I’ve been watching a fair bit of 70s cinema of late, and one thing that has struck me is the marked difference between the leading men of that time compared to the leading men of today. Male film stars in the 70s were far more masculine, their characters far less in touch with their emotions than the modern heroes of action cinema. These days every film hero seems to need a moment of internal reflection, whereas in the past it seemed the only thing necessary was a healthy dose of testosterone.
So, join me as I count down the top ten Alpha Males from the era when ties were fat, lapels loomed large, trousers flared, and hair was unruly.
Topping the list is Steve McQueen. There’s no doubting McQueen’s masculinity. The son of a stunt pilot and a prostitute, McQueen had something of a tumultuous childhood, which may account for his quiet, tough guy persona.
Steve McQueen was something of a contradiction. A runaway, a gang member, a petty criminal, a U.S Marine, and member of the Presidential Honour Guard, he was all these and yet so much more. Despite becoming a Hollywood leading man, he was more at home racing fast cars and rugged motorcycles than he was acting in movies and his collection of classic cars included a Ferrari 250 Lusso Berlinetta, a Jaguar D-Type XKSS, and a Porsche 356 Speedster. He also had a vast collection of vintage motorcycles.
In 1974 he was the highest paid actor in the world, having starred in films such as Bullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Great Escape, The Towering Inferno, and The Magnificent Seven. Despite this, he then gave up acting for four years.
He married one of the most beautiful actresses of the era – Ali McGraw – and had an ultra-cool pad in Palm Springs designed by Hugh M. Kaptur.
He was a man who rocked a suit, but also had his own dressed down sense of style that still looks fresh today – just ask Daniel Craig. He is still remembered as the “King of Cool” and who are we to argue with that?
Cool , lean, and good-looking, Newman was already a cimematic heart-throb by the 1970s, having the likes of Hud, The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid under his belt.
During the 70s he starred alongside Robert Redford in The Sting, and Steve McQueen in The Towering Inferno. In fact, in a war for top billing, McQueen and Newman were each afforded exactly the same number of lines and had their names appear diagonally on the opening credits.
Newman, like McQueen was also passionate about motor racing. He loved fast cars and motorcycles, and he raced professionally even into his seventies.
As to his alpha status, well, how many men can sell salad dressing and still remain an icon of cool?
Quite a handsome fellow, this Redford chap. In a career that has spanned half a decade and still going strong, by the 70’s Redford was already a firmly established actor with a number of film roles under his belt. But it was 69’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that really established his name. Equaling Paul Newman is no easy task, but Redford carried it off with ease. In fact, this was such a great pairing that 1973 saw them partnered up again for The Sting.
With his fair looks and easy charm, Redford was the epitome of cool and was perfectly cast in The Great Gatsby. So much so, it’s almost impossible to read the book without Redford’s face flitting into your mind.
Also starring in two of the decade’s great conspiracy thrillers – Three Days of the Condor, and All the President’s Men – Redford became an icon of 70s cool, with a style that still endures to this day.
What to say about this man? In 2008’s Gran Torino, aged 78, he manages to scare a bunch of street thugs simply by pointing his finger at them like a pistol. It’s very doubtful any other actor could have made that work.
During the 70s, having already affirmed his place in cinema history by playing the iconoclastic “man with no name”, Eastwood doubles up by adding “Dirty” Harry Callahan to his list of legendary roles.
His style in the 70s was like some crazy-haired supply teacher, sporting ties almost as wide as they were long and plaid sports jackets with elbow patches, but remember, this is a man who wore could wear a poncho and made it look good.
Eastwood has made a career out of playing tough, no-nonsense alpha males and at age 83 still manages to inspire.
Jack needs almost no introduction. He’s a living legend and an icon in his own right. By the 70s he was already an established actor. In 1969’s Easy Rider, he’d delivered a cameo performance that practically stole the movie. However, it was his turns in Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Chinatown, and particularly One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, that really cemented his status.
These days, Nicholson is almost a pastiche of himself, never seen without his Wayfarers and his trademark maniacal grin, but he still remains one of the greatest American actors of all time and, by all accounts, a man who still knows how to party.
The alpha and the Omega Man, Heston has played some of the most famous alpha males in cinema. Few men have had the Biblical presence and machismo that Heston brought to his roles, which included John The Baptist, Moses, and God. He played Marc Anthony in 1950’s Julius Caesar then played the character again 20 years later in the 1970 production.
His turns in The Omega Man, Soylent Green, and Earthquake in the 70s showed the world that, even in his fifties, Heston still had the requisite cojónes to show the younger men who was boss.
There are few men who had it as hard as Charles Bronsan. Coming from a poor Polish immigrant family, he only learnt to speak English in his teens. Apparently, his family were so poor that at one time he had to wear his sister’s dress to school. He worked from a very young age in a Pennsylvania coal mine which lead to him becoming extremely claustrophobic.
He served in the airforce during World War II aboard a B-29 Superfortress and he received a Purple Heart for the injuries he sustained.
His career took off in the 60s, featuring in films such as The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and The Dirty Dozen, but it is the Death Wish films of the 70s that many people remember him for.
Death Wish and The Mechanic played off Brosnan’s tough guy persona and his reputation as something of a loner and whilst Death Wish may have been unnecessarily violent, there can be little dispute that Paul Kersey is one of cinema’s toughest characters and at the heart of the film is a performance by a man who is every inch the alpha male.
Many of you reading this will wonder at Burt’s inclusion on this list, but when it comes to the alpha males of the 1970s, Reynolds is something of a legend. A genuine man’s man, he was the epitome the hirsute, mustachioed, macho man that typified the men of the era.
Reynolds was one of the most popular and highest paid movie stars of the decade and his films, including Deliverance, White Lightning, Smokey and the Bandit, The Longest Yard, and Hooper, were hugely successful.
To illustrate just how big a deal Reynolds was at the time, producer “Cubby” Broccoli offered him the role of James Bond after Sean Connery left the series. To his credit, Reynolds turned the role down, believing no American could play the part.
His role in Deliverance as the macho Lewis Medlock is arguably his best, but it his comedic turns in Smokey and the Bandit (and later The Cannonball Run), for which he is best remembered.
Admittedly, his style hasn’t exactly endured in the way that the likes of McQueen or Robert Redford’s has, but there can be no denying that Burt Reynolds is one of the quintessential alpha males of 70s cinema.
Gene Hackman? Yes, Gene Hackman. Whilst not the most obvious choice for alpha male, Hackman’s turn as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle showed us a man who was not afraid to break a few rules, bones, or cars in pursuit of his foes, as one of the best car chases in cinematic history aptly demonstrates. Uncompromising and hard as nails, Popeye makes modern cinematic cops look like pussy(cat)s. Hackman’s performance in The French Connection earnt him a Best Actor Oscar. This, and the fact he can wear a ridiculous hat and still look completely serious makes Hackman’s inclusion in the list a must.
“Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft!” Damn right. Richard Roundtree exploded into the public consciousness with this “blacksploitation” thriller that showed us a black actor who was tough as nails and took no prisoners. Few black actors since have had the impact Roundtree had with Shaft and those that have had the doors kicked down for them by his performance.
Yes, Shaft is exploitative, there are too many racially motivated jokes, and it is essentially a pastiche noir, but Roundtree performance gives the character iconic status which helped to change social attitudes towards black people in American.
Now, I’m sure there are people who I could have included on this list and perhaps some people I should have. It is by no means intended to be exhaustive or even that serious. However, if you feel like I really missed the mark or there’s someone you think should be on there, let me know in the comments below.