From the reigning days of John Wayne to the current obsession with the TV series Yellowstone, westerns have been around for over a century. The unlawful time of the Wild West is a fascinating time period in American history and always makes for dramatic and thrilling stories on the big screen.
Countless talented actors have appeared in western movies over the years, so it was hard to narrow down the best performances of all time. Initially, I had plans to rank this list but honestly? It's too hard. These actors have all made serious contributions to the entertainment industry with their incredible skills that helped make their characters iconic and stand the test of time.
Here are the 20 best performances by an actor in a western movie. These memorable roles range from the classic films of the 50s to modern Oscar-winning hits.
Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Honestly, with this classic, you've got to include both actors because they just might be the best duo in the history of western movies. The film follows the two outlaws on the run from the law after a slew of train robberies. They perfectly brought these two real Wild West legends to the big screen, and truthfully, I don't think anyone would be able to top their performances in a future remake.
Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven
In the golden age of westerns (the 60s) came the timeless classic The Magnificent Seven. It was so good it got its own sequel and even a remake decades later with Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. The original featured an all-star cast with McQueen, Charles Bronson and Yul Brynner leading a group of gunfighters who come to the aid of a Mexican village in need. McQueen is particularly perfect in this film as the drifter Vin Tanner, a seriously talented gunslinger who helps save the village from a group of cruel bandits.
James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Jimmy Stewart, paired with one of the biggest western movie stars of all time, gives you one heck of a memorable performance. Stewart starred opposite John Wayne as Ransom "Ranse" Stoddard, a local politician looking to clean things up in a western town terrorized by the criminal Liberty Valance. For the sake of the town and a lovely lady, he takes credit for winning a gunfight against Valance when it was actually John Wayne's character behind the trigger. Its a great performance you don't normally get in the Old West and a reminder that not everyone back in that time was a hero or an outlaw — someone had to be focused on the future.
Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
In maybe one of the most beloved spaghetti westerns of all time, Clint Eastwood stars as "the Good," Lee Van Cleef as "the Bad," and Wallach as "the Ugly." Wallach's character Tuco, or 'The Rat,' was a Mexican bandit who added some serious comic relief to the western and became one of the most memorable performances based on all of the things Wallach brought to the character.
Jeff Bridges in True Grit
True Grit may be remembered as the movie that finally earned John Wayne his only Oscar, but Jeff Bridges was born to play the gruff anti-hero Rooster Cogburn. There probably isn't another actor alive who could have taken on such a legendary role and made it somehow even more memorable than the original.
Gary Cooper in High Noon
Highly regarded as one of the greatest westerns of all time, High Noon was one of the first 25 films selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Cooper stars as Marshal Will Kane, who, in real-time, must decide if he wants to face a group of outlaws or ride off into the sunset with his love. The role was originally offered to John Wayne, but Cooper went on to win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance.
Alan Ladd in Shane
Another western that's frequently regarded as one of the best of all time. Based on the novel by Jack Schaefer, Shane is a mysterious drifter and talented gunslinger who befriends the son of a farmer while helping defend their town against criminals. The final scene has become iconic as Shane rides away with the young boy Joey calling after him.
Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained
Though DiCaprio earned his Oscar for The Revenant, his villainous Mr. Calvin Candie in Django Unchained is unparalleled. He's terrifying as a horrific plantation owner on a plantation known as "Candyland" and potentially one of the best villains I've ever seen in a western. Though Christoph Waltz certainly earned his Best Supporting Actor win for German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, DiCaprio definitely deserved a nomination.
Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West
After the Dollars trilogy, spaghetti western director Sergio Leone initially wanted a break from westerns. But when Paramount offered up Henry Fonda and the opportunity to write a new western film, you can't say no to that. Fonda went against his usual type and starred as the villain, Frank, with Charles Bronson as the protagonist, Harmonica. Fonda's performance really made the film and turned it into a timeless classic.
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men
One of the most interesting bad guys you'll ever see in a film is Javier Barden in the modern western No Country for Old Men. Bardem earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Anton Chigurh, a mysterious hitman with the craziest murder weapon.
John Wayne in The Searchers
Probably one of the most legendary actors to bring the Wild West to the big screen is John Wayne. Films like Red River and Rio Bravo stand the test of time, but some of his most successful roles came from working with director John Ford. Stagecoach turned Wayne into a household name, but perhaps one of his greatest roles was Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Widely believed to be one of the best films of all time (let alone the best western), the story is inspired by real events. Ethan Edwards searches for his niece Debbie who Commanches kidnapped as a child. She now has integrated into the Commanche's culture and doesn't want to leave, leading to family conflict on the rescue mission.
Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves
Of course, you have to include the performance that's credited with re-popularizing the western genre! Costner earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Union Army Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, a man wanting to see the last of the American frontier who ends up finding a home and a family with the local Lakota tribe.
Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight
Samuel L. Jackson has been in just about every kind of movie you could think of. Science fiction, thriller, weird indie films. The man does it all. And he's amazing in everything. He's one of Quentin Tarantino's go-to guys and was perfect as the bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren in The Hateful Eight. Somehow he manages to make the character humorous as well as dangerous. And don't forget the ongoing story throughout the film about how he has a letter from Abraham Lincoln.
Sam Elliott in 1883
This is the only TV show included on this list because it really is Sam Elliott at his best. He's made a career earning a reputation starring in westerns (despite being from Oregon), but his performance as Union Army Captain Shea Brennan was really special. In the Yellowstone prequel, Shea helps lead a group of immigrants travel from Texas out West for a new start. It's a layered character...he's a man recovering from the trauma of war who also lost his entire family. He has nothing left but risks his life anyway to protect those in need.
Kurt Russell in Bone Tomahawk
This film is not for the faint of heart. There are some seriously disturbing scenes making it much more gritty and violent than your average western. But Russell gives a mesmerizing performance as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, a small-town lawman who leads a rescue mission to save three people who were abducted by a violent group.
Glenn Ford in 3:10 to Yuma
As much fun as the remake was with Christian Bale, you really can't beat the original 3:10 to Yuma. Glenn Ford stars opposite Van Heflin as the outlaw Ben Wade. It's an entertaining performance to say the least, making him the ultimate anti-hero you're rooting for throughout the film.
Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Brad Pitt is great in pretty much everything, but his performance as the famous outlaw Jesse James was really something. Casey Affleck perfectly compliments him as Robert Ford; his friend turned foe who ends up killing him in the end. Pitt was charismatic and charming, making this film a memorable western in recent decades.
Val Kilmer in Tombstone
Tombstone boasts one of the most epic casts you'll ever see. Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell? Can't get much better. As much fun as Russell was as Wyatt Earp, the film goes to Kilmer for his incredible performance as Doc Holliday. He perfectly nailed his sickly nature towards the end of his life, his quick wit and sharpshooter skills during the legendary time surrounding the O.K. Corral shootout.
Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven
Clint Eastwood is easily one of the most prominent western movie actors of all time. Between the Dollars Trilogy and The Outlaw Josey Wales, Eastwood has been in almost more westerns than you can count. But perhaps his greatest performance is in his Oscar winner Unforgiven, as William Munny, a retired outlaw who takes on one last job.
Enjoy Country Music?
Sign up for daily stories delivered straight to your inbox.