41. Thelma Ritter
Personal Life: (1902-1969) Born in Brooklyn, New York City. Trained as an actress at the American Academy for Dramatic Arts and performed in stock companies before taking a hiatus to raise her kids. Married to Joseph Moran for 42 years and had 2 children. Made her first film in 1947. Died of a heart attack at 66.
Famous for: American actress best known for her comedic roles as working class characters with a strong New York accent. Received 6 nominations for Best Supporting Actress without winning. Prone to play smart asses. One of the most recognizable and imitable female voices ever (which says a lot). Notable roles are Peter’s Mother from Miracle on 34th Street, Sadie Dugan from A Letter to Three Wives, Mrs. Katie Cusack from City Across the River, Birdie Coonan from All About Eve, Ellen McNulty from The Mating Season, Clancy from With a Song in My Heart, Stella from Rear Window, Moe Williams from Pickup on South Street, Alma from Pillow Talk, Isabelle Steers from The Misfits, Elizabeth Stroud from Birdman of Alcatraz, and Bertha from Boeing Boeing.
Nominated for: Ritter was nominated 6 times for Best Supporting Actress consisting of 1950 for All About Eve, 1951 for The Mating Season, 1952 for With a Song in My Heart, 1953 for Pickup on South Street, 1959 for Pillow Talk, and 1962 for Birdman of Alcatraz.
Most Crushing Loss: Not receiving an honorary Oscar for her career which she probably would’ve gotten if she didn’t die so soon. Either that or losing to Josephine Hull in 1950, yet she was quite good in Harvey but that was the only year she had a real chance to win. Seriously, even in movies where she doesn’t receive credit, you still know who she is.
Reasons: Ritter was nominated in very bad years and was just burned by the competition. I mean she lost to Josephine Hull, Kim Hunter, Gloria Grahame, Donna Reed, Shelley Winters, and Patty Duke. Of course, the Academy probably thought she’d have her chance and didn’t bet she’d die of a heart attack at 66 considering that her career was doing very well by then.
Trivia: Won a Tony for Lead Actress in a Musical. Hosted the Oscars one year with Bob Hope.
42. Gene Wilder
Personal Life: (1933-2016) Born Jerome Silberman to a Jewish family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Wanted to be an actor since he was 8. At 15, mother sent him to a military school in Hollywood where he wrote about being bullied and sexually assaulted for being the only Jewish kid so he returned home and became involved with community theater. Graduated from the University of Iowa in 1955 as well as studied at the Old Vic and HB Studio. In 1956, he was drafted into the army and was assigned to the Medical Corps where he served as a paramedic at the Valley Forge Army Hospital. Mother died from ovarian cancer in 1957. Supported himself through acting school as a limo driver and fencing instructor. Changed his name to Gene Wilder at 26 and studied under Lee Strasberg at the Actors’ Studio. Was discovered by Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft during a performance of Mother Courage and Her Children in 1963. Married 4 times with Gilda Radner as his 3rd wife. Hasn’t done an acting gig since 2003 but lived in semi-retirement. Was hospitalized with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1999 but has been in complete remission since 2005. Died in his 1734 Colonial home in Stamford, Connecticut he’s resided in since his marriage to Radner of complications from Alzheimer’s he had been suffering for the past 3 years at 83.
Famous for: American actor, director, screenwriter, author, and activist. Career spanned for 42 years. Best known for his films with Gilda Radner and Mel Brooks. One of the most iconic and influential comic actors in the latter half of the 20th century. Notable roles are Eugene Grizzard from Bonnie and Clyde, Leo Bloom from The Producers, Willy Wonka from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Dr. Doug Ross from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), Jim, “The Waco Kid” from Blazing Saddles, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein from Young Frankenstein, The Fox from The Little Prince, Sigerson Holmes from The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, George Caldwell from Silver Streak, Avram Belinski from The Frisco Kid, Skip Donahue from Stir Crazy, Teddy Pierce from The Woman in Red, and Dave Lyon from See No Evil, Hear No Evil.
Nominated for: Wilder was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1969 for The Producers and in 1974 with Mel Brooks for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Most Crushing Loss: Not winning the Oscar for adapted screenplay for Young Frankenstein. Seriously, it’s one of the funniest movies of all time and one of the most quotable. At least Mel Brooks thanked him 3 times in his Oscar speech for The Producers.
Reasons: No matter how good an actor Wilder was, he wouldn’t win an Oscar since he’s considered a comic actor.
