54 Influential Actors

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1.
Cicely Tyson
Actress, The Help
Cicely Tyson was born in Harlem, New York City, where she was raised by her devoutly religious parents, from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Her mother, Theodosia, was a domestic, and her father, William Tyson, was a carpenter and painter. She was discovered by a fashion editor at Ebony magazine and...
 
2.
Spike Lee
Director, Malcolm X
Spike Lee was born Shelton Jackson Lee on March 20, 1957, in Atlanta, Georgia. At a very young age, he moved from pre-civil rights Georgia, to Brooklyn, New York. Lee came from artistic, education-grounded background; his father was a jazz musician, and his mother, a schoolteacher. He attended school in Morehouse College in Atlanta and developed his film making skills at Clark Atlanta University...
 
3.
Whoopi Goldberg
Self, The View
Whoopi Goldberg was born Caryn Elaine Johnson in the Chelsea section of Manhattan on November 13, 1955. Her mother, Emma (Harris), was a teacher and a nurse, and her father, Robert James Johnson, Jr., was a clergyman. Whoopi's recent ancestors were from Georgia, Florida, and Virginia. She worked in a funeral parlor and as a bricklayer while taking small parts on Broadway...
 
4.
Jackie Chan
Hong Kong's cheeky, lovable and best known film star, Jackie Chan endured many years of long, hard work and multiple injuries to establish international success via his early beginnings in Hong Kong's manic martial arts cinema industry. Jackie was born Kong-sang Chan on Hong Kong's famous Victoria Peak on April 7...
 
5.
Alfre Woodard
Actress, Primal Fear
Alfre Woodard was born on November 8, 1952 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the youngest of three children of Constance, a homemaker, and Marion H. Woodard, an interior designer. She was named by her godmother, who claimed she saw a vision of Alfre's name written out in gold letters. A former high school cheerleader and track star...
 
6.
Richard Pryor
Highly influential, and always controversial, African-American actor/comedian who was equally well known for his colorful language during his live comedy shows, as for his fast paced life, multiple marriages and battles with drug addiction. He has been acknowledged by many modern comic artist's as a key influence on their careers...
 
7.
Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey was born Orpah Gail Winfrey in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to Vernita Lee, a former maid, and Vernon Winfrey, a coal miner, barber, and city councilman. While Winfrey has been cited as the richest African American of the 20th century, she does not come from a rich, or even middle class, family...
 
8.
Dave Chappelle
Writer, Block Party
Dave Chappelle's career started while he was in high school at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC where he studied theatre arts. At the age of 14, he began performing stand-up comedy in nightclubs. Shortly after graduation, he moved to New York City where he quickly established himself as a major young talent...
 
9.
Loretta Devine
Actress, Crash
Loretta Devine was born August 21, 1949 in Houston, Texas, to Eunice O'Neal (née Toliver), a beautician, and James Devine, who worked as a laborer. Loretta grew up in the Acres Home area of Houston and later enrolled at the University of Houston, where she earned a a Bachelor of Arts in Speech and Drama...
 
10.
Forest Whitaker
Actor, Platoon
Forest Steven Whitaker has packaged a king-size talent into his hulking 6' 2", 220 lb. frame. He won an Academy Award for his performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland, and has also won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. He is the fourth African-American male to win an Academy Award for Best Actor...
 
11.
Kathy Bates
Actress, Titanic
Multi-talented Kathleen Doyle Bates was born on June 28, 1948, and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. She is the youngest of three girls born to Bertye Kathleen (Talbot), a homemaker, and Langdon Doyle Bates, a mechanical engineer. Her grandfather was author Finis L. Bates. Kathy has English, as well as Irish...
 
12.
Yun-Fat Chow
Chow Yun Fat is a charismatic, athletically built and energetic Asian-born film star who first came to the attention of western audiences via his roles in the high-octane/blazing guns action films of maverick HK director John Woo. Chow was born in 1955 on the quiet island of Lamma, part of the then-British colony of Hong Kong...
 
