My favourite actors

Making a list of my top ten favourite male actors was even harder than listing my favourite actresses, because there is a temptation to put all those I find the most handsome top of the list, and that isn’t really what it’s about. I’m uneasily aware that most of my top ten are, nonetheless, very attractive, but I’ve tried to go more on acting talent and screen personality! As with my list of favourite actresses, I have not included any current actors. This list would be likely to change on another day, or after I’ve seen more films… and there are many others I longed to include. I’ve once again written something about my top three choices and just listed the names of the others. I’d be interested to hear other people’s favourites and thoughts.

James Cagney in 'Other Men's Women'

James Cagney in ‘Other Men’s Women’

1. James Cagney. It’s predictable that I would give Cagney my number one spot, since he has been my favourite for years now and I spent a lot of time tracking down all his films. Why do I love him? I think it is that he seems to give everything to every role, with a blend of humour, energy, intelligence and danger, and an underlying vulnerability. I do think the films he starred in are more uneven in quality than for some of the others on my list, basically because he was tied to the studio and often forced to appear in movies which didn’t really match his quality as an actor – but, even when it is a poor film, his talent and unique screen personality shine through. My favourite performances of his range from his big four gangster films, The Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, to his song-and-dance films like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Footlight Parade, but there are also many more wonderful performances, ranging from his very first film, Sinners’ Holiday, right through to later offerings like the biopic Man of a Thousand Faces, and in an earlier posting I listed some of my favourites. I’m just slightly sorry that I’ve seen just about all his films and so will never again have the delight of seeing them for the first time, but they are well worth revisiting – and there are some, like White Heat, that I’ve watched many times. I’m looking forward to the blogathon on Cagney which R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector is organising in April.

John Barrymore and Helen Twelvetrees

John Barrymore and Helen Twelvetrees

2. John Barrymore. It’s hard to believe that this great actor never received even a single nomination for an Oscar – or any film award at all. There are still a lot of his films I haven’t managed to see as yet, and quite a lot that have been lost so there will never be the chance – but his range is astonishing in the work which does survive. Barrymore was equally powerful in silent films like Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Beloved Rogue and Don Juan and in the large number of pre-Code talkies he made, including Wyler’s Counsellor at Law and two celebrated films with all-star casts (on each occasion including his brother Lionel), Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight.  Sadly, he only ever played one Shakespeare role on film, an endearing yet violent Mercutio in George Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet. But there is a screen test for a film of  Hamlet which was never made, and a brief clip of him as Richard, Duke of Gloucester/Richard III  in a scene from Henry VI Part III included in The Show of Shows, to give a taste of what he was like on stage.  Barrymore is probably as well-known for his turbulent private life and drink problem as for his acting, and often his great roles draw on these elements, so that his larger-than-life personality, veering from comedy to tragedy and back again, is inextricably linked with his acting. But it’s a shame if appreciation of his work is lost in anecdotes about drunken escapades.

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

3. Laurence Olivier. Olivier definitely seems to be the favourite actor among those who come across my blog, and my brief review of his Hamlet (1948) is by far my most popular posting ever. I’d like to review more of his Shakespearean films in future, as well as other work he did for both cinema and TV. However, it’s not just Olivier’s unforgettable interpretations of Shakespeare’s poetry which made him a fine film actor. He also brings the same intensity to other classic adaptations like Wyler’s Wuthering Heights and Carrie, and is perhaps best of all in the unlikely role of a failed comedian in The Entertainer.  And he stayed great in later roles like a TV King Lear and as Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, which also starred his great Shakespearean contemporary, John Gielgud.

4. Humphrey Bogart

5. Jean Gabin

6. Cary Grant

7. John Garfield

8. Spencer Tracy

9. Errol Flynn

10. Paul Newman

I’m sorry to leave out, in no particular order, Richard Barthelmess, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, John Gielgud, Fredric March, James Stewart, Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Edward G Robinson, Warner Baxter, Bing Crosby, William Powell, Herbert Morrison, Warren William, Sidney Poitier, Lionel Barrymore, Orson Welles, Gene Kelly, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, Robert Donat, Ray Milland, James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Joseph Cotten, Claude Rains, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Laughton, Peter Lorre, Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, Gregory Peck, Basil Rathbone, Charles Laughton, Thomas Mitchell… and doubtless many more.

24 thoughts on “My favourite actors

  1. This is difficult. Mainly for the reason that I run hot and cold with actors sometimes, meaning that I like certain ones some of the time, but not all of the time…..cases in point…..Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson. Sometimes I love them and other times I am indifferent….same goes for a bunch of others. I seem to like actors less as a general rule than actresses. Here’s my stab at it anyway. Not in any order.

