As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, many of our movie (and TV) idols stayed with us, while a handful of newcomers appeared overnight. But who are actually the decade’s greatest actors?
Hollywood directors were given greater creative control over their projects, and a dark national mood – informed by things like the Watergate Scandal, and the Vietnam War becoming an irrevocable nightmare – gave mainstream pictures sharpened teeth.
Violence became commonplace, from righteous antiheroes who operate outside the law to martial arts superstars showing the masses their exotic ways of combat. In the aftermath of the sexual revolution and the complete dissolution of the Hays Code, movies were more comfortable with some risque content and nudity. And with hits like The Exorcist, Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Alien, the horror genre had its foundations to evolve beyond.
In a decade replete with unrestricted freedom, it’s no wonder that the 1970s are often celebrated as one of the best eras in American cinema. Starring in these unforgettable movies are these 32 greatest actors of all time.
32. David Carradine
While David Carradine’s film career in the 1970s is mostly unremarkable, with tiny roles in movies like Mean Streets and leading roles in pulpy fare like Cannonball and Bound For Glory, his TV career is something else entirely. From 1972 to 1975, David Carradine was one of the most-watched people on Earth as the star of the TV smash hit Kung Fu. While Carradine’s portrayal of a half-Chinese, half-white Shaolin monk is ungainly to modern eyes, the ratings of Kung Fu are indisputable, with as many people tuning in to watch Kwai Chang Caine’s adventures as people tuned into Game of Thrones decades later. Carradine never quite shook off Kung Fu, nor did his career amount to more, but when audiences in the 1970s weren’t at the movies, they were home watching TV. When they were watching TV, chances are they were watching Kung Fu.
31. Sigourney Weaver
It feels like Sigourney Weaver became a 1970s movie star at the last minute. In Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 sci-fi horror Alien, Weaver stars as Ellen Ripley, the last survivor of an alien attack on a spaceship. Weaver had only a few credits prior to Alien, including a bit role in Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall. By the 1980s, Sigourney Weaver was everywhere. But for at least one brief moment in the 1970s, Weaver showed us how terrifying outer space could be.
30. Harrison Ford
The 1980s is when Harrison Ford became one of the most prolific and respected Hollywood actors of all time. But his upward trajectory in the 1970s foretells his imminent stardom. In 1973, Ford appeared in George Lucas’ period movie American Graffiti in a minor role. In 1977, however, Ford put on the iconic vest and holstered a blaster to pilot the Millennium Falcon in the now-iconic Star Wars. In 1979, Ford kept working, with a small role in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and other movies like Hanover Street and The Frisco Kid. After a few Star Wars sequels in the 1980s, Ford became unstoppable, but the late ‘70s gave audiences a glimpse of what was soon to come.
29. John Travolta
While John Travolta only had a few movies in the 1970s, his swinging hips and flair for showmanship are among its most everlasting symbols. After a bit part in the 1976 horror movie Carrie, Travolta found fame in Saturday Night Fever, a movie that memorably encapsulated the disco era. A year later Travolta starred in Grease, the popular movie adaptation of the stage musical about 1950s teenagers. Travolta’s fame continued into the 1980s, but in the 1970s, his smooth moves to the Bee-Gees permanently cemented his Hollywood stardom.
28. Donald Sutherland
After cutting his teeth in both TV and movies throughout the 1960s, Donald Sutherland earned leading man recognition in the ‘70s. He co-starred in Don’t Look Now with Julie Christie in 1973, for which he was nominated for a BAFTA, and followed it up with the movies The Eagle Has Landed, Frederico Fellini’s Casanova, Eye of the Needle, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In 1978, he was cast in National Lampoon’s Animal House, which increased his appeal to a younger crowd. His career continued for decades afterward, appearing in both comedies, dramas, and franchise epics alike.