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14.
Laurence Fishburne
Actor, The Matrix
One of Hollywood's most talented and versatile performers and the recipient of a truckload of NAACP Image awards, Laurence John Fishburne III was born in Augusta, Georgia on July 30, 1961, to Hattie Bell (Crawford), a teacher, and Laurence John Fishburne, Jr., a juvenile corrections officer. His mother transplanted her family to Brooklyn after his parents divorced...
 
15.
Michelle Yeoh
Born as Yang Zi Chong in the mining town of Ipoh, in West Malaysia, in the lunar year of the Tiger, Michelle is the daughter of Janet Yeoh and Yeoh Kian Geik, a lawyer and MCA politician. She spoke English and Malay before Chinese. A ballet dancer since age 4, she moved to London, England to study at the Royal Academy as a teenager...
 
16.
Antonio Banderas
Actor, Desperado
Antonio Banderas, one of Spain's most famous faces, was a soccer player until breaking his foot at the age of fourteen; he is now an international film star known for playing Zorro in the eponymous film series. He was born José Antonio Domínguez Banderas on August 10, 1960, in Málaga, Andalusia, Spain...
 
17.
Margaret Avery
Slender, attractive actress Margaret Avery, spellbinding in her role of Shug in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple, is certainly no "one-hit wonder". Although filmgoers may be able to trace her back only to that once-in-a-lifetime part, Margaret has been a talented player on the large and small screens for well over three decades...
 
18.
Danny Glover
Actor, producer and humanitarian Danny Glover has been a commanding presence on screen, stage and television for more than 25 years. Glover was born in San Francisco, California, to Carrie (Hunley) and James Glover, postal workers who were also active in civil rights. Glover trained at the Black Actors' Workshop of the American Conservatory Theater...
 
19.
Debbie Allen
Deborah Kaye Allen was born in Houston, Texas, to African-American parents, Vivian Elizabeth (Ayers), a poet and art director, and Andrew Arthur Allen, an orthodontist. As a child, Debbie, her older brother, Andrew (called Tex), and her older sister, actress Phylicia Rashad, lived in Mexico to escape US racism...
 
20.
Tyler Perry
Perry was born and raised in New Orleans, to Willie Maxine (Campbell) and Emmitt Perry, Sr. His mother was a church-goer and took Perry along with her once a week. His father was a carpenter and they had a very strained and abusive relationship, which led Perry to suffer from depression as a teenager...
 
21.
Phylicia Rashad
Phylicia Rashad was born in Houston, Texas, to African-American parents, Vivian Elizabeth (Ayers), a poet and art director, and Andrew Arthur Allen, an orthodontist. As a child, Phylicia, her older brother Andrew (called Tex), and younger sister, dancer and actress Debbie Allen, lived in Mexico. She has another brother...
 
22.
Sidney Poitier
A native of Cat Island, The Bahamas (though born in Miami during a mainland visit by his parents), Poitier grew up in poverty as the son of farmers Evelyn (Outten) and Reginald James Poitier, who also drove a cab. He had little formal education and at the age of 15 was sent to Miami to live with his brother...
 
23.
CCH Pounder
Actress, Avatar
CCH Pounder (the CCH standing for Carol Christine Hilaria, her birth name). As can be said of other similarly styled actresses such as Alfre Woodard and Cicely Tyson, most of Pounder's characters are enriched with these same positive attributes and it is a testament to this actress' abilities that she continues on such a high plane in a nearly three-decade career...
 
24.
Morgan Freeman
With an authoritative voice and calm demeanor, this ever popular American actor has grown into one of the most respected figures in modern US cinema. Morgan was born on June 1, 1937 in Memphis, Tennessee, to Mayme Edna (Revere), a teacher, and Morgan Porterfield Freeman, a barber. The young Freeman...
 
