The 20 Greatest American Actors of All Time

The 20 Greatest American Actors of All Time
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Joe Shetina
There is a lot of talent here! For this list, we'll be looking at those talented American performers who have made the greatest impact on the big screen.Our countdown includes Robert Redford, Frances McDormand, Al Pacino and more!

Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 Greatest American Actors of All Time. For this list, we’ll be looking at those talented American performers who have made the greatest impact on the big screen. There are so many more who could have made this list! Who is your favorite American actor?

#20: Leonardo DiCaprio

The longstanding joke about him not winning an Oscar aside, Leonardo DiCaprio has been demonstrating his great ability as an actor from the start. His early work shows a dedicated actor with a long and rich career ahead of him. Making the transition from 90s heartthrob to leading man, DiCaprio traded in his boyish charms for something a bit more substantial. His roles have only increased in difficulty since those early days. Part of that has to do with his working with some of the greatest directors of the last few decades. The other part is his courage to constantly evolve, building to his long overdue Oscar-winning performance in “The Revenant.”

#19: Philip Seymour Hoffman

A character actor in the truest sense, even if he had never broken out as a leading man, Philip Seymour Hoffman would still be counted among the best. Over his unfairly short career, he portrayed almost every kind of screen character there is. Standout work in complicated roles like those in “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” and “The Master” are only a few highlights. His incredible, Oscar-winning work as the famed author Truman Capote once again highlighted his ability to disappear into a character almost completely. When he died in 2014, it was clear there was still so much left for us to see.

#18: Elizabeth Taylor

As famous for her off-camera exploits as her on-camera ones, Elizabeth Taylor might just be the first modern Hollywood “it girl.” She was no stranger to drama, controversy, and scandal. However, she had all the talent and charisma to back it up. Beginning her career as a child star, Taylor didn’t just make it over the hurdle to adult stardom, she cleared it completely. Her persona as an elegant but seductive maneater was only part of her success. Her depth of feeling and tremendous skill, particularly in her Oscar-winning role in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” made it impossible for anyone to write her off as a mere “glamor queen.” Make no mistake, she was glamorous, but also so much more.

#17: James Stewart

Male stars of Old Hollywood could be cool and brutal or suave and sophisticated, but most of them were larger-than-life. James Stewart was the classic era’s great everyman. With his crystal blue eyes and slow drawl, there was something familiar and less glamorous about him than his contemporaries. He could portray boyish naiveté with ease. His idealistic characters in Frank Capra’s sentimental classics allowed him to play into that warmth. When the occasional antihero role required him to shift into a darker mode, such as in the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece “Vertigo,” he was just as engrossing.

#16: Viola Davis

It was far from her first screen role, but when Viola Davis appeared in “Doubt” and blew Hollywood legend Meryl Streep right off the screen, audiences the world over took notice. A steady character actress throughout the 90s and early 2000s, Davis rocketed to fame for her ability to emote and stay grounded in the reality of a scene. Her stage training is evident in her monologues, which are always pointed and perfectly calibrated for the screen. Genre-wise, her movies are all over the place, but they all have one thing in common. They all have a lived-in, well-modulated performance from Viola Davis.

#15: Robert Redford

As actor, director, and co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival, Redford is known for his commitment to his craft and the art of filmmaking in general. However, like many of his contemporaries, Redford began his career on Broadway. Once he appeared in multiple movies alongside Natalie Wood, he became a hot commodity in Hollywood. He became one of the most bankable actors of the next decade, headlining some of the most unforgettable movies of the 1960s and 70s. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Way We Were,” and many others were made unforgettable because of his steady and charming screen persona.

#14: Morgan Freeman

His sonorous voice is unmistakable. Given his assertive screen presence, it makes sense that he didn’t really find fame until he was nearly forty. His breakthrough role in 1987’s “Street Smart” earned him his first Academy Award nomination and propelled him into movie stardom. From haunted police detectives to bat-wielding high school principals to God himself, Freeman shines best when he plays a figure of authority. But he’s far from a villain. His persona may be consistently self-assured, but he also manages to find the fundamental goodness in all of his characters.

