Top 20 Greatest Actors of All Time
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 Greatest Actors of All Time
For this list, we’ll be looking at men and women who’ve truly mastered the craft of acting. However, in order to set parameters, for this list we’ve focused our attention on actors who’ve primarily worked in English.
Besides Jon Lovitz, who would you call a “master thespian”? Let us know in the comments.
#20: Leonardo DiCaprio
He’s come a long way from his 23 episode stint as Luke Bower on “Growing Pains”. And sure he was a good-looking guy and he handled his own on screen, but that character wasn’t evidence of the amazing actor Leonardo DiCaprio was to become. It would first really show itself about a year later in DiCaprio’s Oscar-nominated turn in “What's Eating Gilbert Grape”, and the evidence kept mounting from there. In his early 20s his talent reigned in “The Basketball Diaries” and “Romeo + Juliet”. As he got older he matured, and so did his performances, whether it was playing Howard Hughes or J. Edgar Hoover, or winning his first Oscar for his brilliant turn in “The Revenant”.
#19: Robin Williams
There are very few people who would ever be on a list of the greatest comedians of all time and a list of the greatest actors. Robin Williams is one of those people. Some of his best performances relied on his brilliant comedic mind and manic personality, from “Good Morning, Vietnam” to “Aladdin”. But what makes Williams such a stand out actor was his ability to play the drama, the quiet and those moments of true depth and introspection. An ability highlighted in his Oscar-winning performance as Sean Maguire in “Good Will Hunting”. He really could do it all. We would stand on our desks any day for Robin Williams.
#18: Christian Bale
As great as he was in “Newsies” Christian Bale really put the acting world on notice with his calm, yet terrifying, performance as Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho”. Since then Bale has continued to show off his ability to transform into his characters - sometimes to a physically mind-blowing degree, as with his role in “The Machinist”. His ability to hide his British accent is also quite impressive, whether it be for a generic American voice or when portraying a real-life person, such as Dick Cheney. He was also a pretty darn good Batman.
#17: Bette Davis
With her 1962 Best Actress nomination for her performance in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Davis became the first person ever nominated for 10 acting Oscars (excluding her write-in nomination 28 years prior). Davis wasn’t just one of the biggest stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, she was one of the best actors as well. She had a tough and unflinching presence on screen that took even the most common of roles and made them special. “Of Human Bondage” made Davis a star and she followed that up with 2 Oscar winning roles, the second of which came playing a Southern belle in “Jezebel”. Years later in “All About Eve” Davis gave maybe her most iconic performance and delivered her most famous line.
#16: Anthony Hopkins
While Anthony Hopkins has given us too many great performances to count, his ability to embody completely different characters is encapsulated beautifully in his first two Oscar nominated performances. First, as the highly intelligent and manipulative killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs”. Second, as the quiet and reserved butler James Stevens in “The Remains of the Day”. His turn years later as Pope Benedict XVI earned him another Academy Award nomination and continued to prove his deserving of a spot on this list. We’d watch Hopkins act any day with, or without, some fava beans and a nice chianti.
#15: Denzel Washington
When it comes to great actors, few have a magnetism that can compare to that of Denzel Washington. His charisma and talent are larger than life. Whether he’s doing Shakespeare or rockin’ an action movie, Washington’s presence fills the screen, grabs you and doesn’t allow you to look away. He doesn’t even have to say a single word - as he proved early on in one of the most powerful scenes of his career in the film “Glory”. Washington may not be as big as a giant gorilla, but when it comes to screen presence, King Kong really doesn’t have anything on this uber-talented actor.
#14: Cate Blanchett
You know how Classico pasta sauce bills itself as the second best compared to homemade? Well, Cate Blanchett is such a great actor that her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I and Katharine Hepburn are second only to the actual women themselves. Blanchett’s range is so impressive she even earned one of her many Oscar nominations for playing a version of Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There”. And we can’t forget her portrayal of Galadriel in the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. A role that made such an impact, Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson wrote her into the “Hobbit” trilogy even though the character isn’t actually in the novel.