25.
Nichelle Nichols
Actress, Star Trek
Nichelle Nichols was born Grace Nichols on December 28, 1932 in Robbins, Illinois. She began her show business career at age 16 as a singer with Duke Ellington in a ballet she created for one of his compositions and later sang with his band. After switching to acting, she was twice nominated for the Sarah Siddons Award for best actress in "The Blacks" and "Kicks and Company"...
 
26.
Sean Penn
Sean Penn is a powerhouse film performer capable of intensely moving work, who has gone from strength to strength during a colourful film career, and who has drawn much media attention for his stormy private life and political viewpoints. Sean Justin Penn was born in Los Angeles, California, the second son of actress Eileen Ryan (née Annucci) and director...
 
27.
Jasmine Guy
Actor-dancer-director Jasmine Guy has enjoyed a diverse career in television, theater and film. She began her professional career at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. Jasmine starred on Broadway in the original productions of Beehive and Leader of the Pack, and reprised hit productions of Grease...
 
28.
James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones was born on January 17, 1931 in Arkabutla, Mississippi, USA. At an early age, he started to take dramatic lessons to calm himself down. It appeared to work as he has since starred in many films over a 40-year period, beginning with the Stanley Kubrick classic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. He is...
 
29.
Viola Davis
Actress, The Help
Actress Viola Davis was born on her grandmother's farm, at the then-Singleton Plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina. When she was two months old her family moved to Central Falls, Rhode Island, where her father, Dan Davis, worked as a horse groomer and trainer. Her mother, Mary Alice (Logan), a maid and factory worker...
 
30.
Bill Cosby
Bill Cosby is one of the world's most well-known entertainers and comedians. William Henry Cosby, Jr. was born on July 12, 1937, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Anna Pearl (Hite), a maid, and William Henry Cosby, Sr., a U.S. Navy sailor. After tenth grade, Cosby joined the Navy and completed high school through a correspondence course...
 
31.
Wanda Sykes
Wanda Sykes has been called one of the funniest stand-up comics by her peers and ranks among Entertainment Weekly's 25 Funniest People in America. Her smart-witted stand-up has sent her career in many different areas. She was recently seen in Comedy Central's Wanda Does It, where she tried various non-showbiz jobs...
 
32.
Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington is an American actor and filmmaker. He has received three Golden Globe awards, a Tony Award, and two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor for the historical war drama film Glory (1989) and Best Actor for his role as a corrupt cop in the crime thriller Training Day (2001). Washington has received much critical acclaim for his film work since the 1990s...
 
33.
Marla Gibbs
Armed with an acid dry wit and a full arsenal of sarcasm and sass, African-American character comedienne Marla Gibbs showed up on 70s TV with a bang in middle age (44). Landing the feisty maid role on the popular ground-breaking CBS comedy, The Jeffersons, eventually led to her very own sitcom, 227...
 
35.
Angela Bassett
Captivating, gifted, and sensational, Angela Bassett's presence has been felt in theaters, stages, and television screens throughout the world. Angela Evelyn Bassett was born on August 16, 1958 in New York City, to Betty Jane (Gilbert), a social worker, and Daniel Benjamin Bassett, a preacher's son...
 
36.
Bernie Mac
Bernard Jeffrey McCollough was born in Chicago in 1957. He grew up in Chicago, in a rougher neighborhood than most others, with a large family living under one roof. This situation provided him with a great insight into his comedy, as his family, and the situations surrounding them would be what dominated his comedy...
 
37.
Lynn Whitfield
Actress, Stepmom
With roots that lead back to Louisiana southern aristocracy, lovely leading lady Lynn Whitfield was born in 1953, the eldest of four children and a third-generation BFA graduate from Howard University. Her dentist father was instrumental in developing Lynn's initial interest in acting as he was a prime figure in forming community theater in her native Baton Rouge...
 
38.
Tony Todd
Perhaps best known for his chilling performance as "Candyman", the charismatic 6' 5" actor Tony Todd has consistently turned in compelling performances since his debut in the fantasy film Sleepwalk. Born in Washington, D.C., Todd spent two years on a scholarship at the University of Connecticut...
 
