The 30 Greatest Actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age

21. Ray Milland

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Ray Milland, born Alfred Reginald Jones, was a Welsh actor who became one of Hollywood’s major stars in the 1930’s and 1940’s. After giving up a promising career as a sportsman, he took to the London stage, joining Paramount Studios in 1934.

Milland started in secondary roles, but soon got to star with celebrated names such as Ginger Rogers ( In Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor) and Claudette Colbert (Arise My Love, also written by Wilder). One of his most remembered films is Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind in which he appeared beside Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward and John Wayne.

He also got to work with famed German director Fritz Lang twice, in Ministry of Fear and The Uninvited, both released in 1944, before joining Wilder once more for his astounding portrayal of an alcoholic writer, in 1945’s The Lost Weekend, for which he was justly awarded with an Academy Award. In the 1950’s, he played Grace Kelly’s villainous husband in Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder, but soon saw a decline in part offers and turned to B-films. One of his later significant roles was in 1970’s Love Story.


22. Robert Mitchum


Actor Bob Mitchum was known for his anti-hero roles and as one of the most important faces of American Film Noir. Since he was a child, he was undisciplined and headstrong which led to troubles with the law, including a vagrancy charge when he was just 14. Like many of his famous colleagues Mitchum’s career started on the stage, but his talent soon drove him to Hollywood.

In 1945, he got his big break in The Story of G.I. Joe, earning a Supporting Actor Oscar nod. His popularity soared and two years later Mitchum got to star in two iconic Noirs: Out of the Past and Crossfire. He was also a frequent face of War films like 1957’s The Enemy Bellow and Westerns such as El Dorado.

However, like his bad-boy off-screen persona would suggest, Mitchum really excelled playing wicked characters. Whether as crooked religious extremist Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter or as ex-con Max-Cady in the original Cape Fear, no one did creepy quite like Mitchum.


23. Laurence Olivier


Deemed by many as the greatest actor of all time, theatrically oriented Laurence Olivier ruled the London stage in the 1930’s. The Shakespearean actor was one of the directors of the revered Old Vic theatre and helped to build its admirable reputation.

In 1931, Olivier arrived in Hollywood where he developed a solid career as a film star. In 1939, he played Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff in the screen version of Wuthering Heights, it was his first of 10 Academy Award nominations. The following year he appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, Rebecca, but true to his theatrical roots, Olivier soon decided to bring Shakespeare to the big screen and directed himself in three film adaptations of the famed writer:

Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III. Larry, as second wife Vivien Leigh called him, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1947. Although his health deteriorated, as a mature actor he had great roles in the 1970’s including Sleuth, Marathon Man and The Boys from Brazil. The stage and screen legend died in 1989 at his home in Britain.


24. Gregory Peck


Gregory Peck’s screen persona was of the ultimate good-guy: decent, brave and gallant. He often played heroic figures who couldn’t stay still in the face of injustice, like the role he made his own: the lawyer Atticus Finch in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Although he studied to be a doctor, Peck soon discovered his acting talent and Hollywood was the natural way to showcase it. He became a star in 1944 with the release of The Keys of the Kingdom and soon after was offered a starring part in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound which he gratefully took. He was also an adept of the Western genre, having appeared in many prestigious ones like Duel in the Sun and The Gunfighter.

As a romantic lead, he acted in Audrey Hepburn’s first film, the now classic Roman Holiday. In the 1960’s, Peck drifted towards darker projects like the original Cape Fear and the war drama The Guns of Navarone. He continued to work regularly for the rest of his career and was considering the role of Grandpa Joe in the remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when he died in 2003 at 87 years old.


25. William Powell

My Man Godfrey (1936)

William Powell started his career in Silent movies, but the coming of sound was his ticket to stardom. His rich and stage-trained voice was a perfect fit for the role of Nick Charles in The Thin Man movie series. The sophisticated mystery-comedies teamed him with Myrna Loy for 6 of their 14 films together.

In 1936, they acted in the romantic-comedy Libeled Lady, which is pointed by many as their best film, aside of the detective saga. Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow also starred, the actress and Powell were engaged and he was said to have been devastated by her sudden death the following year.

Powell also worked with another off-screen lover, screwball queen Carole Lombard, in the six-Oscar nominated comedy My Man Godfrey, including the second Best Actor nod of Powell’s career. His third and last one would be for Michael Curtiz’s 1947 film, Life with Father. Powell chose an early retirement and his last role was alongside Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon and James Cagney in the acclaimed War Drama Mister Roberts (1955).


