The classic tough guy. Old Hollywood was full of them. Some were tough guys up on the silver screen while others were tough guys in real life. Some were the good kind of tough guy, battling to save the honor of a woman, while others were the kind of guy who would slap a woman around for sassing him. Many would do both – on and off the screen. Whatever the case, here are some of the best tough guys from the Golden Age of Hollywood. There are countless others that could have made this list if only they were a little bit tougher. Tough guys like Edward G. Robinson Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Quinn, James Coburn, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Telly Savalas and the one I am most disappointed about not finding a spot for, George Raft. So, without further ado, here are my choices for the ten best Hollywood Tough Guys – and a pair of rather interesting special mentions.
Special Mention #1: John Wayne
On screen, The Duke was one of the toughest guys around. Most enemies would fall to his near-epic toughness. He kicks Monty Clift’s ass in Red River while simultaneously teaching him to be as tough as he was. He takes down everyone in his path when searching for and rescuing Natalie Wood in The Searchers. Outnumbered and outgunned, the bad guys still are no match for Wayne and his ragtag bunch in Rio Bravo. No doubt that John Wayne was tough up on the silver screen. The reason he doesn’t make the list proper is his off-screen persona. I can’t help but have a problem with a guy who played war heroes on the big screen while pulling every string he knew how to keep himself from being drafted into World War II. But still, he did kick major ass up on the big screen.
Special Mention #2: Barbara Stanwyck
Yes, I know, Barbara Stanwyck is a woman. Nonetheless, she deserves mention here as one of the greatest tough guys in classic Hollywood. Here is why: When filming Forty Guns for director Samuel Fuller, there was a rather dangerous stunt that the stuntmen refused to do. So what happened? Stanwyck went to Fuller and told him that she would do the stunt herself. Well lo and behold, Stanwyck did just that. So, after the then fifty-two year old actress showed up the so-called stuntmen, and they were probably laughing stocks for the rest of their careers, how can we not include her on any respectable tough guys list.
10. Charles Bronson
Definitely one of those aforementioned tough guys you would not want to piss off or meet in a dark alley. Bronson is a real man’s man. One of those quintessential tough guys, who don’t mince words – they just flatten you for standing up to them. Bronson made a lot of movies, many of them rather forgettable, though several of them quite spectacular, but they all have one thing in common – a man who would go out of his way to do what was right. Now granted, sometimes what he thought was right was not, but for the most part he was the anti-hero, who would go through hellfire to save those less fortunate than himself.
9. John Garfield
Playing toughs and rogues, brooding, rebellious, working-class character roles, but with a sensitive side rarely seen on the screen, the great, and sadly mostly forgotten John Garfield is one of my all-time favorite actors. At the onset of World War II, Garfield immediately attempted to enlist in the armed forces, but was turned down because of his heart condition. Frustrated, he turned his energies to supporting the war effort. He and actress Bette Davis were the driving forces behind the opening of the Hollywood Canteen, a club offering food and entertainment for American servicemen. He traveled overseas to help entertain the troops, made several bond selling tours and starred in a string of popular, patriotic films like Air Force, Destination Tokyo and Pride of the Marines . He will always be a great tough guy to me – both on and off the screen.
8. Richard Widmark
The first time I remember seeing Richard Widmark was in the excellent fifties film noir Pickup on South Street. He played a thug pickpocket who accidentally fell into a world of espionage. This is the kind of role, a rough and tumble rapscallion and reluctant hero, that Widmark could play so well. He would delve into some less than manly roles, but it was the tough guy image that made him the star he was in his day. He would later play a character who was so wicked that he was killed by thirteen different people. Widmark’s greatest role would come as a raging, maniacal sociopath in Kiss of Death.
7. John Cassavetes
Not only was John Cassavetes one of the toughest actors around in films like The Dirty Dozen and Machine Gun McCain, he was one of the bravest, boldest directors in the burgeoning new Hollywood of the 1960′s and 1970′s. A hard-drinking rebel (a lifestyle that would kill him dead at 59), Cassavetes was a strong advocate for an actor’s workshop. Through improvisation and a serious method acting style, he gave the films he directed an always fresh, always dangerous world all their own. He may have played the tough guy on film, but it was when he was behind the camera that Cassavetes became a real tough bastard.
6. Steve McQueen
He’s had books written about his coolness. He’s had songs praising his unique essence. He was a legend in his own lifetime. He was Steve McQueen. Sort of a sensitive tough guy (think James Dean meets Charles Bronson), McQueen would ply his trade in badass roles in films like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Getaway and Bullitt. His tough guy image would be even more fulfilled by his love of auto and motorcycle racing, his seven demotions for acting the rebel while in the Marine Corps (he would eventually become a true Marine and be honorably discharged as a hero) and, well… just being Steve McQueen.
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