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Male actors over the decades - who are your favourites of past and present?

PUBLISHED: 10:00 15 September 2018

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Picture: Company Productions Ltd/Giles Keyte

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Picture: Company Productions Ltd/Giles Keyte

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Who are your favourite male actors past and present? Here we take a look at some of the leading men who have won the hearts of fans.

Colin Firth as Bertie (King George VI) in The King's Speech.  Picture: PAColin Firth as Bertie (King George VI) in The King's Speech. Picture: PA

Looking back to Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, Cary Grant was known for his smooth good looks and urbane humour.

It’s hard to say whether he is best-known for his screwball comedies, such as The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby, or as a leading man in Hitchcock thrillers such as Suspicion, Notorious and North by Northwest.

Grant is definitely one of the actors where fans are keen to see everything he made and go out of their way to track down obscure titles, scouring daytime TV listings and streaming services.

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One of the most iconic actors of all time, Humphrey Bogart, first became a character actor and then a star in the 1930s, though he is best-known for his later roles in 1940s and ‘50s noirs and dramas, before his tragically early death.

After his early good looks faded, he certainly wasn’t a matinee idol - but that didn’t stop him starring in one of the greatest romantic movies of all time, opposite Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.

Bogie came second in a snap Twitter poll among EADT readers to see which of four leading actors, past and present, had the biggest following - coming out ahead of Marlon Brando and Daniel Day Lewis, but receiving fewer votes than Robert De Niro.

Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Picture: AP/20th Century FoxRobert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Picture: AP/20th Century Fox

Gangster era and beyond

Judy Rimmer from Ipswich chose another star from this era as one of her favourites, writing: “I became fascinated by James Cagney after I glimpsed him in a scene from his 1930s gangster classic The Public Enemy. A clip was shown in an episode of The Sopranos, where Tony Soprano was laughing and crying over the old film.

“I decided to see what appealed to Tony (James Gandolfini) so much, and was soon a fan. Cagney was short and not conventionally good-looking (though he did have a big female following), but he had an intensity which makes him compelling even if you’re watching one of his second-rate star vehicles.

“At his best, in a film like the 1949 film noir White Heat - where he again played a gangster, this time ageing and mother-fixated - it’s almost impossible to tear your eyes away from him on screen.

“I am also a fan of many other actors, including Paul Newman, who was great from the 1950s and 1960s, in films like The Hustler, right through to his last role in Road to Perdition, where to my mind he stole the film from another wonderful actor, Tom Hanks.

“I loved seeing Newman with Robert Redford (now 82) in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting - they made a great team with an easy buddy relationship which has been endlessly imitated since. And of course, it was a bonus that they were both so handsome in those films.

“Out of current actors, I’ve long thought Hugh Grant tends to be underrated by some, despite his stardom, because he did so many romantic comedies - but now his talent is being recognised more following roles like Jeremy Thorpe in TV’s A Very English Scandal.

“I’ve also always followed the careers of Kenneth Branagh and Rupert Everett since seeing them in the play Another Country in the 1980s - they were brilliant as future spies at an English public school in the 1930s, and whenever I see them in anything else I still remember that first sighting. Sadly, I didn’t see Colin Firth in the stage version, but I did see him in the film version, and he is yet another long-time favourite.”

Richard Burton with Elizabeth Taylor, during a rehearsal for the Broadway revival in New York of Noel Coward's Private Lives in 1983. Picture: AP Photo/FileRichard Burton with Elizabeth Taylor, during a rehearsal for the Broadway revival in New York of Noel Coward's Private Lives in 1983. Picture: AP Photo/File

Memories of Brando

Looking at films from the classic era, Ross Bentley from Sudbury writes: “I tend to hark back to the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood when thinking of actors that have made an impression on me. And for me, Marlon Brando is the top of the pile.”

“Before him you had smoothies such as Carey Grant and Clark Gable - neatly dressed and formal - or the likes of Bogart and Cagney – too wise guy to be taken seriously.

“But the scene early on in A Streetcar Named Desire – Brando’s first movie in 1951 - when we are introduced to his character Stanley brought a new maleness to the big screen. He was natural and drawling - barely understandable at times - but totally convincing.

“The films that followed only added to this cool: On the Waterfront “I could have been a contender” and the Wild One “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against? What’ve you got?

“Later on, he was spellbinding in several of the greatest films ever made playing patriach Don Corleone in the Godfather and the ranting Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

“I also love him as the camp and crazy bounty hunter in Missouri Breaks as he goes up against Jack Nicholson.

Richard Madden in BBC series Bodyguard. Picture: BBC/WorldProductions/Sophie MutevelianRichard Madden in BBC series Bodyguard. Picture: BBC/WorldProductions/Sophie Mutevelian

“Brando was notoriously difficult to work with; became increasingly erratic in later life and had more than his fair share of family tragedies. An insight into his confused world came in the excellent 2015 documentary Listen To Me Marlon.

“But ultimately, for the fan, it’s his films that matter – and he was one helluva actor.”

Why didn’t Burton get an Oscar?

Paul Geater from Ipswich chose two stars from a bygone era as his favourites - one a great of stage and screen, the other a cult name, He writes: “Richard Burton is the finest actor never to have won a “Best Actor” Oscar – despite being nominated numerous times.

“He was equally at home on the stage as on the screen – and one of his finest ever roles was as the narrator of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood in a radio production. There was no one better suited to carry the work written by a fellow Welsh alchoholic!

