The Top 25 Supporting Performances Of All Time

by Walter Frith | created - 17 Jan 2011 | updated - 22 Mar 2011 | Public

1. Al Pacino

Actor | Serpico

One of the greatest actors in all of film history, Al Pacino established himself during one of film's greatest decades, the 1970s, and has become an enduring and iconic figure in the world of American movies.

Alfredo James Pacino was born on April 25, 1940, in the Bronx, New York, to an ...

For his performance as Michael Corleone in 'The Godfather' (1972). Director Francis Ford Coppola fought for Pacino when Paramount executives wanted to cast either Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford or Ryan O'Neal as Michael Corleone but Pacino launched his career with this role and it is one of the most impressive star making roles of all time.

2. Jane Darwell

Actress | The Grapes of Wrath

Missouri-born Jane Darwell was the daughter of a railroad president and grew up on a ranch in Missouri. She nursed ambitions to be an opera singer, but put it off because of her father's disapproval (she eventually changed her name to Darwell from the family name of Woodward so as not to "sully" ...

For her performance as Ma Joad in 'The Grapes of Wrath' (1940). She plays the matriarch of a poverty stricken Oklahoma family who move west during the great depression of the 1930's, only to find disappointment and her character gives the family the strength and comfort they need to survive.

3. Heath Ledger

Actor | Brokeback Mountain

When hunky, twenty-year-old heart-throb Heath Ledger first came to the attention of the public in 1999, it was all too easy to tag him as a "pretty boy" and an actor of little depth. He spent several years trying desperately to sway this image, but this was a double-edged sword. His work comprised ...

For his performance as the Joker in 'The Dark Knight' (2008). Ledger played this part with the perfect tone of menace and darkness in his voice. If you closed your eyes and listened to his voice on screen and you were asked to identify the character, you could do it. His physical characteristics also made this performance the greatest villain in all of movie history and yes, I am old enough to have seen all the top contenders and Ledger takes the cake.

4. Claude Rains

Actor | Casablanca

William Claude Rains, born in the Clapham area of London, was the son of the British stage actor Frederick Rains. The younger Rains followed, making his stage debut at the age of eleven in "Nell of Old Drury." Growing up in the world of theater, he saw not only acting up close but the down-to-earth...

For his performance as Capt. Renault in 'Casablanca' (1942). Rains plays this part perfectly as he is true to his duties but plays against his better instincts at times during his friendship with Bogart's character in the film. He is a man caught up in the throws of Nazi intimidation and he still knows how to walk a fine line like a tightrope artist.

5. Javier Bardem

Actor | Skyfall

Javier Bardem is the youngest member of a family of actors that has been making films since the early days of Spanish cinema.

He was born in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, to actress Pilar Bardem (María del Pilar Bardem Muñoz) and businessman José Carlos Encinas Doussinague. His maternal ...

For his performance as Anton Chigurh in 'No Country for Old Men' (2007). His performance in this film is like watching the quiet stalking ambush of an animal. His brutal inhumanity as a mass murderer in pursuit of a large fortune is harrowing to watch but there's something about it that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. Giving a performance about making things interesting that you don't really want to see is something very few performers can pull off.

6. Haing S. Ngor

Actor | The Killing Fields

Haing S. Ngor was a native of Cambodia, and before the war was a physician (obstetrics) and medical officer in the Cambodian army. He became a captive of the Khmer Rouge during the and was imprisoned and tortured; in order to escape execution he denied being a doctor or having an education. He ...

For his performance as Dith Pran in 'The Killing Fields' (1984). Dr. Haing S. Ngor was a real life survivor of the Cambdian killing fields of the 1970's who lost his wife and he is a physician and not a professionally trained actor. Drawing on his real life experiences he turned in a performance about a man who has experienced the worst things the world can throw at you and still he has the will to go on living. I still don't understand how he pulled it off but he did. One of the most miraculous performances ever given by a non professional actor. Sadly, he was murdered in the parking garage of his home in 1996 when he resisted a group of muggers who were later caught and convicted of the crime.

7. Louis Gossett Jr.

Actor | An Officer and a Gentleman

Louis Cameron Gossett Jr. was born on May 27, 1936 in Brooklyn, New York City. He made his professional acting debut at age 17, winning the Donaldson Award as best newcomer to theatre. He went to New York University on a basketball scholarship and was invited to try out for the New York Knicks, yet...

