8. Buster Keaton in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966, Richard Lester)
Like many of his silent era counterparts, Buster Keaton eventually ran into both financial trouble and personal strife after the sound era took over. However unlike the his peers Chaplain or Lloyd, Keaton had the opportunity to be a performer up until his death at the age of 70 while doing a movie that held the spirit of his silent masterpieces.
While neither black and white nor silent A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum sees Keaton as Erronius who, while not one of the main characters in the plot, is allowed to be comic relief. While many of his onscreen action is due to a double because of his declining health Keaton is able to have one last bit of physical comedy.
While it did not earn any academy awards, the film was ported to a stage show and has a following for its great ensemble of the era’s comedic talent that is still a movie that can be picked up and enjoyed by anyone.
7. Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green (1973, Richard Fleisher)
Born Emmanuel Goldenberg in 1893, the later named Edward G. Robinson was a huge presence in film noir and crime thrillers through the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Probably his two best known roles in Little Caesar and Double Indemnity gave him his identity as a cigar chomping and glaring film heavy, starring as both villain and hero.
In Soylent Green, which is part of Charlton Heston’s Sci-Fi trilogy along with Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, Robinson plays Sol who is a historian for the dystopian future world of Soylent Green that helps out Heston’s police officer. While not having his trademark gangster look or outfits, Robinson plays the role with a somber note. Sol weeps for what the world has lost and what its new generation has become.
While it could be seen as a throw away sci-fi film of that era, the movie has a strong cast alongside Heston and Robinson that all play well together. Chuck Connors, Joseph Cotton, and Brock Peters all deliver what is expected of them to never leave the movie at a dull pace. The film premiered after his death but Robinson was awarded a life time achievement award at the following Oscars ceremony.
6. John Wayne in The Shootist (1976, Don Siegel)
John Wayne has 181 acting credits to his name over a career that spanned 50 years in TV and film with 3 Oscar nominations and one win with his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, but his last role was one of his best.
Having been battling cancer for over a decade, Wayne made The Shootist in 1976. Directed by Don Siegel and co-starring James Stewart, Lauren Bacall, and Richard Boone, The Shootist sees Wayne as gunfighter J.B. Books who, like Wayne, is dying of cancer. He is told by a town doctor, played by Stewart, and when he finds out he has little time to live he decides to go out on his own terms.
While not Wayne’s most iconic role it is certainly one of his most heartfelt. Throughout the movie there are people who want Books dead but are unable to succeed. It is only when he is ready to make his own fate, or in Wayne’s case last film, and go out a less painful and slow way than the cancer, that the end comes for him. It was also one of the last major westerns that closed a vast era, a genre that had once dominated film landscape.
5. William Holden in S.O.B (1981, Blake Edwards)
S.O.B. is a good example of a late Blake Edwards movie in the fact that it is darker and shows his opinions of those behind the scenes in the movie business alongside how some of the bigger actors and actresses, well, act. It also happens to be the last film role for Hollywood leading man and rough guy William Holden.
Having made movies with everyone from John Wayne to Alec Guinness to Billy Wilder and even Erich Von Stroheim, Holden was usually best showing off his grit in Westerns like The Wild Bunch, film noir like Sunset Boulevard, or war movies like Bridge on the River Kwai and Stalag 17. In S.O.B he was finally able to show his full wit with its full comedy presence.
With an all-star cast behind him including Robert Vaugn, Julie Andrews, Larry Hagman, Richard Mulligan, and Robert Weber, Holden is able to do a lot and deliver some great comic moments in a smaller role that wraps up an award winning and varied career.
4. Carole Lombard in To Be or Not to Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch)
Directed by German Ernst Lubitsch during the height of WWII, To Be or Not to Be is a suspenseful comedy/drama about a troupe of actors in occupied Poland who come into possession of the knowledge about a spy with damning information against the Polish resistance. Remade admirably by Jewish writer/actor/director Mel Brooks in the early 80s, the original still has more historical relevance and style.
Playing opposite Jack Benny as the wife, and lead actress, of the group, Carole Lombard brings a sexy and stylish comedic timing to the role that would be her final screen appearance as she would tragically die in a plane crash before the film’s release. The film has a harsh comedic style that is still incredibly watchable today and has many of the traits that director Lubitsch would use in his films that would be called “The Lubitsch Touch”.
Nominated for only 1 academy award (Best Score) but never the less an extremely timely film as it was released just after the U.S. entered the second Great War. Lombard would attempt to continue to contribute to the war as her fatal plane crash happened on the way to a war bond rally.
3. Burt Lancaster in Field of Dreams (1989, Phil Alden Robinson)
Lost in the shuffle of what ends up at or near the top of many “best of sports movies” lists in Field of Dreams is the final film appearance of Burt Lancaster as Moonlight Graham. Under make-up and clothes that make it difficult to tell that it is actually Lancaster lies a performance that is worthy of such a high profile actors’ last role.
What is often remembered in the film is the quote “If you build it, they will come” or the performances by Costner in the lead role and Ray Liotta in the role of Shoeless Joe Jackson but it is a subtly sweet and underplayed performance by Lancaster as a living legend among the ghosts that inhabit the titular field.
For a career spanning 45 years as mostly a leading man, Lancaster delivers one of his best performances in the last film role he took although he would live another 6 years and make a few TV appearances.
2. Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967, Stanley Kramer)
Of the 3 movies that Sidney Poitier made in 1967, In the Heat of the Night took home more prizes come Oscar night than either To Sir, With Love or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner but it is the latter that happens to be Spencer Tracy’s last role. Garnering 10 nominations including wins for screenplay and best actress for Katherine Hepburn, Tracy gives a performance that cinema goers had come to expect from the 67 year old 9 time Oscar nominee and two time winner.
In a role that would garner his ninth (posthumous) nomination, Tracy plays Matt Drayton who is a father that is shocked when his daughter, played by Katharine Houghton, brings home a black man as a date for dinner (Sidney Poitier). Normally known for his easy going, good guy attitudes, Tracy plays against type and is almost the villain for part of the film. What stands out above any of the hype behind the subject matter though is his almost 8 minute speech at the end of the movie.
Tracy would pass away soon after but leave a legacy of great films behind him and perhaps none so important to cinema as his last.
1. Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond (1981 Mark Rydell)
Talk about a way to end your film career. Henry Fonda got to make a movie with his movie star daughter and also took home an Oscar in his last role 46 years after his first (and two other nominations). The film would earn 10 nominations including Picture, Director, and Supporting Actress (Daughter, Jane Fonda) while winning for Actor, Actress, and Screenplay.
Fonda had played in Westerns, Dramas, Screw-ball comedies, and just about every other kind of genre before hanging it up after this role. He had played both good and bad and with this role got the chance to play a little of both as the husband in an elderly couple who is meeting their daughter at the summer house. Near the end of his life, Norman fears that he wasn’t a good father to his daughter but is unsure of how to build the relationship back up.
Through great wit and emotional exchanges, the audience gets to say goodbye to one of the 20th century’s most beloved actors while looking at him as he played a character very close to the real man.
Author Bio: Andrew is a father of two boys, Sam and Noah and have loved film his whole life. His taste, and collection, grew from working at blockbuster for 8 years. He has a BA in history from long beach state.