Trivia: Wrote 6 books. Co-founded Gilda’s Club and helped found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles. Met his current wife who was a clinical Supervisor at the New York League for the Hard of Hearing and coached him in lip reading while he was doing See No Evil, Hear No Evil.
43. Bruce Lee
Personal Life: (1940-1973) Born in San Francisco (but he had many names so I’m not going to list them). Father was a famous Chinese opera singer and family moved back to Hong Kong when he was 3 months old. Spent nearly 4 years under Japanese occupation during WWII. Was trained in martial arts by the Yip Man after getting involved in a series of street fights. Father introduced him to the film industry and appeared in several films as a child actor. Moved to the United States at 18 with only $100 to finish high school in Seattle. In 1961, enrolled in the University of Washington to major in drama and started teaching martial arts. Dropped out of college in 1964 and moved to Oakland. Acting career in Hollywood began in 1964 after competing in the Long Beach Karate Championships and fight with Wong Jack Man. Married to Linda Emery and had 2 children. Son Brandon died of a prop gun accident on the set of The Crow in 1993. Died of a brain aneurysm at 32 caused by a reaction between painkillers and brain swelling medication.
Famous for: Hong Kong American actor, actor, martial arts instructor, philosopher, filmmaker, and founder of Jeet Kune Do. Considered to be one of the most influential martial artists of all time and pop culture icon of the 20th century. Often credited with helping to change how Asians were presented in films. Started out as a child actor and appeared in 20 films by 18. Sparked a huge interest for Chinese martial arts in the West during the 1970s. Notable roles are Winslow Wong from Marlowe, Cheng Chao-an from The Big Boss, Cheng Chao-an from Fist of Fury, Tang Lung from The Way of the Dragon, and Lee from Enter the Dragon. Also played Kato from The Green Hornet on TV.
Nominated for: Lee was never nominated for an Oscar.
Most Crushing Loss: He probably should’ve at least gotten an Honorary Oscar for helping how Asians are presented in film but didn’t live long enough.
Reasons: Face it, Lee’s movies were made as action films and never meant to win Oscars in the least.
Trivia: Wrote poetry. Philosophical influences include Taoism, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and Buddhism. Was well read and had an extensive library. Was really into physical fitness and tried bodybuilding. Taught martial arts to James Coburn, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Roman Polanski, Lee Marvin, Joe Lewis, and Chuck Norris.
44. Joseph Cotten
Personal Life: (1905-1994) Born in Petersburg, Virginia. Father was an assistant postmaster. Studied at the Hickam School of Speech and Expression in Washington D. C. for acting. Worked as an advertising agent, lifeguard, shipping clerk, salesman for vacuums, paint, and potato salad, and theater critic for the Miami Herald before being involved with theater in Virginia and New York City. Debuted on Broadway in 1930 and met Orson Welles 4 years later while they were doing a radio show. Was an inaugural member of his Mercury Theater in 1937. Married twice with both marriages lasting at least 30 years. Adopted a stepdaughter to first wife Leonore Kipp. Suffered a stroke that cut his career short in 1981 which temporarily made him unable to speak. In 1990, his larynx was removed due to cancer. Died of pneumonia at 88.
Famous for: American actor who achieved prominence on Broadway in original productions of The Philadelphia Story and Sabrina Fair. Gained worldwide fame for appearing in Orson Welles’s movies such as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Journey Into Fear. Went on to become one of the leading Hollywood actors of the 1940s. Career spanned for 50 years. Notable roles are Jed Leland for Citizen Kane, Eugene Morgan from The Magnificent Ambersons, Charles Oakley from Shadow of a Doubt, Brian Cameron from Gaslight, Jesse McCanless from Duel in the Sun, Eben Adams from Portrait of Jeannie, Holly Martins from The Third Man, Samson Flusky from Under Capricorn, Allen Quinton from Love Letters, George Loomis from Niagara, Coroner from Touch of Evil, Dr. Drew Bayliss from Hush..Hush, Sweet Charlotte, William R. Simonson from Soylent Green, and Henry L. Stimson from Tora! Tora! Tora!.
Nominated for: Cotten was never nominated for an Oscar.
Most Crushing Loss: Not being nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1941 for Citizen Kane or 1943 for Shadow of a Doubt. Seriously, he’s the ultimate evil uncle in Shadow of a Doubt in the most twisted way.
Reasons: Being Orson Welles’s BFF probably hurt his chances more than anything when it came to movie awards when he was at the height of his stardom in the 1940s.