    Cary Grant
    Emil Jannings
    Charles Laughton
    James Stewart
    John Wayne
    Humphrey Bogart
    William Holden
    Jean Paul Belmondo
    Max von Sydow
    Ryan Gosling


    • Jon, thanks for posting your favourites – some interesting choices there. I should have mentioned Emil Jannings. I do like William Holden in the roles of his I’ve seen, but need to see more. Thanks also for your comments – I think there are quite a few actors that I sometimes like and sometimes am less keen on, as you say, but the ones on my list are ones where I’d go out of my way to see just about anything with their names on the cast list!


    • Exactly my feelings…the ones I listed would be ones I would see anything they’re in and would enjoy watching them even if I didn’t like the movie per se.


    • That’s so true – even when it is a movie where it’s known he didn’t want to do it and didn’t like the part, he still put in a great performance when he was finally in front of the cameras. Thank you!


  2. Judy, a great list of favorite actors. The biggest surprise for me was John Barrymore. He doesn’t seem as well-remembered today for his acting as for his personal life, so it was interesting to find him so high on your list. I’m glad you included a link to your favorite Cagney films, something that has more meaning for me now that I’ve started organizing the Cagney Blogathon. Olivier is so highly regarded for his stage work that he’s often overlooked as a film actor except for his self-directed Shakespeare films. I’ll be interested to read what you have to say about his other Shakespeare films besides “Hamlet.” I recall that you liked it a great deal. It’s my own favorite of the Shakespeare films though I guess I’m in the minority here. A lot of people don’t respond to its Expressionistic/noir visual style as positively as I do. I was also pleased to see Jean Gabin in your top 10. He’s probably my favorite foreign language actor. Here’s my top 10:

    My 10 favorite classic (pre-1950) movie actors:

    1. Cary Grant
    2. James Stewart
    (3-10 listed alphabetically)
    3. Humphrey Bogart
    4. James Cagney
    5. Henry Fonda
    6. John Garfield
    7. Fredric March
    8. William Powell
    9. Edward G. Robinson
    10. Spencer Tracy
    rising fast: Robert Mitchum

    I believe you mentioned all of these!


    • R.D., what a great list – I very nearly included William Powell in my top ten, as he is an actor I’m increasingly interested in, and I do greatly admire all the others you listed here – we clearly share a lot of favourites. I probably like John Barrymore so much because of my interest in both Shakespeare and pre-Codes – as with Olivier, I would love to have seen him on stage, but I do think they both achieved a lot as film actors even though they are still better known for their stage work.

      Jean Gabin is an actor who is growing in my estimation with every film of his I manage to see – so far nearly everything I’ve seen him in has been a masterpiece, so I’m wondering just how many great films he was involved in! Early in his career, Gabin did actually play the Cagney role in Howard Hawks’ French remake of one of his own early talkies, ‘The Crowd Roars’ – I’d love to be able to compare the French version, ‘La Foule Hurle’, and see how Gabin’s take on the (flawed) hero differs from Cagney’s, but I don’t know if the French film even exists. Looking forward to your Cagney blogathon!


    • Just correcting my own comment to say I’ve done a bit of googling and discovered that ‘La Foule Hurle’ wasn’t directed by Hawks at all, but by a French director, Jean Daumery – however, the film lifted a lot of footage from ‘The Crowd Roars’. I still don’t know if it is possible to see it, though.


  3. My 10:

    1. Basil Rathbone (I have to put him first atm)
    2. George Sanders
    3. James Mason
    4. Laurence Olivier
    5. Leslie Howard
    6. Ronald Colman
    7. Jean Gabin
    8. Stewart Granger
    9. Charles Laughton
    10. Herbert Marshall


    • A wonderful list there, Neve – and how on earth did I manage to miss out Ronald Colman from my list of those I was sorry to miss out?! I really like both Colman and Herbert Marshall who both have such beautiful voices – but all those you have listed are excellent actors. And I need to see more Rathbone films. Thanks for joining in!


  4. Judy, that’s an extremely difficult task you’ve set yourself and I congratulate you on whittling it down to ten. I know I struggled to settle on a lists of stars when I confined myself to genres – once you allow essentially all movies then the choices seem endless.

    I was going to post my own ten here, and then realized as soon as I’d made it that there were another twenty who had at least as strong a claim. I know you’re a big fan of Cagney and it’s good to see him top your list. As you said, like a lot of contract players, he wasn’t always cast in the right vehicles but when a suitable part came along he was terrific.


    • It is difficult to make lists like this, Colin, I agree – it took me a few days of mulling it over and even then I forgot to mention some actors I like in the ‘nearlies’ part! I did just go for the classics so didn’t mention actors who are still working, but even so it was a large field, as you say. Totally agree with your comments on Cagney, and thanks very much for the comment.