#13: Jane Fonda

How good does an actor have to be to be able to take a fifteen years hiatus and just pick up where they left off? Apparently, the answer is “Jane Fonda good.” Few actors have had careers as varied and full of so many distinct eras as Fonda. She started out as Hollywood royalty, the daughter of actor Henry Fonda, and began playing in girl-next-door roles. In the 1970s, she pivoted toward her controversial political activism and a series of socially conscious films that won both acclaim and awards. Despite an early retirement in 1990, Fonda returned to films in 2005, reclaiming her spot as one of Hollywood’s most powerful forces on screen and off.

#12: Humphrey Bogart

Exemplifying the cool masculinity of the classic period, Humphrey Bogart’s mannerisms and line readings made him one of Hollywood’s most imitated actors. Casually tossing out sardonic dialogue with a cigarette in his mouth, nobody could ever get the better of Bogart. His BS detector is off the charts. With his performances in the murder mysteries “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep,” he’s largely responsible for the screen archetypes associated with the hardboiled detective. Although known for playing tough guys, his screen persona actually made every romantic lead he played more believable. Bogart represented the kind of masculinity most American men wanted to emulate.

#11: Sidney Poitier

His debut role in 1950’s “No Way Out” is a perfect encapsulation of what made Sidney Poitier so special. Even in the face of prejudice and racism, he was a poised and stalwart presence. His characters ran against the grain of what Hollywood generally allowed African-Americans to be on the silver screen. Not just a great actor, Poitier was also a Hollywood trailblazer and barrier-breaker. In 1964, he earned the distinction of becoming the first Black performer to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in “Lilies of the Field.” Later in his career, he used his fame for good as a diplomat.

#10: Robin Williams

If being adored by millions were enough to make someone a great actor, Robin Williams has more than earned his spot on this list. Luckily for all of us, he brought so much more to the table. Dogged by early career criticisms that he was merely playing himself in front of a camera, Williams took more dramatic roles that demonstrated his range. Even his more comedic roles, like “Mrs. Doubtfire,” became grounded by serious circumstances. His once-in-a-generation gift for impressions and improvisation, irrepressible energy, and deft approach to both comic and dramatic roles are so extraordinary they should be studied in labs.

#9: Frances McDormand

With three Academy Awards and a boatload of other trophies on her shelf, Frances McDormand has earned a reputation for excellence. Widely known for her collaborations with the Coen brothers, McDormand is a master at creating specific and distinctive characters. In her most iconic role as Marge Gunderson in “Fargo,” she is somehow able to balance big comedic swings with a real sense of humanity and empathy. Throughout her career, she’s also been praised for her authenticity. If acting is reacting, few screen actors do it better than her. Even when she’s not speaking, it’s thrilling to just watch her exist.

#8: Robert De Niro

He may be one of director Martin Scorsese’s go-to gangsters, but even this actor’s work under the legendary director shows a breadth of emotions, intensity, and archetypes. His character in “Taxi Driver” is a favorite for impersonators, but watching Travis Bickle’s God complex wear away at his psyche is not for the faint of heart. De Niro’s dedication to giving his all to every character is admirable. Like many of his contemporaries, he had an explosive energy that made him seem unpredictable on the screen. Unlike them, though, De Niro had a way of making his menace seem reasonable and measured. His ability for deadpan villainy lent itself to comic roles later in his career.

#7: Jack Nicholson

What sets this now-retired actor apart is his playfulness. He’s a rambunctious performer, with a sense of mischief that can be hilarious and horrifying depending on the circumstances. Nicholson shines best in roles where he’s got his tongue in his cheek. This is not the kind of guy you would cast to play, say, Abraham Lincoln unless you had a really novel take. But if you need someone to play an insane hotel caretaker, an institution patient with a hatred for conformity, or even the Devil himself? Call Jack. He’s got you covered.