Trivia: Was best man at Orson Welles’ wedding to Rita Hayworth. Modeled for the cover of the September issue for The American Magazine. Played Cary Grant’s character from The Philadelphia Story on Broadway but his agent talked him out of reprising his role for the film. Also credited with the screenplay for Journey Into Fear.
45. Sydney Greenstreet
Personal Life: (1879-1954) Born in Sandwich, Kent in England. Father was a leather merchant. One of 8 siblings. At 18, left his home to make his fortune as a Ceylon tea planter but drought forced him out of business. Took acting lessons just to escape the boredom managing a brewery. Made his stage debut in 1902, yet refused to appear in a movie until he was 62 despite many offers. Signed on to Warner Brothers in 1941. Dorothy Marie Ogden in 1918 and had one son. Suffered from diabetes and Bright’s Disease. Retired from film in 1949. Died from diabetic complications at 74.
Famous for: Versatile English actor who didn’t appear in films until he was 62 but enjoyed a string of hits during his 8 year career at Warner Bros. Appeared in 9 films with Peter Lorre. Best known roles are Caspar Gutman from The Maltese Falcon, Signor Ferrari from Casablanca, Major Duval from Passage to Marseille, Ricardo Quintanilla from The Conspirators, Supt. George Edward Grodman from The Verdict, and Sheriff Titus Semple from Flamingo Road.
Nominated for: Greenstreet was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1941 for The Maltese Falcon.
Most Crushing Loss: Losing to Donald Crisp during the 1941 Oscar race. Should’ve gotten his hands on that statuette for The Maltese Falcon.
Reasons: Until Casablanca came out, Warner Bros. wasn’t seen as a reputable studio equivalent to MGM. I mean this was a studio that just made gangster films to save money. Also Greenstreet wasn’t in movies for long.
Trivia: Tennessee Williams dedicated The Last of My Solid Gold Watches to him.
46. Ann Miller
Personal Life: (1923-2004) Born Johnnie Lucille Collier in Chireno, Texas. Father was a criminal lawyer and womanizer. Started taking dance lessons at 5 after suffering from rickets. Moved to Los Angeles at 9 when her parents separated and worked as a nightclub dancer and showgirl because her deaf mother had a hard time finding work where she started going by Ann Miller. Was discovered at a San Francisco club by Lucille Ball and a talent scout/agent at 13 (though she told them she was 18) as well as received an RKO contract. Made her first film in 1934. Married 3 times and had a daughter who died at birth. Retired in 2001. Died of lung cancer at 80.
Famous for: American actress, dancer, and singer best remembered for her work in Hollywood musicals during the 1940s and 1950s. Was noted as a dance prodigy. Notable roles are Annie from Stage Door, Essie Carmichael from You Can’t Take It With You, Hilda from Room Service, Kitty Brown from Time Out for Rhythm, Nadine Hale from Easter Parade, Lola from Go West, Young Lady, Claire Huddesen from On the Town, Fiesta Specialty Dancer from The Kissing Bandit, Lois Lane ‘Bianca’ from Kiss Me Kate, Dance specialty in ‘Artists and Models’ from Deep in My Heart, Ginger from Hit the Deck, Gloria from The Opposite Sex, and Catherine ‘Coco’ Lenoix from Muholland Drive.
Nominated for: Miller was never nominated for an Oscar.
Most Crushing Loss: Not receiving an honorary Oscar for her career. Seriously, the Academy should give her some recognition since she has her shoes displayed at the freaking Smithsonian! That alone really shows that she’s an American treasure.
Reasons: Well, when she was just starting out, Miller lied about her age (though she had to use her dancing skills to support her and her deaf mother). Also, she was kind of underappreciated in her career even though she was mostly in musicals and comedies. Not to mention, her film career was effectively over by 1956.
Trivia: Romantically linked to Howard Hughes, Conrad Hilton, and Louis B. Mayer. Attorney father represented men like Machine Gun Kelly, the Barrow Gang, and Baby Face Nelson. Helped popularized pantyhose in the 1940s. Said to tap 500 times per minute but it most of her tap dancing sounds were actually dubbed by sound engineers since her dancing shoes had rubber soles made for a slippery set. Favorite pair of tap shoes are on display at the Smithsonian she named “Moe and Joe.” Won the Sarah Siddons Award in 1983. Was interested in psychic phenomena and claimed to be the reincarnation of the Egyptian Queen Hathshepsut. Refused to do movies for a long time due to content of nudity, sex, and violence but agreed to do Muholland Dr. which features explicit sex, nudity, and graphic violence.
