10 Legendary Movie Actors of the 1940s

10 Legendary Movie Actors of the 1940s

Hollywood’s Golden Era coincides with the the mid-century years—and what a time it was for film! Just take a look at this lists of classic movies from the forties.

And now, to accompany our roundup of brilliant, beautiful, gifted actresses from the ’40s, we’re covering some great actors from the decade too. We can’t, of course, get to everyone, as so many bright lights of the big screen left a major mark on cinema during the 1940s.

To help keep the list manageable, we focus here on male movie stars who initially rose to fame during the ’40s and made a significant number of their key contributions to film in this same period. So, that accounts for many of the omissions. Still, we know, lots of actors who meet these criteria aren’t here, so please forgive us if we left off any of your favorites.

With that said, here’s a quick look back at some of the most classic, talented, and important movie actors of the 1940s. And the list is just alphabetical; we didn’t attempt to rank these guys!

Iconic ’40s Film Actors

  1. Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957): Though he had a decent number of roles throughout the 1930s, Bogart—one of the greatest actors of all time, with lead roles in some of the greatest movies of all time—became a star in the early ’40s. Just some of his enduring work from the decade includes The Maltese Falcon, All Through the Night, Casablanca, Sahara, Thank Your Lucky Stars, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Key Largo.
  1. Joseph Cotten (1905-1994): Cotten had the good fortune to basically launch his Hollywood career in what is often cited as the greatest film of all time, 1941’s Citizen Kane. Following this, he went on to contribute his talents to such forties classics as The Magnificent Ambersons, Shadow of a Doubt, Gaslight, Since You Went Away, I’ll Be Seeing You, Love Letters, The Farmer’s Daughter, Portrait of Jennie, The Third Man, and Beyond the Forest.
  1. John Garfield (1913-1952): Following a troubled youth and stage career that included Broadway roles (a typical start for Hollywood legends of the mid-century years), Garfield quickly made a name for himself on the silver screen. He brought his talents to such classics of the decade as The Sea Wolf, Air Force, Destination Tokyo, Between Two Worlds, Hollywood Canteen, Pride of the Marines, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Nobody Lives Forever, Humoresque, Body and Soul, and Gentleman’s Agreement.
  1. William Holden (1918-1981): During the 1940s, Holden made a name for himself primarily in Westerns, which enjoyed great popularity during the decade. He was often cast as a boy-next-door type. Some of his important lead roles from the forties are in Arizona, Texas, The Fleet’s In, The Remarkable Andrew, Dear Ruth, Rachel and the Stranger, Apartment for Peggy, and Streets of Laredo.
  1. Robert Mitchum (1917-1997): After many small roles in the early ’40s, Mitchum was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for 1945’s The Story of G.I. Joe, and things took off from there. This icon of film noir from the decade (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Westerns) left his mark on such classics as The Locket, Pursued, Crossfire, Out of the Past, Rachel and the Stranger, Blood on the Moon, The Big Steal, and Holiday Affair.
  1. Gregory Peck (1916-2003): Stardom arrived quickly for Peck, with his second film, 1944’s The Keys of the Kingdom, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. His work frequently won lots of critical praise and adoration from the movie-going public. Other important lead roles from the decade include The Valley of Decision, Spellbound, The Yearling, Gentleman’s Agreement, Yellow Sky, and Twelve O’Clock High.
  1. Vincent Price (1911-1993): Although his best-known work came after the ’40s, this was the decade when Price established himself and shared his famous creepy voice and facial expressions with the world. He did so with lead and significant supporting roles in films like The Invisible Man Returns, The House of the Seven Gables, The Keys of the Kingdom, Leave Her to Heaven, Dragonwyck, The Web, The Long Night, and The Three Musketeers.
  1. James Stewart (1908-1997): OK, OK… Stewart had a few lead roles in great movies in the late ’30s (most notably, 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), but it was in the 40s that he started making consistent contributions to cinema, including the most famous Christmas movie ever, It’s a Wonderful Life. The ’40s also saw him star in such greats as The Shop Around the Corner, The Mortal Storm, The Philadelphia Story, Come Live with Me, Call Northside 777, Rope, and The Stratton Story.
  1. Orson Welles (1915-1985): Another entry here who can easily be referenced as one of the greatest actors of all time, his first publicly shown film was the aforementioned Citizen Kane. Though it was a flop at first, again, it’s now often at the top of lists of greatest movies ever made. Other essential contributions as an actor from the ’40s include Jane Eyre, Tomorrow Is Forever, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, and The Third Man.
  1. Cornel Wilde (1912-1989): Hungarian-born Wilde would go on to be best known as a swashbuckling adventurer, but he achieved fame – and an Oscar nomination – for his role as Frederic Chopin in 1945’s A Song to Remember. He also starred in popular movies of the decade such as Manila Calling, Leave Her to Heaven, The Homestretch, It Had to Be You, The Walls of Jericho, and Roadhouse.

Further Reading for Fans of Hollywood’s Golden Era

If you love mid-century movies, click over to some of our other posts:

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Leonard Riforgiato is a successful furniture manufacturing entrepreneur, a Miami resident, and co-owner of legacy furniture company Heywood-Wakefield.

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