The Biggest Male Icon Every Year Since You Were Born
These are the men who've dominated pop culture for the past 80 years.
We look up to our idols for an array of reasons: They star in massive films and on hit television shows; they land on the top of the music charts; they lead social movements; or they might even break world records with their athletic prowess. Throughout the years, the world's biggest male icons have ranged from singers and A-list actors to presidents and civil rights leaders. Curious who the most prominent male icon was when you were born? From Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant to Michael Jordan and JFK, we've rounded up some of the most famous men in pop culture history, every year since 1940, to create one seriously iconic list.
1940: Mickey Rooney
A 1940 Time cover story on vaudevillian Mikey Rooney deemed him "Hollywood's No. 1 box office bait … not Clark Gable, Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power, but a rope-haired, kazoo-voiced kid with a comic-strip face." Yes, in 1939, 1940, and 1941, Rooney was the biggest box office star in the world; in fact, per the Time story, in 1939 alone the actor brought in some $30 million (more than $549 million in today's terms).
1941: Joe DiMaggio
In 1941, baseball player Joe DiMaggio accomplished one of the greatest sports feats of all time: a successful 56-game hitting streak. The New York Yankee was later inducted into the Hall of Fame, with the first line of his Cooperstown plaque paying homage to his iconic streak, which is still a record to this day.
1942: Bing Crosby
In 1942, Bing Crosby crooned the ever-popular Christmas song "White Christmas" in his movie Holiday Inn and it quickly rose to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Since then, the record has sold more than 50 million copies globally, making it one of the best-selling singles of all time.
1943: James Cagney
James Cagney's ability to embrace both comedic and dramatic roles alike made him one of Hollywood's biggest stars of all time. In 1943, he took home the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy—and in that same year, he also starred in Johnny Come Lately.
1944: Humphrey Bogart
Humphrey Bogart was one of the biggest male icons of the 1940s. Following his appearance in 1942's Casablanca, Hollywood finally saw that Bogart could play something other than a hardcore gangster, leading to his being cast in the 1944 film To Have and Have Not. It was during the filming of this flick that he met Lauren Bacall, whom he eventually fell in love with and married.
1945: Dana Andrews
Dana Andrews was a leading actor all throughout the 1940s. But 1945's massive hit State Fair showed that the typically dramatic actor had some musical chops too.
1946: James Stewart
Following his notable performances in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Philadelphia Story, James Stewart truly solidified his place as a leading actor in Hollywood when he starred in 1946's It's a Wonderful Life. Even today, the film is considered one of the most classic Christmas movies of all time.
1947: Jackie Robinson
In 1947, Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But that first game—and Robinson's subsequent career in baseball—was about so much more than athletics. He broke down barriers for African Americans who were discriminated against in the sport.
1948: Ed Sullivan
The Ed Sullivan Show first aired on national television in 1948. Hosted by eponymous reporter and TV personality Ed Sullivan, the show brought live rock and roll music to American homes every Sunday night. "Its first broadcast made music history when Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II gave the world its first taste of the score from their upcoming musical, South Pacific," according to History. The show—and its host—continued to be household staples for 23 years.
1949: Laurence Olivier
English actor Laurence Olivier was a well-known presence on the British stage throughout the '30s and '40s. And in 1949, he officially infiltrated Hollywood when he won an Oscar for his performance in the film version of Hamlet. And for more on classic films, check out The 50 Best American Movies of All Time.
1950: Kirk Douglas
Following his first Best Actor nomination for Champion at the 1950 Oscars, Kirk Douglas' career took off. All throughout the 1950s, Douglas was dominating the big screen in flicks like Ace in the Hole, Detective Story, and Lonely Are the Brave as a self-assertive and daring bad boy. But it was the start of the decade that really set the tone.
1951: Tony Bennett
In 1951, newcomer Tony Bennett released "Because of You," a pop ballad that topped the charts for weeks after it was released. In that same year, he also had hits with his covers of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart" and Bernie Wayne's "Blue Velvet."