27. Liv Ullman
Hailed as one of the greatest European actresses of all time, Liv Ullman got her start in the 1960s but found fame in the 1970s through movies like Cries and Whispers, Scenes From a Marriage, 40 Carats, The Emigrants, Face to Face, Autumn Sonata, A Bridge Too Far, and The Serpent’s Egg. She is best known for her collaborations with director Ingmar Bergman, having appeared in ten of Bergman’s movies. Ullman’s name is decorated with awards, having been adorned by the National Society of Film Critics, the Golden Globes, and several Oscar nominations plus an Honorary Academy Award given to her in 2022.
26. Burt Reynolds
He made lounging nude on a fur rug iconic. The physical embodiment of 1970s male masculinity, Burt Reynolds’ best known movies of the decade include Skullduggery, Deliverance, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), Shamus, The Man Who Loved cat Dancing, White Lightning, Hustle, Smokey and the Bandit, and more. He first appeared on TV, with a lead role in the Western drama Gunsmoke before appearing in movies. Reynolds is one of the few actors of his generation to star in both film and TV simultaneously, back when the divisions between the two industries were more clearly defined. He died in 2018.
25. Kris Kristofferson
A country music star before he became an actor, Kris Kirstofferson started his movie career in 1972 with Cisco Pike, appearing with Gene Hackman. After that, he starred in more movies and eventually earned acclaim. His movie credits include Blume in Love, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Convoy, Semi-Tough, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. In 1976, he starred opposite another music icon, Barbara Streisand, in the showbiz drama A Star is Born; his role earned him the Golden Globe for Best Actor. He ended the 1970s starring in the movies Sorcerer, directed by William Friedkin, and Hanover Street from Peter Hyams. While Kristofferson’s acting career continued into the 21st century, it has not reached the same previous heights.
24. Diana Ross
While the music career of Diana Ross dwarfs her movie career by a considerable margin, she nevertheless starred in a few 1970s classics that have added to her celebrity status. In 1972, Ross played real-life jazz icon Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, which earned her Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations. (She also won a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year.) She starred in two more movies that same decade: Mahogany, released in 1975; and The Wiz, in 1978. Ross returned to making music in the 1980s, and after two made-for-TV movies in the ‘90s, quit acting altogether.
23. Madeline Kahn
A starlet best known for starring in comedies, Madeline Kahn defines 1970s hilarity with movies like What’s Up, Doc?, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, The Muppet Movie, Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood, and Paper Moon (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award). In addition to acting, Kahn was a proficient opera singer, and in fact earned extra money during her college years singing at a Bavarian restaurant in New York. Her career continued into the 1980 and 1990s. She died in 1999, at age 57.
22. James Caan
James Caan was already an established actor by 1970, but in 1971 he enriched his career with the made-for-TV movie Brian’s Song, which earned him an Emmy nomination. A year later, he was cast as short-tempered Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic The Godfather. While Caan was first cast as Michael Corleone, Caan himself believed Al Pacino was better for the part, and he better for Sonny. Caan was nominated for an Oscar for his performance. Other 1970s movies with Caan include T.R. Baskin, Slither, Gone with the West, Funny Lady, Rollerball, A Bridge Too Far, 1941, and of course, The Godfather Part II (albeit in a cameo capacity). He died in 2022.
21. Roy Scheider
Born in New Jersey and a decorated amateur boxer, Roy Scheider became an actor in the 1960s and found fame in the 1970s. In 1971, he starred in both the noir thriller Klute and the landmark gritty detective drama The French Connection, the latter directed by William Friedkin. In 1975 he starred in what is arguably his biggest movie of all time: Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s iconic horror blockbuster about a man-eating shark that terrorizes a sleepy beach town. His other movies of the decade include The Outside Man, The Seven-Ups, Marathon Man, Sorcerer, All That Jazz, and Jaws 2. He died in 2008.
20. Carrie Fisher
When Carrie Fisher was chosen to play Princess Leia in George Lucas’ Star Wars, she was virtually unknown. But Fisher doesn’t come from nowhere. The daughter of entertainment royalty – Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds – Fisher started acting while in high school, which she dropped out of to pursue the arts full-time. She started acting in movies with the 1975 film Shampoo, and in 1977 went to a galaxy far, far away by starring in one of the biggest movies of all time. Fisher’s career continued into the 1980s. In addition to acting, she became celebrated as a writer, with several published memoirs exploring her life living with bipolar disorder and addictions. She died in December 2016, just one day before her mother Debbie Reynolds.
