Much is made of computer animation and other technology in movies and TV, but I think one of the best special effects goes on top of an actor’s head. It shapes our whole attitude about a character, without so much as a transposed pixel. Here, without commentary, are some of my favorites.
HARRISON FORD AS INDIANA JONES
CHARLIE CHAPLIN AS THE LITTLE TRAMP
THE LADIES OF “DOWNTON ABBEY”
CLINT EASTWOOD AS THE MAN WITH NO NAME
SALLY FIELD AS “THE FLYING NUN”
JON HAMM AS DON DRAPER
THE CAT IN THE HAT
JIMMIE WALKER AS J.J. EVANS
ALAN HALE JR. AS THE SKIPPER
MARY TYLER MOORE AS MARY RICHARDS
BASIL RATHBONE AS SHERLOCK HOLMES
MIKE NESMITH IN “THE MONKEES”
FESS PARKER AS DANIEL BOONE
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS AS ABRAHAM LINCOLN
THE SORTING HAT FROM “HARRY POTTER”
ART CARNEY AS ED NORTON
B.D. IN “DOONESBURY”
LARRY HAGMAN AS J.R. EWING
JOHNNY DEPP AS THE MAD HATTER
BUDDY EBSEN AS JED CLAMPETT
ARETHA FRANKLIN AT THE PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION
LIDSVILLE TV SERIES
GENE HACKMAN AS POPEYE DOYLE
ERROL FLYNN AS ROBIN HOOD
HUMPHREY BOGART AS SAM SPADE
MARGARET HAMILTON AS THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST
That’s a LOT of hats! But even so, feel free to suggest a few more!
The private eye is an evergreen character for a very good reason. No matter what era or locale you choose for your story, there’s going to be greed and there’s going to be the occasional crime of passion. And the only way to sort it all out is to find an intrepid sleuth-for-hire. Here are the ones I prefer.
HUMPHREY BOGART IN “THE MALTESE FALCON”
For a good many people, Bogey is the gumshoe gold standard. His whole vibe told you that he expected the worst from people, but hoped for the best. In “The Maltese Falcon,” a true classic, he gets to rub elbows with such stellar character actors as Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.
JACK NICHOLSON IN “CHINATOWN”
Nicholson channeled more than a little bit of Bogart in “Chinatown,” one of the best movies of the 1970s. He was feisty and dogged in his search for answers in a case that reached operatic heights (and depths) of corruption and depravity. Yet Jack also managed to be a real smartass. That’s saying something, considering what happens to his nose.
RICHARD ROUNDTREE IN “SHAFT”
The most excellent “Shaft” song gets so much attention, you tend to forget how cool Richard Roundtree was in the title role. Unlike a lot of private eyes, he looked damn good while was chasing down leads and busting heads.
DAVID JANSSEN IN “HARRY O”
“Harry O” wasn’t on TV for all that long, and it wasn’t a hit, but it featured a rich, nuanced role for David Janssen. His Harry Orwell was complicated, compassionate and filled with deep reservoirs of unspoken feeling. And get this – he didn’t have his own car! He would actually ride the bus around San Diego to work on his cases.
WILLIAM POWELL AND MYRNA LOY IN “THE THIN MAN”
Powell and Loy were terrific as a team of married sleuths in “The Thin Man” and its sequels. More often than not, Powell’s Nick Charles was nursing a bad hangover, which wife Nora loved to point out. Loy and Powell’s dialogue just sparkled, no matter what sort of situation presented itself. Few movie duos since have matched their obvious chemistry.
HARRISON FORD IN “BLADE RUNNER”
The juxtaposition of old-time, private eye tropes and futuristic gizmos served “Blade Runner” very well. Ford was a grim investigator trying to track down a bunch of violent, artificial life forms trying to blend in with the general populace. He discovered it wasn’t quite that simple. That’s how it is with private eyes. They always see the shades of gray.
ROBERT MITCHUM IN “OUT OF THE PAST”
Quite simply, it’s one of the best film noir performances ever put on film. Mitchum personifies fatalistic stoicism as a smitten gumshoe who falls under the spell of a dangerous, mysterious dame. When the bad guy shows up, it’s – holy crap – Kirk Douglas!
JAMES GARNER IN “THE ROCKFORD FILES”
Garner was smooth as silk as Jim Rockford, an LA private eye who lived in a trailer on the beach. Like most of the folks on this List, he was a jaded guy who still managed to be a soft touch when someone was in trouble. Garner gave the character easy humor, natural charm and a hard-earned intelligence.
JASON SCHWARTZMAN IN “BORED TO DEATH”
The private eye as a Brooklyn hipster/struggling writer. It’s a brilliant twist on the genre, with Schwartzman perfectly cast as the self-involved, yet surprisingly effective, investigator. The supporting cast is great, too, headed up by Ted Danson.