1952: Gene Kelly
In 1951, actor Gene Kelly made waves with his performance in An American in Paris, but the following year is when he got his even bigger break, starring in the classic film Singin' in the Rain. In his review, Roger Ebert called the film "a transcendent experience" and noted that "Kelly and [Donald] O'Connor were established as stars when the film was made in 1952."
1953: Frank Sinatra
There are so many years one could say belonged to crooning sensation Frank Sinatra, but we're giving him the 1953 spot to acknowledge the year that his career was revitalized following a bit of a slump. In addition to starring in the movie From Here to Eternity in '53, Sinatra also released hit singles like "I'm Walking Behind You" and "I've Got the World on a String."
1954: William Holden
In 1954, William Holden won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in the film Stalag 17. At the time, The New York Times noted that Holden's character, J.J. Sefton, "has nerve, ingenuity, and a certain valor. Mr. Holden plays him exceedingly well." Also in 1954, Holden starred in notable films like Executive Suite and Sabrina.
1955: Bill Haley
In 1955, Bill Haley & His Comets saw their song "Rock Around the Clock" top the charts, thanks to its inclusion in the film Blackboard Jungle. According to Rolling Stone, the song was essentially the "first Number One of the rock & roll era." Before another man took over the title, Haley was briefly king.
1956: Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley dominated the music world for years, but 1956 is when he first crossed over into the mainstream. It was during this year that he released "Don't Be Cruel" and "Hound Dog" and made his first hip-shaking appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. As Rolling Stone put it, "1956 became the summer of Elvis… and the rest is history."
1957: Mickey Mantle
In 1957, six years after his first game with the Yankees, baseball legend Mickey Mantle won his second consecutive MVP award. As one Sports Illustrated cover story in '57 put it, "he was every boy's dream miraculously come to life."
1958: Ricky Nelson
In 1958, teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson released his self-titled album; it included the song "Poor Little Fool," which became the very first song to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 chart. At the same time, Nelson was also a regular on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and the following year, his success as a recording artist led to his starring role in Rio Bravo alongside John Wayne and Dean Martin. Not too shabby for an 18-year-old kid!
1959: Johnny Horton
The year 1959 was a good one for honky tonk singer Johnny Horton. It was when he released such hits as "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)" and "The Battle of New Orleans," the latter of which turned him into an international sensation. Though he went on to win a Grammy for "The Battle of New Orleans" in 1959, the following year, his life was cut short by a car crash. Horton died at just 35 years old.
1960: Ray Charles
In the 1950s, Ray Charles solidified himself as one of the founding fathers of the soul music genre. In 1960, though, he truly entered the mainstream with his successful crossover album, The Genius Hits the Road—and specifically the single "Georgia on My Mind." In 1960, the song earned him two of his four Grammys that year.
1961: John F. Kennedy
Though he was only president for a few years, John F. Kennedy made a lasting impact during his short time in the White House. When Time made him person of the year in 1961, they wrote that he "showed qualities that have made him a promising leader … Those same qualities, if developed further, may make him a great president."
Indeed, Kennedy was a progressive president who fought against segregation, started the Peace Corps, and put the moon mission into action before his assassination in 1963.
1962: Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke, an icon in the world of soul music, was everywhere in the 1960s prior to his untimely death in '64. In 1962 specifically, he released popular songs like "Bring It on Home to Me" and "Twistin' the Night Away," all while working with the artists signed to his record label, SAR Records.
1963: Cary Grant
Though Cary Grant was known throughout the '40s and '50s for working with suspense master Alfred Hitchcock, the actor changed things up in the '60s when he decided to take on more romantic leading roles. In '63 specifically, Grant starred alongside Audrey Hepburn in Charade, earning a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.
1964: Sidney Poitier
In 1964, actor Sidney Poitier won an Oscar for Lilies of the Sun, breaking down racial barriers by becoming the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor.