  5. I hope you’ll write capsules for 4-10 later- and only in part because I’d like to hear your thoughts on my favorite classic film actor, John Garfield.

    Cagney is a favorite of mine as well. That terrific brio is endlessly appealing, even in the lesser movies.


  6. Can’t argue with your list. it a great one. My own would run something like this in no particular order..
    Humphrey Bogart
    Paul Newman
    James Cagney
    Cary Grant
    Al Pacino
    Robert DeNiro
    Jack Lemmon
    John Garfield
    Robet Mitchum
    Lee Marvin


    • Thanks, John, a great list there – I didn’t include any current actors but must agree that De Niro and Pacino are both excellent. I forgot about Jack Lemmon, shame on me, but another great choice. Haven’t seen all that much Lee Marvin but I do love him singing ‘Wandrin’ Star’!


  7. I think Barrymore had the potential to be America’s greatest actor – when he was ‘on’ in his films, such as Counsellor at Law or Twentieth Century, I don’t think anyone could match his focus, his honesty, his sheer BRIO in acting. What’s really terrible about his drinking, when you read biographical accounts, is that he seems to have been aware of what he was doing to himself and just didn’t care. Painful to think of someone so consumed by self-loathing that he would set out to destroy himself deliberately.

    I think one actor who was like Barrymore onscreen was Charles Laughton. He simply had it all, except looks; the lack of which, from what I’ve read, tormented him through his life. So many of his performances, such as in Mutiny on the Bounty and Hunchback of Notre Dame, stay with you.


    • That’s a great way to sum up Barrymore’s acting – as you say, when he was acting on full power, his performances are just unforgettable, and there are flashes of that brilliance even in later films where he was ill and fading. I haven’t read a full biography of him as yet and slightly dread to do so, but I do think a lot of conflicting feelings towards his drinking come across in his work on screen, from the jokey to the scared and desperate. I agree Laughton was great too – I love his performance as Valjean in the 1930s Hollywood version of ‘Les Miserables’. I haven’t seen ‘Hunchback’ as yet but must do so. Thank you so much for your comment.


  8. Another fantastic post in this series Judy! And your own list is masterclass. I have been sitting here writing down some of my own favorites, though admittedly the numerical order is not an easy task. I stopped at a Top 80. Ha!

    1. Marlon Brando
    2. James Cagney
    3. Charles Chaplin
    4. Jean Gabin
    5. James Stewart
    6. Max Von Sydow
    7. Lon Chaney
    8. Chishu Ryu
    9. Burt Lancaster
    10. Emil Jannings
    11. Laurence Olivier
    12. Toshiro Mifune
    13. Charles Laughton
    14. Claude Rains
    15. Humphrey Bogart
    16. Orson Welles
    17. Tatsuya Nakadei
    18. Marcello Mastroianni
    19. Alec Guiness
    20. Cary Grant
    21. Robert Duvall
    22. Peter Sellers
    23. Michel Simon
    24. Peter Lorre
    25. Henry Fonda
    26. Erich Von Stroheim
    27. Fredric March
    28. Spencer Tracy
    29. Daniel-Day Lewis
    30. Peter O’Toole
    31. Christopher Plummer
    32. Anthony Hopkins
    33. Fred Astaire
    34. Richard Barthelmess
    35. Michael Redgrave
    36. Alistair Sim
    37. Robert DeNiro
    38. Boris Karloff
    39. Robert Donat
    40. James Mason
    41. John Barrymore
    42. James Dean
    43. Montgomery Clift
    44. John Garfield
    45. Gene Kelly
    46. Peter Finch
    47. Erland Josephson
    48. Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
    49. Errol Flynn
    50. Edward G. Robinson
    51. Basil Rathbone
    52. Yves Montand
    53. Walter Brennan
    54. Ronald Colman
    55. Anthony Quinn
    56. Jean-Louis Berrault
    57. Jack Nicholson
    58. Gregory Peck
    59. John Wayne
    60. Maximillian Schell
    61. Paul Muni
    62. Robert Preston
    63. Jean-Paul Belmondo
    64. Jean-Louis Trintignant
    65. George C. Scott
    66. Ray Milland
    67. Gary Cooper
    68. Al Pacino
    69. Charleton Heston
    70. Harold Lloyd
    71. Johnny Depp
    72. Sidney Greenstreet
    73. Christopher Lee
    74. Fernando Rey
    75. Peter Cushing
    76. Rex Harrison
    77. Lionel Barrymore
    78. Alain Delon
    79. Jacques Tati
    80. Clark Gable


    • Wow, Sam, thanks for taking the time and trouble to make this great list – I was thinking only yesterday that I really should have mentioned Brando in my round-up at the end, and then you pick him at number one! Plenty of actors on your list that I love too, and others where I don’t know their work much or in some cases at all – but I will look out for those names and try to fill in some gaps. Thanks again!


