Several of my favorite movie actors come from a generation of leading men who got their start during the 1940’s. I’ve always grouped five of them together in my mind: Kirk Douglas, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, and Gregory Peck. Of course there were many other excellent actors from that same generation as well, like Robert Ryan, Glenn Ford, Richard Widmark, Alan Ladd, and Dana Andrews. But Douglas, Holden, Lancaster, Mitchum, and Peck have always been my favorite actors of that period. I watched a lot of their movies during the late 1990’s, when I was in high school, and to me they were sort of masculine ideals. I wanted to grow up to be as charming as William Holden, as confident as Kirk Douglas, as dignified as Gregory Peck, as insouciant as Robert Mitchum, and as graceful as Burt Lancaster.
Douglas, Holden, Lancaster, Mitchum and Peck were all part of the same generation, born between 1913 and 1918. All of them burned brightly on the silver screen, bringing us many memorable characters, from Elmer Gantry to Atticus Finch. They were all unique actors, but one thing they had in common was that they all shared the same star quality, the magnetism that truly makes a movie star. And they were all supremely talented actors as well as movie stars who made high-grossing films.
All of them bloomed very quickly as actors. William Holden had appeared in just a few stage productions when he was picked to star in “Golden Boy.” Burt Lancaster appeared in one off-Broadway show when he was spotted by a talent scout and signed for his film debut in “The Killers.” Robert Mitchum got his start in bit appearances in westerns and war films, making his first movie in 1943, but within two years he was playing leading roles. Gregory Peck made his first film in 1944, and was nominated for an Oscar just a year later. Kirk Douglas made his film debut in 1946, and scored an Oscar nomination for “Champion” in 1949.
Ironically enough it was William Holden, who perhaps made the biggest splash with his first movie, “Golden Boy,” who then had the most difficulty following it up with another hit. Holden had started in movies earlier than all the others, making “Golden Boy” in 1939, and yet by January of 1950 the other four actors were all very successful while Holden’s career was languishing. Holden, who was just 21 when he made “Golden Boy,” quickly found himself typecast in boring juvenile roles. Holden said in a 1962 interview, “I was always that damned boy next door. I went to college in ‘Those Were the Days,’ grew up in ‘Our Town,’ was an air cadet in ‘I Wanted Wings.’ The name of my character was Smilin’ Jim. I hated his guts.” (William Holden: A Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies, by Will Holtzman, 1976, p.54) Blessed with handsome All-American looks, Holden was stuck with bland and boring parts in movies like “Apartment for Peggy” and “Father is a Bachelor.” But thankfully, in 1950, along came Billy Wilder and “Sunset Boulevard,” the part that firmly established Holden as a great actor. Holden was finally able to play a character with some depth, and showed that he was up to the challenge.
What made each of these actors special?
For Gregory Peck, it was his nobility, his inner goodness that comes through so strongly in his most famous role, Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Of course, Peck had the range to play villains as well, and he did so memorably in “The Gunfighter” and “The Boys From Brazil.” But moviegoers liked Peck the most when he played someone we could look up to. Tall, dark, and handsome in the Cary Grant/Rock Hudson manner of leading men, Peck actually had an early screen test rejected by one studio because his ears were different sizes! (His right ear was smaller than his left. Or, if you prefer, his left ear was larger than his right.) But female fans didn’t care about Peck’s ears, especially when they were attached to such a finely chiseled face.
Even though Robert Mitchum played mainly good guys throughout his career, he was so electric when he played villains in “The Night of the Hunter” and “Cape Fear” that those have become two of his most famous performances. Mitchum brought a sexy, devil-may-care attitude to both his films and his personal life, as he was famously busted for possession of marijuana in 1948. Mitchum was probably the least conventionally handsome of the five actors, with his cleft chin, extremely sleepy eyes, and broken nose, but when he was on screen you couldn’t look away from him. With a very distinctive walk and voice, Mitchum was someone who made a big impression on the screen.
Kirk Douglas summed up his own career very well when he said “I’ve made a career out of playing sons of bitches.” Douglas had a confidence on screen that lent itself very well to playing arrogant, head-strong characters. With a strong dimpled chin and the dynamic intensity of a coiled spring, Douglas was the most intense performer of the five actors. Who else could have played the tortured painter Vincent Van Gogh? But Douglas could also keep it in check when he needed to, like his excellent turn in “Seven Days in May,” opposite his frequent co-star Burt Lancaster. Douglas’s own favorite among all of his movies was “Lonely Are the Brave,” in which he gives an outstanding performance as a loner trying to do his own thing in the world.
Burt Lancaster was sheer grace, pure poetry in motion. The director John Frankenheimer once said “Just Burt walking across a room was a thing of beauty.” Lancaster’s charm, his charisma, and his athletic physique all made him a magnetic actor. All of his gifts were showcased very well in “Elmer Gantry,” which he deservedly won an Oscar for. I think Lancaster was the most versatile of the five actors, as he constantly strove to play different parts and resist any kind of typecasting. He had charm in spades, but he could turn it off and be cold as ice water when the part demanded it-like playing unsympathetic roles in “Sweet Smell of Success” and “Seven Days in May.” One of his best performances is in “The Swimmer.” Lancaster was in his mid-50’s when the movie was made, but he looks like a Greek statue come to life.
William Holden blended all-American handsomeness and charm to become an immensely likeable performer. Like Lancaster, Holden was graceful and athletic on the screen. I can still remember the insipid wording of a Premiere magazine article from 1996 or so about the 100 Greatest Movie Stars, which said about Holden that he was “neither dashing nor movie star handsome.” What?? Have you ever SEEN William Holden? Watch “Sabrina” and “Picnic,” to name just two movies, and then tell me he wasn’t dashing or handsome. Holden almost always played sympathetic characters, and he was always likable, even when playing cynical characters.
These five actors were all extremely gifted men who became great film actors, even if they entered the profession with little or no acting experience. They all brought intelligence and dedication to their craft as actors, and they left us with some of the greatest movie performances ever.