26. Tyrone Power

Nightmare Alley (1947)

When frequent co-star Alice Faye was asked to describe Power she candidly said: “He was the best looking thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” Born Tyrone Edmund Power, Jr. in 1914 to an acting family, Power’s strikingly good looks got him a screen test with 20th Century Fox in 1936, the studio signed the young actor and quickly build his image as a matinee idol.

Power acted in a variety of genres, from musicals (Alexander’s Ragtime Band) to period pieces (Marie Antoinette) and from swashbucklers (The Black Swan) to even Westerns (Jesse James): he could do it all, but his roles were usually straightforward good guys and didn’t ask much of his acting skills.

So in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the now matured star wanted to prove himself a real performer and took various uncommon parts like the fake mentalist Stan of Nightmare Alley and the audacious Larry in the screen-adaption of The Razor’s Edge. His last work was in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, soon after, Power started King Vidor’s epic Solomon and Sheba, but had a heart attack while shooting an action sequence and sadly passed away at only 44.


27. Edward G. Robinson

Key Largo (1948)

Romanian-born actor Edward G. Robinson was known for his iconic gangster portrayals. The first one as Little Caesar, in the 1931 movie of the same name. In real life, however, he was an extremely cultivated man, an art collector who could speak eight languages.

He worked with renowned German director Fritz Lang in some of his greatest films, such as Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window. Robinson also had starring parts in Orson Welles’ classic The Stranger, John Huston’s Key Largo and in DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments.

His most famous role, however, is arguably insurance investigator Barton Keyes in what many critics call the greatest Noir ever made: 1944’s Double Indemnity. Astonishingly, Robinson was never even nominated for an Oscar, a mistake the Academy publically recognized after his death, by honoring the actor with a special award, which his wife accepted in his place in 1973.


28. James Stewart

Rear Window (1954)

James Stewart was named by the American Film Institute the third most important male actor of American Cinema. On and off screen ‘Jimmy’ was a no-nonsense kind of guy, a boy next door type who was good hearted and courageous. During his long and prolific career, he played in many of the best remembered Hollywood classics such as Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Hitchcock treasures like Rear Window and Vertigo.

Stewart was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including nods for his performance as attorney Paul Biegler in the courtroom Drama Anatomy of a Murder and as Elwood P. Dowd, an alcoholic who befriends an imaginary giant rabbit, in Harvey.

He won the award for 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, but many historians feel it was a compensation for losing the year before for his brilliant work in Mr. Smith. His natural approach to acting never fell out of style and he continued to get interesting roles on Film and TV throughout the 1980’s. When he died in 1997, aged 89, President Bill Clinton called him a “national treasure”


29. Spencer Tracy

Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Tracy is often mentioned beside Brando and Olivier as the most talented actor of all time. Unlike the latter, however, Tracy was not theatrically oriented, nor did rely on special acting techniques such as Brando’s Method.

When watching Tracy, the spectator can very well forget he is an actor playing a part, such is the truthful quality of his work. From such diverse movies like Captains Courageous, The Old Man and the Sea, The Father of the Bride, Bad Day at Black Rock and Libeled Lady one can get a sense of Tracy’s versatility. But some critics point out that his star never shone so bright as it did beside his real-life companion the great Katharine Hepburn.

The couple starred in 9 films together, the last one, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was also Spencer’s farewell to the screen: The actor was found unconscious by Hepburn at their home, only a few weeks after having finished shooting. He died at 67, after struggling most of his adult life with alcoholism.


30. John Wayne

Rio Bravo

Born Marion Robert Morrison in Iowa, legendary Western icon John Wayne was as much of a cowboy off screen as he was on screen. His father took up ranching when Wayne was young and for a period, he and brother Robert, even rode horses to school. He excelled in football and got himself a scholarship to USC. “The Duke”, as he was nicknamed, got his start on pictures when legendary Tom Mix found him a job as a prop man in return for football tickets.

Wayne went on to star in over an unbelievable 100 pictures, a good part of those under the direction of close friend John Ford. Among the most important features of their partnership are: Stagecoach, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Fort Apache, Rio Bravo and The Quiet Man.

Nevertheless, Wayne ended up winning his only Oscar for his work as Rooster Cogburn in Henry Hathaway’s True Grit. The star was among many members of the cast of 1956’s The Conqueror, who developed cancer, possibly because they shot in southwestern Utah where the Government conducted radioactive and nuclear tests. He died at 72 years-old in 1979.