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11 Little Big Men of Cinema

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Some of the roughest customers in cinema have been surprisingly small in stature. From the earliest talkies to today’s 3D extravaganzas, they’ve used their moxie and personal magnetism to project a powerful screen presence. Here are my favorites.


Duvall, one of the best actors in film history, has this way of strutting around like a banty rooster. Two examples: the insane American officer in “Apocalypse Now” who marches along a beach oblivious to the explosions going on around him; and the overbearing father in “The Great Santini,” who wreaks emotional havoc on his family.


Even decades later, the action sequences in “Fists of Fury” and “Enter the Dragon” remain truly astonishing. Lee’s intensity and charisma are unrivaled in action films, and countless movies since have tried to copy his unique style.


James Cagney was a bull terrier of an actor – a compact package full of charm and snarl. In pictures such as “White Heat” and “The Public Enemy,” he lit up the screen with an electric energy. I hear he could dance, too.


Caesar’s turn as a sadistic U.S. Army sergeant during World War II is an amazing bit of work. It is full of bitterness, frustration and power. The movie (and the play it is based upon) wouldn’t hold together if the audience didn’t feel threatened by little Caesar.


Speaking of “Little Caesar,” there’s the great Edward G. Robinson. Here’s a guy who isn’t big – isn’t even muscular – yet everyone is rightfully afraid of him. Robinson had a mug on him that could stop traffic, plus an imperious, dead-serious aura that made him oh-so-dangerous.


Whether he was playing Tony Montana in “Scarface,” or Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” Pacino’s eyes were always a window into a volcano of violence. He may not be tall, but his reputation as an icon of American movies looms quite large.


Hang on now – what is this? Why is “Gandhi” on a list of Little Big Men of the movies? All I can say is, go and watch a dandy, 2000 British crime drama, “Sexy Beast.” Kingsley got an Oscar nomination as a deliciously brutal thug who wants his old crew to do one last job. He’s utterly convincing.


Haley was dynamite as the psycho superhero, Rorschach, in “Watchmen.” But if you think about it, he’s been playing spunky fighters for years, going back to “Breaking Away” and even “The Bad News Bears.” There’s a fearless edge to his acting that takes him to some dark places.


He’s unlike anyone else on this List, in the sense that his persona is rather sunny. He brings a joy to his fight scenes that jumps out at you as much as the acrobatics. Yet even so, you come away very much aware that this is one tough dude.


I loved Foster’s deranged gunslinger in the remake of “3:10 to Yuma.” His emotionally wounded soldier in “The Messenger” was even better. Though wildly different characters, both of them were capable of sudden violence at any moment.


No disrespect to Jimmy Cagney & Co., but Pesci has to be my No. 1 Little Big Man of movies. His Tommy DeVito in “GoodFellas” is a crazy gangster for the ages, and just about every guy I know has done that “Funny how? I mean, funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?” riff multiple times among friends. Then you have “Casino,” “Raging Bull” and “My Cousin Vinny.” Great roles, and he made them look easy.

But that’s just me. Who are YOUR favorites?