For his performance as Sgt. Emil Foley in 'An Officer and a Gentleman' (1982). The film is never better than when he is on screen. He carries every scene he is in. As a tough drill sergeant with a sense of compassion and fairness, he watches an Naval officer candidate (Richard Gere) go from a hustler to a gentleman. Gossett bends the rules but never loses control of his character's authority. A marvelous performance.

8. George Kennedy

Actor | Cool Hand Luke

George Harris Kennedy, Jr. was born on February 18, 1925 in New York City, to Helen A. (Kieselbach), a ballet dancer, and George Harris Kennedy, an orchestra leader and musician. Following high school graduation, Kennedy enlisted in the United States Army in 1943 with the hope to become a fighter ...

For his performance as Dragline in 'Cool Hand Luke' (1967). Kennedy towers over the other members of the chain gang until his leadership is challenged by Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman). Kennedy ends up being his friend and protector. He brings such an awesome amount of strength to this role that it's hard to look away.

9. Jack Nicholson

Actor | Chinatown

Jack Nicholson, an American actor, producer, director and screenwriter, is a three-time Academy Award winner and twelve-time nominee. Nicholson is also notable for being one of two actors - the other being Michael Caine - who have received Oscar nomination in every decade from the 1960s through the...

For his performance as Garrett Breedlove in 'Terms of Endearment' (1983). Nicholson's perfect blend of rascal, lover and best friend to Shirley MacLaine's character and her family in this movie is one of the most memorable of the last 30 years. Nicholson always plays a little bit of himself in each movie he does and he does it flawlessly this time.

10. Frank Sinatra

Actor | The Manchurian Candidate

Frank Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, to Italian immigrants Natalina Della (Garaventa), from Northern Italy, and Saverio Antonino Martino Sinatra, a Sicilian boxer, fireman, and bar owner. Growing up on the gritty streets of Hoboken made Sinatra determined to work hard to get ahead. ...

For his performance as Pvt. Angelo Maggio in 'From Here to Eternity' (1953). Sinatra's career was going nowhere and when he won the Oscar, he never looked back. As a pathetic alcoholic soldier in 'From Here to Eternity' who flaunts his rebellious side and thumbs his nose at the wrong authority, Sinartra manages to evoke sympathy and he feels like an old friend to the audience.

11. Patty Duke

Actress | Valley of the Dolls

Patty Duke was born Anna Marie Duke on December 14, 1946 in Elmhurst, New York, to Frances Margaret (McMahon), a cashier, and John Patrick Duke, a cab driver and handyman. She is of Irish, and one eighth German, descent. Her acting career began when she was introduced to her brother Ray Duke's ...

For her performance as Helen Keller in 'The Miracle Worker' (1962).

12. Anthony Perkins

Actor | Psycho

Anthony Perkins was born April 4, 1932 in New York City to Janet Esselstyn (Rane) and Osgood Perkins, an actor of both stage and film. His paternal great-grandfather was noted engraver Andrew Varick Stout Anthony.

Perkins attended the Brooks School, the Browne & Nichols School, Columbia University ...

For his performance as Norman Bates in 'Psycho' (1960).

13. George C. Scott

Actor | Patton

George C. Scott was an immensely talented actor, a star of screen, stage and television. He was born on October 18, 1927 in Wise, Virginia, to Helena Agnes (Slemp) and George Dewey Scott. At the age of eight, his mother died, and his father, an executive at Buick, raised him. In 1945, he joined the...

For his performance as General 'Buck' Turgidson in 'Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb' (1964).

14. Rod Steiger

Actor | In the Heat of the Night

Rodney Stephen Steiger was born in Westhampton, New York, to Augusta Amelia (Driver) and Frederick Jacob Steiger, both vaudevillians. He was of German and Austrian ancestry. After his parents' divorce, Steiger was raised by his mother in Newark, New Jersey. He dropped out of Westside High school at...

For his performance as Charley Malloy in 'On the Waterfront' (1954).

15. Karl Malden

Actor | On the Waterfront

Born to a Czech mother and a Serbian father in Chicago as Mladen Sekulovich, on March 22, 1912, Karl Malden did not speak English until he was in kindergarten. After graduating from high school in the nearby steel town of Gary, Indiana, Malden worked in the industry for three years until 1934, when...

