Having recently written about 10 great film actresses of the fifties, it’s only fair that we also pay tribute to 10 of their male counterparts.
The leading men of the silver screen in the 1950s often embodied the youthful rebel with an urge to disrupt the status quo. It was a move away from the dashing, debonair, gentlemanly stars prevalent through the previous decade. This was certainly a product of the times, when youth movements embracing rock ‘n roll and greaser or Beat culture contrasted with the conformity of quiet suburban American life.
Obviously, we couldn’t create a comprehensive list of all the noteworthy actors of the 1950s. And, to help narrow things down, we stuck to actors who first rose to prominence during the decade, so that’s why you won’t find greats like Clark Gable, Cary Grant, William Holden, and Jimmy Stewart here, even though they had some huge hits in the fifties.
Anyway, apologies if we left off any of your favorites. But there’s no arguing that these 10 made a distinct mark on the mid-century era and American film.
If you’re a classic film enthusiast, make sure you click over to our piece on popular movies of the 1950s, too.
Iconic ’50s Film Actors
It’s an exercise in futility to try ranking these amazingly talented, influential actors who contributed their gifts to so many movie treasures, so we’re just putting them in alphabetical order.
- Marlon Brando (1924-2004): Widely regarded as the greatest actor of all times, Brando is known for the boldness and realism of his performances. After starting out on the stage in the 1940s, he began revolutionizing film in the ’50s with starring roles in movies like The Men, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, The Wild One, On the Waterfront, Désirée, Guys and Dolls, The Teahouse of the August Moon, Sayonara, and The Young Lions.
- Montgomery Clift (1920-1966): Clift funneled a solid background in theatrical acting into markedly intense film work, and he was known for the diligence with which he researched his roles. His reputation took off thanks to his portrayals in classics from the 1950s like The Big Lift, A Place in the Sun, I Confess, Indiscretion of an American Wife, From Here to Eternity, Raintree County, Lonelyhearts, The Young Lions, and Suddenly, Last Summer.
- Tony Curtis (1925-2010): Overcoming the obstacles of growing up in poverty and with almost no formal education, Curtis went on to become one of the biggest names in American film of the ’50s. Some of his enduring work includes The Prince Who Was a Thief, Flesh and Fury, No Room for the Groom, Houdini, The Black Shield of Falworth, So This Is Paris, Six Bridges to Cross, The Square Jungle, Trapeze, Mister Cory, The Midnight Story, Sweet Smell of Success, The Vikings, Kings Go Forth, The Defiant Ones, Some Like It Hot, and Operation Petticoat.
- James Dean (1931-1955): In spite of a tragically short life and leading roles in only three films (as well as a good deal of television work), Dean managed to become the most enduring icon of youth in the fifties. He secured his place in movie and cultural history with his work in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant.
- Kirk Douglas (1916- ): A symbol of virility, Douglas went into film in the late ’40s after his former classmate Lauren Bacall helped him get his first lead role. He’s famous for his characters in 1950s movies like Young Man With a Horn, The Glass Menagerie, Along the Great Divide, Ace in the Hole, Detective Story, The Big Sky, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Story of Three Loves, The Juggler, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Man Without a Star, Lust for Life, Top Secret Affair, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Paths of Glory, The Vikings, Last Train from Gun Hill, and The Devil’s Disciple.
- Alec Guinness (1914-2000): Guinness was one of the three major British actors (along with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud) famous for transitioning from staged Shakespeare to Hollywood cinema. His decades-long career took off in the fifties thanks to big roles in Last Holiday, The Mudlark, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, The Promoter, The Captain’s Paradise, Malta Story, The Detective, To Paris with Love, The Prison, The Ladykillers, The Swan, The Bridge on the River Kwai, All at Sea, The Horse’s Mouth, The Scapegoat, and Our Man in Havana.
- Charlton Heston (1923-2008): Known in particular for his strength and for playing historical figures, the 1950s were just the start of Heston’s brilliant, prolific 60+ year career. He carved out his place in history with major roles in movies like Julius Caesar, Dark City, The Greatest Show on Earth, Ruby Gentry, The President’s Lady, Arrowhead, The Naked Jungle, The Private war of Major Benson, Lucy Gallant, The Ten Commandments, Touch of Evil, The Big Country, The Wreck of the Mary Deare, and Ben-Hur.
- Rock Hudson (1925-1985): After a rocky start, failing repeatedly to get cast in school plays because of an inability to remember lines and needing 38 takes to deliver his only line in his first film role, Hudson became an iconic actor of the 1950s. He is immortalized with starring roles in such classics as The Fat Man, Bend of the River, Scarlet Angel, Has Anyone Seen My Gal?, Magnificent Obsession, All that Heaven Allows, Never Say Goodbye, Giant, Written on the Wind, Something of Value, The Tarnished Angels, The Earth Is Mine, and Pillow Talk.
- Burt Lancaster (1913-1994): A tough street kid with a background in gymnastics and circus performing, Lancaster got into acting while serving in the Army during WWII. After the war, he quickly achieved stardom, cementing his place in cinematic history during the ’50s in films like The Flame and the Arrow, Mister 880, Jim Thorpe—All-American, The Crimson Pirate, Come Back Little Sheba, From Here to Eternity, Apache, Vera Cruz, The Rose Tattoo, Trapeze, The Rainmaker, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Sweet Smell of Success, Run Silent Run Deep, and The Devil’s Disciple.
- Elvis Presley (1935-1977): The king of rock ‘n roll was, of course, also an iconic film star who took off in the late 1950s. He was the embodiment of youth culture by the end of the decade, quickly establishing his place in screen history with lead roles in Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole.