hat got us thinking: who are seven of the greatest Western actors of all time? The ones that will be remembered as pioneers in that lonesome frontier? Saddle up your finest steed and get ready for a showdown.
John Wayne is America’s quintessential cowboy. “The Duke”‘s collaborations with acclaimed western director John Ford propelled him into stardom, and the two did their best work together. Even The Quiet Man, decidedly not a western, is a phenomenal and much-loved film. Wayne made 169 feature films in his prolific career. He most often played a man on the fringes of society, a gruff loner with a heart of gold. He has been commemorated with a U.S. postal stamp and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter in 1980.
It’s hard not to like Wayne in his films. He’s the stereotypical “man’s man”, an iconic vision of American masculinity. As a person, he had his flaws (people often say he was racist), but it’s impossible to deny his incredible on-screen presence. He was never a great actor, but he was a fantastic movie star. His acting was often elevated by his co-stars, including Maureen O’Hara in a number of films, and especially by Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Wayne is the cowboy, and anyone who argues otherwise hasn’t seen enough of his films. [Danielle Ryan]
In his time, Gary Cooper was the ultimate Western hero. His career stretches back to the Golden Age of Hollywood through the silent movie era. He was already acting for five years when he got his first sound role in The Virginian. Cooper would work for decades, typically playing the same narrow role of a quiet but powerful hero of justice in the old West.
Decades later in a very different era, TV’s neurotic gangster, Tony Soprano would moan: “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type? That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.” Cooper’s characters lived in a simple time of simple morals. They wore white hats, fought bandits in black hats, and rescued damsels with conspicuous 1920s and ’30s haircuts. His characters fought casually stereotyped ‘Indians’ in films like The Plainsman. Nobody was concerned with the subtext or racism of these movies; they were just the standard blockbuster action films of the day.
Of course, even Gary Cooper’s stoicism could create interesting movies beyond genre formula. His greatest role in a Western is undeniably 1952’s High Noon when he was an aging figure. He plays Sherriff Will Kane and is married to Grace Kelly’s Amy Fowler, 30 years his junior. But, Kane’s happy future is threatened by the release of the Miller Gang, who will come to town in just a few hours to get revenge. Sherriff Kane wanders the town, looking for help from his friends and neighbors, only to find none. Still, Gary Cooper’s character handles the heavy burden alone, stone-faced, ready to do his duty.
High Noon was a symbol of the repression and betrayals of the Communist scare of the 1950s, and one of the greatest Westerns ever made. For it, and his greater body of work, Gary Cooper belongs on any list of greatest cowboys. [Eric Fuchs]
The Man With No Name. It’s a title that conjures up the most mythical of figures in all of Western cinema. This is the character that introduced the world to Clint Eastwood (though American television viewers already knew him from Rawhide). Director Sergio Leone utilized the actor in his classic Dollars trilogy, and Eastwood’s squinty-eyed gaze would catapult him into infamy.
Eastwood would return to the Western numerous times. Notable films include the spectral horror story High Plains Drifter, the cynical The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Eastwood’s farewell to the genre, Unforgiven. It’s this last one that really takes the cake and might be the greatest Western of all time. There’s a dark sense of fate to Unforgiven that makes it feel incredibly mature. It cannot be missed.
Neither can most of Eastwood’s Western fare. There’s always something to like about the cool apathy he brings to his anti-heroes. Though he hung up his spurs long ago and has been sitting in the director’s chair, you can’t go wrong with an Eastwood Western. For many fans, there is no other personification of the West. [Drew Dietsch]
Cowboy actor Ben Johnson arrived in California in the late 1930s when Howard Hughes bought some horses from an Oklahoma ranch where Ben worked. Hughes liked the way he handled horses and offered him a job hauling them to northern Arizona where they were filming The Outlaw starring Jane Russell. When the filming was finished he hauled them on to California. During the early 1940s he wrangled and did some stunt work until he caught the eye of director John Ford while doubling for Henry Fonda in Fort Apache. As they say, “the rest is history.”
Kevin Costner may be the most underappreciated actor working today. Few performers can carve out massive chunks across multiple genres, but when it comes to sports and the West, few are better. Dances with Wolves was hardly a sleeper. Costner’s directorial debut and Oscar-winning powerhouse may suffer from a little backlash over the films it defeated, but it is a timeless classic. That the actor directed and starred in nearly every frame of the film is cause enough for him to be on this list.
Dances with Wolves isn’t even the best Western Costner has been a part of. That distinction goes to Open Range, another film the actor directed and stars in. It may be the best Western that most of the world doesn’t know exists. Costner’s understanding the need for silence and grace as well as the telltale elements from the genre make him uncannily qualified for Westerns.
Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado is a classic in its own right, and it’s fun to see Costner in the prime of his youth playing the polar opposite of the cowboys he played later in life. It’s perfectly cast and as close to the “Star Wars of Westerns” we’re liable to see.
Were it not for Tombstone, Costner’s work in Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp would be a perennial candidate in “best of” lists as well. It’s actually a far better movie in terms of scope, tone, and style. But it’s bloated and serious, while Tombstone is a giant piece of easy to enjoy rock candy. Costner does excellent work. As far as the modern Western is concerned, Costner probably should have been nominated for his work in Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World. It’s an unsung performance in an unsung film. And it just reinforces how well a fit for the genre Kevin Costner really is. [Nick Nunziata]
One of movie’s greatest leading men, Henry Fonda cultivated an image as a taciturn, strong-willed individual. He cemented his legacy with roles in classics including The Grapes of Wrath, 12 Angry Men, and On Golden Pond. But throughout his career, he also starred in numerous Westerns, sometimes in supporting roles and other times as the lead.
He had crossed paths with numerous greats of the Western genre: John Wayne, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, and James Stewart. For most of his career, he portrayed the noble hero; but it was as he became older that he started moving towards being the villain. After playing antagonists in movies such as Firecreek, it wasn’t until Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West that he truly elevated the game.
It was a major role reversal for Fonda. Not just for playing a villain, but playing one with such a level of cold intensity and malice. While initially not as successful as the Dollars Trilogy, fans and critics alike regard it as one of the greatest Westerns of all time, one of the greatest movies of all time period, as well as one of Fonda’s best. [Bob Aquavia]