Canada has produced some of the most talented, revered thespians in cinema’s relatively short history, and with new talents such as Mackenzie Davis and Mena Massoud earning some of the most sought-after roles in Hollywood, the extensive list of world-class acting talents Canada to come out of Canada is an ever-growing one.
It has been an expectedly challenging task, then, to whittle down my own list of the Top 5 Canadian Actors of all time. To do this, I felt it was best to not only consider an actor’s overall ability, but also his star power and legacy within the industry.
Using those as my parameters, I managed to produce the list of 5 actors below. It is not without my own grudging exclusions, so be sure to comment below about who should been left in, or even taken out.
Michael J. Fox
Alberta native Michael J. Fox is a poster boy of 80’s and 90’s pop culture. Having caught his first big break in the acclaimed U.S. sitcom Family Ties where he portrayed Alan P. Keaton, the Republican son in a family of ex-hippies.
While this certainly gave his career the initial boost it needed, his most iconic role is as Marty McFly in the Back to the Future series, which debuted in 1985. After some casting troubles that put both the studio and director Robert Zemeckis in dire straits, they eventually took a risk with Fox, who so perfectly embodied the role that he became almost an immediate household name after the film’s release.
To emphasise just how significant this one role was Fox’s career, he went on to win three consecutive Emmy Awards for his role on Family Ties from 1986-1988, despite the show having been on air since 1982 and Fox never even being nominated prior to his role in Back to the Future.
Fox found further success in a myriad of major film production proving his impressive range as an actor, starring in genres ranging from war and drama, to horror and comedy. Fox maintained this success while playing the lead in successful 90’s sitcom Spin City, a role in which he endearingly remained until his early semi-retirement from acting due to Parkinson’s, a disease with which his was diagnosed at the age of 29. Since then Fox has remained relatively quiet on the acting front, but has been a significant advocate in the development of treatments for Parkinson’s.
Many will scoff at the presence on Jim Carrey on this a list, especially given his earlier roles in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber, and The Mask, all of which came out in 1994, involved Carrey acting in an unapologetically juvenile manner (talking through his butt-crack, for one), helped turn Carrey into a megastar.
There are those who will shake their heads disappro frown at some of Carrey’s earlier career choices, but Carrey’s brand of exaggerated comedy is wholly unique and undeniably entertaining, reminiscent of the Robin Williams school of performance. Carrey has a natural knack for comedy, where he can take a seemingly simple scenario and imbue it with this sense of wonderous hilarity.
Much like Williams though, there is much more depth to be found in his performances than meets the eye, and no less in some of his zaniest roles. Carrey is perfectly cast in 1997’s Liar Liar not just because of his chaotic comedic style, but because he can evoke the true depth of his character’s personal transformation in key scenes, delivering comedy and emotional sincerity in equal measure; a quality rarely found in a performer, with Charlie Chaplin being the only other actor who comes immediately to mind.
In the years since, Carrey has managed to largely step away from his roles of yore, proving his gift for human drama with acclaimed roles in Oscar-nominated films such as The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, while delivering what I believe is his greatest performance as Andy Kauffman in Man of the Moon, where the actor went method and stayed in-character for most of the production.
Now here is an actor of humbler beginnings who earned every bit of his recognition as an actor. Starting out as a mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club, Gosling struggled for screen time against what producers viewed as his more talented co-stars, which included Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Despite this, Gosling took the work ethic he had attained from the show and began taking on roles in various shows such as Young Hercules and Goosebumps, before moving on to feature films and delivering an acclaimed performance as a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer.
Gosling’s career went from the talk of cinematic circles to a mainstream star with his role in cult classic The Notebook with fellow Canadian Rachel McAdams. While this role was pivotal in the advancement of the young actor’s career, and despite the positive reception of his performance, there was a sense that Gosling could veer into over-stated romantic films, particularly given his newfound status as a sex symbol.
However, Gosling stayed course and went on to garner his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor Half Nelson, proving his true talents as progressive inner-city teacher with a debilitating drug habit. This role was as juicy as it sounds, with people taking Gosling very seriously from that moment onwards, consequently delivering so many knock-out performances it’s difficult to know where to begin.