  9. What a fun post! I am with you on James Cagney…I adore him. However, I don’t even know who Jean Gabin is. I got a huge kick out of your “honorable mentions.” Your list is as long as mine is!!

    I lump 6 guys together as my “great beloveds.” They are Robert Ryan, William Holden, Gary Cooper, Montgomery Clift, James Cagney, and John Garfield. I love them all about the same; however, if someone put a gun to my head and demanded I pick a fave, it would be Holden and Ryan…can’t pick between them. The other 4, though, are barely a breath behind them.

    After those 6, it would be Cary Grant, Ty Power, Fredric March, Robert Taylor, Sidney Poitier, Clark Gable, Ray Milland, Frank Sinatra…you get the idea.


    • Thanks very much for your comment, Patti… it was actually seeing your list of favourites on your site that spurred me on to think about mine. And even though my ‘honourable mentions’ list is quite long, I keep thinking of a lot more I should have included! It sounds as if we like quite a few of the same actors, but must admit I haven’t seen many films featuring Holden or Ryan, though I have recently acquired the DVD of ‘Golden Boy’, starring Holden, and hope to see that one soon.


    • PS, I meant to say that Jean Gabin was a great French actor, in many brilliant films from the 1930s in particular, such as Renoir’s ‘La Grande Illusion’ – another great one from the 1950s is ‘French Cancan’. There are loads of his films I still want to see, but almost everything I’ve seen of his so far seems to be a masterpiece. He only made a couple of Hollywood films – the only one I’ve seen is ‘Moontide’ (1942) with Ida Lupino, Claude Rains and Thomas Mitchell in a rare nasty role, a good noir which I hope to watch again and write about some time.


  10. So much easier than favorite actresses! There of course were many fine actors in the golden era but picking my favorites is much simpler. Except for the top two the placing might vary but the actors would stay the same.

    1. James Mason-Could use his innate suavity to effortlessly switch from the hero to the villain. He breaks my heart in A Star Is Born every time.
    2. John Garfield-That inner core of vulnerability always came through no matter how tough his character. So great in everything but particularly in Between Two Worlds and The Breaking Point.
    3. Robert Ryan-So underrated because of his consistent excellence. He was a brilliant heavy and I think because of that I’ve always enjoyed his work when he is playing against type as in About Mrs. Leslie with Shirley Booth.
    4. Claude Rains-A marvelously urbane performer who added a touch of class to whatever he was in. A sentimental choice also, my grandmother meet him several times and always talked about what a gentleman he was.
    5. Sydney Greenstreet-The jolliest villain around. The same applies to him as Robert Ryan, I love him in everything but enjoy his offbeat roles, the chief of police in The Velvet Touch is a gem, so much because of his versatility.
    6. Robert Mitchum-His seemingly laissez faire attitude towards his performances masked his immense talent. Glad to see him become more recognized as the years pass.
    7. Edward G. Robinson-He and Cagney were both so great but I favor him because of his ability to adapt his persona through the decades from pugnacious leading man to indispensable character actor. One of the most unlikely of stars but one of the greatest actors.
    8. Spencer Tracy-So natural he hardly seemed to act. The only misstep I’ve ever seen of his was ironically one of his award winners Captains Courageous, just awful but Inherit the Wind is sheer brilliance from both he and Fredric March.
    9. Cary Grant-He’s Cary Grant, what more is there to say?
    10. Richard Widmark-Such a magnificent actor somewhat limited by his ability to be the ultimate venal slime. He could use that dazzling smile to creep you out or endear himself to the audience. He was able to effortlessly shift from one to the other, his concerned MD in Panic in the Streets was directly followed by the monstrous Ray Biddle in No Way Out.

    Those are my top ten but I’m a big fan of: Joel McCrea, Cagney, Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon, William Holden, Fredric March, Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Glenn Ford, Montgomery Clift, Peter Ustinov, Charles Coburn, Louis Calhern, Thomas Mitchell, Errol Flynn, Arthur Kennedy, George Sanders, Edmond O’Brien, Edward Arnold, Lee J. Cobb, Rock Hudson, Dan Duryea, Melvyn Douglas, John Payne, Van Heflin, and Alan Bates (as with Julie Christie he’s a bit more contemporary but so vast was his talent I couldn’t leave him off). I’m sure I left several out that I’m always happy to run across in a film but these are the ones who came to mind.


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