1965: Rex Harrison
In 1965, actor Rex Harrison took home the Academy Award for Best Actor, thanks to his part in My Fair Lady. He'd previously starred in the Broadway version of the show, which held the record for the longest run of any show on Broadway for a time.
1966: Andy Griffith
Andy Griffith brought the warmth of a small town to TV screens across America during his time as the upstanding sheriff on The Andy Griffith Show from 1960 to 1968. In 1966, the show finally aired in color, presenting us with a whole new look at Griffith's world.
1967: Paul Newman
In 1967, iconic actor Paul Newman starred as Luke in Cool Hand Luke. "Could another actor other than Paul Newman have played the role and gotten away with it?" critic Ebert wrote. "I would not be able to supply one."
1968: Martin Luther King,Jr.
In 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was gathering support for the "Poor People's Campaign," which ultimately aimed to march on Washington and fight for an economic bill of rights.
Of course, plans changed when on April 4, 1968, King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. However, this isn't to say that his assassination halted the progress of the civil rights movement; on the contrary, it prompted riots all across the United States and further solidified King's place in history.
1969: Robert Redford
It wasn't until 1969 that Robert Redford truly made it big. That year, the actor starred in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid alongside Newman. It earned more than $100 million at the box office, solidified Redford as leading man material, and took home four Oscars the following year.
1970: Jon Voight
In 1970, Jon Voight was the name on every Hollywood casting director's lips. That year, he starred in The Revolutionary and in Mike Nichols' Catch-22, all thanks to Midnight Cowboy, a film that catapulted Voight's career in 1969.
According the actor himself, he accepted the role for almost nothing, knowing that the script was just too good to pass up. "It was going to give me a career, and I was right," he told the Associated Press.
1971: Jack Klugman
In 1971, funnyman Jack Klugman (right) won an Emmy for his performance as Oscar on The Odd Couple. At the time of the show's premiere in 1970, The Hollywood Reporter wrote, "It made for a debut that was more fun to watch than anything this reviewer has seen introduced on television this season."
1972: Carroll O'Connor
Carroll O'Connor, star of the Emmy-winning series All in the Family, won the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series in 1972. Thanks to his success on the show, O'Connor's character eventually got his own spinoff titled Archie Bunker's Place in 1979.
1973: Elton John
In 1973, Elton John released his seventh studio album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. "This was the peak," Rolling Stone wrote about the album, which sold more than 30 million copies and stayed at the top of the charts for eight weeks when it came out.
1974: Henry Winkler
In 1974, Happy Days aired for the first time, and it was a hit right out of the gate. The series lasted 11 years, and a big part of what made the show so successful was Henry Winkler's character Arthur Fonzarelli, AKA The Fonz. His signature line "Aaayyy!" was the closest thing the 1970s had to a viral meme.
1975: Al Pacino
Al Pacino was easily one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood in 1975. That year, he was up for an Oscar for his role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II. Though he didn't win, the buzz surrounding his talent was high, particularly thanks to his starring turn in 1975's Dog Day Afternoon, which would eventually earn him another Oscar nod.
1976: Sylvester Stallone
Sylvester Stallone took on the role of Rocky Balboa for the first time in 1976. Upon the film's release, The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the movie made "Stallone the hottest new star of 1976." It was a part he'd play for years to come, leaving us with some seriously quote-worthy moments.
1977: Harrison Ford
Harrison Ford starred as Han Solo in the very first Star Wars movie in 1977, one that would go on to inspire a franchise and international fandom. Though he saw some success in the early '70s with films like American Graffiti, it was ultimately George Lucas' sci-fi flick that made Ford a global sensation.
1978: Billy Joel
At the Grammy Awards for the 1978 season, Billy Joel won both Record of the Year and Song of the Year for "Just the Way You Are." It was also during this year that he released 52nd Street, which was the first of Joel's albums to land in the top spot on the Billboard charts.
