros

John Wayne, famously nicknamed The Duke, won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for True Grit and was nominated for Sands of Iwo Jima. John Wayne was the godfather of Westerns and defined what it means to be a man for a whole generation. He was not only an Icon during the Golden Age of Hollywood, but his name rang out through the annals of cinema.

Wayne Is Western Royalty

His movies ran on TV for ages (and continue to be aired to this day), and there is such an abundance of great John Wayne classics one can find a film just about anywhere. On top of that, he has been a pop-cultural symbol for so long, being quoted in films tirelessly. Many today who have never seen his films still know the name John Wayne.

12 Gregory Peck

Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Universal Pictures

Gregory Peck was an Oscar winner who graced the silver screen in a litany of classic films. In only his second film, he received an Oscar nomination for The Keys of the Kingdom. Peck went on to receive three more nominations and clinched an Oscar win for Best Actor in a Leading Role in the acclaimed film To Kill a Mockingbird.

Peck’s Decades-Long Success

Peck continued his Hollywood takeover and showcased his dynamic range with every project he starred in, and is also known for his role in iconic films like Roman Holiday, The Omen, and the original Cape Fear. With a cinema career spanning nearly fifty years, Peck was without-a-doubt one of the silver screen’s most talented actors and truly left his mark on the face of the film industry.

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11 Gary Cooper

Ingrid Bergman, Katina Paxinou, and Gary Cooper holding a gun and standing in front of boulders in For Whom the Bell Tolls
Paramount Pictures

Gary Cooper won two Oscars; many of his performances still reign as some of the best ever. He received the Academy Award for Best Actor in High Noon for playing the leading role in Sergeant York. Cooper was known for his stoic, calm, and understated acting manner but maintained an intense persona onscreen that sucked moviegoers in and didn’t let go.

Cool, Calm, & Collected

Cooper’s career spanned 36 years, and he appeared in leading roles in a whopping 84 feature films, and got his start as a silent film star and subsequently became a go-to Western hero. Cooper was a man who took to playing courageous characters like a fish to water, and he brilliantly played some of the greatest in history.

10 Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator
United Artists

Charlie Chaplin, a.k.a. The Little Tramp, was irrefutably the defining face of the Hollywood silent era. During a career spanning over 60 years, the Londoner appeared in a staggering 82 motion pictures, many of which he had written and directed himself.

The Face of Silent Film

From The Kid, The Great Dictator, and The Gold Rush to Limelight, Monsieur Verdoux, and A King in New York, Chaplin’s list of classic films is almost as long as his filmography. He also co-founded the distribution company United Artists, composed the music for most of his acclaimed pictures, and was never one to shy away from providing sharp commentary on the political and social climate of the time.

9 Spencer Tracy

Elizabeth Taylor & Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride
Loew’s Inc.

Spencer Tracy became the first person to ever win two consecutive Academy Awards, in 1937 and 1938, for Captains Courageous and Boys Town, respectively, a feat that was only equaled 55 years later by Tom Hanks. Regarded as America’s ‘on-screen Dad,’ Tracy possessed this lovable, paternal quality that made him such a popular motion picture figure.

A Seasoned Hollywood Veteran

Whether it’s his great comedies with Katherine Hepburn (Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib), his wizened, paternalistic performances in his late career (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Judgment at Nuremberg), or his intense dramas (Fury, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo), Tracy was excellent in whatever he tackled.

8 James Cagney

James Cagney in The Strawberry Blonde
Warner Bros. 

Orson Welles claimed that James Cagney was one of the greatest actors to ever appear in front of a camera. Known for his immaculate comedic timing, as well as being a distinctive orator, Cagney won his first and only Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy.

An Unforgettable Gangster Great

In addition to his great musical and comic talents, Cagney is considered to be one of the greatest gangster movie actors of all time, giving iconic performances in films like The Public Enemy and White Heat. Cagney ended his career after two decades of retirement from the motion picture industry, appearing in the epic, underrated swan song, Ragtime.

7 Clark Gable

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind
Loews’ Inc.

Nicknamed “The King of Hollywood,” a name attributed to him after the staunch critical success and importance of 1939’s Gone with the Wind, Clark Gable enjoyed a career spanning 37 years, winning an Oscar for his brilliant performance in It Happened One Night. Interestingly, in 1996, Steven Spielberg anonymously bought Gable’s only Academy Award and gave it back to the Academy.

A Dazzling Leading Man

The revered actor romanced some of the biggest actresses of the twentieth century in his box office hits, such as Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, and Jean Harlow. Gable was another of the great early actors who had perfect comedy chops but could also give intensely sad and moving performances that deconstructed his celebrity image in films like The Misfits, which, like his co-star Marilyn Monroe, proved to be his last completed project.

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6 Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda in Fail Safe movie
Columbia Pictures

An avid hobbyist and scoutmaster, Henry Fonda also held the record as the oldest Best Actor Academy Award winner ever for 39 years, having won it for his rendition of On the Pond in 1981 at 76-years-old; it was only in 2020 when 83-year-old Anthony Hopkins dethroned Fonda.

Fonda’s Groundbreaking Career

Father of Jane and Peter Fonda, Henry Fonda, mastered the craft across a long career of masterpieces and effortlessly played villains, romantic leads, and fearless heroes in a slew of lauded films like 12 Angry Men, The Grapes of Wrath, The Wrong Man, My Darling Clementine, and Once Upon a Time in the West.

5 Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time
RKO

Fred Astaire is probably more celebrated for his dancing and choreographic talents than his acting, which makes his ranking as the fifth-best actor of all time a little more remarkable. Born Frederick Austerlitz, Astaire broke into the film industry in his 30s after learning his craft on stage in the preceding decades.

Dancing His Way to the Top

Winning a Best Supporting Oscar in 1975, Astaire had always vehemently forbidden anyone from making a movie about his life, yet in 2021, it was announced that Tom Holland had been cast as Astaire for an upcoming biopic. It was certainly an interesting life, with Astaire becoming one of the biggest musical stars of all time thanks to his frequent early work with the great Ginger Rogers in movies like Top Hat, Shall We Dance, and Swing Time. His career would continue with later classics like The Band Wagon, Daddy Long Legs, and Finian’s Rainbow.

4 Marlon Brando

Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire
Warner Bros.

Perhaps best known for his rendition of mob boss Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic, The Godfather, Marlon Brando was a two-time Academy Award winner, having claimed the prestigious award for Best Male Lead in 1954’s On the Waterfront and again in 1972 for The Godfather, which he notably declined in protest. Brando was a revered method actor and rightly goes down as one of the most prominent acting influences of all time.

The Iconic Method Performer

While many considered him to be notoriously difficult, there’s no doubt that Brando completely changed the public face of acting with his performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, Apocalypse Now, and Last Tango in Paris. Even his role in 1978’s Superman: The Movie set a precedent for hiring well-established character actors in superhero movies for supporting roles to give them some legitimacy.

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