ROBERT URICH IN “SPENSER: FOR HIRE”
Urich’s likability, combined with the literary pedigree of Robert B. Parker’s source material, made “Spenser: For Hire” a pleasing way to spend an hour. I also liked that the show was set in Boston, that Spenser drove a Mustang and that he had the best side character on TV. That would be Avery Brooks as Hawk.
MIKE CONNORS IN “MANNIX”
Okay, I’ll admit it. My favorite part of “Mannix” was the theme song. Connors did a fine job – but that theme song was dynamite.
JIMMY STEWART IN “VERTIGO”
In “Vertigo,” Jimmy Stewart’s character isn’t so much trying to solve a case as he is surrendering to a personal obsession. He becomes unhinged by Kim Novak’s death and goes completely off the deep end when he encounters a woman who looks exactly like her. As always director Alfred Hitchcock pounces on the dark side of human personality.
DONALD SUTHERLAND IN “KLUTE”
This is such an underrated performance, mainly because it’s Jane Fonda’s character who dominates the film. But Sutherland is masterful as the quiet, conservative investigator who watches everything with a piercing gaze. As the plot plays out, his strength and resolve radiate wonderfully.
KRISTEN BELL IN “VERONICA MARS”
“Veronica Mars” took the private eye story to a scary place: high school. These weren’t soft mysteries. Young Veronica, played with plucky toughness by Kristen Bell, had to deal with murders, sexual assaults and spurned lovers, as well as a gaggle of mean girls who hated her.
DENZEL WASHINGTON IN “DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS”
Here we have a wonderful blend of politics, a search for a missing woman, hidden motives and a dash of racism in 1940s Los Angeles. Denzel Washington plays Easy Rawlins, a guy who loses his job and tries to pay his mortgage as a private investigator. Luckily for him, he’s got crazy Don Cheadle helping him out of a few jams.
ELLIOT GOULD IN “THE LONG GOODBYE”
For the life of me, I don’t know why this version of Philip Marlowe works so well. It’s set in ’70s California, with lots of drugs, free love and groovy people – not exactly the usual surroundings. Gould is the key. He’s still a dour, relentless seeker of truth, like this brethren of other eras.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IN “SHERLOCK”
I thought long and hard about whether Sherlock Holmes belonged anywhere on this List. Ultimately, I decided he did, and for me the very best Sherlock is the one on British TV, played by Cumberbatch. He’s set in the current day, but he retains the razor-sharp mind and massive quirks that make the character iconic.
PAUL NEWMAN IN “HARPER”
Here’s the one I put at the head of the table: Paul Newman as Lew Harper, based on novelist Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series of books. Everything about this performance is excellent. He’s able to seem smart and dumb, honorable and sleezy, energetic and exhausted – all without breaking character. Newman would return as Harper years later in 1975’s “The Drowning Pool.”
Feel free to add your own favorites. And may all your herrings be red ones. Also, here’s a little treat for you:
A healthy dose of fear can be a good thing, even for a movie hero. It adds just a hint of reality to what is often a preposterous situation, such as fending off aliens. The problem is, not many actors and actresses are able to do it well. They either play bravery well or play fear well, but not both. Consider this a salute to those movie heroes who aren’t afraid to be afraid.
There is no one who conveys pluck in the face of fear better than Jodie Foster. In “Silence of the Lambs,” “Panic Room” and even “Contact,” Foster has moments when her face is paralyzed with fear. Yet her characters soldier on, moving forward as best they can.
Ford, for all his appeal, has a limited range as an actor. Something he does exceptionally well is show how a frightened man still has the nerve to do what needs to be done. Think of his endangered President in “Air Force One,” his beleaguered private eye of the future in “Blade Runner,” or his innocent man on the run in “The Fugitive.” He’s much more believable in those situations than when he’s attempting more subtle emotions.
Cooper makes The List for one great movie, “High Noon.” Here’s an old-school movie hero who takes on the role of a sheriff waiting for a gang of outlaws to come looking for him. His deputy and his fellow townspeople abandon him, but he chooses to stay and fight even though he’s scared out of his wits. It’s stunning to see an actor of so few words lose his cool. Amazing stuff.
On the other end of the heroic spectrum, we have the star of such gems as “The Reluctant Astronaut” and “The Shakiest Gun in the West.” Knotts was a genius at nervous fright, giving his characters just enough good humor and spunk to win audiences over despite his twitchy tendencies.
Sigourney Weaver is one of the greatest movie action heroes of all time. Her work as Ripley in the “Alien” films shows an incredible range of bravery, anger, bitterness, resourcefulness, ambiguity and white-knuckle fear. Take this moment from “Alien3,” for instance.
They all, to a degree, owe a debt to Jimmy Stewart, whose career is filled with roles requiring him to be scared. Scared of heights (“Vertigo”). Scared of personal ruin (“It’s A Wonderful Life”). Scared of being gunned down in the street (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”). And he had a certain physical awkwardness, to boot. Yet we all trust his characters and believe they’ll do the right thing. That’s what made him a movie star.
So who did I leave out? Add your fearful heroes to The List!
