Everybody loves an everyman. He isn’t bound by genre. He shows up in drama, comedy, action, and horror. He’s not the coolest or the most handsome guy in the room. He doesn’t always beat the bad guy or get the girl in the end. He doesn’t always make the right choices, but he does always persevere.
Film is a history of everymen. To be fair, the history of popular cinema is primarily American, white, and heteronormative, so whether or not this actually represents the average male existence is up for debate. That said, the ones we push forward as “Average Joes” act as a telling identifier about the zeitgeists that have shaped our culture. The everyman wasn’t necessarily who we wished we were, but who we most easily could relate to, and that says a lot.
The following actors were not always the most popular of their time, nor were they necessarily everymen in the real world. Most of them have had successful careers that spanned beyond the decades listed, (with some examples even drifting into surrounding decades). But they’ve been chosen because during an amorphous snapshot in history, the characters they played said something about what it meant to be normal.
The 1920s – CHARLIE CHAPLIN
The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931)
Runner Up: Buster Keaton
Chaplin wasn’t the first film star, but he may be one of the oldest still remembered today. A true auteur, Chaplin produced, wrote, directed, starred in, and even composed the music for many of his films. He’s one of the few silent film stars whose popularity survived the transition to sound. Film critic and historian Andrew Sarris identified Chaplin as “the single most important artist produced by the cinema… and probably still its most universal icon.”
While the real life Chaplin was a notoriously perfectionistic artist, his humble origins gave him plenty to say of note about the everyman. He said them silently, and primarily in the form of his prolific Tramp character. Chaplin was a legendary physical comedian whose antics inspired many future comedians (and more than a handful Looney Tunes gags), but the Tramp was more than a silly caricature. He was a tragic underdog, and one of the original cinematic everymen.
Despite his downtrodden nature and worn clothes, The Tramp maintained a jaunty style and dignified aire. He regularly stood up for those even worse off than he was, despite being ill-equipped to make much of a difference. He was never the strongest, richest, or most handsome man in the room, but he got by on kindness and perseverance. His romantic interests usually favored him because he treated them with a dignity that others didn’t consider.
Chaplin’s film career began in 1914, the year that the first World War began. His Tramp persona continued all the way through The Great Depression and into the start of WWII with 1940’s The Great Dictator. He was a character forged from a world proven both cruel and hopeful, making Chaplin the definitive everyman of the 20’s.
The 1930s – CLARK GABLE
It Happened One Night (1934), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Gone With The Wind (1939)
Runner Up: Fred Astaire
Of all the men on this list, Clark Gable is probably the one closest to a “leading man” as opposed to an “everyman,” but the 1930s are incredibly short on average Joes. The Great Depression was in full swing from 1929-1939, and people were less likely to go to the cinema to feel overwhelmed by the world. The 30s were a decade of comedy and spectacle. Fred Astaire may have had more of an everyman look than Gable, but Astaire’s personal everyman charm was overwhelmed by the elegant, upper-class fantasies that he danced in.
It Happened One Night, which featured Gable’s most definitive everyman role, dabbles with the concepts of the class-based comedy. He plays an out-of-work newspaperman who’s riding the edge of “con man.” He winds up alongside a naive heiress who is, in fact, on the run from the wealth fantasy of the 30s. (It apparently comes with its own share of problems). Gable’s character has the opportunity to use her for a quick buck – a tabloid opportunity to get back into the newspaper game, plus a reward from her worried father – but he ends up caring about her too much to take advantage of her. Gable represents the everyman of The Great Depression because despite being down on his luck, he rejects the easy buck for common decency.
In Gable’s other big hits of the 30s – Mutiny on the Bounty and Gone with the Wind – he played a gentleman in period dramas. This would normally negate these as roles of a 30s everyman, but in both, he plays a soldier on the losing end of a futile fight. A mutineer and a confederate, Gable’s characters eventually found some kind of bittersweet peace after a life of conflict, but he was never a hero. This nihilistic view of human struggle isn’t pretty, but it says a lot about how people felt about the world in the 30s.
The 1940s – JIMMY STEWART
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Philidelphia Story (1940), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Runner Up: Gary Cooper
If only a single everyman could be picked for the century, Jimmy Stewart would walk away with the distinction. Stewart was both an athlete and an artist, a jock and a nerd. As a child, he was shy and built model airplanes at home. As an adult, he became a highly proficient pilot. He overcame his gangly looks and humble presence to play some of the most relatable characters of all time. Like a real life Steve Rogers, he was turned away from the armed forces for being too thin. After enlisting the help of MGM’s personal trainer to bulk up, he became the first actor to wear a uniform in WWII. He fought his celebrity status to get to the front lines and flew multiple combat missions into Nazi-occupied Europe. Ironically, he then returned home to play George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, the ultimate American everyman, whose is disqualified from fighting in the war but whose hometown efforts make him a hero to his friends.
