From Danny Aiello to S. Z. Zakall, by way of Fredric March: The 301 Greatest Screen Actors of All Time

by M.C. Antil on September 28, 2010

OK, just kidding. 

The list below is not by any stretch a list of the 301 greatest screen actors of this or any other time.  Unlike, say, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I’d never be so presumptuous as to attempt to qualify (or for that matter, quantify) a craft which is at its core so wildly arbitrary and utterly subjective.  Instead, this is a very personal list: the 301 men and women I’ve most enjoyed watching perform onscreen over the past half century. 

Some are leading actors and name-above-the-title stars; others mere bit players.  Some worked in a bygone era; others’ best work may still be out there. Yet, each name on this list represents a talented actor who has the ability to make any film or program in which he or she appears more enjoyable for me – often by doing little more than just showing up. 

Over the course of the six or so days that I spent compiling this list, I would rack my brain for names, then run to my desk to write them down as they popped into my head. (And, truth be told, I was actually going to list them in the order in which they first came to me, before realizing that would be unwieldy and decided to alphabetize them). 

This orgy of free-associative name-dropping may on the surface appear to be an exercise in self-indulgence, if not outright excess.  But I can assure you; when I finally came up with the 301st entry and took a moment to review what I had done, something profound happened.  I realized that in the process of my compiling this lineup of talented men and women – actor by actor, name by name, era by era – I had slowly but surely pieced together an important part of my own life’s story; the story of a young man who grew up with a deep passion for the craft of acting and someone who spent week after week for 50 or so years consuming movies and television programs as if they were…well, popcorn. 

In fact,  he still does.

So here’s to all you storytellers up there onscreen, and to all those things, good and bad, you teach us about ourselves.

Danny Aiello

Joan Allen

Eve Arden in Mildred Pierce

Jennifer Aniston

Eve Arden

Alan Arkin

John Astin

Val Avery

Lew Ayers

Walter Baldwin

Hank Azaria

Dylan Baker

Walter Baldwin

Christine Baranski

Barbara Barrie

Paul Dooley (l) and Barbara Barrie (r) in Breaking Away

Lionel Barrymore

Kathy Bates

Chris Bauer

Hugh Beaumont

Harry Bellaver

Maria Bello

Annette Bening

Chris Bauer

John Billingsley

Edward Binns

Whit Bissell

Ruben Blades

Humphrey Bogart

Ray Bolger

Roscoe Lee Browne

Peter Boyle

Marlon Brando

Jeff Bridges

Lloyd Bridges

Matthew Broderick

Nigel Bruce

Roscoe Lee Browne

John Candy

Bobby Cannavale

Elisha Cook, Jr. in The Maltese Falcon

Steve Carell

Art Carney

Lon Chaney, Jr.

Maury Chaykin

Don Cheadle

Montgomery Clift

Claudette Colbert

Jeff Corey, right, in an early Superman appearance

Margaret Colin

Sean Connery

Paddy Considine

Elisha Cook, Jr.

Chris Cooper

Ellen Corby

Jeff Corey

Melinda Dillon

Wendell Corey

Brian Cox

Wally Cox

Daniel Craig

James Cromwell

Joan Cusack

Blythe Danner

Royal Dano

Jane Darwell, center, in The Grapes of Wrath

Jane Darwell

Bette Davis

Bruce Davison

James Dean

Mos Def

Benicio Del Toro

Robert De Niro

Siobahn Fallon

Johnny Depp

William Devane

Melinda Dillon

Martin Donovan

Paul Dooley

Illeana Douglas

John Fiedler

Kirk Douglas

Melvyn Douglas

Robert Downey, Jr.

