Top 20 Classic Hollywood Tough Guys
One of the best things about Hollywood movies is the tough guys. The glitz and gloss of Hollywood are known the world over, but the brooding, hard-as-nails tough guy is one of Hollywood’s most admired exports. Whether heroes, anti-heroes, morally-ambiguous loners or downright villains… we all recognize and admire the roles these men played; as boys we look up to them as role models and try to emulate them, and as men we find them reminders of what it means to be a real man in a world sodden with political correctness, feminism, and new sexual politics.
So here’s the salute to the twenty toughest characters you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of…
One of the kings of gritty film noir, the small-but-scrappy, streetwise Garfield was the star of the classic “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” playing the doomed Frank Chambers, risking it all for hot-as-hell Lana Turner. Makes the list for steely, I-don’t-care-how-big-you-are-I’ll-knock-you-on-your-ass, street-honed stare and wise guy attitude.
Nobody could ever figure out Quinn’s ethnicity (he was Irish-Mexican) because he played so many varied roles, from Arab to Italian to Greek (he was Zorba) and countless others—but the connecting thread for all these different faces was that you just wouldn’t mess with the guy. He was the strongman in Fellini’s classic “La Strada,” a revolutionary in “Viva Zapata,” a boxer in “Requiem for a Heavyweight”… and even his tempestuous Gaugin is a brawler in “Lust for Life.”
Not much exposition necessary here. For most of us Connery is THE James Bond, the original and best, the one whose shoes were never quite filled. Latter day Bond Daniel Craig comes closest, but there’s still no Bond like Connery, who managed to convey at all times the right combination of suave sophistication and menace. You never believed that Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan could kick your ass… but Connery always looked like he could kill you if you crossed him. Makes the list for his classic spy as well as for being practically the template of the crusty old Scotsman in real life… who you still wouldn’t cross.
Even his Moses was a brawling, takes-no-shit tough guy with a granite-hard attitude towards Pharoah. The pleasure of watching “The Ten Commandments” is the extended stare-down going on between Heston and Yul Brynner (see below). Makes the list for handling not only a recalcitrant Ramses but also for dispatching talking apes, a world-o-vampires, jungle ants and Roman charioteers with equal, no-nonsense machismo.
Tall and slim Coburn was the wiry sort of tough guy with a disarming grin that might put you at ease for a moment… until you looked in his sharp eyes and saw the danger lurking within. Makes the list for endless cowboy roles, as both hero and villain, (especially “The Magnificent Seven”) and for playing the parody spy Derek Flint: ultra-sophisticate, ultra-genius, ultra ladies man. Smooth and suave with a clear propensity for kicking your ass with whatever obscure martial art struck his fancy.
Ever-brooding and super-cool McQueen played cops, cowboys, crooks and soldiers… and no matter what the role, he had the car, (or the horse) the girl, the gun and the ‘tude, all balanced to “don’t give me your guff, punk” perfection. He’s the rebellious tough guy, the one with the motorcycle or the hot rod who looks the anti-hero no matter what the part.
Come on… Edward G. Robinson. The original Little Caesar (this one didn’t deliver pizzas) and perennial movie gangster… the pugnacious and pug-like grumbler with just a tiny touch of the psycho behind his knife-edged eyes. Even when playing the good guy he had a threatening demeanor about him (“The Stranger” for instance, or his insurance investigator in “Double Indemnity”)… so odd when you realize this guy, in real life, was an art collector and knew a thing or two about fine wines. Makes the list for all those death scenes in a hail of bullets.
At home equally in roles playing psychotic villains (“Cape Fear”) or menacing preachers (“The Night of the Hunter”) or historic figures (“Midway”) Mitchum is the guy who stares you down and then casually lights a cigarette before informing you just how it is and how it’s going to be… and you know damn well you don’t want to disagree with him. Makes you believe you could follow him on the beaches of Normandy or into an ambush with gangsters… and while he might come out bloodied and beaten up, he’ll still be standing… and you should see the other guy.
Ever the sociopathic gangster with cruel charm oozing from every pore, Cagney gets points for umpteen classic roles where he fights society time and time again… and almost gets away with it. For a moment he’s even on top of the world… before it blows up underneath him. Not the guy you cross under any circumstances, and don’t by ANY means betray him… because he won’t rest until you pay. He’ll put you at ease, make you trust him and think all is well… then he’ll drill you full of holes and laugh while doing it. Points for danger, tight-as-a-tightwire edginess and for knowing how to handle a grapefruit.
Remembered for playing a psychopathic gangster who shoves an old lady in a wheelchair down a staircase, Widmark was ever the guy you didn’t want to turn your back on, even when playing the hero. Never a pretty man, never a kind, softhearted role (in real life he was a softie of course) but always the guy you’d want on your side in a street brawl… because you know he’d fight damn dirty.
One of my personal faves and, I think, one of the most underrated actors of classic Hollywood, who deserves a larger following… I have literally never seen Dana Andrews in a bad film or a crap role. Andrews had that LOOK in his cold, hard eye… you knew he’d do what he’d have to do, and he’d never shirk from it. Best remembered role: the tough detective in “Laura” who not only solves the murder, but along the way gets to intellectually spar with Clifton Webb, sucker punch Vincent Price, and win drop-dead gorgeous Gene Tierney. Not a bad day’s work.