19. Barbara Streisand
In addition to her legendary music career, Barbara Streisand is a celebrated actress; her first film was the 1968 movie Funny Girl, with Streisand reprising the role she held on stage. After winning an Oscar for Best Actress, she kept acting with movies like Hello, Dolly!, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, The Owl and the Pussycat, What’s Up, Doc?, The Way We Were, and A Star is Born. By the 1980s, Streisand became a producer. While her acting career slowed down considerably by the 1990s, she still made time for movies, starring in two sequels to the 2000 comedy hit Meet the Parents.
18. Ellen Burstyn
In 1973, Ellen Burstyn starred in one of the scariest movies of all time: The Exorcist. She was already a screen actress before, having appeared in other movies like Alex in Wonderland, Tropic of Cancer, and The Last Picture Show. But in the role of Chris MacNeil, an actress whose daughter becomes possessed by an ancient demon, Burstyn earned a level of fame that persisted into the 21st century. In 2023, she reprised her role as Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist: Believer.
17. Richard Pryor
One of the most celebrated comedians of all time, Richard Pryor boasts numerous awards including one Emmy, five Grammys, and a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor which he received in 1998. Along with his legendary stand-up films, including 1971’s Live & Smokin’, he is also a noted movie star, with parts in ‘70s films like Lady Sings the Blues, The Mack, Some Call It Loving, Blazing Saddles, Silver Streak, Greased Lightning, and The Wiz. Virtually all comedians today pay homage to Richard Pryor, whose unique storytelling and observational style of comedy wholly shaped the art of stand-up as it is known today.
16. Peter Sellers
A revered English comedic actor, Peter Sellers is best known for his role as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther film series, which released several sequels in the 1970s (The Return of the Pink Panther in 1975, The Pink Panther Strikes Again in 1976, and Revenge of the Pink Panther in 1978). While known for starring in humorous films, Sellers had versatility as a dramatic actor too, with movies like Hoffman, The Blockhouse, The Optimists of Nine Elms, and Being There under his belt. Sellers died in 1980 of a heart attack, at age 54.
15. Diane Keaton
An icon on both the stage and screen, Diane Keaton started her career in the 1968 production of Hair on Broadway. She started making movies in 1970, with the movie Lovers and Other Strangers before achieving greater fame through her role in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Reuniting with Woody Allen, with whom she worked on Broadway, she starred in Allen’s films like Play It Again, Sam, Sleeper, Love and Death, and Annie Hall, which earned her an Oscar for Best Actress. Her career flourished into the ‘80s onward, with movies like Father of the Bride, The First Wives Club, Something’s Gotta Give, The Family Stone, and more beloved by modern audiences.
14. Faye Dunaway
A highly decorated actress, Faye Dunaway got her start on Broadway before making her screen debut in the 1967 film The Happening. She faced some career setbacks in the early 1970s, with her movies at the time like Doc and The Deadly Trap bombing with both critics and audiences. But in 1974, she starred in Roman Polanski’s celebrated neo-noir epic Chinatown, which reinvigorated her career though Dunaway famously clashed with Polanski on set. That same year, she starred in the high-grossing disaster epic The Towering Inferno, and earned even more acclaim in the 1975 political thriller Three Days of the Condor. While she briefly took a break from acting, she finished the decade with the 1976 classic Network, in the role of a ruthless television executive. For her performance, Dunaway won an Oscar for Best Actress.
13. Richard Harris
Before he played the wise old mentor to a certain boy wizard, Richard Harris was a revered screen actor who came to fame in the role of King Arthur in the 1967 film Camelot. Throughout the 1970s, he starred in movies like The Molly Maguirers, A Man Called Horse, Cromwell, Bloomfield, The Deadly Trackers, Juggernaut, Echoes of a Summer, Robin and Marian, Gulliver’s Travels, The Wild Geese, and Ravagers. Harris’ recognition survived into the 21st century, with Harris being one of the biggest stars attached to Warner Bros.’ buzzy, big-budget adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s best-seller Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harris played the part of Dumbledore for two movies in the series, before he passed away in 2002.