“He was brilliant in roles from The Robe to Equus and 1984 – he even made the 1962 marathon Cleopatra watchable.

“But for many fans his greatest role was as Jonathan Smith (I had to look up the name of the character) in Where Eagles Dare: ‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy, Broadsword calling Danny Boy...’

Paul’s other choice was 1960s star Patrick McGoohan. He writes: “Underrated but always watchable, Patrick McGoohan made his name in the action series Danger Man – a great show ahead of its time that hasn’t been repeated as often as it should have been because it was one of the last major shows made in black and white.

“His role as Number Six in The Prisoner followed on from this and has become a television legend. Fans are still not sure what it was all about – but it doesn’t stop them from flocking to the Welsh village of Portmerion where it was filmed.

“McGoohan also made a number of films from the 60s to the 2000s. He was great in the film adaptation of Alastair Maclean’s Ice Station Zebra – and even had a menacing role as Edward 1, William Wallace’s nemesis, in Braveheart.

Actors with powerful presence

Moving on to acting’s living legends, the Bananarama song Robert De Niro’s Waiting underlined the iconic status of this star. He first made his name back in the 1970s in Scorsese’s Mean Streets and as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II.

De Niro is regularly among the top-rated stars in polls for all-time great actors, so it’s no surprise that he again came top out of the selection of actors featured in our snap Twitter poll.

He is still the actor most closely associated with Scorsese, after great performances in films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy, even though Leonardo DiCaprio has more often starred in Scorsese films over more recent years. Meanwhile, De Niro has appeared in many comedies, such as Meet the Parents and its sequels, but he is still better-known as a dramatic actor.

De Niro’s slightly older contemporary, Jack Nicholson, made his acting debut more than 60 years ago, but his most famous roles date from the late 1960s onwards, when he got his big break in Easy Rider and went on to star in Five Easy Pieces, before winning his first Best Actor Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Since then he has played many other great roles, including his second Best Actor Oscar-winning role in As Good As It Gets in 1997.

Another actor with an equally powerful presence, Daniel Day-Lewis, has announced his retirement, much to the dismay of fans. He appeared in relatively few films over his career, but still won an impressive five Best Actor Oscars, including the most recent accolade for his performance in the title role in Lincoln.

Starring on theatre and stage

Lynne Mortimer from Ipswich chose Mark Rylance as her favourite. She writes: “Although I don’t agree with Mark Rylance about Shakespeare (he reckons Will did not write the plays; I know he did), there is no doubting the virtuosity of many of Rylance’s performances.

“On film, he was wonderful in Dunkirk and equally wonderful in Bridge of Spies. On television he gave a fine rendition of Thomas Cromwell in the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. But, for me, it is his stage acting that is beyond compare.

“I first saw him in Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth’s award-winning play. Rylance played Johnny “Rooster” Bryon, who lives in a caravan in the woods and lives a life that young people find irresistible.

“It begins with Rooster (Rylance) gripping the sides of a tin bath and inverting himself into the water, head first. It was an astonishing act of physicality and set the 
tone for an evening of brash, brilliant theatre I shall never forget.

“I might have thought, ‘Top that, Mark Rylance,’ when I went to see him in the Globe’s all-male production of Twelfth Night. He must have read my mind because he topped it with his capricious Olivia. One moment coquettish, another, devious.

Knowing the play well, I thought I knew all the laugh lines but Rylance provided a hatful I never suspected.

“I truly believe that on stage he can do anything and in any other media, he can do most things.”

Judith Palmer from Norwich also picked Rylance, writing: “Not only is he an amazing stage actor (I saw him play Olivia in Twelfth Night alongside Stephen Fry), he was also the first artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe (1995-2005). He has turned his skills to many different roles on the big screen too, winning him many awards, (The BFG, Bridge of Spies, Dunkirk, and most recently Ready Player One) but most importantly to my two young sons he also voices Flop in the Cbeebies animated programme Bing!

Rosanna Elliott from Norwich chose another actor known for his work in the theatre as well as on cinema and TV.

She writes: “Ben Whishaw is one of the most compelling actors on stage and screen. He is utterly believable in every role I’ve ever seen him in and gives such emotive and nuanced performances. Some particular highlights of his talent are in The BBC’s Hollow Crown version of Richard II where he manages to make a decadent and selfish king into a figure of great sympathy, and his leading role in BBC drama London Spy in which he was completely captivating.

“People will also recognise him from recent BBC success A Very English Scandal where he gave another masterful performance alongside Hugh Grant. I think he is truly one of the finest actors out there right now.”

Bodyguard star

Richard Madden, star of BBC drama Bodyguard, is another current name who has steadily been gaining admiration for his acting prowess.

Nicola Warren of Ipswich writes: “Madden’s probably best known as flame-haired Robb Stark and short-lived King of the North in the global hit Game of Thrones.

“I wish I could tell you how he performed as Romeo in Kenneth Branagh’s production of the Shakespeare play but alas, by the time we went to see the show at the Garrick Theatre in London he’d broken his leg and Freddie Fox had taken his place (no offence Freddie, you were great).

“Whether comedy or drama, family film or adults only viewing, Madden’s a winner – he also appeared as Prince Charming in Branagh’s big screen version of Cinderella and Mellors in the BBC’s latest version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for example.

“Bodyguard could be his finest work yet, bringing to life a broken man, let down by his government, estranged from his wife. In one scene hands shaking from PTSD, in another jaw clenched and eyes fired up in intensity – with perhaps revenge in mind.”

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