Actors come and go, but many reach an iconic status that leaves them among the most famous and memorable of all time, spanning generations. Some have achieved this high level relatively early in their theatrical careers. While it is difficult to narrow down the Top 10 young male actors, there are some who represent decades of excellence that will be hard for new and upcoming actors to emulate.
Probably one of the most famous and iconic young male actors of the 20th century, James Dean lived a short but eventful life. Born in small-town Indiana, Dean was raised by his aunt and uncle. While at UCLA, he changed his major to drama and scored the coveted role of Malcolm in the university’s production of “Macbeth.” After dropping out of college, he first appeared on TV in a Pepsi commercial. His most famous movie by far was “Rebel Without a Cause” where he played the rebellious teen Jim Stark. He also starred in “Giant” and “East of Eden,” where he posthumously won the Best Actor in a Leading Role Academy Award, a rare feat. Dean died in 1955 in a car accident.
Arguably one of the most recognizable child actors of the mid-20th century, Ron “Ronny” Howard had his first movie gig “Frontier Woman” at only 18 months old. As the son of two actors, Howard had acting in his blood from an early age. From there he rose to fame as the iconic Opie Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Once a teenager, he moved on to another famous TV show “Happy Days,” where he starred as the lovable Richie Cunningham. Unlike countless child actors whose success does not carry over into adulthood, Howard has made his mark in Hollywood as a director and producer. Some films he has directed include “Splash,” “Backdraft,” “Apollo 13” and “A Beautiful Mind.”
At the very young age of 15 months, Mickey Rooney (birth name Joseph Yule, Jr.) first made his entrance into the acting world. As the son of two actors, it came as no surprise that Rooney would follow their leads. From 1927 to 1933, he played Mickey McGuire in a series of 50 silent comedies. While in school, Rooney met Judy Garland, whom he would star with during several movies throughout his career. Some of his famous movies include “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “National Velvet,” “Summer Holiday,” “The Human Comedy,” “Babes in Arms,” “The Bold and the Brave” and “The Black Stallion.” He was nominated for four Oscars but never brought home the coveted prize. He did win an Emmy in 1981 for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Special for his role in “Bill.” Rooney was best known for his Andy Hardy character which he portrayed in 16 films produced by MGM.
Born in 1979, Australian actor Heath Ledger made his mark both in Australia and in the United States. Having left school at the young age of 16 to pursue his dream of an acting career, he struggled to make ends meet early on. Through a series of small roles, he worked his way up the acting ladder, which led to a part in “Home and Away,” an extremely successful Australian TV show, and a part in “Blackrock,” an Australian film that marked his feature film debut. After moving to the United States, he landed a starring role in the comedy “10 Things I Hate About You,” which launched his American career. Other notable films Ledger acted in include “The Patriot,” “Monster’s Ball,” “A Knight’s Tale” and “Lords of Dogtown.” His fame rose dramatically with his starring role opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in “Brokeback Mountain,” for which he was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award. His last major role was playing the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” for which he won the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor. Ledger received both awards posthumously, after his sudden death in 2008 due to an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
Leonardo DiCaprio was given his name because he first kicked inside his mother’s womb when she was in Italy looking at a Leonardo da Vinci painting. His first break came in 1990 when he was cast in "Parenthood," a TV series. After, he had several small parts on well-known shows including “The New Lassie,” Roseanne” and “Santa Barbara” before he was cast in one of his first widely familiar roles, Luke Brower, on ABC’s hit sitcom “Growing Pains.” Soon thereafter, he landed a key role in “This Boy’s Life,” which co-starred Hollywood icon Robert De Niro. His performance in this role earned him the respect and praise of Hollywood. He also co-starred in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” for which he received both Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. His career really took off after he played the legendary role of Jack Dawson in “Titanic,” which became the highest grossing film of all time. The blockbuster earned 11 Oscars. From there, he landed roles in “The Man in the Iron Mask,” “Gangs of New York,” “Catch Me If You Can,” The Aviator,” “The Departed” and “Blood Diamond.”
Born in Dublin in 1976, Colin Farrell briefly attended The Gaiety School of Acting, but decided to drop out. He was cast as Danny Byrne on “Ballykissangel,” which was a BBC TV show. His film debut was “The War Zone,” but his first major part came as Private Roland Bozz in the movie “Tigerland.” His fame rose with the well-received films “Phone Booth,” “S.W.A.T.” and “The Recruit.” A heartthrob to throngs of adoring females, Farrell is able to act with an American accent in addition to his native Irish accent. Farrell has worked with A-list celebrities such as Bruce Willis in “Hart’s War” and Tom Cruise in “Minority Report.” He has consistently been dubbed as one of Hollywood’s hottest young actors. In 2009, he won a Golden Globe for his work in the film “In Bruges.”
By the age of 14, Tom Cruise (born Thomas Cruise Mapother IV) had attended 15 different schools in both the United States and Canada. In high school, his interest in acting blossomed and by age 18, he dropped out of school and moved to New York to start is acting career. His first film was “Endless Love” in 1981, where he worked with Brooke Shields. Many consider Cruise’s breakthrough to be “Risky Business.” After “Risky Business,” his star continued to rise with the box office smashes “Top Gun,” “The Color of Money,” “Rain Man” and “Born of the Fourth of July.” Several times throughout his career, Cruise has been voted one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World.” He has also starred in “Interview with the Vampire,” “Jerry Maguire,” “Mission Impossible,” “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Valkyrie.”
Nicknamed “Prince” because he was able to charm his way out of just about any situation, Will Smith is well-known both for his acting and musical careers. In 1989, he starred in NBC’s hit “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” where Smith essentially played himself. For six years, he gained popularity, especially with the female viewers. He dabbled in movies during the same time, where he played roles in “Made in America” and “Six Degrees of Separation.” His career skyrocketed with the success of his lead roles in “Bad Boys,” “Independence Day and “Men In Black.” Smith never looked back as his career kept going upwards, starring in “Bad Boys II,” “Men in Black II,” “I, Robot,” “Hitch” and “I Am Legend.” He has released four albums as well. Smith was married to Sheree Zampino for three years and has been married to Jada Pinkett Smith for well over a decade.
Born in 1970, Matt Damon first got into acting while he attended the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where he performed in many theatrical productions. He attended prestigious Harvard University for 4 years, but did not graduate. He was much more interesting in acting than in school, so he dropped out and moved to Los Angeles. His breakthrough came in 1997 when he and his good friend, actor Ben Affleck, wrote a screenplay for the box office hit “Good Will Hunting,” in which they both starred. The movie received nine Academy Award Nominations, for which Damon and Affleck won the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Soon after, Steven Spielberg cast Damon in the hit “Saving Private Ryan.” From there, Damon has starred in “Dogma” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” He is most famous for his leading roles in the “Bourne” series (“The Bourne Identity,” “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”) as well as his roles in “Ocean’s Eleven,” Ocean’s Twelve” and “Ocean’s Thirteen.”
As the son of a film producer and Hollywood screenwriter and brother of an actress, Jake Gyllenhaal was destined to make it in show business. At only 11 years old, he burst onto the screen as Billy Crystal’s son, Danny Robbins, in the box office smash “City Slickers,” where he gained fame and praise. He worked on several films over the years before being cast as the title character in the 2001 film “Donnie Darko,” where he acted with his sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Other notable films include “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Jarhead” and the critically-acclaimed “Brokeback Mountain.”