Not one of my personal favorites, but to leave him off would have been sacrilege, I thought. Bronson is the ugly ex-boxer you DEFINITELY want in your corner of the ring when it comes time to deal out justice to punks, gangsters, and all the other low-lifes of society. Give the guy a wide berth, and for god’s sake leave his family alone.
I am not at all a fan of John Wayne and for me he loses points for his ultra-patriotism–when in truth he never stepped up to the plate during WWII to fight (he instead looked to his career). Even so, he’s got to make the top ten for obvious reasons. Wayne is the original and best bow-legged cowboy whose rolling stroll is dripping with his patented and carefully crafted attitude—he’s all about justice and he does whatever a man needs to do… quietly, calmly and without much more to betray his feelings than that curl in his lip and the narrowing of his eyes.
He’s played everything from boxers to Homeric heroes (“Ulysses”), from Spartacus to tortured soul Vincent Van Gogh, from Doc Holliday to a Viking… but regardless of the role he was ever the fighter, ever the clenched-teeth and broad-chested man’s man (well, not so much Van Gogh, but every tough guy has his departure) with more than a little edginess about him; in fact Douglas usually can be described as “seething.”
Athletic, good looking, toothy and always ready-for-a-rumble, Burt Lancaster was an ex acrobat, and it shows in how he holds himself, moves, and deals with situations where he’s gotta kick some ass. Dead serious but knows how to have some fun when the time was right, he was both admired leader of men and ladies man extraordinaire. Never doubt, however, that Lancaster was ready to handle shit when it was necessary. He was Jim Thorpe, All American… Wyatt Earp (“Gunfight at the OK Corral”), morally challenged but blusteringly larger-than-life “Elmer Gantry,” the Crimson Pirate, the Rainmaker… just watching him deal with life, women, pressure and problems was like watching a finely-tuned machine run with smooth precision.
Makes the list for steely toughness as gunfighter (“Magnificent Seven”), Pharoah, King and con man… and for his shiny shaved pate, which he dares you to comment on (no one ever does). Each word is spoken like being spat, and each movement of his body delivered with shoulders back, chest out, daring you to take a poke at him. (No one ever does). Moses’ god may be the true god, but Brynner’s Ramses is the guy we root for half the time because he’s just so damn impressive a figure.
So let it be written… so let it be done.
An obvious choice, Bogie makes it for his Sam Spade, his Philip Marlow, and his Dobbs in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Also for countless gangster and good guy roles where he outwits and outfights the Nazis, beats the devil, and wins the girl (but, like all tough guys, sometimes has to let the girl go). Although more a figure of romance in “Casablanca,” he makes it on the list also for that classic role where he has to balance personal pain with self-sacrificing nobility… though as tough guy scenes go, few beat the way he man-handles Peter Lorre in “The Maltese Falcon” or how he deals with slimy French collaborators in “To Have and Have Not.” Bogie’s toughness always comes with that edge of vulnerability—sometimes he shakes a little, because he’s human—sometimes he’s scared—but he always shoots it out in the end and he’s still standing.
Another underrated talent from Hollywood’s golden years, Ryan was in a class by himself in the dark and gritty film noir days, when no one could out-do his superb combination of menace, determination, and “I won’t take your crap” attitude… nor did anyone else have his cold, glaring eyes. In real life Ryan was a gentleman and a long-time fighter for Civil Rights… onscreen however, he played everything from anti-semites to racists, and yet always seemed to garner a grudging admiration out of the audience. A boxer in real life, legend has it that Ryan even managed to out-intimidate feisty director Sam Peckinpah during the filming of “The Wild Bunch.” This was a guy you didn’t argue with and you knew if you stood in his way he was going right through you. Ryan deserves a new audience of fans—there are few better tough guys on the screen (in fact, I think only two) and certainly no one today matches up to him (let alone any of the others on this list).
What can be said of Clint Eastwood that hasn’t already been said? Like John Wayne, he’s an iconic figure for his loner cops and loner gunfighters—ever the anti-hero, every the man among men who has to step up to the plate and take action when the powers-that-be won’t lift a finger. Hard-edged and snarling, Eastwood is rarely subtle, but he’s more than one-dimensional. Pretty decent with comedic twists on his tough persona (“Every Which Way But Loose”) as well as an accomplished director (he’s got quite a few winners under his belt, most notably the recent “Million Dollar Baby”) Eastwood is a skilled craftsmen, and it’s hard to believe that he’s not least a little like his onscreen persona. I’ve never been disappointed in him onscreen, even when the movie he was playing in wasn’t the best. He always delivers, both in character and out.
My personal favorite, and I’m not even sure I know why, but I know that Marvin always came off as believable to me—and yet somehow humble. Definitely a real-life tough guy and no poseur, it almost didn’t matter if Marvin was playing bad guy or good guy—the result was the same: unafraid, irresistible, rocklike and imperturbable… a stand-up guy, but one you didn’t want to turn your back on for a moment. The gravelly voice, the eyes that cut right through the screen, that snarling lip… at all times he’s a little bit the no-nonsense Marine that he was in real life, even when lampooning himself in “Cat Ballou.” It’s a pleasure to watch him work.