#13: Humphrey Bogart
When the American Film Institute put out their list of greatest screen legends, it was Humphrey Bogart who topped the male side of the list. His stardom can’t be denied, but it could also be a reason he doesn’t always get the credit for his acting talents that he deserves. Talents that saw him create the model for the iconic film noir detective in “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep”. And then there’s Rick Blaine in “Casablanca”. A heartbroken man with the strength to let go of the woman he loved because it was the right thing to do. If you never see a Bogart film, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
#12: Ingrid Bergman
After about 5 years making movies in Sweden and Germany, Bergman made the jump to Hollywood and the movie industry was all the better for it. Her most famous role was opposite Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca”, however, as time went by, Bergman continued to impress critics and film goers alike with her versatility. In “Gaslight” she plays a woman falsely convinced that she’s losing her mind. Bergman won her first Oscar for the role, and 30 years later she won her third playing a passenger on the Orient Express.
#11: Jack Nicholson
While everyone does a Jack Nicholson impression, when it comes to his ability as an actor, there are few who compare. Off screen he has a cool guy with sunglasses aura, on screen Nicholson has proved his ability to do pretty much anything. For some, his role in “The Shining” is the top. For others there’s no more iconic Nicholson than “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” or “Chinatown”. And we still haven't mentioned “A Few Good Men”, “As Good as It Gets” or “The Departed”. And if longevity means anything to you, allow us to point out the fact that Nicholson was nominated for an acting Oscar every decade from the ‘60s thru the 2000s.
#10: Tom Hanks
Comedy, drama, romance… Tom Hanks can do it all. Hanks can float from one genre to another and knock it out of the park each time like few other actors can. He made his name in ‘80s comedies and became a rom-com icon in the ‘90s. But while other actors could have easily been boxed into those types of movies, Hanks showed off his range, winning two consecutive Best Actor Oscars for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump”. He also made us cry over a volleyball - how many actors can say that? Hanks might be the nicest guy in Hollywood, but he’s also one of the best actors.
#9: Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn’s breakout role, and the one that earned her an Oscar, was Princess Ann in “Roman Holiday”. A true natural beauty, audiences fell in love with Hepburn in that movie and that love continued to flourish for the rest of her amazing career. In “Sabrina” and “Charade”, Hepburn didn’t just hold her own opposite the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, she forced them to bring their A-games to keep up with her. And then there was Holly Golightly. Innocent and worldly. Sweet and sophisticated. High-born and charitable. Audrey Hepburn was all that and more and could play it all on the stage and up on the silver screen as well.
#8: Al Pacino
While most associated with big, loud outbursts and moments of climactic exclamations, pigeon-holing Al Pacino in that way does a disservice to one of the greatest acting talents Hollywood has ever seen. Sure he’s great at being loud, but that is not where his greatness comes from. For all of the “you’re out of order” and “Attica, Attica, Attica”, there are also moments of quiet conversation, true studies in character that are just as riveting. He can be the head of a criminal family or an aging, paranoid mid-level mafioso. He can do Shakespeare and Mamet, and he does it all with a force and a deep connection with character and truth that continues to impress.
#7: Sidney Poitier
Besides his talents as an actor, Sidney Poitier’s influence and importance on the African-American experience can’t be minimized. Poitier had a talent and a determination that defied simple black stereotypes and he brought that nuance and truth to all his characters. With his Best Actor Oscar for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field”, Poitier became the first Black actor to win in said category. From “The Defiant Ones” to “In the Heat of the Night” Poitier continuously subverted expectations and earned the respect of critics, audiences and his peers. While studios in the ‘50s and ‘60s used to edit out black actors for certain audiences, as Denzel Washington put it, “you couldn't cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture”.