1979: Dustin Hoffman
In 1979, Dustin Hoffman starred in big hits like Agatha and Kramer vs. Kramer, the latter of which showcased an emotional depth that earned Hoffman his very first Academy Award the following year.
1980: Freddie Mercury
Freddie Mercury and his band Queen released "Another One Bites the Dust" in 1980. The song became their best-selling single and solidified Mercury's place in rock and roll history.
1981: Robert De Niro
Robert De Niro won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1981 for his work in Raging Bull, another collaboration with Martin Scorsese, whom he'd worked with on The Godfather: Part II in the mid-1970s.
1982: Marvin Gaye
Legendary singer Marvin Gaye released what would become his last studio album, Midnight Love, in 1982. The album featured one of Gaye's most popular tracks, "Sexual Healing," which won two Grammys at the 25th annual ceremony, a little over a year before his death.
1983: David Bowie
David Bowie's Let's Dance was easily one of the most popular albums of 1983. In a cover story for Time during that year, writer Jay Cocks referred to Bowie as "music's most exquisite artifact."
1984: Greg Louganis
In 1984, Olympic diver Greg Louganis made a big splash at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He won "by the biggest ever margin in the history of the event and became the first diver since 1928 to win double gold," according to the Olympics website.
1985: Chevy Chase
Throughout the '80s, Chevy Chase starred in many memorable movies, showcasing his comedy skills and winning over audiences. In 1985 specifically, he had fans laughing their heads off with films like Fletch and National Lampoon's European Vacation.
1986: Tom Cruise
Three years after sliding across the floor in nothing but a shirt and some socks in Risky Business, Tom Cruise's career soared even higher when he starred in the 1986 classic Top Gun. And, though it came out more than 30 years ago, it's still just as beloved today; in fact, a sequel to the film, titled Top Gun: Maverick, is slated for release in 2020.
In 1987, legendary performer Prince released his album Sign 'o' The Times. In a review of the album, Spin's Bart Bull wrote at the time that it "sound[ed] so strong, rock[ed] so hard, [swung] so free." In the years since its release, the album has ranked among the best albums ever, time and time again.
1988: Bruce Willis
Bruce Willis became one of Hollywood's biggest stars when he first portrayed John McClane in the 1988 film Die Hard. He even did most of his own stunts! But he was more than an action star in the late 1980s: Willis also starred as the romantic lead on the hit ABC series Moonlighting, opposite Cybill Shepherd.
1989: Morgan Freeman
Morgan Freeman's 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy is the one that really put the now-iconic actor on the map. Reviewing Freeman's performance back when the film was released, The New York Times said it was "the work of an actor who has gone through all of the possibilities, stripped away all of the extraneous details and arrived at an essence."
1990: Patrick Swayze
Patrick Swayze was having the time of his life in 1990. Following the smashing success of Dirty Dancing in 1987, the actor became a mainstay on the big screen, starring in the 1990 romantic thriller Ghost, which eventually became the second highest-grossing film of that year.
1991: Michael Bolton
Singer Michael Bolton won Best Pop Vocal Performance at the 1992 Grammys for his rendition of "When a Man Loves a Woman." The song came from his 1991 album Time, Love & Tenderness, which also produced Top 40 singles like "Love Is a Wonderful Thing" and "Missing You Now."
1992: Michael Jordan
You can't think of iconic basketball stars—or iconic athletes period—without thinking of Michael Jordan. And in 1992, the basketball star was at his peak: Not only was he in the middle of his legendary "three-peat" (he won back-to-back-to-back championships in 1991, 1992, and 1993), but he was also a member of the U.S. Olympics "Dream Team" in the 1992 Barcelona Games.
1993: Matthew McConaughey
The year 1993 was when Matthew McConaughey played David Wooderson in the hit film Dazed and Confused, a role that introduced him to the world. The coming-of-age comedy paved the way for the actor, who went on to star in '90s films like A Time to Kill, Contact, and Amistad.
