20 Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Ranked

A great actor can either make or break a film. They must be able to breathe life into a fictional character and make it believable for the audience. Many actors, nowadays, try many ways to "experience" the characters they are portraying to give a more authentic rendition of the character. Several actors have become great character actors. While some are sadly gone, there are still many greats that continue to bless the screen with their presence.
We are in a golden age of acting, as we realized when selecting our favorite film performers of the past 20 years. There’s no formula for choosing the best (just squabbling), and this list is both necessarily subjective and possibly scandalous in its omissions. Some of these performers are new to the scene; others have been around for decades. In making our choices, we have focused on this century and looked beyond Hollywood. And while there are undoubted stars in the mix and even a smattering of Oscar winners, there are also character actors and chameleons, action heroes, and art-house darlings. These 20 actors are the reasons we love movies, maybe more than ever.

#1 Robert De Niro

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Robert De NiroSource: John Jensen/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

Robert Anthony De Niro Jr. (born August 17, 1943) is an American-Italian actor, producer, and director. He is a recipient of numerous accolades, including two Academy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, the Cecil B DeMille Award, AFI Life Achievement Award, and Presidential Medal of Freedom, and has been nominated for six BAFTA Awards, four Primetime Emmy Awards, and four Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Robert De Niro stood out as one of the absolute greatest in an era full of talented actors who redefined what cinema stars might look and act like. His intensity, with something dark always seething beneath the surface, was palpable in memorable star vehicles such as 1976's "Taxi Driver," 1978's "The Deer Hunter," and 1980s "Raging Bull," all of which topped AFI's list of the 100 finest films ever produced.

#2 Al Pacino

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Al PacinoSource: Getty/Axelle/Bauer-Griffin

Alfredo James Pacino (born April 25, 1940), known professionally as Al Pacino, is an American actor and filmmaker who has had a career spanning more than five decades. He has received numerous accolades and honors both competitive and honorary, among them an Academy Award, two Tony Awards, two Primetime Emmy Awards, a British Academy Film Award, four Golden Globe Awards, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, the Golden Globe Cecil B.
He dominated the screen in films like 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” 1983’s “Scarface” and 1992’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.” But he played with a quieter intensity in 1999’s “The Insider” and especially in the first two movies of "The Godfather" trilogy, which became his signature role.

#3 Marlon Brando

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Marlon BrandoSource: Getty Images

Marlon Brando Jr. (April 3, 1924 – July 1, 2004) was an American actor and film director. With a career spanning 60 years, he is well-regarded for his cultural influence on the 20th-century film. Brando's Academy Award-winning performances include that of Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront" (1954) and Don Vito Corleone in "The Godfather" (1972).
Brando earned two Oscars in eight nominations, two Golden Globes, three consecutive BAFTAs, and an Emmy in a screen career that spanned 50 years.

#4 Jack Nicholson

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Jack NicholsonSource: Getty Images

John Joseph Nicholson (born April 22, 1937) is an American actor and filmmaker who has performed for over sixty years. He’s one of very few actors to win three Oscars — out of a staggering 12 nominations he’s racked up, which is a record among men — earning each in a different decade. His work as a deranged writer in 1980s “The Shining” and as a brutal gangster in 2006’s “The Departed” showed him at his most frightening, but he’s proven to be vulnerable at other times.
His work as free-spirited characters in 1970’s “Five Easy Pieces” and 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” show some of the best acting in modern cinema, as well as his Oscar-winning role as an obsessive-compulsive writer in 1997’s “As Good as It Gets.”

#5 Anthony Hopkins

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Anthony HopkinsSource: Vogue

Anthony Hopkins, in full Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins, (born December 31, 1937, Port Talbot, West Glamorgan, Wales), Welsh stage and film actor of burning intensity, often seen at his best when playing pathetic misfits or characters on the fringes of insanity.
His career gained momentum, and his subsequent screen credits included acclaimed performances as a mentally unhinged ventriloquist in "Magic" (1978) and as Joseph Merrick’s doctor in "The Elephant Man" (1980), as well as sharply etched portrayals of two roles previously associated with Charles Laughton: Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1982) and Captain Bligh in "The Bounty" (1984). During this period Hopkins won Emmy Awards for his performances as Bruno Richard Hauptmann in "The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case" (1976) and as Adolf Hitler in "The Bunker" (1981). In 1989 he made his West End stage debut in the musical drama "M. Butterfly".

