Robert Mitchum as Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter
The total antithesis of today’s celebrities, Robert Mitchum created a terrifying character in Reverend Harry Powell for Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. The actor essentially risked his career for the part of the murderous preacher — a complete departure from the kind of role that Mitchum normally played. His performance could have easily slipped into caricature, but instead he imbues Powell with a sublime malevolence thanks to that silky baritone and the threat to “LOVE” us with his fists. Laughton broke the mold when he cast Mitchum for his eerie, expressionistic nightmare.
Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Audrey Hepburn and Holly Golightly are so completely inseparable, it’s unfathomable that another actress could make us fall in love with the naïve socialite the way we did in Blake Edwards’ 1961 movie. Hepburn’s poise and elegance translated to her character effortlessly, despite the shy star’s quiet struggles playing an extroverted screen creation — a vulnerability she used to smart effect. Although it might seem that the role of Holly only demanded Hepburn to look adorable and glamorous, the character’s troubled past and gnawing loneliness required far more from the actress to pull it off. Hepburn was in her prime for this role — a truly inimitable performance.
Robert Shaw as Quint in Jaws
Robert Shaw’s larger than life Quint — the shark hunter from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws — is an unforgettable role. We believe the brooding Englishman is a sea-faring fisherman with a vendetta against sharks, because Shaw inhabits the character so completely. No other actor could have ever delivered the Indianapolis monologue in the film with such chilling sincerity. Quint and Shaw are alike to the casual observer — hard drinking, Hemingway-esque men that are tough, passionate, funny, and effortlessly cool. Quint isn’t the hero of Jaws, but the audience regularly believes that he’s the only one of the three men on the Orca who’s really capable of killing the beast. He doesn’t — but his death is supremely fitting.
Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca
It seems strange to think about anyone remaking the iconic Casablanca, let alone finding a star to replace Bogie. The actor had spent most of his career up until that point playing gangsters. Putting him in a romantic leading role was largely against type, but he demonstrated that he was more than capable of pulling it off in spades. Bogart’s ability to portray Rick as a nuanced character — the “cynic with a heart of gold”— so convincingly is what makes the performance unforgettable. Bogart’s creation is dashing enough to make the ladies swoon, while still being masculine enough that most men wished they were him. It’s arguably the performance of his career and one that deserved an Oscar (he lost to Paul Lukas for Watch on the Rhine).
Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in the Alien series
Ridley Scott’s Alien made Sigourney Weaver a star. The role came along during a time when action/genre films kept women in the background, and defined them solely by their relationship with the men around them doing the dirty work on the frontlines. Lt. Ellen Ripley was a smart, challenging, heroic role that broke down cinematic gender barriers, and Weaver’s skilled performance made us believe it with all our hearts.
Peter Sellers in pretty much everything he made
A comedic talent always on top of his game, Peter Sellers is forever linked to various iconic roles — including that of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther series and a former wheelchair-bound Nazi with a bizarre and hilarious set of tics, Dr. Strangelove, in Stanley Kubrick’s film of the same name. Not many actors could skillfully divide their time on screen amongst two other characters the way he did in Kubrick’s movie (he also stared as President Merkin Muffley and Captain Lionel Mandrake), making each one completely unique, but Sellers pulled it off. The enigmatic actor had the uncanny ability to totally transform himself into every part he played — a gift (or burden) that perhaps contributed to his troubled life. His output is so nuanced and impressive it’s impossible to beat.
Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry
Clint’s steely gaze, icy demeanor in the face of extreme violence, and ability to make “Do you feel lucky, Punk?” sound so damn cool ties him to the part of Harry Callahan for infinity. The tough guy actor played the hard-nosed cop with a naturalism that made us believe he was capable of doing everything onscreen in real life. Eastwood’s performance is indelible.
Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather
It’s hard to imagine that Marlon Brando almost wasn’t cast in the role of Don Vito Corleone for The Godfather (Coppola wanted him, but the studio had other names in mind), because the actor’s performance in the crime saga is widely considered the greatest of his career. As the lifetime criminal who heads the powerful mafia family, Brando is entirely convincing — and we actually like the man who controls the violent people in his charge, which isn’t an easy feat. The Don doesn’t rely on showy gimmicks to flaunt his power and neither does Brando — who makes it look so easy.