1994: Tom Hanks
In 1994, Tom Hanks took home the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his work in the heartbreaking AIDS drama Philadelphia. That same year, as the titular character in Forrest Gump, he famously taught us all that life is like a box of chocolates. The actor's portrayal of the lovable Southern man earned him the same Oscar in 1995, the second year in a row.
1995: Brad Pitt
In 1995, Brad Pitt starred in the films Seven and 12 Monkeys, both of which proved the actor was more than just the pretty face folks knew from 1991's Thelma & Louise. 12 Monkeys even earned Pitt his first Oscar nomination (though he wouldn't take home a statue until 2014 for 12 Years a Slave).
1996: Will Smith
In the '90s, most people knew Will Smith thanks to his starring role on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But that was just the beginning. When the show ended in 1996, Smith continued to stay in the spotlight with massive films like Independence Day and Men in Black hitting theaters the following year.
1997: Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio became a Hollywood heartthrob in 1997, thanks to his role as Jack Dawson in the James Cameron classic Titanic. The film was so successful that it not only brought in more than $1.8 billion at the box office, but it also spurred a DiCaprio obsession, dubbed "Leo-mania" by the media.
1998: Jim Carrey
Comedian Jim Carrey proved that he could take on serious roles too when he starred in 1998's The Truman Show. The performance won Carrey a Golden Globe—he even beat out the likes of Hanks and Ian McKellen for the honor.
1999: Keanu Reeves
Five years earlier, audiences started to see what Keanu Reeves was capable of, thanks to Speed. But it wasn't until 1999's The Matrix that they really understood what he could do. After the movie made box office history, the story—and Reeves' character, Neo—continued on in a series of sequels, one of which is still forthcoming.
2000: Denzel Washington
The year 2000 gave us the classic film Remember the Titans, starring none other than Denzel Washington. During this same year, Washington also won the Golden Globe for Best Actor—Motion Picture Drama for his work in The Hurricane, making him the first African American to win the award since 1963.
2001: George Clooney
There's no arguing that George Clooney is an iconic actor. However, if there's one year in which he was especially ubiquitous, it's 2001. That was the year he starred in Ocean's Eleven and won the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) for O Brother, Where Art Thou? Sure, some people knew how great Clooney was in the 1990s (thanks to ER), but everyone knew by 2001.
2002: Ryan Seacrest
In 2002, the world was introduced to one of the biggest shows in television history: American Idol. Its host, of course, was none other than Ryan Seacrest, who quickly became synonymous with the reality competition series itself. Every year from 2004 to 2013, Seacrest was nominated for an Emmy for his part on Idol. He may not have been a singer, but the show wouldn't have been what it was without him.
2003: Tom Brady
There's a reason they call Tom Brady the GOAT: In 2003, the football legend won his second Super Bowl with the New England Patriots after being with them for only four years. That kicked off a series of wins in '04, '07, '11, '14, '16, '17, and '18. To date, Brady has the most Super Bowl wins of any quarterback in NFL history.
2004: David Beckham
In 2004, FIFA published a list of legendary soccer player Pelé's picks of the 100 greatest living soccer players. On the list was, of course, David Beckham, the British heartthrob who has become an international sensation not just for his soccer-playing abilities, but also because of his serious fashion game and his marriage to former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham. Talk about a power couple!
2005: Heath Ledger
From Lords of Dogtown to The Brothers Grimm, actor Heath Ledger was all over the silver screen in 2005. However, none of his performances were more memorable that year than the one in Brokeback Mountain, a film that gave representation to the otherwise neglected LGBTQ+ community.
2006: John Mayer
In 2006, John Mayer released his third studio album, Continuum, and made a melodic transition from pop rock to something more soulful. At the 2007 Grammys, the artist took home two awards: one for Best Pop Vocal Album and another for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for his song "Waiting on the World to Change."