#6 Daniel Day-Lewis

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Daniel Day-LewisSource: MEGA

Sir Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis (born 29 April 1957) is a retired English actor who holds both British and Irish citizenship. He’s been awarded a record three Oscars in the category of best leading actor, out of six nominations, and his three SAG Award wins in the same category are also a record, showing how much other actors are floored by his talent. He’s proven equally capable of playing quieter and more likable roles as he did as Irish painter Christy Brown in 1989’s “My Left Foot” and as the quintessential American icon, Abraham Lincoln, in 2012’s “Lincoln.”

#7 Paul Newman

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Paul NewmanSource: leewoodruff

Paul Leonard Newman (January 26, 1925 – September 26, 2008) was an American actor, film director, producer, race car driver, IndyCar owner, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. Like some other great actors on this list, Newman had to wait a long time to finally win an Oscar, doing so for 1986’s “The Color of Money,” reprising a role he first played in 1961’s “The Hustler.” He also won two Golden Globes, a BAFTA, and an Emmy in his lengthy career, the likes of which have been unrivaled by many actors in history.

#8 Tom Hanks

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Tom HanksSource: Rob Latour/Variety/REX Shutterstock

Thomas Jeffrey Hanks (born July 9, 1956) is an American actor and filmmaker. Known for both his comedic and dramatic roles, Hanks is one of the most popular and recognizable film stars worldwide, and is widely regarded as an American cultural icon. Hanks made his breakthrough in the film with leading roles in the comedies "Splash" (1984) and "Big" (1988). He won two consecutive Academy Awards for Best Actor for "Philadelphia" (1993) and "Forrest Gump" (1994).

#9 Morgan Freeman

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Morgan FreemanSource: Richard Vision

Morgan Freeman, (born June 1, 1937, in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.), is an American actor whose emotional depth, subtle humor, and versatility made him one of the most respected performers of his generation.
He won an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his performance as a former boxer in "Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby" (2004) before appearing as Lucius Fox, a research and development guru, in "Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins" (2005). Freeman reprised the latter role in the sequels "The Dark Knight" (2008) and "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012).

#10 Leonardo DiCaprio

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Leonardo DiCaprioSource: Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio (born November 11, 1974) is an American actor, film producer, and environmentalist. He earned his first Oscar nomination at 19 years old for his work in 1993’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” He’d eventually earn four more Oscar nominations for acting, finally winning one for 2016’s “The Revenant,” in which he played a frontiersman who seeks revenge after being left for dead by companions in the wilderness.
DiCaprio has given strong performances to some of the best directors in the business, including Steven Spielberg (“Catch Me If You Can”), James Cameron (“Titanic”), and Martin Scorsese (“The Aviator”).

#11 Denzel Washington

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Denzel WashingtonSource: Getty Images

Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. (born December 28, 1954) is an American actor, director, and producer. He’s been nominated for eight Oscars for acting so far, winning two of them, one for 1989’s “Glory,” in which he played a member of an all-black regiment in the Union Army during the Civil War, and another for 2001’s “Training Day,” in which he played a ruthless cop who is more bad guy than good.

#12 Gary Oldman

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Gary OldmanSource: Getty Images

Gary Oldman, in full Leonard Gary Oldman, (born March 21, 1958, London, England), English film actor is known for his chameleonic ability to evince characters ranging from nebbishes to snarling villains.
He assumed the mantle of the avuncular Sirius Black in several installments of the Harry Potter films, beginning with "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (2004), and played a police lieutenant allied to the titular caped crusader in the director "Christopher Nolan’s Batman" trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012). In David Fincher’s biopic "Mank" (2020), Oldman gave an Oscar-nominated performance as Herman Mankiewicz, a screenwriter working on the script for "Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane" (1941).