#6: Denzel Washington

With a cool confidence and unmatched gravitas in front of a camera, Denzel Washington has imbued his characters with humanity and power no matter their circumstances or social station. He won his Oscar for playing a corrupt narcotics officer in “Training Day,” but his performances in “Malcolm X” and “Fences” demonstrate his skill. He may be one of our last real movie stars. He’s the kind of performer who is so distinctive, yet somehow believable in every role. Whether it’s an adaptation of an acclaimed play, a high-octane action thriller, or a probing biopic, you can count on him to commit wholeheartedly.

#5: Al Pacino

Few actors represent the gritty atmosphere of the post-classical Hollywood period than Al Pacino. His first leading role was as a heroin addict in “The Panic in Needle Park,” but his performance in “The Godfather” cemented him as a first-rate screen actor. Since then, he’s completed the prestigious Triple Crown of Acting, having won an Oscar, two Tonys, and two Emmys. What makes Pacino so thrilling to watch is that you never really know what he’s going to do. Even his more heroic characters have a touch of mania to them. As a viewer, it makes for an edge-of-your-seat viewing experience every time.

#4: Tom Hanks

It takes a very special actor to pull off the everyman routine without sacrificing too much in the way of depth. On top of embodying some of the most beloved movie characters of the past few decades, Tom Hanks has shown us his many layers as a performer. Though his screen presence is usually warm and familiar, he’s able to use that to draw us in. Whether he needs us to laugh or cry, we’re always in the palm of his hand. On top of Oscars, AFI Life Achievement Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Hanks is regarded around the world as an American icon.

#3: Katharine Hepburn

At her most memorable, Hepburn played parts that reflected her iron will and Yankee sophistication. Roles that allowed her to wear the pants, so to speak. But over her sixty-seven years in show business, Katharine Hepburn proved to be one of classic Hollywood’s most versatile and enduring performers. She’s remembered for witty roles in “Bringing Up Baby” and “The Philadelphia Story,” but those are just the tip of the iceberg as far as her talent is concerned. Dramatic turns in “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “The Lion in Winter” showed a seasoned actress constantly evolving and going deeper into characters.

#2: Marlon Brando

People who saw Marlon Brando in the Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” talk about it as if it were a religious experience. His performance in the 1951 film version brought his electric and brutal style of acting to millions more. Brando’s emergence marked a shift in what America expected from its leading men. He was brooding and brutal, while also being soft and vulnerable. Brando’s career was incredibly inconsistent, and his most famous role as Don Vito Corleone came at the end of a long string of box office disappointments. Despite this, the famously intense actor gave us some of the most engrossing and dangerous performances ever captured on film.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Clark Gable

Whether It Was a Comedy or an Epic, He Was One of the Depression Era’s Great Leading Men

Glenn Close

The Eight-Time Oscar Nominee Has a Knack for Crafting Rich Characters

Kirk Douglas

Known for His Explosive but Assured Performances in the Biggest Movies of the ‘50s & ‘60s

Angela Bassett

Screen Icon Whose Work Never Misses & Who, Famously, “Did the Thing”

Paul Newman

Regularly Cited as One of Hollywood’s Most Successful Students of Method Acting

#1: Meryl Streep

Not only the greatest American actor of all-time, Streep is one of our great screen chameleons. She almost seems like the anti-method actor, as she crafts her characters from the outside in. Her technique is most evident in her renowned ear for accents. In her five-decade career, she has given us the full range of human experience. She devastated us in “Sophie’s Choice.” She made us laugh in “Death Becomes Her.” She terrified us in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Oh, and did we mention she can sing? If it weren’t enough that she’s insanely talented, she’s the rare actor who has earned as much affection from her colleagues as she has from her audience.