For his performance as Father Barry in 'On the Waterfront' (1954).

16. Christopher Walken

Actor | The Deer Hunter

Nervous-looking lead and supporting actor of the American stage and films, with sandy colored hair, pale complexion and a somewhat nervous disposition. He won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his performance in The Deer Hunter (1978), and has been seen in mostly character roles, often ...

For his performance as Nick in 'The Deer Hunter' (1978).

17. Irma P. Hall

Actress | The Ladykillers

Irma P. Hall was born on June 3, 1935 in Beaumont, Texas, USA as Irma Dolores Player Hall. She is an actress and producer, known for The Ladykillers (2004), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) and Collateral (2004).

For her performance as Aunt T. in 'A Family Thing' (1996).

18. Burgess Meredith

Actor | Rocky

One of the truly great and gifted performers of the century, who often suffered lesser roles, Burgess Meredith was born in 1907 in Cleveland, Ohio. He was educated in Amherst College in Massachusetts, before joining Eva Le Gallienne's stage company in New York City in 1933. He became a favorite of ...

For his performance as Mickey in 'Rocky' (1976).

19. Robert Duvall

Actor | The Apostle

Veteran actor and director Robert Selden Duvall was born on January 5, 1931, in San Diego, CA, to Mildred Virginia (Hart), an amateur actress, and William Howard Duvall, a career military officer who later became an admiral. Duvall majored in drama at Principia College (Elsah, IL), then served a ...

For his performance as Tom Hagen in 'The Godfather' (1972).

20. William H. Macy

Actor | Fargo

William H. Macy was born on March 13, 1950 in Miami, Florida, USA as William Hall Macy Jr. He is an actor and writer, known for Fargo (1996), Magnolia (1999) and Shameless (2011). He has been married to Felicity Huffman since September 6, 1997. They have two children.

For his performance as Jerry Lundegaard in 'Fargo' (1996).

21. Ben Kingsley

Actor | Gandhi

Ben Kingsley was born Krishna Bhanji on December 31, 1943 in Scarborough, Yorkshire, England. His father, Rahimtulla Harji Bhanji, was a Kenyan-born medical doctor, of Gujarati Indian descent, and his mother, Anna Lyna Mary (Goodman), was an English actress. Ben began to act in stage plays during ...

For his performance as Itzhak Stern in 'Schindler's List' (1993).

22. Anthony Quinn

Actor | Alexis Zorbas

Anthony Quinn was born Antonio Rudolfo Oaxaca Quinn on April 21, 1915, in Chihuahua, Mexico, to Manuela (Oaxaca) and Francisco Quinn, who became an assistant cameraman at a Los Angeles (CA) film studio. His paternal grandfather was Irish, and the rest of his family was Mexican. After starting life ...

For his performance as Auda Abu Tayi in 'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962).

23. Dana Andrews

Actor | Laura

American leading man of the 1940s and 1950s, Dana Andrews, was born Carver Dana Andrews on a farm by Collins, Covington County, Mississippi. He was the son of Annis (Speed) and Charles Forrest Andrews, a Baptist minister. He was one of thirteen children, including actor Steve Forrest.

Andrews ...

For his performance as Fred Derry in 'The Best Years of Our Lives' (1946).

24. Joseph Cotten

Actor | The Third Man

Joseph Cheshire Cotten, Jr. was born in Petersburg, Virginia, into a well-to-do Southern family. He was the eldest of three sons born to Sally Whitworth (Willson) and Joseph Cheshire Cotten, Sr., an assistant postmaster.

Jo (as he was known) and his brothers Whit and Sam spent their summers at their...

For his performance as Jedediah Leland in 'Citizen Kane' (1941).

25. Dianne Wiest

Actress | Hannah and Her Sisters

One of three children (she has two brothers, Greg and Don), Dianne Wiest was born in Kansas City, Missouri, USA. Her mother, Anne Stewart (Keddie), was a nurse from Auchtermuchty, Scotland, and her father, Bernard John Wiest, was a college dean and social worker who was born in Pennsylvania, of ...

For her performance as Holly in 'Hannah and Her Sisters' (1986).