12. Lily Tomlin
A beloved comedienne and actress, Lily Tomlin’s career spans over 50 years and boasts numerous awards, including multiple Emmys, Tony Awards, and several lifetime achievement awards. She made her movie debut in the 1975 film Nashville, for which she was nominated for an Oscar (for Best Supporting Actress). While she made only two other movies in the 1970s – The Late Show in 1977, and Moment by Moment in 1978 – her career soared in both movies and TV throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s, delighting audiences of all ages through her work in cartoons like The Magic School Bus and in network dramas like The West Wing.
11. Jodie Foster
Jodie Foster was already a working child actress before she starred in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 thriller Taxi Driver. In fact, she made a total of five films in 1976 alone, including Echoes of a Summer, Bugsy Malone, and Freaky Friday. But in her performance for Taxi Driver as a teenage prostitute, Foster exhibited talent and maturity far beyond her years. Buoyed by the movie’s towering success (today recognized as one of the greatest movies of all time), Foster’s career began to burn bright, with only a few periods of setbacks and cold streaks. In the 1970s she also starred in the 1977 Italian comedy Casotto and the Hollywood children’s movie Candleshoe. By the 1980s, Jodie Foster focused on her college education at Yale and made movies sparingly, before returning to making movies full time after graduating.
10. Jane Fonda
After rising to prominence in the 1960s, Jane Fonda enjoyed more career successes throughout the 1970s. She starred in classics like Klute, Tout Va Bien, Fun with Dick and Jane, The China Syndrome, and The Electric Horseman. Her career continued into the 2000s, and transitioned to TV with shows like The Newsroom, Grace and Frankie, and a voiceover role in the animated kids’ adventure series Elena of Avalor. In 2023, she co-starred in the cult sports comedy 80 For Brady with other starlets of her era, including Rita Moreno, Lily Tomlin, and Sally Field, playing real-life friends who traveled to watch Tom Brady play for the New England Patriots in the 2017 Super Bowl.
9. Bruce Lee
Arguably the defining image of 1970s cool, Chinese-American sensation Bruce Lee broke racial barriers in an all-too-brief career that ended with his death in 1973. While he was a child actor in a number of Chinese films, Lee didn’t seriously act until he lived in the United States where he co-starred in the TV series The Green Hornet. Back in Hong Kong, he starred in several kung fu blockbusters like The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and The Way of the Dragon. His stardom overseas grew so irresistible that Warner Bros. created a theatrical vehicle just for him: Enter the Dragon, billed as the first Hollywood-made martial arts film. Lee died two months before its theatrical release. His son Brandon Lee also became an actor, and died in an accident on the set of the 1994 film The Crow.
8. Gene Hackman
When Gene Hackman retired from acting circa 2008, he ended an illustrious career that lasted for some 60-plus years. The 1970s was when Hackman enjoyed his greatest level of fame, with movies like The Hunting Party, The French Connection, The Poseidon Adventure, Scarecrow, Young Frankenstein, Doctors’ Wives, Lucky Lady, Night Moves, and A Bridge Too Far. In 1978, he starred opposite Christopher Reeve in the smash hit Superman, playing the evil Lex Luthor. His career did not slow down going into the 1980s and 1990s, though Hackman chose to quietly bow out with the 2004 comedy Welcome to Mooseport. In a 2008 interview he formally declared his retirement from acting, though he briefly came out of retirement to narrate a few documentaries.
7. Clint Eastwood
After becoming a mega-star through Sergio Leone’s Italian-made Westerns, Clint Eastwood asserted his superstardom and also started his noteworthy career as a director. In 1971, Eastwood starred and directed in Play Misty For Me, a dark thriller about a jazz radio DJ who is stalked by an enraged former lover. After the film drew acclaim, Eastwood began playing his other most noteworthy role in his career: Harry Callahan, in the gritty action noir Dirty Harry. It spawned a series of sequels, all starring Eastwood.) Eastwood’s credits in the ‘70s are prolific, both as actor and director. His career survived well into the 21st century, with his movies regularly being entered for Oscar awards.