#6: Robert De Niro
There’s no doubting Robert De Niro’s place on this list, as he is certainly one of the greatest actors of all time! His iconic roles in movies like “Taxi Driver”, “The King of Comedy” and “Cape Fear” have definitely cemented his name in film history. Beyond emotionally and mentally immersing himself in his roles, De Niro is known for physically committing completely to a character. He famously put on 60 pounds for a portion of his 1980 performance as Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull”. And while he made his name in dramas and crime films, he’s proved in more recent decades, with films such as “Analyze This” and “Meet the Parents” that he can do comedy also.
#5: Katharine Hepburn
On that same AFI list that saw Humphrey Bogart in the top spot as the greatest male screen legend of all time, across from him on the female side stood Katharine Hepburn. A legendary status that she earned over an amazing six decades-long career that saw her play strong, independent women who took a back seat to no man. But don’t just take our word for it, take a look at Hepburn’s proverbial mantel and you’ll find 4 Best Actress Oscars - more than any other actor ever. Her consistency over so many years can’t be understated either. Hepburn won her first Oscar for her third film, 1933’s “Morning Glory”, and took home her fourth Academy Award for her third-to-last film, 1981’s “On Golden Pond”.
#4: Daniel Day-Lewis
Daniel Day-Lewis is widely regarded as one of the finest thespians ever. In 2012 Time magazine proclaimed him the “World’s Greatest Actor”, and with his Oscar for “Lincoln” Day-Lewis became the first 3-time Best Actor winner. His career has been distinguished by thought-provoking performances in a range of critically acclaimed films and the time and energy he devotes to each role is legendary. For his role in “In the Name of the Father” Day-Lewis lost over 50 pounds and demanded the crew verbally abuse him. During the filming of “Gangs of New York” the crew had to convince him to get treated for pneumonia - he initially refused because it wasn’t true to the time period. When it comes to acting - Day-Lewis drinks all of our milkshakes!
#3: Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep’s unparalleled acting ability, approachability and dynamism easily make her one of our greatest thespians of both stage and screen. From her heartbreaking turn in “Sophie’s Choice” to her spot-on performance as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” Streep has consistently showcased her remarkable range as a performer. And while awards and nominations might not always be a perfect indicator of talent, Streep’s record 21 Oscar, and 33 Golden Globe nominations are crazy numbers that can’t be overlooked. Comedy, drama, musicals, accents… As an actor, Streep has proven that there’s nothing she can’t handle - and do so at a level we’ve rarely seen.
#2: Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando burst onto the Hollywood scene in the 1950s with a string of powerful and acclaimed performances. From “A Streetcar Named Desire” to “On the Waterfront”, Brando’s talents shone on screen and he received 5 Oscar nominations between 1951 and 1957. He was one of the first actors to popularize the technique known as method acting, and with it he gave his characters a convincing level of realism and depth of emotion rarely seen before. While the ‘60s saw Brando’s career take a downward turn with lackluster movies and even some uninspired performances, he proved his immense talents once again in 1972 with “The Godfather”. His performances were often daring and thought provoking, and his influence on a generation of actors is undeniable.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
A Talented Ray of Eternal Sunshine in Hollywood
Frankly Vivien, We Give a Damn About How Good an Actor You Were
Joaquin Phoenix Gets a Big Thumbs up From Us
Taylor Was Nominated for an Oscar 4 Years in a Row Between 1958 & 1961
He Might’ve Been the Greatest Actor to Never Win an Oscar, Until He Won for “Darkest Hour”
#1: Laurence Olivier
When it comes to acting on the stage, there may not be a name greater than Laurence Olivier. Starting in the 1920s Olivier began performing in plays and by the ‘30s, he was amazing West End audiences in London with his immersive and powerful performances in everything from comedies to Shakespeare. His influence was so great that the Society of West End Theatre Awards were renamed the Laurence Olivier Awards in 1984. Having said all that, his film work also stands out as remarkable. Along with more brilliant Shakespeareian turns, Olivier earned his spot atop our list playing, among others, a conniving crime writer in “Sleuth” and a sadistic Nazi war criminal dentist in “Marathon Man”.