In fact, even 13 years later Gosling’s career shows no signs of slowing down. The actor recently starred in the Oscar-winning hit La La Land (earning him a second nomination for Best Actor in the process), headlined the long-awaited sequel to Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, and even portrayed Neill Armstrong in 2018’s Last Man.
Sutherland is an actor who needs little introduction. The career of this St. John’s native spans 6 decades, picking up a number of supporting roles in film and television, before gaining something of a breakthrough in Western classic The Dirty Dozen, before finally landing his first leading role as Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce Jr. in Robert Altman’s war comedy MASH.
It is difficult to justly quantify Sutherland’s importance in the history of cinema, having not only proven himself to be one of the most talented and versatile actors of his generation (which clearly didn’t hurt his longevity as a relevant performer), but also featuring in some of the most significant cinematic events of the 20th century.
1973’s seminal Don’t Look Now by director Nicolas Roeg, for example, established an artistic aesthetic in the psychological horror/thriller genre whose influence resonates to this very day, yet it is the humanising presence of Sutherland his co-star Julie Christie that grounds the film’s core themes of grief in such a viscerally affecting manner.
Sutherland’s contributions to the horror genre is not limited to Don’t Look Now either, with a role in 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which arguably helped redefine the expectations of a remake, showing that a film can indeed improve on its source material.
In the years following MASH, Sutherland didn’t shy away from comedy either, appearing in the likes of S*P*Y*S in 1974 and John Landis’ Animal House in 1980 to name but a few. However, it is for his dramatic roles that Sutherland became better known, delivering countless appearances that would flatter even the greatest contemporaries of his time, with the likes of Ordinary People, Eye of the Needle and JFK under his belt…and this is only up to 1991.
Astonishingly, Sutherland has never been nominated for an Oscar, frequently appearing in lists of the greatest actors to have never been given the nod. Nonetheless, Sutherland has solidified his status as one of the most celebrated actors in Canada’s history, and is still working at 82, having most recently delivered a lauded performance as J. Paul Getty in anthology show Trust.
Donald Sutherland, as it happens, is not the only veteran Canadian actor to have portrayed J. Paul Getty in recent years. Kevin Spacey had originally portrayed Getty in Ridley Scott’s 2017 film All the Money In the World, but in light of the troubling accusations made against Spacey in the midst of the #MeToo movement, an unprecedented move was made by casting Christopher Plummer Getty in his place, reshooting all his scenes a month prior to the film’s release…and Plummer still managed to earn his third Oscar nomination at the tender age of 88.
This is textbook Plummer. The actor has been an established member of the acting community since the late 1950s, where he made his feature film debut in Sidney Lumet’s Stage Struck. The man began his career in a Lumet picture for chrissake!
Being the immensely gifted actor that he is, by his second feature, Wind Across the Everglades, Plummer earned his first leading role (albeit one he shared with Burl Ives), and by his fourth feature role he played Captain Georg von Trapp in The Sound of Music. There are few who can hope to have as strong a start in the film industry as Christopher Plummer, especially in this day and age.
Plummer is not number 1 on my list just for his strong start, though. He has a significant body of work that has seen him work with the finest directors, from John Huston and Spike Lee to Michael Mann and Atom Egoyan, proving to be an actor whose professionalism can only be matched by his ability.
Surprisingly, Plummer only earned his first Oscar nomination in 2009, at 80 years of age, for playing Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station. Two years later, Plummer secured a win for Best Supporting Actor Beginners, making him not only the oldest person to ever win an award for acting, but also one of the few Canadians to ever earn the award in an acting category. In addition to all this, Plummer is one of a number of people, and certainly the only Canadian, to have ever received what they call the Triple Crown of Acting, which entails winning an Oscar, Emmy Award and Tony Award in acting categories.
So, by acclimation alone, Christopher Plummer is greatest Canadian actor of all time, but even from a subjective standpoint, I believe Plummer is without a domestic equal.
Be sure to check out my article next week on Canada’s Top 5 Actresses!