The Leading Man in Hollywood the Year You Were Born

From Denzel to DiCaprio, Reynolds and Redford, here's who was on the biggest hot streak every year since 1970.

The Leading Man in Hollywood the Year You Were Born
The Leading Man in Hollywood the Year You Were Born

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed in Hollywood, it’s that there’s always a new star waiting to emerge. From the greats like Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson to the newcomers of recent years, find out which actor was having a hot streak the year you were born.

1970: Robert Redford

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid premiered in 1969, so by 1970 Robert Redford was a household name. His newfound fame led to an enviable career throughout the ’70s.

1971: Clint Eastwood

“Dirty” Harry Callahan is still one of Clint Eastwood’s most well-known roles to date. The film, which premiered in 1971, was so successful it was turned into a franchise series and the role quickly earned Eastwood recognition as one of Hollywood’s greats.

1972: Billy Dee Williams

Billy Dee Williams costarred in the hit movie Lady Sings the Blues with Diana Ross in 1972 and remained an on-screen constant throughout the ’70s, with appearances in films like Brian’s Song and Mahogany.

1973: Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando established his career in the ’50s and ’60s, so by the ’70s he was already one of Hollywood’s most iconic actors. But in 1973 he garnered even more attention when he refused his Academy Award for Best Actor in protest.

1974: Sidney Poitier

By the mid-’70s, Sidney Poitier had already made history as the first Black man to win an Academy Award. In 1974, the actor decided to work on the other side of the lens and made a name for himself as a director when directed and starred in Uptown Saturday Night.

1975: James Caan

Who else could replace the charming Omar Sharif in the Funny Girl sequel, Funny Lady? Try James Caan. The actor swept in as the romantic lead and won over the hearts of audiences, as well as that of Fanny Brice.

1976: Robert De Niro

Shortly after his first starring film role in Mean Streets, Robert De Niro took on the intense role of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. The method actor even obtained his taxi driver’s license to prepare for the role, which paid off seeing as he was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Actor for his work in the film.

1977: Roger Moore

Roger Moore took over Sean Connery’s role as James Bond in the franchise in 1973 and his third film, The Spy Who Loved Me, made 1977 a big year for him. Moore went on to star in four more James Bond films.

1978: Ryan O’Neal

Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw stole the hearts of American in the 1970 film Love Story. O’Neal portrayed Oliver Barrett IV once more in the sequel, Oliver’s Story, in 1978.

1979: Martin Sheen

After rising to fame in 1968 thanks to The Subject Was Roses, the 1979 war movie Apocalypse Now earned Sheen recognition as an A-lister. Despite an impressive cast (Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Marlon Brando, and Laurence Fishburne), Sheen stood out in the leading role.

1980: Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson earned his breakout role in the counterculture classic Easy Rider in 1969. It wasn’t long before he was landing major roles and raking in Oscar nominations. However, it was his spine-chilling performance as Jack Torrance in The Shining that solidified his status in the industry.

1981: Burt Reynolds

The year is 1981. Burt Reynolds—and his mustache—is no stranger to the Hollywood film world. But his role in the hit movie The Cannonball Run made him the undisputed leading man of the year.

1982: Richard Gere

Richard Gere swept audiences, and Debra Winger, off their feet in the 1982 romantic drama An Officer and a Gentleman. Gere’s role firmly placed him atop the list of Hollywood’s leading men—and this was all pre-Cindy Crawford.

1983: The Brat Pack

While the term wasn’t officially coined until a 1985 New York Magazine article about The Breakfast Club, we have to give recognition to the true beginning of the “Brat Pack,” a.k.a. the 1983 film The Outsiders. Many credit the movie with launching the careers of actors like Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, and more.

1984: Ralph Macchio

Ralph Macchio appeared in the 1984 cinema classic The Karate Kid and, one could argue, is responsible for a whole generation of teenagers attempting to earn their black belt. Of course, Pat Morita played a big part in that as well.

1985: Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox seemingly set up his entire future when he landed the starring role in Back to the Future. The film was one of the decade’s most successful and launched Fox’s career from sitcom star (Family Ties) to movie star.

1986: Tom Cruise

Are you a Goose or a Maverick? Tom Cruise’s cool-guy persona as a Navy fighter pilot in Top Gun has surely made you wish you were a Maverick—even if most of us aren’t.

1987: Michael Douglas

The same year Fatal Attraction was released, Michael Douglas scooped up an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in Wall Street. A.k.a. the man had an incredible run circa 1987.

1988: Harrison Ford

We first saw Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars, then he portrayed a rugged explorer in Indiana Jones. By the late ’80s, Ford proved he could also play a romantic lead, when he appeared in the 1988 film Working Girl.

1989: Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton responded to Hollywood’s bat signal and put on the cape in the ’80s to portray the iconic superhero. He starred in Batman in 1989 and was also coincidentally dating a pre-famous Courteney Cox at the time.

1990: Patrick Swayze

By 1990, Patrick Swayze had already captured America’s hearts and proved himself as one of Hollywood’s top leading men. However, his role in Ghost only further solidified Swayze’s status as box office gold.

1991: Laurence Fishburne

Laurence Fishburne established himself as one of the top actors throughout the late ’80s, but he undoubtedly became a leading man after his role in the 1991 film Boyz n the Hood.

1992: Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner got people’s attention with his Academy Award-winning film Dances with Wolves, which he directed and starred in. Two years later, he appeared in The Bodyguard, a romantic drama costarring Whitney Houston, proving he could be a romantic lead too.

1993: Robin Williams

Robin Williams’ role in Mrs. Doubtfire made us laugh, cry, and became an instant classic. For that, we proudly name the late Robin Williams 1993’s leading man.

