The 30 Greatest Actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age

11. Errol Flynn

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Tasmanian-born actor Errol Flynn came to Hollywood in the 1930’s to become an instant sensation. Up to that point, he had lived an adventurous life that could very well had been taken out of one of his famous swashbuckler films. 1935’s Captain Blood was the first of many starring roles that earned him the title of the king of swash-buckling. His dashing looks and strong figure made him the envy of every man in the nation and the subject of dreams of every woman.

The Adventures of Robin Hood, They Died with their Boots on, The Sea Hawk and Objective, Burma! are just some of his most memorable moments on the screen, where he often played dynamic characters that fought villains and saved damsels. His private life was hectic, to say the least: sex escapades and drinking were a constant that finally caught up with him in the 1959, when he died at 50 years old of a heart attack.


12. Henry Fonda

12 Angry Men (1957)

Fonda, like many of his contemporary actors, started his career on the stage. One of his first noteworthy Broadway roles was in The Farmer Takes a Wife, a play that was adapted to the screen in 1935, starting his long and productive Hollywood term.

In 1939, he played the President in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, having subsequently worked with the master director in some of his best remembered movies like The Grapes of Wrath and My Darling Clementine. He also successfully appeared in comedies like Preston Sturges’ outstanding Barbara Stanwyck vehicle The Lady Eve and the all-star musical farce Our Merry Way, in which he co-starred with real life best friend James Stewart.

Some of his later career gems include Sidney Lumet’s brilliant directing-debut 12 Angry Men and the family drama On Golden Pound with real-life daughter Jane. The latter got him his only Academy Award in 1981, and made him the oldest person ever to win a Best Actor Oscar.


13. Clark Gable

It Happened One Night

William Clark Gable was the son of a Cadiz, Ohio, oil field worker. He lost his mother when he was not yet one-year-old and had quit school by the time he was 16. Gable decided to become an actor after seeing The Bird of Paradise on the stage and started touring in stock companies. As a young man, he gravitated toward older women who could teach him about acting and help his career like his first and second wives Josephine Dillon and Maria Langham.

In 1930, MGM signed the promising actor to a contract. His first significant roles were as Joan Crawford’s love interest in Dance, Fools Dance and as MGM queen Norma Shearer’s rough lover in A Free Soul, but it was beside blonde-bombshell Jean Harlow that Gable became a star with the release of 1932’s Red Dust.

In 1934, on a loan-out to Columbia, as a punishment for refusing a script, Gable was surprisingly awarded with a Best Actor Oscar for his work in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. Many great performances followed like in Call of Wild, Munity on the Bounty and, of course, in the undisputed classic Gone with The Wind.

As for his personal life, The King of Hollywood was a famed ladies man, he had a long and noted affair with frequent co-star Joan Crawford, but the love of his life was said to have been actress Carole Lombard who tragically died just 3 years after their 1939 wedding. Gable succumbed to a heart attack at 59 years old, leaving pregnant fifth wife Kay behind and a yet-to-be-released John Huston film, the now esteemed The Misfits.


14. Cary Grant

His Girl Friday

British-born Cary Grant has been named by many the definitive actor of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Archie Leach, as he was called before fame, could easily play in both Drama and Comedy, his versatility and impressive good looks can be seen in timeless classics like The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, An Affair to Remember and in four of Hitchcock’s best: Suspicion, Notorious, North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief.

He was nominated for competitive Oscars twice in his legendary career, first for the 1941 melodrama with Irene Dunne, Penny Serenade, and three years later for None but the Lonely Heart in which he played a Cockney drifter with family troubles. His unique mix of virility and refinement and his gentleman-like persona brought him the admiration of colleagues and audience alike. Grant retired at 62, when he became a father to his only daughter Jennifer. In 1970, he was presented with an Honorary Oscar.


15. William Holden

Sunset Boulevard

Born William Franklin Beedle, Jr. to a wealthy family from Illinois, Bill Holden was studying to be a chemist when he was discovered by a Paramount talent scout. The young man was then promptly cast as Barbara Stanwyck’s love interest in 1939’s Boxing-drama Golden Boy. During shooting, his acting skills were constantly doubted and he was about to be fired when Stanwyck stood up for him. The actress’ gesture made way for a legendary Hollywood career that covered five decades.

Holden was initially typecast as the wholesome, average male character, but the 1950’s opened up new doors for him, having landed coveted interesting roles like in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd and George Cukor’s Born Yesterday.

In 1953, he appeared in Stalag 17, also directed by Wilder, which won him a Best Actor Oscar and four years later he played Shears in David Lean’s masterpiece The Bridge on the River Kwai. Holden’s later career also included gripping films such as the all-star disaster classic The Towering Inferno and Sidney Lumet’s brilliant TV satire, Network (1976).