39.
Jenifer Lewis
Jenifer Lewis was born and raised in Kinloch, Missouri. She holds a bachelor's degree in theater arts from Webster University in St. Louis. Jenifer has over 60 films and 200 TV appearances to her credit. Her uniquely recognizable voice is adored by fans, worldwide, in such animated roles as "Flo" in Cars and Cars 2 and as "Mama Odie" in The Princess and the Frog...
 
41.
Vanessa Williams
Actress, Eraser
Vanessa Lynn Williams is one of the most respected and multi-faceted performers in entertainment today. She has conquered the musical charts, Broadway, music videos, television and motion pictures. She has sold millions of albums worldwide and she has achieved critical acclaim as an actress on stage, in film and on television...
 
42.
Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson was born in Washington, D.C., to Elizabeth (Montgomery) and Roy Henry Jackson. He was raised by his mother, a factory worker. Jackson was active in the black student movement. In the seventies, he joined the Negro Ensemble Company (together with Morgan Freeman). In the eighties, he became well known after three movies made by Spike Lee - Do the Right Thing...
 
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44.
Chris Rock
Christopher Julius Rock was born in Andrews, South Carolina and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York. He is the son of Rosalie (Tingman), a teacher and social worker for the mentally handicapped, and Julius Rock, a truck driver and newspaper deliveryman, whose own father was a preacher. Rock has been in stand-up comedy for several decades...
 
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47.
Diahann Carroll
Actress, Julia
One of television's premier African-American series stars, elegant actress, singer and recording artist Diahann Carroll was born Carol Diann (or Diahann) Johnson on July 17, 1935, in the Bronx, New York. The first child of John Johnson, a subway conductor, and Mabel Faulk Johnson, music was an important part of her life as a child...
 
48.
Don Cheadle
Actor, Crash
Donald Frank Cheadle was born in Kansas City, Missouri on November 29, 1964. His childhood found him moving from city to city with his family: mother Bettye (North), a teacher, father Donald Frank Cheadle, Sr., a clinical psychologist, sister Dawn, and brother Colin. After graduating high school in Denver...
 
49.
Lena Horne
Lena Calhoun Horne was born June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York. In her biography she stated that on the day she was born, her father was in the midst of a card game trying to get money to pay the hospital costs. Her parents divorced while she was still a toddler. Her mother left later in order to find work as an actress and Lena was left in the care of her grandparents...
 
51.
Mo'Nique
Actress, Precious
Monique received a standing ovation when she stepped on stage for the first time in the hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, giving her confidence to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian. After numerous stand-up performances, she took a leap forward with one of the starring roles in The Parkers. ...
 
52.
Robert Townsend
Robert Townsend transcends any medium he touches whether he's performing stand up, acting, writing, directing, producing, or running a television network. A Chicago native, Townsend is often referred to as one of the "Godfathers" of the Independent Film World." With over 30 years in the business, he has made an indelible mark in Hollywood with an extensive list of credits...
 
53.
Della Reese
Della began singing in her hometown of Detroit when she was 6 years old. As a teenager, she toured with gospel great Mahalia Jackson and, at the age of 18, she formed the Meditation Singers and became the first performer to take gospel music to the casinos of Las Vegas. She was a vocalist with the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra and began making her own records...
 
54.
Eddie Murphy
Edward Regan Murphy was born April 3, 1961 in Brooklyn, New York, to Lillian, a telephone operator, and Charles Edward Murphy, a transit police officer who was also an amateur comedian and actor. After his father died, his mother married Vernon Lynch, a foreman at a Breyer's Ice Cream plant. His siblings are Charlie Murphy and Vernon Lynch...
 
55.
Viola Davis
Actress, The Help
Actress Viola Davis was born on her grandmother's farm, at the then-Singleton Plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina. When she was two months old her family moved to Central Falls, Rhode Island, where her father, Dan Davis, worked as a horse groomer and trainer. Her mother, Mary Alice (Logan), a maid and factory worker...