1994: Morgan Freeman

From Driving Miss Daisy to Glory, we already knew Morgan Freeman could deliver a command performance. But his role in Shawshank Redemption in 1994 is considered one of his best performances of all time.

1995: Pierce Brosnan

The year 1995 is known to many (no, just us?) as the year Pierce Brosnan took over the role of James Bond. The actor made his debut in the franchise in the film GoldenEye.

1996: Will Smith

After his ’90s sitcom success in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will Smith tested his talents on the big screen. It was his leading role in 1996’s Independence Day that turned him into one of Hollywood’s most sought after leading men.

1997: Matt Damon

Pre-Bourne trilogy, Matt Damon entered Hollywood as a heavy-hitting newcomer when he wrote and starred in Good Will Hunting. The movie was a smash hit, and the following year Damon was a double nominee at the Academy Awards as a result.

1998: Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks rose to fame in the early ’80s and has since become one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, pivoting from comedies like Splash to dramas like Forrest Gump. In 1998, Hanks not only got his handprint at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, but he starred in Saving Private Ryan.

1999: Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves rose to fame in 1989 in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but by 1999 he switched gears from comedy to heading up a little franchise called The Matrix. No big deal.

2000: Christian Bale

Before The Dark Knight and The Fighter, it was already evident that Christian Bale was a star. After appearing in American Psycho in 2000—one of his biggest role to date—Bale became one of the hottest actors in Hollywood.

2001: Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington is known for serious, dramatic roles—and for starring in one hit after another. His 2001 film Training Day was released shortly after another big hit: Remember the Titans.

2002: Hugh Grant

Proving that he was a Hollywood star here to stay, Hugh Grant released not one, but two romantic comedies in 2002. First up was About a Boy, which he followed with Two Weeks Notice.

2003: Arnold Schwarzenegger

Not only did the third Terminator film drop in 2003, but Arnold Schwarzenegger was sworn into office as Governor of California too. The bodybuilder turned actor turned politician took a hiatus from the screen during his time in office.

2004: Don Cheadle

Don Cheadle rightfully makes this list after delivering two acclaimed performances in 2004, in Crash and Hotel Rwanda. His performance in the latter film even earned the actor an Academy Award nomination.

2005: Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt starred Mr. & Mrs. Smith in 2005. Although the reviews for the film weren’t great, the actor delivered drama on-screen and off when after an affair with his costar, Angelina Jolie, caused him to split from Jennifer Aniston.

2006: Forest Whitaker

In the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland, Forest Whitaker completely encapsulated Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The actor’s performance was so highly acclaimed that he won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his work.

2007: Emile Hirsch

There was a lot of buzz surrounding the 2007 film adaptation of The New York Times best-selling book and real-life story of Chris McCandless. Emile Hirsch proved that he was up to the task of assuming the role of the hiker in Into the Wild.

2008: Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger was hailed for his incredible performances in films like Brokeback Mountain and The Patriot. He took on the Joker in The Dark Knight, but tragically passed away before it was released. He was posthumously awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.

2009: Jeremy Renner

Before he frequented roles in action films, Jeremy Renner had to prove himself as a leading man. He did so—passing with flying colors—in the Academy Award-winning film, The Hurt Locker.

2010: Robert Pattinson

It was peak Twilight-mania when Robert Pattinson strayed from the multi-part saga to lead up the romantic comedy Remember Me. It’s safe to say, he was a big deal in 2010—unless you were Team Jacob.

2011: George Clooney

George Clooney had long been one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men, but his role in 2011’s The Ides of March was just another feather in the star’s cap.

2012: Jamie Foxx

Django Unchained was one of the most talked-about dramas of the year, earning several Academy Awards. Amidst a star-heavy cast (Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, and Samuel L. Jackson), Jamie Foxx set himself apart in one of his best performances to date.

2013: Paul Walker

Paul Walker was the long-standing star of the Fast and Furious franchise and made his final appearance in the series in the Fast & Furious 6. Sadly, he passed away from a car accident in 2013.

2014: Chris Pratt

After becoming a fan favorite as the lovable Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation, Chris Pratt became a leading man with a major glow-up in 2014. First, he starred in Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, then he appeared in Jurassic World the following year.

2015: Michael B. Jordan

Budding star Michael B. Jordan placed the Rocky franchise on his back when he signed on to lead the next generation of the story in Creed. The actor was already part of Marvel’s Fantastic Four franchise before signing onto the film series.

2016: Leonardo DiCaprio

Let’s face it, Leonardo DiCaprio could have been named leading man most years, but 2016 is when he (finally) won an Oscar and order was restored to the universe. After a career with too many impressive performances to count, DiCaprio nabbed the statue for The Revenant.

2017: Kumail Nanjiani

In 2017, Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, debuted the film they co-wrote, The Big Sick, which was based on their relationship and starred Nanjiani. The actor was also starring in the hit HBO show Silicon Valley.

2018: Chadwick Boseman

Chadwick Boseman was everywhere in 2018, thanks to his leading role in Black Panther. Here, he embodies his character with the “Wakanda Forever” hand gesture on the red carpet. Sadly, Boseman passed away in 2020 after a secret battle with colon cancer.

2019: Henry Golding

After a breakout year as the star of 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, Henry Golding followed his performance up with a role in The Gentleman. But honestly, his red carpet style alone could convince us of his leading man status.

2020: Anthony Mackie

It was announced in 2020 that Anthony Mackie would take over Marvel’s Captain America franchise, making him the first Black Captain America. In addition to the Avengers franchise, Mackie has starred in dramas like The Hurt Locker and Million Dollar Baby.

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