Top 10 Greatest Jewish Male Film Actors (Living)
by Shmuel Bruck
In the arts in general, and in film particularly, Jews have contributed significantly through the years, embracing and taking their place among the pioneers of the film industry from the get-go. In recognition of this tradition and history we have compiled a list of the 10 greatest living Jewish male film actors. Although compiled in consultation with a number of industry experts, admittedly, the list is somewhat subjective and the criteria for ranking is loosely defined. Our purpose however is only to stimulate discussion and appreciation of the accomplishments of Jews in this field. The guidelines we have used for the compilation are as follows:
· Is the actor well-respected by industry professionals?
· What fee does the actor command per role? what is his annual income?
· Does the actor’s presence in a film routinely draw significant box-office results?
· Has the actor been recognized through receipt of noteworthy awards?
The list is comprised only of actors that are Jewish by standard Orthodox definition; those born to a Jewish mother or who have converted to Judaism. Last name, appearance, and Jewish family do not impact this list, so, no Sean Penn, Robin Williams, Michael Douglas or Ben Kingsley. Each actor’s appearance and ranking on the list is based solely on talent and achievement, and not on their level of Jewish practice, or their “Jewish-ness.”
Those who act in film but are perceived primarily as TV actors or personalities, even if they might otherwise fit on this list, are not included. (They might find themselves on the Top-10 Greatest Jewish Television Stars. Stay tuned.)
10. Daniel Radcliffe
When he began his career with a starring role in a two-part BBC television adaptation of Dickens’s David Copperfield, Radcliffe could not have known where his career would lead him. After seeing Radcliffe’s performance in the BBC show, casting directors chose him out of hundreds of auditions, to play the lead role in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” Born in West London in 1989, Radcliffe went on to play Harry Potter in the film’s hugely successful sequels. In 2009, he was ranked the wealthiest teenager in the UK. As of 2011, Radcliffe’s wealth is estimated at £28.5 million, making him wealthier than Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Prince Harry of Wales. In 2010 he appeared as number five on Forbes’s highest-grossing actors list.
9. Gene Wilder
Born Jerome Silberman in 1933, Wilder began his career with a small role in the critically acclaimed classic “Bonnie & Clyde.” A year later he landed the role of Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’s comedic masterpiece “The Producers,” for which Wilder was nominated for an Academy Award. He has collaborated on several films with comedians Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, and has been nominated for two Oscars and two Golden Globes. The three comedy films with which he collaborated with Brooks have all been selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for their cultural, historical or aesthetic significance and all have a place near the top of the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs list.
8. Harvey Keitel
Some say that Keitel was the actor who jump-started the careers of some of the 20th century’s greatest film directors. Starring in the first feature films of both Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino—and working along with them later in their careers—Keitel solidified a reputation of impeccable taste and a unique eye for great directors. Born in Brooklyn in 1939, Harvey Keitel played several Jews in many popular films, including Mickey Cohen in “Bugsy,” The Wolf in “Pulp Fiction” and Harry Houdini in “Fairy Tale: A True Story.” Certainly an underappreciated actor, Keitel’s biggest recognition came in the form of Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for his performance in “Bugsy” and an Australian Film Institute Award for his role in Jane Campion’s haunting “The Piano.” Despite having little award recognition, Keitel has been a favorite among critics and is consistently regarded as one of the best actors of his generation.
7. Kirk Douglas
Born Issur Danielovitch in 1916, Kirk Douglas’s film career has spanned 65 years. He was nominated for three Academy Awards and has been hailed as a legend for his generation and generations-to-come. In 1996 Douglas received an Honorary Oscar for “for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.” In 1991, he received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award for his lifetime contribution to enriching American culture through motion pictures. He is number 17 on the American Film Institute’s list of the Greatest American Screen Legends (male).
6. Richard Dreyfuss
Born in Brooklyn, NY in 1947 to Jewish parents, Dreyfuss burst onto the big screen with starring roles in “American Graffiti,” for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, “Jaws,” for which he was nominated for a BAFTA Award and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” In 1977, at age 30, Dreyfuss became the youngest person to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. Whether playing a music teacher in the coming-of-age-film “Mr. Holland’s Opus” or vice-president Dick Cheney in “W.” Dreyfuss always disappears into his character seamlessly.
5. Harrison Ford
Born in 1942 to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother in Chicago, Ford began his career in such acclaimed films as “American Graffiti” before starring as one of cinema’s most revered characters, Han Solo, in George Lucas’ “Star Wars.” Several years later, Ford starred as the character ranked #2 on Time Magazine’s list of the greatest fictional characters of all time, Indiana Jones, in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Five of the films Ford has starred in have been preserved in the Library of Congress. His films have a worldwide gross surpassing $6 billion.
4. Adrian Brody
Born in 1973 in Queens, NY to Jewish parents, Brody’s film career began in 1988. Although he received recognition for playing several forgettable roles in independent films, it was his titular performance in Roman Polanski’s 2002 Holocaust film “The Pianist” that finally garnered Brody recognition from critics and audiences alike. In response to the film, at 29-years-old, Brody broke the record previously held by Richard Dreyfuss becoming the youngest person to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. Whether playing a suffering Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland in “The Pianist” or Salvador Dali in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” Brody manages to make us both cry and laugh through his magical performances.
3. Woody Allen
Nominated for 21 Academy Awards, and winning three Oscars and 11 BAFTA Awards, Woody Allen is clearly the Jew in film with the most critical recognition. Born Allen Stewart Konigsberg to Jewish parents in New York City, Allen has directed 41 feature motion pictures in 45 years, and—at age 75—is currently working on his 42ndproduction. He began his career as a comedy writer for variety shows and then as a stand-up comic in New York City clubs. He became well-known for sketch-comedy films before moving onto narrative films, and winning two Oscars for “Annie Hall.” While he seems to stick to the same neurotic Jewish intellectual type of character in the 41 films he has starred in, there is no denying that his character is a brilliant creation.
2. Dustin Hoffman
Born in 1937 in Los Angeles, Hoffman studied at the esteemed Actors Studio in New York. His first major film role came in 1966 with Mike Nichols’s iconic “The Graduate,” for which Hoffman received the first of his seven Academy Award nominations. His portrayal of a single father fighting for custody of his son in “Kramer vs. Kramer” garnered him his first Academy Award for Best Actor. His mesmerizing performance as the autistic Raymond in Barry Levinson’s “Rainman” earned Hoffman his second Oscar for Best Actor. In 1999, Hoffman received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award for his contribution to the art. Four of Hoffman’s films have been selected for preservation by the Library of Congress.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis
An Irish Jew of relentless talent, Day-Lewis has established himself as a Hollywood eccentric and living legend. As a devoted method actor, he breaks character as little as possible during the making of a film, even between takes. Day-Lewis began his film career humbly, but caught the eye of critics for his role as the legendary Irishman with cerebral palsy, Christie Brown, in “My Left Foot.” His performance earned him his first Academy Award for Best Actor. He went on to star in several critically acclaimed films, and in 2007 starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” for which he received his second Academy Award for Best Actor, a record held by only eight other actors.