How many big movie stars from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s can you name? Probably the same handful most people can come up with, but you might be surprised by how many others were considered major talents in their day but unfairly don’t get much attention anymore. Here are five leading men from Hollywood’s heyday who deserve a boost:
Ameche, who changed the spelling of his Italian surname, Amici, so people would pronounce it correctly, played gentlemanly types through the 1930s and 1940s but, even after his popularity waned, still found roles up until the 1990s and made the rounds of TV series for several decades. He was so influential that, after he portrayed the title character in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell in 1939, his name was used as slang for telephone. He essayed swashbuckler roles like that of D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers and was a rake in Heaven Can Wait.
This British actor worked mostly in American films, first silent movies and then sound flicks, where his magnificent voice enhanced his appeal. His aptitude for portraying world-weary nobility was epitomized in Lost Horizon, where he played a disillusioned diplomat seduced by a peaceful hidden realm. Other significant films include A Double Life, about an actor unhinged by his intense identification with his roles; Talk of the Town, a comedy-drama in which Colman, playing opposite Grant, portrays a fugitive political activist framed for murder; and The Prisoner of Zenda, a sedate but atmospheric swashbuckler based on a classic novel.
The former Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel was a versatile actor in a career spanning more than half a century. For an actor largely ignored today, he starred in an impressive array of well-known films, including early versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Les Miserables, and A Star Is Born. He’s perhaps best known for The Best Years of Our Lives, about the efforts of a trio of World War II veterans to adjust to postwar life, but you’ll also find him as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, as one of two renowned lawyers dueling over the validity of evolution in Inherit the Wind, and as the U.S. president in the excellent political thriller Seven Days in May.
Born in Wales with the grandiose name of Reginald Alfred John Truscott-Jones, Milland played suave, debonair fellows but received little acclaim until he won an Oscar for The Lost Weekend, a dark drama about an alcoholic; he got the role only because so many better-known actors turned down the risky role. Also check out The Big Clock, a light-hearted, stylish film noir in which he matches wits with an insufferably arrogant big shot played by Charles Laughton; Dial M for Murder, an Alfred Hitchcock thriller about a man’s botched attempt to have his wife offed; and, just for kicks, Panic in Year Zero! (also directed by Milland), in which a man flees nuclear devastation with his family (including son Frankie Avalon).
The former Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund, born in Ukraine, worked in Yiddish theater in New York City for 20 years before making his English-speaking debut. Muni was equally at home and successful onstage and onscreen but made less than two dozen films during a 30-year career. He starred in three biopics, The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola, and Juarez (and failed to interest Warner Bros. in casting him as Beethoven), but he had a look better suited for tough guys and was best known for his roles as criminals: Classic performances include the title roles in Scarface, about a gangster’s rise and fall, and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, in which a down-on-his-luck World War I vet endures prison brutality and tries to go straight after escaping. Also look for his turn as a Chinese villager in The Good Earth.