6. Robert De Niro
Through movies like The Wedding Party, Bloody Mama, Hi Mom!, Born to Win, and Mean Streets, Robert De Niro was already on the up and up when he starred as a young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II. But playing the younger version of Marlon Brando’s iconic gangster permanently cemented De Niro as a cinematic tour de force. In 1976, De Niro was unstoppable in his role as the dangerous Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Further collaborations with Scorseses and other directors like Elia Kazan, Michael Cimino, and Sergio Leone forever made De Niro a household name.
5. Paul Newman
A star in the 1960s, Paul Newman only became more prolific in the 1970s through pictures like WUSA, The Sting, The Towering Inferno, The Drowning Pool, Pocket Money, and the crude hockey comedy Slap Shot. In 1971, Newman directed his first movie Sometimes a Great Nation, which received mixed reviews upon release but is now appreciated by the likes of Quentin Tarantino. Though Newman didn’t want to do TV during his career heyday, he hosted the made-for-TV documentary Once Upon a Wheel, which became a passion project and fed into Newman’s infamous love for racing.
4. Dustin Hoffman
In the aftermath of The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman was recognized by Time Magazine in a 1969 issue as being one of his generation’s biggest stars. Hoffman proved he earned such an honor by starring in some of the biggest movies of the 1970s, including Little Big Man, Marathon Man, Kramer vs. Kramer, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, Straw Dogs, Papillon, and Lenny. In 1976, Hoffman co-starred with Robert Redford in All the President’s Men, a gritty drama about how the Washington Post broke the story of the Watergate Scandal. The stardom Hoffman enjoyed in the 1970s sustained itself over the intervening years, with Hoffman still making hit movies (mainly comedies and family films) throughout the 2000s and 2010s.
3. Robert Redford
An award-winning writer and director, Robert Redford was a bonafide star in the 1960s and maintained such a high profile across the 1970s. With movies like The Sting (co-starring Paul Newman), All The President’s Men (co-starring Dustin Hoffman), The Way We Were (with Barbara Streisand), and Three Days of the Condor (co-starring Faye Dunaway), Redford is easily one of the most versatile leading men in Hollywood of the 1970s. By the 1980s, Redford took up directing, and while he slowed down as an actor towards the 21st century, he’s hardly been irrelevant. In the 2010s, he became part of the Marvel franchise, playing a key role in the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a cameo speaking part in Avengers: Endgame.
2. Jack Nicholson
When Jack Nicholson felt his career sputtering before it really took off in the 1960s, he was considering trying out writing and directing. But when he appeared in the landmark 1969 film Easy Rider, his role as the alcoholic lawyer George Hanson gave Nicholson his first Oscar nomination, affording him momentum to keep acting into the 1970s. In 1970, he starred in Five Easy Pieces, playing an oil rig worker with a sharp personality that contributed to Nicholson’s popular image. (Co-star Karen Black says Nicholson was nothing like his character in real life.) The 1970s became Nicholson’s to own, with roles in hits like On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Carnal Knowledge, The Last Detail, Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When he played an axe-wielding killer in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in 1980, Nicholson became forever one of Hollywood’s most unforgettable actors of all time.
1. Al Pacino
Al Pacino’s role as an addict in the movie The Panic in Needle Park didn’t inspire much attention, except in one important person: Francis Ford Coppola. A year later in 1972, Coppola had Pacino star in his gangster epic The Godfather, and the rest is history. Despite being unknown and the studio insisting on a better-known star, Pacino dazzled the world in The Godfather and went on to enjoy a rare kind of overnight success that never quite ended. Pacino’s other movies of the 1970s include consequential pictures like Scarecrow, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Bobby Deerfield, and …And Justice For All. Pacino would enjoy further success in the 1980s, but the 1970s was when an actor like Al Pacino seemed to come from nowhere, and suddenly, he was everywhere.