2007: Justin Timberlake
Before the early 2000s, Justin Timberlake was just one of five members of beloved boy band *NSYNC. But by the mid-'00s, that all changed. In 2007, Timberlake's funky fresh album FutureSex/LoveSounds earned him two Grammys.
2008: Daniel Radcliffe
Actor Daniel Radcliffe broke out of his Harry Potter shell in 2008, starring in the Broadway production of Equus and proving to his critics that he could do more than wave a wand around. When the play opened, The New York Times wrote that Radcliffe had "successfully extricated himself from his cinematic alter ego."
2009: Neil Patrick Harris
A few years after the Harold & Kumar franchise revitalized his career, Neil Patrick Harris proved he was back in full force: In 2009, he was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for playing womanizer Barney Stinson on the hit television show How I Met Your Mother.
2010: Usain Bolt
In 2010, the fastest man on Earth—better known as Usain Bolt—was awarded the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award. Just a year prior, Bolt broke the 200m world record at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin.
2011: Kanye West
Kanye West has been nominated for a Grammy a whopping 69 times—and 21 times, he's walked away with the award. Among the rapper's many wins are the four he took home for 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 2011's Watch the Throne at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards. (Yes, Yeezy released back-to-back albums at the turn of the decade.) He won for Best Rap Performance ("Otis"), Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and Best Rap Song ("All of the Lights"), and Best Rap Album (My Dark Twisted Fantasy).
2012: Christian Bale
In 2012, Christian Bale completed the Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises. Everyone has a favorite Bruce Wayne, but no matter how you feel about Bale's iteration, you can't deny that the role made him one of the biggest male icons of the early 2010s.
2013: President Obama
In 2013, former President Barack Obama began his second term in the White House. By fighting for same-sex marriage and stricter gun control laws, Obama quickly became the face of progressive ideals for millennials and forward-thinking Baby Boomers alike. His marriage to former First Lady Michelle Obama and their collective senses of style made them icons beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
2014: Sam Smith
Sam Smith's In the Lonely Hour was "the fastest-selling debut album" of 2014, The Telegraph wrote at the time. Then, at the 2015 Grammys, Smith won for Best Pop Vocal Album, Record of the Year and Song of the Year ("Stay With Me"), and Best New Artist.
2015: Lin Manuel Miranda
When Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton hit the Broadway stage in 2015, it drew incredible crowds and accolades immediately. In a review of the show at the time, one New York Times writer simply began by saying, "Yes, it really is that good." Miranda quickly became a full-blown sensation.
2016: Eddie Redmayne
In 2016, Eddie Redmayne starred in J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them following his success with 2015's The Danish Girl. Bringing Rowling's work back to the big screen excited fans of the Harry Potter series, and as the lead, Redmayne further established himself as one of the biggest names in Hollywood.
When Jay-Z released his 2017 album 4:44, The New York Times described it as "a stripped-down, strikingly exposed album about accepting responsibility as a grown man, husband and father." It was a landmark moment for Jay-Z, who also became the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame that year.
2018: John Legend
In 2018, John Legend secured his EGOT—which stands for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony—with an Emmy for his role as executive producer of Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert. He is the first African-American man to ever become part of the EGOT club. And his marriage and family with wife Chrissy Teigen has only endeared him to the public more: They welcomed their second child, son Miles, in 2018 as well.
2019: Lil Nas X
Even if you don't listen to that many Top 40 hits these days, it's likely that you've heard of Lil Nas X. The 20-year-old artist, who became popular thanks to the video-sharing app TikTok, broke the record for most consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with his song "Old Town Road." The country-inspired rap track, which features Billy Ray Cyrus, spent a whopping 19 weeks at the top of the chart in July, making Lil Nas X the one to beat for years to come. And for more current popular artists, check out The 50 Best Songs of 2019 So Far.
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