Surly, cantankerous, grouchy, glum – these are all words one might use to describe the iconic actor Tommy Lee Jones, a performer known for his sullen appearance in numerous films over the years. With a career spanning just over five decades, Jones has perfected the art of playing gruff leading men in Hollywood, thanks mainly to his Academy Award-winning role in 1993’s The Fugitive.
Since then, Jones has only continued making the rounds in the film industry, starring in thrillers, comedies, neo-Westerns, and superhero films to varying degrees of success. From his breakthrough films in the 1970s to his later Oscar-nominated roles, some of Tommy Lee Jones’ greatest performances ranked from best to worst.
Of course, it had to be The Fugitive. The film that won Jones his first and so far only Academy Award, it’s also responsible for giving the actor a major career resurgence beginning in the early ‘90s as U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard, Jones inhabits his role with the dedication and standing of Elliott Ness. Motivated entirely by the law, his singular purpose is to catch Harrison Ford’s fugitive not out of personal gain or vindictive emotion but because it’s his job. It’s a fantastic performance, and one best summed up by Jones’ immortal response to Ford’s character claiming he didn’t kill his wife: “I don’t care!”
Technically, Lonesome Dove isn’t a movie – but as miniseries can be described as six-hour-long films, we decided to count it, anyway. Besides, you can’t look at the grand trajectory of Jones’ career and not bring up Lonesome Dove. Released four years before The Fugitive, the series provided Jones with his meatiest role up to that point. Opposite series lead Robert Duvall as the workaholic lawman, Woodrow F. Call, Jones rises above any cliches or stereotypes one associates with a Western hero. Restless, withdrawn, and wholly dedicated to his work, Call is an elderly cowboy unable to hang up his hat and six-shooter and settle down – fearing the stagnant life that will result from retirement.
No Country for Old Men
An all-around fantastic film from the consistently great Coen brothers, Jones’ performance in No Country for Old Men tends to be overshadowed by his co-star Javier Bardem, who hands in one of the most terrifying performances of all time as the demonic hitman, Anton Chigurh. Nevertheless, Jones certainly holds his own as Ed Tom Bell, a world-weary, small-town sheriff in Texas who feels increasingly disconnected from the world around him. As philosophical as Woodrow Call and as burnt-out as Men in Black’s Agent K, Ed Tom maintains a tenuous grasp of his surroundings, the senseless violence of his era clashing with his gentle view of human nature.
The most recent film which saw Jones gain an Oscar nomination, Lincoln is Steven Spielberg’s illuminating portrait of the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis). Set amidst the final days of the American Civil War, Jones figures into the plot as the Radical Republican abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. An unwavering idealist motivated by a strict moral code, Stevens makes for an interesting foil to Day-Lewis’s Lincoln. While both maintain hopeful visions for America’s future, their conflicting views cause them to resent and fear the other, Lincoln believing Stevens’ view too impractical, Stevens asserting Lincoln’s view too moderate and ineffectual.
Men in Black
It’s incredible to see how fantastic a buddy cop pairing Jones and his co-star Will Smith make in the 1997 sci-fi action comedy Men in Black. As with the best comedic duos, Smith and Jones are hilariously mismatched as the smart-mouthed street cop and the more refined veteran agent, respectively. Despite their apparent differences, though, the two display continuous loyalty to each other. Jones appears as a wiser, albeit more weary Agent K in one of the actor’s most popular films.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
If there’s one word to describe The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, it’s underrated. Released one year before 2007’s No Country for Old Men, it shares many similarities to the Coens’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, especially in terms of Jones’ appearance in the film. Like No Country’s Ed Tom, Melquiades Estrada’s Pete Perkins is a man who holds to one’s morals, perhaps even more so than he does law and order, helping his best friend’s killer seek fundamental forgiveness for his past actions.
Coal Miner's Daughter
Easily the biggest film of Jones’ early career, 1980s Coal Miner’s Daughter helped Jones secure a definitive place in the film industry, capturing a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Though Sissy Spacek steals the show as country music singer Loretta Lynn, Jones does a remarkable job as her husband, Doolittle. Doolittle is a loving husband and dedicated music manager who displays genuine warmth and affection for his talented wife, helping her succeed as a singer.
The ‘90s proved to be a fortuitous period for Jones, who began the decade with his 1991 film JFK and continued his success with 1993’s The Fugitive. In the case of the former, Jones appears as a shady businessman/possible CIA agent Clay Shaw, a man supposedly at the heart of the JFK assassination conspiracy. The foremost target for Kevin Costner’s stalwart attorney Jim Garrison in his legal crusade for the truth, Jones excels at portraying a man we’re never entirely sure the motives of.
Natural Born Killers
In some obvious ways, Jones’ performance in 1994’s Natural Born Killers feels like a cross between his roles in JFK and Batman Forever. Possessing the flamboyant attitude of JFK’s Clay Shaw, Jones’ corrupt prison warden McClusky has a fiery temper he often lets dictate his actions, not completely unlike Jones’ over-the-top portrayal of Batman foe, Two-Face. A flagrant hypocrite who’s only slightly better than the film’s serial killing couple, McClusky makes for a fascinating antagonist to Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis’s characters, infusing plenty of dark humor into his performance.
An all-too-rare villainous performance from Jones, Under Siege casts the typically heroic actor as the main antagonist of the 1992’s action film, Under Siege. Playing CIA assassin-turned-rogue mercenary William Strannix, Jones essentially fulfills the role of Hans Gruber in this exceptionally well-made Die Hard knockoff. Embittered by the betrayal of his superiors, Strannix looks to wreak havoc on the world for his tenuous treatment. Decked out in classic hippie apparel and professing his love for all things the ‘60s, he makes for a wonderful villain, outshining Steven Seagal’s wooden performance as the bland hero, Casey Ryback.
One of the earliest, most notable films that Jones appeared in was 1977’s revenge thriller Rolling Thunder. A great favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s, this cult film sees Jones star as the supporting character, retired Master Sergeant Johnny Vohden. A Vietnam War veteran and best friend of main character Charles Rane (William Devane), Vohden displays loyalty to his fellow soldiers and uncertainty about adjusting to post-military life. Like Rambo or Apocalypse Now’s Willard (Martin Sheen), he begins to believe the only thing he’s made for is serving on the battlefield.
On paper, casting Tommy Lee Jones as influential center fielder Ty Cobb in 1994’s biographical sports film, Cobb, seems odd. Watching the finished movie, however, Jones routinely wins you over with his layered performance as Cobb, the self-proclaimed “most hated man in baseball.” Though the film's historical accuracy is dubious at best, Jones’ portrayal of Cobb paints an interesting portrait of the M.L.B. legend. This man can’t help but be horrible and unpleasant to everyone around him.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Younger viewers might recognize Jones more prominently from his supporting role in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger as U.S. Army officer and S.H.I.E.L.D. founder, Colonel Chester Phillips. While Phillips himself may be a somewhat stereotypical character – he’s an aloof, traditional-minded authoritative military leader – Jones does a more than admirable job giving his comic book counterpart enough life to breathe freely on the screen.