Olympia Dukakis

Robert Duvall

John Garfield

George Dzundza

Buddy Ebsen

Sam Elliott

Noah Emmerich

Edie Falco

Paul Ford in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Siobhan Fallon

Vera Farmiga

Will Farrell

Frank Faylen

John Fiedler

Albert Finney

James Gleason

Paul Ford

Anne Francis

Dennis Franz

William Frawley

Morgan Freeman

George Furth

John Garfield

Jack Gilford

Teri Garr

Alice Ghostley

Paul Giamatti

Jack Gilford

Annabeth Gish

Ned Glass

Jackie Gleason

James Gleason

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place

Ruth Gordon

Frank Gorshin

Ryan Gosling

Lauren Graham

Gloria Grahame

Cary Grant

Lee Grant

Dabs Greer

Dabs Greer

Jane Greer

Charles Grodin

Joan Hackett

Gene Hackman

Charles Hallahan

Ed Harris

Sterling Hayden

Glenne Headley

Rita Hayworth

Ethan Hawke

Katherine Hepburn

Glenne Headly

Eileen Heckart

Ed Helms

Percy Helton

Percy Helton

Barbara Hershey

Stephen Hill

Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Sterling Holloway

Dennis Hopper

Edward Everett Horton

Djimon Hounsou

Arthur Hunnicut

Arthur Hunnicutt

Bill Irwin

Jason Isaacs

Burl Ives

Dean Jagger

Richard Jenkins

Michael Jeter

Richard Jenkins

Scarlett Johansson

Ben Johnson

Carolyn Jones

Tommy Lee Jones

Buster Keaton

Cecil Kelleway

Mike Kellin

Mike Kellin

Percy Kilbride

Ben Kinglsey

Bruno Kirby

Kevin Kline

Don Knotts

Lisa Kudrow

Richard Libertini

Burt Lahr

Christine Lahti

Burt Lancaster

Diane Lane

Jessica Lange

Jack Lemmon

Oscar Levant

Sam Levene

Sam Levene

Eugene Levy

Damian Lewis

Richard Libertini

Laura Linney

Carole Lombard

Marion Lorne in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train

Marion Lorne

Peter Lorre

Myrna Loy

Ida Lupino

Jane Lynch

John Carroll Lynch

Peter MacNicol

John Carroll Lynch

William H. Macy

Virginia Madsen

Tobey Maguire

Mako

Jenna Malone

Fredric March

Lee Marvin

Mako

Mary Stuart Masterson

Walter Matthau

Rachel McAdams

Edie McClurg

Myron McCormick

Mark McKinney

Myron McCormick with Paul Newman in The Hustler

Howard McNear

Steve McQueen

Donald Meek

Allan Melvin

Burgess Meredith

Armin Meuller-Stahl

Robert Mitchum

Alice Ghostley

Alfred Molina

Marilyn Monroe

Alvy Moore

Frank Morgan

Howard Morris

David Morse

Paul Muni

Donald Meek

Patricia Neal

Kate Nelligan

Paul Newman

Edward Norton

Warren Oates

Cathy O'Donnell

Cathy O’Donnell

Catherine O’Hara

Maureen O’Hara

Denis O’Hare

Frank Overton

Ellen Page

Gwyneth Paltrow

Frank Overton in To Kill a Mockingbird

F. William Parker

Mary-Louise Parker

Will Patton

David Paymer

Max Perlich

Gregory Peck

Austin Pendleton

Will Patton

Sean Penn

Nehemiah Persoff

River Phoenix

Rebecca Pidgeon

Oliver Platt

Christopher Plummer

Natalie Portman

Catherine O'Hara

William Powell

Robert Prosky

Richard Pryor

Randy Quaid

Aidan Quinn

Anthony Quinn

Oliver Platt

Tony Randall

Michael Rapaport

Donna Reed

John C. Reilly

Lee Remick

Beah Richards in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Jean Reno

Giovanni Ribisi

Beah Richards

Michael Rispoli

Thelma Ritter

Jason Robards, Jr.

Chelcie Ross as Conrad Hilton in Mad Men

Sam Rockwell

Chelcie Ross

Robert Ryan

Peter Sarsgaard

Timothy Scott

Milton Selzer

Sam Rockwell

Tony Shaloub

Dick Shawn

Wallace Shawn

Ann Sheridan

Frank Silvera

Phil Silvers

Ann Sheridan in They Drive by Night

Stellan Skarsgard

Hal Smith

Lois Smith

Mira Sorvino

Paul Sorvino

Kevin Spacey

Arnold Stang

Frank Silvera in Hombre

Mary Steenburgen

Inger Stevens

James Stewart

Lee Strasberg

Meryl Streep

Sharon Stone

Donald Sutherland

Arnold Stang

Charlize Theron

Uma Thurman

George Tobias

Stephen Tobolowsky

Marisa Tomei

Regis Toomey

Rip Torn

Geroge Tobias in Sergeant York

Spencer Tracy

Henry Travers

Stanley Tucci

Jo Van Fleet

Pruitt Taylor Vince

M. Emmett Walsh

M. Emmett Walsh in the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple

Jack Warden

Ethel Waters

Naomi Watts

Tuesday Weld

Jack Weston

Jesse White

Tuesday Weld in Michael Mann's Thief

Dame May Whitty

Mary Wickes

Dianne Wiest

Fred Willard

Noble Willingham

Scott Wilson

Scott Wilson as Dick Hickock in Richard Brooks' In Cold Blood

Jonathan Winters

Natalie Wood

Alfre Woodard

Joanne Woodward

Teresa Wright

Ed Wynn

Keenan Wynn

Alfre Woodard

Anton Yelchin

Steve Zahn

S.Z. Zakall

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