Honoring 25 Elite Actors and Actresses Who Defined 1980s Cinema

death becomes her

We all miss the '80s. The decade that gave us a conveyor belt of post-Star Wars Reaganite cinema, featuring a host of musclebound franchises with big set pieces. However, interspersed throughout was a feast of brilliant, beautifully written gems featuring stellar acting talent.

The decade that brought us Indiana Jones, Rambo, and The Terminator, also gave us Raging Bull, Chariots of Fire, and On Golden Pond. I grew up in the '80s and '90s, so all of these screen legends are dear to me. Here are 25 acting legends from the '80s. 

1. Daniel Day-Lewis

The Age of Innocence Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Arguably the most talented actor ever, and like De Niro, one of the great method actors. His performance in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) paved the way for some of the most memorable performances in cinema history. Moreover, his preparation for roles is legendary. 

2. Jack Nicholson

The Departed Matt Damon Jack Nicholson
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

“Here's Johnny!” is Nicholson's most famous one-liner, but this guy set every decade alight from the '60s onward. He is in the public eye less nowadays, but at 86 years old, who can blame him? Nicholson is acting royalty. 

3. Robert de Niro

The Irishman Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Ray Romano
Image Credit: Netflix.

Widely regarded as the greatest actor of his generation, Scorsese's long-serving muse is a gifted method actor who came to fame in 1973's Mean Streets. He followed the '70s with several truly iconic performances. 

4. Meryl Streep 

Mamma Mia! Meryl Streep
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Streep's effortless, graceful charm is part of her repertoire, but her biggest weapon is her screen presence. Streep can play good, evil, romantic, or sadistic — any character type is on the table. 

5. Al Pacino

Scent of a Woman Al Pacino
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Al Pacino had a great, Michael Corleone-inspired '70s, though he had to reinvent himself in the '80s. However, his next iconic role, Tony Montana, saw his screen legend continue. Pacino is to cinema what Ferraris are to motor racing. 

6. Gene Wilder

Young Frankenstein Gene Wilder
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Wilder's insistence that he only play Wonka if he could perform his trademark forward-roll greeting shows Wilder's peculiar genius. The Waco Kid had soft, familiar eyes and a powerful screen aura to match expert timing. 

7. Sigourney Weaver

Alien Sigourney Weaver
Image Credit: 20th Century Studios.

Even though Weaver was somewhat typecast as a wise sage, she is the most adaptable actress out there. Weaver has played anything from a giant blue humanoid alien to a killer space mother, and she stands tall with all the acting greats. 

8. Ben Kingsley 

The Physician Ben Kingsley
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

The man who won an Oscar for playing Gandhi makes this list without question. Nothing else needs to be said except that Gandhi was his first leading role. Ben Kingsley is a screen heavyweight.

9. Tom Hanks 

A Man Called Otto Tom Hanks
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

The '80s (and most other decades since 1970) had so many Tom Hanks box-office giants it is almost unfair. Turner and Hooch (1989), Big (1988), and The ‘Burbs (1989) sit at the tip of the Hanks iceberg. Save some for the rest of us, Tom! 

10. Eddie Murphy

You People Eddie Murphy, Jonah Hill
Image Credit: Netflix.

Black America is proud of Eddie Murphy's impact on Hollywood. Axel Foley owned the '80s with hit after hit. Coming to America (1988), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), and Trading Places (1983) still retain lofty positions in American comedy history. 

11. Paul Newman 

The Prize Paul Newman
Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Paul Newman had a commendable screen career, winning several major honors. In 1987, he came close to winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in his 8-ball pool vehicle, The Color of Money (1986).

12. Frances McDormand

Burn After Reading Frances McDormand
Image Credit: Focus Features.

McDormand made some accomplished films in the '80s. It helped that she was part of the Coen Brothers' early work, such as their debut movie Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987). There is no denying her world-class acting talent.

13. Tim Roth

Tin Star Tim Roth
Image Credit: Sky Atlantic.

Tim Roth came to most Americans' attention with his opening scene in Pulp Fiction (1994), but the English actor had some storming '80s roles. No film captures his raw ability more than the controversial skinhead drama, Made in Britain (1983).

