Top 10 Decade Defining Actors: 1940s

Written by Sean Harris The world may have been at war, but these men ensured that not all was doom and danger! Join WatchMojo.com as we count down our picks for the top 10 Decade Defining Actors of the 1940s! For our series on the Top 10 Decade Defining Male Actors Per Period, we’ve made our choices based on a combination of their commercial success, their box-office scores, their productivity, their awards and how they helped set the tone and raise the standard in Hollywood for the era. Special thanks to our user Scotty Arbour for submitting the idea through our Suggestions Tool at WatchMojo.comSuggest
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Written by Sean Harris

Top 10 Decade Defining Actors of the 1940s


The world may have been at war, but these men ensured that not all was doom and danger! Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 Decade Defining Actors of the 1940s!

For our series on the Top 10 Decade Defining Male Actors Per Period, we’ve made our choices based on a combination of their commercial success, their box-office scores, their productivity, their awards and how they helped set the tone and raise the standard in Hollywood for the era.

#10: Alan Ladd
1913 - 1964

Ladd’s was a determined breakthrough into acting that saw him take a flurry of early cameo appearances, including as a newspaper reporter in “Citizen Kane.” But “This Gun for Hire” was his debut as a featured star. He had an unsmiling coldness about his ‘bad-guy-with-a-conscience’ persona, which proved popular with wartime audiences. Thanks to his work in westerns, as well as noir films – often alongside Veronica Lake – Ladd is often credited as a revolutionary who turned the villain into a charming, attractive, tempting figure, like those we see in gangster movies today.

#9: Gary Cooper
1901 - 1961

‘Coop,’ as he was known in Hollywood, had roles in over 100 movies during his career, including a breakthrough supporting part in “Wings” – the first ever recipient of the Best Picture Oscar. He famously rejected the part of Rhett Butler in “Gone With the Wind,” but still achieved fame in the following decade with his stone-faced and modest style. Varying between comedy, drama, crime and westerns, Cooper won an Oscar for “Sergeant York” during the decade, and eventually paired up with Ingrid Bergman in an adaptation of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

#8: Robert Mitchum
1917 - 1997

A tough upbringing led to a steely onscreen character for Mitchum, who achieved much of his fame within the ‘film noir’ genre. However, it was an early non-noir, 1945’s “The Story of G.I. Joe,” the yielded his first and only Oscar nomination. That kicked off a career full of western antiheros and soldiers, but it was in noirs like “Crossfire” and “Out of the Past” where he truly shined. He became known as the tough-yet-sensitive male who must resist his femme fatale – a forerunner of the film noir victim!

#7: Bud Abbott & Lou Costello
1895 - 1974; 1906 - 1959

At 7 we have two. These actors are impossible to separate, seeing as they formed the most prolific double act of their time! They found fame (and saved Universal Pictures from bankruptcy in the process) by starring in World War II flicks, “Buck Privates” and “In the Navy.” Their success was built around Abbott playing the straight man, and Costello playing the joker – a combination that enabled them to become one of the highest grossing acts throughout the Second World War.

#6: Peter Lorre
1904 - 1964

Peter Lorre’s early career spread across the 1930s, when, due to his Austrian birth, he was continually typecast as the ‘menacing foreigner’ figure next to actors like Sydney Greenstreet and Humphrey Bogart. However, his roles as Joel Cairo in “The Maltese Falcon” and Ugarte in “Casablanca,” earned him greater respect within Hollywood circles, and he emerged as a leading wartime entertainer, with films such as “Background to Danger” and “Three Strangers.” Post-World War II, his career took a downturn, but Lorre’s legacy had already been written.

#5: Henry Fonda
1905 - 1982

When Fonda roomed with James Stewart in the 1930s, little did their landlords realize the acting royalty that slept in their beds! Fonda’s own career kick-started with a role as Tom Joad in an adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath,” which earned him an Oscar nomination and a seven-year contract with Twentieth Century-Fox! He then starred opposite Barbara Stanwyck in “The Ox-Bow Incident” and with Joan Crawford in “Daisy Kenyon” – all during a decade in which he also saw Second World War action in the Navy!

#4: Laurence Olivier
1907 - 1989

An Englishman of such worth he was eventually granted the title Lord Olivier, this actor is considered among the greatest of the 20th century! Roles in “Rebecca” and “Wuthering Heights,” as well as a complicated relationship with actress, Vivien Leigh, meant that Olivier entered the decade as mega-star material. Two parts of his acclaimed Shakespeare trilogy were also released in the ‘40s, allowing Olivier to combine his classical background with his silver-screen stardom. He was professional, prolific, and all-but cinema perfection!

#3: Orson Welles
1915 - 1985

Receiving our bronze medal is a man who’s more than an actor: he’s a pioneering director, theatre figure, and radio broadcaster. He reduced a nation to apocalyptic paranoia with his radio adaptation of “The War of the Worlds.” That earned him Hollywood’s attention, and allowed him to write, direct and star in his best-remembered contribution to cinema and a film that’s widely regarded as one of the greatest ever made, 1941’s “Citizen Kane.” On the screen, his direction and narration of 1942’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” gained further critical acclaim.

#2: Humphrey Bogart
1899 - 1957

Again, this guy is more than an actor; he’s an icon! Born on the last Christmas Day of the 19th century, Bogart’s life was a romance from the beginning. He scored a contract with Warner Bros. at the start of his career, and struggled to break past the company’s leading males, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. But films like “High Sierra,” “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca” changed all that. Two years after that romantic hit, he met his fourth and final wife, Lauren Bacall – and the pair became Hollywood’s darlings!

Before we unveil our pick for Decade Defining Actor of the 1940s, here are a few honorable mentions:
- Richard Attenborough
1923 -
- John Garfield
1913 - 1952

#1: James Stewart
1908 - 1997

Bogart and Welles were influential, but Jimmy Stewart stole the show! In a decade when he also dedicated time to WWII military service, Stewart’s roles as the ‘average,’ aspiring American resonated with, and gave encouragement to, just about everyone! His natural style won him an Oscar for “The Philadelphia Story,” having been previously nominated for Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” However, he found everlasting fame as George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” – a captivating performance in a Christmas classic! His was the highest standard during one of Hollywood’s highest points!

Do you agree with our list? Which 1940s actor do you think is the most iconic? For more classic Top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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