47. Maureen O’Hara
Personal Life: (1920-present) Born Maureen FitzSimons in Dublin, Ireland. Father was in the clothes business as well as part owner of a soccer team. Mother was a former opera contralto and a successful women’s clothier. Trained as an actress at the Abbey Theatre and the Ena Mary Burke School of Drama and Elocution. Joined a theater company at 10. Yet, to satisfy her practical dad’s wishes, she enrolled in business school and became a bookkeeper and typist. Made her first film in 1938. Became a US citizen in 1946 and holds dual citizenship. Marred 3 times and had a daughter to second husband Will Price. Retired in 2000 for good. Has homes in Ireland, Arizona, and the Virgin Islands. Suffered a stroke in 2005.
Famous for: Irish American actress and singer noted for playing fiercely passionate heroines with a highly sensible attitude. Often worked with John Ford and John Wayne. One of the last living actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Notable roles are Mary Yellen from Jamaica Inn, Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sydney Fairfield from A Bill of Divorcement, Angharad from How Green Was My Valley, Mary Carter from To the Shores of Tripoli, Lady Margaret Denby from The Black Swan, Toni Donne from The Fallen Sparrow, Louisa Frederici Cody from Buffalo Bill, Contessa Francesca from The Spanish Main, Julie Beck / Weatherly from Sentimental Journey, Shireen from Sinbad the Sailor, Doris Walker from Miracle on 34th Street, Mrs. Kathleen Yorke from Rio Grande, Mary Kate Danaher from The Quiet Man, Joanna Dana from Malaga, Lady Godiva from Lady Godiva of Coventry, Sylvia Merrill from Lisbon, Beatrice Severn from Our Man in Havana, Margaret “Maggie” McKendrick from The Parent Trap, Katherine Gilhooley McLintock from McClintock!, Martha McCandles from Big Jake, and Rose Muldoon from Only the Lonely.
Nominated for: O’Hara was never nominated for an Oscar.
Most Crushing Loss: Not being nominated for Best Actress in 1939 for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. At least she won an honorary Oscar for her career.
Reasons: Well, she mostly acted in westerns and adventure films. Also was usually overshadowed by John Wayne even though he was a really terrible actor (no offense but he’s very much overrated).
Trivia: Was the CEO of her third husband’s airline after his death in a plane crash on a Grumman Goose which she later sold. Third husband was also a former Brigadier general in the US Air Force. Sister Peggy joined the Sisters of Charity. Charles Laughton was her mentor. Took and transcribed John Ford’s production notes for The Quiet Man. Was Grand Marshal for New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1999.
48. Veronica Lake
Personal Life: (1922-1973) Born Constance Frances Marie Ockelman in Brooklyn, New York City. Father worked for an oil company aboard a ship and died of an industrial explosion in Philadelphia in 1932. Mother soon remarried a newspaper staff artist and she adopted her stepfather’s surname, Keane. Spent part of her childhood in Saranac Lake, New York and Miami, Florida. Was expelled from an all-girls Catholic school in Canada. According to her mother, she had a troubled childhood and was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Moved to Beverly Hills in 1938 and attended the Bliss-Hayden School of Acting and started working in films as an extra. Made her first film in 1939. Married 4 times and had 4 kids. By the late 1940s, she had struggles with mental illness and alcoholism as her career declined. In 1951, the IRS seized her and second husband Andre de Toth’s home for unpaid taxes and they declared bankruptcy. This led her to leave her husband for New York. In the late 1950s she drifted between cheap hotels and was arrested several times for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in 1973 and died of hepatitis and acute renal failure in Vermont at 50.
Famous for: American actress who won popular and critical acclaim for her comedies and femme fatale roles in film noir during the 1940s. Well known for her peek-a-boo hairstyle. Appeared in several movies with Alan Ladd because they were both short. Notable roles are Sally Vaughn from I Wanted Wings, The Girl from Sullivan’s Travels, Ellen Graham from This Gun for Hire, Janet Henry from The Glass Key, Jennifer from I Married a Witch, Dora Bruckmann from The Hour Before Dawn, Joyce Harwood from The Blue Dahlia, Susan Cleaver from Saigon, and Dr. Elaine Frederick from Flesh Feast.
Nominated for: Lake was never nominated for an Oscar.
Most Crushing Loss: Not being nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1941 for Sullivan’s Travels. This is probably her best role and she was pretty convincing dressed as a boy.
