Actors have been struggling with typecasting since the beginning of cinema. A common pattern is when a renowned “good guy” actor will break type by portraying a menacing villain. There are many recent examples of this trend, like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Tom Cruise in Collateral, and Elijah Wood in Sin City/Maniac. However, like typecasting, taking the bad guy role in contrast with a good guy image has been occurring since the days of classic Hollywood. Here are 10 examples of when classic good guys played the villain, and some of them are quite surprising.
FULL SPOILERS AHEAD.
10. Spencer Tracy – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Spencer Tracy was one of the biggest bona fide movie stars during the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was the first actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor In A Leading Role two years in a row, a feat that only Tom Hanks has accomplished since. His popularity was cemented when he teamed up with Katherine Hepburn, which led to them making nine movies together and becoming one of the biggest duos in Hollywood history. He was given the chance to show his dramatic range as an actor when he played in the duel title role in the 1941 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Tracy played both the noble and doomed Jekyll, and the menacing and terrible Hyde. The film is not remembered as one of Tracy’s best, but was still an opportunity for the popular leading man to display a darker side of human nature.
9. Fred Astaire – Mr. Lucifer
The greatest song and dance man of all time, Fred Astaire has tap danced his way to the status of Hollywood legend. In the early 60’s, Astaire became the host of Alcoa Premiere, a weekly dramatic anthology tv series, in which he displayed his talents as a serious actor. In one of the first episodes, Astaire played the title role in Mr. Lucifer. His role was a conniving, manipulating, businessman who turns out to be, as the title suggests, the Devil himself. Astaire is just as charming and welcoming as always, somewhat fitting for evil incarnate.
8. Jimmy Stewart – After The Thin Man
When the American Film Institute released their list of the top movie heroes and villains, Jimmy Stewart was the actor to appear twice in the top twelve film heroes. First for the character of George Bailey in the holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life, and secondly as the title character in Mr Smith Goes To Washington. Both these films established Stewart’s cinematic reputation as the little guy up against cold and heartless bureaucracy. Stewart stuck to the crusading leading man role for the majority of his career, and as a result, his only role as the bad guy came in one of his first movies. After The Thin Man was a somewhat light hearted murder mystery based on a series of pulp detective novels. Stewart plays the murderer whose identity is revealed towards the end of the film. While this role may not be as shocking as others on this list, just seeing Stewart as anything other than the noble leading man comes as a surprise.
7. Humphrey Bogart – The Petrified Forest
The man who will forever be known as Rick in Casablanca, possibly the greatest romance ever made, had his first major career success playing a villainous gangster. In The Petrified Forest, Bogart plays Duke Mantee, a mobster who invades a family dinner at restaurant with his group of thugs and takes the family hostage. The police are in hot pursuit and quickly surround the restaurant, causing Bogart’s character to use the family as human shields. Bogart’s character is ruthless, and he murders patrons in the restaurant in a bid to stave off his inevitable demise at the hands of the police. Six years later, Bogart starred in Casablanca and became one of the most famous romantic leads in cinema history.
6. Angela Lansbury – The Manchurian Candidate
Although she is best known for her decade of mystery and murder solving on TV, Angela Lansbury had a long career as a Hollywood actress before taking on the role of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. Her turn as a villain came in the original 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate, where she plays the mother of the titular character. In the film, her son was an American soldier taken prisoner during the Korean War and brainwashed into assassinating a presidential candidate. Lansbury’s character initially comes across the sympathetic mother thrilled to have her son return, but it is slowly revealed that she is communist double agent who coldly and mercilessly manipulates her family and all those around her.
5. Henry Fonda – Once Upon A Time In The West
His role in 12 Angry Men as the only juror not willing to immediately find a young man guilty based on flimsy evidence, solidified Henry Fonda’s reputation as a classic Hollywood good guy. His deliberately played against type when he starred in Once Upon A Time In The West. Directed by legend Sergio Leone, the film was a brutal and uncompromising Western. In the opening minutes, Henry Fonda actually murders a child with absolutely no emotion, and his violent streak continues for the rest of the film. The behind the scenes story is that Fonda showed up to set with a beard and contacts to darken his famous blue eyes, only to immediately be ordered by Leone to remove both. The director want Fonda’s icy blue stare to be on full display from the first moment in his role as the villainous Frank. Audiences were shocked, Fonda’s performance was acclaimed, and the filmed is regarded as a classic of the genre.
4. Andy Griffith – A Face In The Crowd
That’s right, Mayberry’s own played a bad guy. Andy Griffith became an icon as the star of his self titled tv show during the 1960’s. He played the kind hearted sheriff of a quaint small town, who always did the right thing and taught moral lessons every week. He later created another famous upstanding tv character in the crusading lawyer of Matlock. But years before his tv fame, a younger Andy Griffith starred in the 1957 film A Face In The Crowd. He plays a small town radio host who is catapulted into national fame when chosen as the new host of a Tonight Show type program. The movie takes a dark turn when Griffith’s character descends into megalomania, obsessed with fame and the power and control it gives him. He comes to despise his audience, and only seeks to extend his time in the limelight. Not exactly Mayberry, is it?
3. Gregory Peck – The Boys From Brazil
One of the giants of classic cinema, Gregory Peck made a career of playing tough but honorable men who weren’t afraid to challenge the evil of the world. He is best remembered for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, the lawyer who led a noble but doomed crusade against racial injustice, in the 1962 adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird. The American Film Institute ranked Peck’s role to be the greatest on screen hero in cinema history. This must have made it an even bigger shock to see Gregory Peck play as Nazi hiding in South America in the 1978 film The Boys In Brazil. And Peck didn’t play just any Nazi, he played Dr Josef Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz doctor and one of the most evil people to ever exist. It was a far cry from Atticus Finch, to say the least.
2. Frank Sinatra – Suddenly
With his place in pop culture secured as the greatest big band crooner of all time, and George Clooney now linked to his most famous after the Oceans 11 remake, Sinatra’s film career is often overlooked. He appeared in dozens of films and even won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1956. Buried among his filmography is his only role as villain in Suddenly. In this film, Sinatra plays the leader of a gang of hired killers. They break into a family’s home and take them hostage, in order to use their house as vantage point to, get this, assassinate the President. That’s right, Ol’ Blues Eyes himself tries to kill the President. This film came out in 1954 and after the JFK assassination nine years later, Suddenly became little seen and hard to find, and rumors suggested that Sinatra himself attempted to have the film removed from circulation.
1. Ronald Reagan – The Killers
Everybody knows that Ronald Reagan had a marginally successful film career before entering politics. He was in Westerns and schmaltzy romances and screwball comedies – we’ve all seen the picture of Reagan with his monkey co-star. What most people haven’t seen is Reagan’s turn as villainous mob boss, who full on slaps a woman, in The Killers. Adapted from an Ernest Hemingway short story in 1962, this was Reagan’s final film role, and the only time he portrayed a bad guy. Just five years later Reagan was elected Governor of California, and started on the path to the White House.