Want to know what’s really scary? It’s when an actor normally associated with good-guy roles decides to go bad. In fact, it adds a whole other dimension to the badness. These are some of my favorites.
DENZEL WASHINGTON IN “TRAINING DAY” (2001)
Washington’s performance as corrupt Det. Alonzo Harris is full of explosive, confident power. By turns witty and violent, it’s a role that builds to a crescendo of creepiness. It also won Washington an Oscar.
HENRY FONDA IN “ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST” (1968)
The guy who played Tom Joad, young Abe Lincoln and the old dude from “On Golden Pond” is a very bad man. He’s a revelation, actually, playing a hired killer in this Sergio Leone western. Fonda exudes the same patient intelligence here that he does to all his movies, but in the service of greed.
CHRISTIAN BALE IN “AMERICAN PSYCHO” (2000)
When Bale commits to a part, he goes all the way. In this gory tale, he’s a rich banker with a taste for blood. Remember the crazy eyes Bale brought to “The Fighter” last year? Just add a dash of sociopathic glee and you’ve got “American Psycho.”
ROBERT MITCHUM IN “NIGHT OF THE HUNTER” (1955) AND “CAPE FEAR” (1962)
One of the all-time greats, Robert Mitchum gives a surreal performance in “Night of the Hunter,” as an insane preacher who stalks a pair of children in an attempt to find some hidden cash. Equally creepy is his Max Cady in “Cape Fear,” in which an ex-con takes revenge on the lawyer who put him in jail. There’s a terrifying scene in which Mitchum sneaks aboard a houseboat where the lawyer’s wife (Polly Bergen) is hiding. Gives me the chills.
RUSSELL CROWE IN “3:10 TO YUMA” (2007)
Here’s a classic example of an actor having more fun in the villain role. Crowe plays Ben Wade, a charismatic outlaw being escorted to the train that will take him to jail. It’s a part that is full of guile, humor and perceptiveness.
PAUL NEWMAN IN “HUD” (1963)
Towering performance by Newman in one of his best movies. Hud Bannon is a selfish, flawed, petty man who never fails to hurt those around him in a small, Texas town. Yet he’s absolutely electric and able to manipulate people who ought to know better than trust him. Nobody played simmering resentment better than Newman.
MORGAN FREEMAN IN “STREET SMART” (1987)
A lot of people haven’t seen this movie, yet it’s the reason Freeman became a prominent film actor. He played a New York City pimp named Fast Black who threw a good scare into Christopher Reeve’s character, and the audience.
HARRISON FORD IN “WHAT LIES BENEATH” (2000)
It certainly seemed as if Ford relished this opportunity to be menacing rather than macho. I won’t give away any plot details, other than to say this is a “things that go bump in the night” flick, and Ford is responsible for some of the bumps.
BURT LANCASTER IN “THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS” (1957) AND “SEVEN DAYS IN MAY” (1964)
Speaking of macho, there’s the always-intense Burt Lancaster. In “Sweet Smell of Success” he’s a sadistic, powerful newspaper columnist (go figure), and in “Seven Days in May” he’s an egomaniacal general trying to overthrow the government. Either way, you don’t want to cross him.
TOM HANKS IN “ROAD TO PERDITION” (2002)
This one might need an asterisk. Yes, Hanks plays a hit man during the Depression. Yes, he does dastardly deeds. But he spends much of the movie trying to protect his young son, so you’re still kind of rooting for him.
BEN STILLER IN “DODGEBALL” (2004)
What, you thought comedies didn’t have any good guys gone bad? Think again. Stiller is a wonderful sleazebag as evil gym owner White Goodman, who tries to ruin Vince Vaughn.
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER IN “BATMAN AND ROBIN” (1997)
Pretty much everyone hated this movie, and I’m fine with that. But Arnold was masterfully campy as Mr. Freeze, like it or not. And his accent worked here, for once.
GREGORY PECK IN “THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL” (1978)
On the other hand, I am not as enamored of this performance. Why is it on the List? Because of its incredible hubris, friends. “The Boys from Brazil” asks us to belief Atticus Finch – ATTICUS FINCH – as Nazi monster Dr. Josef Mengele. That’s a tough one, Scout.
DON CHEADLE IN “OUT OF SIGHT” (1998)
This is what a good actor Cheadle is. Despite being so small of stature, he’s utterly convincing as a career criminal capable of sudden violence. He has the ability to play smart, funny and realistic all at once, while still being frightening. Terrific movie, by the way.
DICK VAN DYKE IN “NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM” (2006)
Not an extremely big role, but come on. This is Rob Petrie. This is Bert from “Mary Poppins.” And he’s just so … mean.
HEATH LEDGER IN “THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008)
Here’s our big finish and justifiably so. Ledger took an iconic character, the Joker, and transformed him into something both original and exciting. This is a great movie and Ledger is the best thing in it. You can’t take your eyes off of him, first of all. What’s more, he’s hilarious. And mysterious. And malevolent.