Reasons: She had a complex personality and a reputation of being difficult to work with. Co-star Eddie Bracken would say, “She was known as ‘The Bitch’ and she deserved the title.” Was also typecast as a Hollywood sex symbol, had a drinking problem, as well as issues with mental illness. Not to mention, her peek-a-boo hairstyle might’ve hurt her career in the late 1940s when the US government encouraged women to adopt more practical looks and her stardom was short lived. Was even sued for non-support by her own mother.
Trivia: Some of her ashes were found in a New York antique store in 2004. Popular pin-up girl in WWII and traveled across the country to raise war bonds. Earned her pilot’s license in 1946 and flew solo from New York to Los Angeles. Romantically linked to Howard Hughes and Aristotle Onassis.
49. Arthur Kennedy
Personal Life: (1914-1990) Born in Worcester, Massachusetts. Father was a dentist. Attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh where he received a B. A. in drama in 1934. Joined the Group Theatre in New York in 1937. Discovered by James Cagney and made his first movie in 1940. Married to Mary Cheffrey for 37 years and had 2 children. Had problems with alcoholism, failing eyesight, and thyroid cancer in his later life. Died of a brain tumor in Branford, Connecticut at 75.
Famous for: American actor known for his versatility in supporting roles and his ability to create, “an exceptional honesty and naturalness on stage.” Shares the record with Claude Raines as being nominated for 4 Best Supporting Actor Oscars without winning a single one. Notable roles are Eddie Kenny from City of Conquest, Red from High Sierra, Tom Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie, Connie Kelly from Champion, Larry Nevins from Bright Victory, Vic Hansbro from The Man from Laramie, Deputy Sheriff Jesse Bard from The Desperate Hours, Bernard Castle from Trial, Lucas Cross from Peyton Place, Frank Hirsh from Some Came Running, Jim Lefferts from Elmer Gantry, Jackson Bentley from Lawrence of Arabia, Bill Bowdrie from Nevada Smith, and Couglin from Signs of Life.
Nominated for: Kennedy was nominated 5 times with 4 for Best Supporting Actor and 1 for Best Actor consisting of: 1949 for Champion, 1951 for Bright Victory, 1955 for Trial, 1957 for Peyton Place, and 1958 for Some Came Running.
Most Crushing Loss: Losing Best Supporting Actor to Red Buttons in 1957 since Lucas Cross was very much his best role in his career.
Reasons: He was probably a classic case of just being burned by the competition since acting races during the 1950s were especially brutal competition.
Trivia: Member of the original cast of Death of a Salesman and received a Tony Award for his performance as Biff Loman. Also was among the original casts in All My Sons, The Price, and The Crucible. Served in the Army Air Corps between 1943 and 1945 making aviation training films. Buried in Nova Scotia with his wife.
50. Brian Donlevy
Personal Life: (1901-1972) Born in Armaugh, Ireland. Moved to the Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin between 1910 and 1912. Father was a supervisor for the Brickner Woolen Mills. At 14, he lied about his age to volunteer in the Wisconsin National Guard for the Pancho Villa expedition as a bugler. In 1917, he went to France to fight WWI. Began his acting career in theater and silent films during the 1920s and his big movie break came in 1935. Married 3 times and had a daughter to second wife Marjorie Lane. Died of throat cancer at 71.
Famous for: Irish American actor known for playing dangerous tough guys from the 1930s to the 1960s. Usually played supporting roles. Said in his Times obituary that, “any consideration of the American ‘film noir’ of the 1940s would be incomplete without him.” Notable roles are Knuckles Jacoby from Barbary Coast, Sergeant Markoff from Beau Geste, Daniel McGinty from The Great McGinty and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Kent from Destry Rides Again, Trampas from The Virginian, Paul Madvig from The Glass Key, and Assistant District Attorney Louis D’Angelo from Kiss of Death.
Nominated for: Donlevy was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1939 for Beau Geste.
Most Crushing Loss: Probably not being nominated for The Great McGinty.
Reasons: Well, he was just burned by the competition in 1939. His portrayal of the sadistic and cruel Markoff was fabulous, but I do think Thomas Mitchell deserved to win for Stagecoach.
Trivia: Liked gold mining and writing poetry. Said he only smoked for the movies. Was best man in William Holden’s wedding to Brenda Marshall. Third marriage was to Bela Lugosi’s ex-wife. Had his own TV show in the 1950s.
Love your collection of screen legends! Well-chosen…! If you’d like my own idiosyncratic list of “Favorite Films of All-Time,” I’d be happy to send it as a PDF – it’s ***27*** pages long! 😉 I’m a HUGE fan of movies from silents through the early 1960’s, by the way. – Eric