Top 10 Decade Defining Actors: 1950s

Written by Sean Harris We rocked… We rolled… and these actors wowed us in the cinema! Join WatchMojo.com as we count down our picks for the top 10 Decade Defining Actors of the 1950s! 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 users Scotty Arbour, The Inceptionist and Thomas Schmid 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 1950s


We rocked… We rolled… and these actors wowed us in the cinema! Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 Decade Defining Actors of the 1950s!

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: Frank Sinatra
1915 - 1998

This guy isn’t just a decade defining actor; he’s a decade defining person! An all-round entertainer, Sinatra sang, swung and scripted his way into history. On the big screen, he experienced a rebirth in the ‘50s, with his Oscar-winning role in “From Here to Eternity.” By now he was the main man again, earning another nod for “The Man with the Golden Arm”! After performing alongside Marlon Brando in “Guys and Dolls” and Grace Kelly in “High Society,” he appeared to be show business incarnate once more!

#9: Vincent Price
1911 - 1993

Our number nine tingles the spine! After starting out as a character actor, Vincent Price progressed into the horror movie genre in a big way during this decade. His role as the Professor in “House of Wax” was the first step along a spooky road. “The Fly” followed, and he’d thrill the ‘50s once more, assuming the role of Dr. Warren Chapin in “The Tingler.” For this movie, some cinema seats were equipped with vibrating devices called ‘Percepto!’ – in truth, Price didn’t need assistance to scare us!

#8: Tony Curtis
1925 - 2010

He began the ‘50s as a lesser-known actor, and ended the decade as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after stars. A breakthrough performance as under-pressure press agent Sidney Falco in “Sweet Smell of Success,” and an Oscar-nominated effort as an escaped convict in “The Defiant Ones” meant that Curtis was worth top-dollar! As ladies man-slash-woman, Joe-slash-Josephine in “Some Like it Hot,” Curtis was paired with Marilyn Monroe, and the two really stole our hearts! And he tickled our funny bones once more before decade’s end alongside Cary Grant in “Operation Petticoat.”

#7: Kirk Douglas
1916 -

Born into a desperately poor family, it’s said that Kirk Douglas worked over 40 jobs before becoming an actor. From such modest beginnings, it’s amazing that he built a modern-day Hollywood dynasty around himself. By the 1950s, Douglas was quite the tough-guy: he starred in westerns like “Along the Great Divide,” and played soldiers in movies like “Paths of Glory.” Oscar nominations also came in the ‘50s, for “The Bad and The Beautiful” and “Lust For Life,” both of which cemented his status as a wide-ranging talent.

#6: Anthony Quinn
1915 - 2001

Often cast as an ‘ethnic’ villain, Quinn was a prolific actor but it took some years for him to achieve mainstream success! His breakthrough came when he starred opposite Marlon Brando in “Viva Zapata!” – a movie for which he won the Academy Award for Supporting Actor, and the first Oscar awarded to a Mexican-American. He won the same award four-years later for his portrayal of the painter Paul Gauguin in “Lust for Life.” The second Oscar was quite incredible, as Quinn was only onscreen for eight minutes!

#5: Gene Kelly
1912 - 1996

Singing and dancing his way into the top half of our countdown is musical maestro, Gene Kelly. A man credited with carrying the musical form from the mid-1940s until the end of the ‘50s, there are few that define a genre better than Kelly does! Known for his charm, good looks, energy and likeability, his performances in “An American in Paris” and “Singin’ in the Rain” are what he’s most remembered for. He was an all-round entertainer the likes of which was rare then, and is yet rarer today!

#4: John Wayne
1907 - 1979

An all-out icon, John Wayne reigned supreme for many a decade, but in the ‘50s he produced some of his most notable work. He starred in 142 movies throughout his career (most of them Westerns) – and set the archetype for masculinity at the time. “The Quiet Man,” “The High and the Mighty,” “The Searchers” and “Rio Bravo” were particular successes. He was undeniably typecast, but he was also undeniably good at what he did. Wayne exuded charisma, and cinemagoers just couldn’t get enough!

#3: Charlton Heston
1923 - 2008

Another prolific performer, Charlton Heston starred in 100 Hollywood movies over 60 years in the industry. Those statistics are hard to beat, and he is, quite rightly, a legend of his trade! In the ‘50s, after breaking through in “The Greatest Show on Earth,” he became synonymous with epic roles, and was particularly effective playing Biblical parts. A tall, athletic man, he portrayed Moses in “The Ten Commandments” and the title role in “Ben Hur” – a film that still holds a joint record for the most Oscar wins for a single picture!

#2: James Dean
1931 - 1955

While some actors on our list have enjoyed long careers on either side of this decade, James Dean’s was tragically confined to a few short years within it. He had only three major roles, but he earned two Oscar nominations and two BAFTA nominations with them. “East of Eden” was his breakthrough, and “Rebel Without a Cause” his most remembered film. He did everything with pace and passion, but was horribly caught out on a California highway, where he suffered a fatal car crash, leaving the film “Giant” as his legacy.

Before we unveil our pick for Decade Defining Actor of the 1950s, here are a few honorable mentions:
- William Holden
1918 - 1981
- Montgomery Clift
1920 - 1966
- David Niven
1910 - 1983
- Peter Cushing
1913 - 1994
- Rock Hudson
1925 - 1985

#1: Marlon Brando
1924 - 2004

Rock-and-Roll was bursting through our radios and our chart-topper was personifying it on the movie screen! Marlon Brando was one of the coolest, trendiest, most desirable guys on the planet! He was also a fine actor! Picking up an Oscar for his role in “On the Waterfront,” Brando also starred in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Viva Zapata!,” “Julius Caesar” and “The Wild One” to name but a few. He had magnetism, masculinity and an attitude that established him as the ‘50s male sex symbol, and as our number one decade-definer!

Do you agree with our list? Which 1950s 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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