14. Richard Pryor

The Partridge Family Louis Gossett Jr., Richard Pryor
Image Credit: ABC.

There is always a danger when comedians become actors who play themselves each time. However, with Pryor's outrageous comedic persona, this is no bad thing. His buddy movie partnership with Gene Wilder struck comedy gold every time. 

15. John Candy

Delirious John Candy
Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Uncle Buck helped Candy sign off from the '80s in style, but his filmography in the ten years before is impressive. The star of Spaceballs (1987), Stripes (1981), and Brewster's Millions (1985) goes down as my personal most cherished comedy actor. 

16. Jodie Foster

The Partridge Family Jodie Foster
Image Credit: ABC.

Jodie Foster was more popular in the post-Hannibal Lecter '90s. However, in 1988, she won an Oscar for her performance in The Accused (1988). Until then, her filmography isn't the best, though her performances in each film are masterful. 

17. Bill Murray

The French Dispatch Bill Murray
Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures.

Murray garnered much attention for his comedy movies, such as Ghostbusters (1984), Scrooged (1988), and Caddyshack (1980). However, as his later career shows, he is far more than a comedy actor. 

18. Cher

Suspect Cher
Image Credit: Tri-Star Pictures.

Singers often switch to acting, though usually because of the box-office attention it brings. Cher broke the mold in 1987 when she won the Oscar for Best Actress for Moonstruck (1987).

19. Michael Douglas

The Jewel of the Nile Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Few action thrillers in the '80s didn't feature Michael Douglas. His decade was littered with hits, including The Jewel of The Nile (1985), Black Rain (1989), and Lethal Attraction (1988). He won an Oscar in 1987 for Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987). 

20. Dustin Hoffman 

Rain Man Dustin Hoffman, Valeria Golino
Image Credit: MGM/UA Communications Co.

 If you win an Oscar, you are gold for life. Hoffman's mesmerizing role alongside Tom Cruise in Rain Man (1988) is his standout moment, but what a career. 

21. Daryl Hannah

Sense8 (2015)
Image Credit: Murray Close, Studio JMS.

Few actresses can claim so many '80s smash hits. Either Daryl Hannah was very lucky in choosing roles, or she was just a great actress. I am going with the latter.

22. Matthew Broderick 

Ladyhawke Matthew Broderick
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

All you need to know is that Broderick starred in the feel-good hit of the decade, Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). He was also in Wargames (1983), showing Broderick's adaptability. This actor was an '80s icon.

23. Goldie Hawn 

Deceived Goldie Hawn
Image Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

America's comedy sweetheart starred in some splendid movies, and her mom-next-door charm endeared her to us all. Private Benjamin (1980), Wildcats (1986), and Overboard (1987) are iconic '80s fare.  

24. Andy Garcia 

Father of the Bride Andy Garcia, Adria Arjona
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures and HBO Max.

Andy Garcia never quite hit the same levels of fame as his leading peers, but he showed how versatile he was with each performance, especially in Brian De Palma's Untouchables (1987). He was one of the brilliant supporting actors of his time.

25. Harrison Ford

Shrinking Harrison Ford
Image Credit: Apple TV+.

Harrison Ford played Indiana Jones and Hans Solo — two huge icons of American culture. Contrary to popular belief, Ford did not go from being a carpenter to getting his big break. His finances, after a dwindling, decade-long acting career, needed a boost. What a fine career choice that was!

Author: Ben Rice

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Raised in England and with a career background in international education, Ben now lives in Southern Spain with his wife and son, having lived on three continents, including Africa, Asia, and North America. He has worked diverse jobs ranging from traveling film projectionist to landscape gardener.

He offers a unique, well-traveled perspective on life, with several specialties related to his travels. Ben loves writing about food, music, parenting, education, culture, and film, among many other topics. His passion is Gen-X geekery, namely movies, music, and television.

He has spent the last few years building his writing portfolio, starting as a short fiction author for a Hong Kong publisher, then moving into freelance articles and features, with bylines for various online publications, such as Wealth of Geeks, Fansided, and Detour Magazine.