Top 10 Actors of All Time, According to the American Film Institute – MovieWeb

While it focuses mostly on actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the AFI has compiled a nonetheless great list of the best actors of all time.
The American Film Institute was introduced by President Lyndon B. Johnson in order to preserve the legacy of American cinema, and has been curating definitive lists of the greatest films, directors, genres, and actors in their “100 years…” series for 25 years. The AFI separates acting into the best actors and actresses, and they're fascinating lists, though the Institute has yet to provide an updated version of after its 2008 edition, which had strict criteria regarding actors and their feature debuts before 1950. Whether it's updated soon or in 20 years time, it’s hard to foresee much in the way of change considering the legendary statuses of its current occupants. Let’s take a look at the AFI’s 10 best actors of all time…
Charlie Chaplin, a.k.a. the Little Tramp was irrefutably the defining face of the Hollywood Silent Era. During a career spanning over 60 years, the Londoner appeared in a staggering 82 motion pictures, many of which he had written and directed himself. From The Kid, The Great Dictator, and The Gold Rush, to Limelight, Monsieur Verdoux, and A King in New York, Chaplin’s list of classic films is almost as long as his filmography.
Spencer Tracy became the first person to ever win two consecutive Academy Awards in 1937 and 1938, for Captains Courageous and Boys Town respectively, a feat that was only equaled 55 years later by Tom Hanks. Regarded as America’s 'on-screen Dad,' Tracy possessed this lovable, paternal quality that made him such a popular motion picture figure. Whether it's his great comedies with Katherine Hepburn (Woman of the Year, Adam's Rib), his wizened, paternalistic performances in his late career (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Judgment at Nuremberg), or his intense dramas (Fury, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo), Tracy was excellent in whatever he tackled.
Orson Welles claimed that James Cagney was one of the greatest actors to ever appear in front of a camera. Known for his immaculate comedic timing, as well as being a distinctive orator, Cagney won his first and only Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy. In addition to his great musical and comic talents, Cagney is considered to be one of the greatest gangster movie actors of all time, giving iconic performances in films like The Public Enemy and White Heat. Cagney ended his career after two decades of retirement from the motion picture industry, appearing in the epic, underrated swan song, Ragtime.
Nicknamed “The King of Hollywood,” a name attributed to him after the staunch critical success of 1939’s Gone with the Wind, Clark Gable enjoyed a career spanning 37 years, winning an Oscar for his brilliant performance in It Happened One Night. Interestingly, in 1996, Steven Spielberg anonymously bought Gable’s only Academy Award and gave it back to the Academy. Gable was another of the great early actors who had perfect comedy chops but could also give intensely sad and moving performances that deconstructed his celebrity image in films like The Misfits.
An avid hobbyist and scoutmaster, Henry Fonda also held the record as the oldest Best Actor Academy Award winner ever for 39 years, having won it for his rendition of On the Pond; it was only in 2020 when 83-year-old Anthony Hopkins dethroned Fonda. Father of Jane and Peter Fonda, Henry Fonda mastered the craft across a long career of masterpieces, such as 12 Angry Men, The Grapes of Wrath, The Wrong Man, My Darling Clementine, and Once Upon a Time in the West
Related: Best Western Movies Starring Henry Fonda, Ranked
Fred Astaire is probably more celebrated for his dancing and choreographic talents than his acting, which makes his ranking as fifth-best actor of all time a little more remarkable. Born Frederick Austerlitz, Astaire broke into the film industry in his 30s, after learning his craft on stage in the preceding decades. Winning a Best Supporting Oscar in 1975, Astaire had always vehemently forbidden anyone from making a movie about his life, yet in 2021, it was announced that Tom Holland had been cast as Astaire for an upcoming biopic.
It was certainly an interesting life, with Astaire becoming one of the biggest musical stars of all time thanks to his frequent early worlk with the great Ginger Rogers in movies like Top Hat, Shall We Dance, and Swing Time. His career would continue with later classics like The Band Wagon, Daddy Long Legs, and Finian's Rainbow.
Perhaps best known for his rendition of mob boss Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic, The Godfather, Marlon Brando was a two-time Academy Award winner, having claimed the prestigious award for Best Male Lead in 1954’s On the Waterfront and again in 1972 for The Godfather, which he notably declined in protest. Brando was a revered method actor, and rightly goes down as one of the most prominent acting influences of all time. While many considered him to be notoriously difficult, there's no doubt that Brando completely changed the public face of acting with his performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, Apocalypse Now, and Last Tango in Paris.
Nowadays, the military conscription of actors is quite a bemusing thought — imagine fighting alongside Brad Pitt, George Clooney, or Daniel Craig. However, this was the reality for soldiers sharing James Stewart’s US Army regiment during WWII. After having starred in over 25 films, including the critically acclaimed The Philadelphia Story (for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor), the New Yorker enlisted in the American war effort.
Related: Best Jimmy Stewart Westerns, Ranked
After a five-year, military-induced acting hiatus, his return to the big screen was with It’s a Wonderful Life, which reunited Stewart with one of his best directors, Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can't Take it with You). Yet, it was with Alfred Hitchcock that he produced his most famous work, with Rope,Vertigo, Rear Window, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. However, Stewart's excellent run of darker Western films with director Anthony Mann shouldn't go overlooked.
Born and raised in Bristol, England, as Archibald Leach, the great Cary Grant always demonstrated a penchant for performing, leaving home and joining the circus at 16, Grant traveled the world before finding his calling as a Hollywood stalwart. An illustrious figure during the Hollywood Golden Age, Grant embodied the quintessentially good-looking male lead. An original member of the “Rat Pack,” the North by Northwest star retains his place as the American Film Institute’s second-best actor of all time. From his brilliant comedies (Bringing Up Baby, Arsenic and Old Lace) to his amazingly romantic thrillers (To Catch a Thief, Charade), Grant was golden.
The face of classical cinema, Humphrey Bogart, or “Bogie” as his friends knew him began his decorated acting career on Broadway alongside Spencer Tracy, having previously found employment in the Navy. Receiving his inaugural feature film credit in the 1930s A Devil with Women, Bogart would go on to star in iconic black and white movies that would transcend his era, and film in general. Starting off as a regular supporting actor, his abilities were very quickly recognized, and eventually his sole Academy Award for Best Actor for 1952’s The African Queen, he undeniably deserved further Academy recognition for his work on Casablanca, In a Lonely Place, and The Maltese Falcon.


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