#13 Robin Williams

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Robin WilliamsSource: TRACEY NEARMY/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK

Robin McLaurin Williams (July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014) was an American actor and comedian. His comedic roles in beloved movies like 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire,” 1996’s “The Birdcage” and 1992’s Aladdin” are master classes in high-energy comedy. Meanwhile, his dramatic work in films like 1989’s “Dead Poets Society” and 1997’s “Good Will Hunting” is downright moving, with the latter earning him his only Oscar in four nominations.

#14 James Stewart

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James Maitland Stewart (May 20, 1908 – July 2, 1997) was an American actor and military officer who is among the most honored and popular stars in film history. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single movie lover who doesn’t have a glowing memory of watching Stewart’s work, whether it’s as a desperate private eye in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece “Vertigo,” as an idealistic U.S. senator in 1939’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or as the generous soul George Bailey in 1946’s beloved “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

#15 Robert Duvall

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Robert DuvallSource: Getty Images

Robert Duvall, in full Robert Seldon Duvall, (born January 5, 1931, San Diego, California, U.S.), is an American actor noted for his ability to quietly inhabit any characters.
In the late 1970s, Duvall received two additional Oscar nominations for affecting portrayals of military men. His Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now" (1979) maniacally declares that he loves “the smell of napalm in the morning,” but Duvall convinces the audience of Kilgore’s compassion for his soldiers. Duvall was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor.

#16 Michael Caine

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Michael CaineSource: Getty Images

Sir Michael Caine (born 14 March 1933) is an English actor, producer, and author. He defined cool in British classics like 1966’s “Alfie,” 1969’s “The Italian Job” and 1971’s “Get Carter,” while also flexing his dramatic muscle in films like 1964’s “Zulu,” 1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” and 1999’s “The Cider House Rules.” As he’s gotten older, he’s only gotten more in-demand thanks to his work as Alfred in the blockbuster "Dark Knight" trilogy.

#17 Harrison Ford

Greatest Actors In The Movie History, Harrison FordSource: Getty Images

Harrison Ford (born July 13, 1942) is an American actor. Ford’s rugged looks and effortless style made signature roles like Han Solo and Indiana Jones beloved entertainment icons. He never won an Oscar or a Golden Globe but he starred in five different movies in the American Film Institute’s prestigious list of the 100 greatest movies ever, which is a testament to his skill for portraying characters you love spending time with.

#18 Clint Eastwood

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Clint Eastwood, in full Clinton Eastwood, Jr., (born May 31, 1930, San Francisco, California, U.S.), American motion-picture actor who emerged as one of the most popular Hollywood stars in the 1960s and went on to become a prolific and respected director-producer.  After achieving success in the Western TV series "Rawhide", he rose to international fame with his role as the Man with No Name in Italian filmmaker "Sergio Leone's Dollars" Trilogy of spaghetti Westerns during the 1960s and as antihero cop Harry Callahan in the five Dirty Harry films throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

#19 Sean Connery

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Sir Thomas Sean Connery (25 August 1930 – 31 October 2020) was a retired Scottish actor and producer, who during his life won an Academy Award, two BAFTA Awards, one being a BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award, and three Golden Globes, including the Cecil B. DeMille Award and a Henrietta Award. Connery was the first actor to portray the character James Bond in film, starring in seven Bond films (every film from "Dr. No" to "You Only Live Twice", plus "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Never Say Never Again"),...

#20 Dustin Hoffman

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Dustin Lee Hoffman (born August 8, 1937) is an American actor and filmmaker. Hoffman has been called one of the greatest actors of all time. He is known for his versatile portrayals of antiheroes and emotionally vulnerable characters. He is the recipient of numerous accolades including two Academy Awards, six Golden Globe Awards (including the Cecil B. DeMille Award), four BAFTAs, three Drama Desk Awards, and, two Emmy Awards.
He’s won two Oscars so far, for the 1980s “Kramer vs. Kramer,” where he shared the screen with Meryl Streep as a divorcing couple, and 1989’s “Rain Man,” where he helped create one of cinema’s most beloved characters as Ray.
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