16. Rock Hudson


The leading-man of nine praised Douglas Sirk productions, Rock Hudson, who preferred to be called by his real name, Roy, rose to stardom in the 1950’s. The melodramas Magnificent Obsession, All that Heaven Allows and The Tarnished Angels all directed by his mentor, Sirk, paved the way for continued triumphs such as his three Rom-Coms with iconic singer-actress Doris Day – Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back and Send me No Flowers.

In 1956, he reached the peak of his career when George Stevens’ Giant came out. Paired with Elizabeth Taylor, Hudson and co-star James Dean were both Oscar nominated. Ten years later, he defied his funny-and-romantic-guy typecast by appearing in the now cult film Seconds. Off-screen, Hudson led a tumultuous life, having to hide his homosexuality. In 1985, the star sadly became the first preeminent celebrity to die from AIDS.


17. Gene Kelly

Singin’ In The Rain (1952)

Betsy Blair, Gene Kelly’s first wife, summed up the importance of her husband’s work with a single sentence: “He democratized the dance in movies”. Unlike, his friend and somewhat of a screen rival Fred Astaire, Kelly left aside the tuxedos and top hats and opted to show off his moves in regular clothes. This reflected well with the Post-War movie audience and helped to build his (dancing) boy-next-door screen image.

Among his most popular movies, at all-powerful MGM, are the musical classics An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, On the Town and his Judy Garland partnerships like 1948’s The Pirate. Kelly believed dancing was a “man’s game” and his athletic build and slightly rugged dancing style revolutionized Hollywood musicals, for that, he was greatly honored in his later life. Besides an Honorary Academy Award, the American Film Institute also paid homage to iconic hoofer who died at 83 years old in his sleep.


18. Burt Lancaster

Killers, The (1946)

Since he was a kid in 1910’s Manhattan, Burton Stephen Lancaster loved acrobatics. As a young man, he even joined a circus and only quit to become an actor, because he got wounded while performing. A 33-year-old Lancaster started his Hollywood years with the right foot, playing the ‘Sweede’ in Robert Siodmak’s Noir The Killers, to much critical and box-office enthusiasm.

Particularly in two films, Lancaster got to show off his acrobatic maneuvers: The romantic adventure The Flame and the Arrow and the swashbuckler The Crimson Pirate. In 1953, he appeared in perhaps his most emblematic movie, From Here to Eternity, in which he famously kisses Deborah Kerr on a deserted beach. For his energetic portrayal of lustful charlatan Elmer Granty in the 1960 film, he got his sole Best Actor Oscar.

After that, he sought more intriguing roles like in Frank Perry’s allegorical film The Swimmer and in productions of European directors like Bernardo Bertolucci (1900) and Luchino Visconti (The Leopard and Conversation Piece). Lancaster’s health deteriorated in 1990 when he suffered a stroke, he died four years later, at age 80, at his Los Angeles Home.


19. Charles Laughton

Witness for the procecution

Charles Laughton was born on July 1st, 1899 in Scarborough, England. He trained to be an actor at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In 1926, he had his debut on the London stage, where he met his life-companion, soon-to-be-wife Elsa Lanchester.

Before taking off to California, he was part of some distinguished British productions like Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII; Sidewalks of London, which co-starred a young Vivien Leigh; and Alfred Hitchcock’s last British film, Jamaica Inn, with a 19-year-old Maureen O’Hara. After completing the latter, he came to Hollywood with the Irish actress as his protégée, they played together again in the screen-adaption of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Laughton soon became a greatly hailed character actor.

Mutiny on the Bounty and Ruggles of Red Gap are two of his early memorable parts. In the 1950’s, he worked with Billy Wilder in one of his finest films, Witness for the Prosecution, and attempted a career as a film director with The Night of the Hunter. Sadly, it was his first and only work as a filmmaker due to his disappointment with the poor initial reception of the now influential Noir.


20. Fredric March

Fredric March

One of Hollywood’s most versatile actors, Fredric March is the only performer in History to have swept two Oscars and two Tony Awards. He initially worked as a banker before turning to acting in the 1920’s. His noted Broadway roles quickly led to a contract with Paramount Pictures.

Amid his most significant 1930’s films are the first version of A Star is Born and the iconic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for which his impressive turn as the doctor-turned-monster earned him his first Academy Award. In 1947, he would repeat the feat with William Wyler’s drama about the difficulties WWII soldiers faced when they came home, The Best Years of Our Lives.

1960’s Inherit the Wind is often pointed as one of the greatest films of his accomplished career, in the court-room drama, he performers with the great Spencer Tracy; they play two attorneys involved in a case about a small-town teacher who dared to teach Evolution to his students.