Before the war, Stewart joined a contract with MGM, appearing in a number of films before being loaned out to Columbia pictures for Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You. Capra felt that Stewart instinctively knew how to play the kind of everyman role he so loved portraying, saying Stewart was “probably the best actor who’s ever hit the screen.” The two would team up again for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the story of an average guy who takes on a corrupt government. In The Philadelphia Story, Stewart plays opposite Cary Grant for the romantic affections of Katharine Hepburn. (Spoiler alert: he doesn’t walk away with the girl.)
Beyond the 40s, Jimmy Stewart would go on to do a number of Hitchcockian roles (Rope, Rear Window, Vertigo), which placed variants on his everyman persona in delightfully twisted scenarios. He would play a peaceful and lovable weirdo in Harvey and a distinctly contrasting worldview to John Wayne’s “tough guy” persona in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Any director who used Stewart knew he was at his best when they played along with, or in contrast to, the everyman persona he forged in the heart of the 40s. Stewart could have been the everyman of any decade he acted in, but the 40s were when that persona was at its purest.
The 1950s – JACK LEMMON
Mister Roberts (1955), Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960)
Runner Up: Marlon Brando
Jack Lemmon was at his finest when he played a loser, a doofus, or a tool. His greatest triumphs came when he overcame these traits, and his funniest moments came when he didn’t. The 50s were an era when two World Wars had left America as the sole superpower of the globe. Despite the beginnings of The Cold War, business was booming and life was good. It was an era when most of Americans’ biggest concern was keeping up with the Joneses – whether that meant making the most dough, dating the snazziest dame, or wearing the most obnoxious bowler cap. In a time of such plenty, it was easier to laugh at ourselves in the form of Lemmon’s working class spaz.
In Mister Roberts, Lemmon does not play the titular WWII-era Naval Lieutenant (that would be Henry Fonda). Instead, he is a lower ranking officer who spends so much time hiding in his bunk, his commander doesn’t know who he is. Despite his role as comedic relief, his true “everyman” moment comes when Roberts moves on from his post. With nobody protecting the crew from the poisonous influence of their commander, Jack Lemmon steps in – (not as the hero they deserve, but the one they need).
A leading man’s career would never survive a role in drag, but an everyman’s career is defined by it. Some Like it Hot is listed as AFI’s best American comedy of all time. (#2 is Tootsie, so drag must be universally hilarious.). A large part of the film’s success is due to how easily we can empathize with (while simultaneously laughing at) Jack Lemmon’s predicaments. Hiding from the mob in an all-female band, both he and his counterpart (played by Tony Curtis) hit a snag when they are tempted by the allures of Marilyn Monroe. Monroe falls for one of these faux-dames, but it’s not Lemmon.
Perhaps Lemmon’s best everyman role came with The Apartment, just after the 50s came to a close. He’s climbing the corporate ladder by lending out his place for his bosses to entertain their mistresses. He’s finally forced to confront these unhealthy relationships when one mistress (Shirley MacLaine) attempts suicide in his home. The film stands a tribute to the values of the 50s era versus the common decency of everymen through the ages.
The 1960s – DICK VAN DYKE
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66), Bye Bye Birdie (1963), Mary Poppins (1964), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Runner Up: Gregory Peck
Those who lived through the 1960s (or at least have seen Mad Men) will have some idea of the cultural strife the U.S. was going through at the time. Victims of their own prosperity, the family unit was suffering from a prolonged return to “normalcy”, where men once again asserted dominance in the household. Feminist values were on the rise, with a second-wave movement declaring that suffrage and property rights weren’t enough, expanding the conversation to inequalities in the family, the workplace, and in sexual and reproductive rights. Women had proven they could hold their own during WWII, and many would no longer accept the rights of a second-class citizen.
Dick van Dyke was the answer to the Don Drapers of the world. While The Dick van Dyke Show (originally titled Head of the Family) never explicitly opposed the “Housewife > Working Girl” values of the time, a lot of the show’s humor came from the subtext that these values were unsustainable. Van Dyke’s character always treated his wife (played by Mary Tyler Moore) and comedy writing co-worker (Rose Marie) with respect – never questioning their agency in the roles they had chosen. When the show presented the worldview that it was Van Dyke’s role “to keep his woman in line,” it was treated as laughable. Moore played an equal partner in the family unit they had established together.
Van Dyke’s kind approachability and chemistry with children led to some of his most well-remembered roles in Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Aside from never taking himself too seriously, his charm was a result of speaking to everyone as equals, regardless of their age, gender, or class. In Mary Poppins, this provided a clear contrast to the children’s disgruntled and authoritarian father, which is likely why his change-of-heart at the film’s climax is so convincing. When Mr. Banks tries to blame his woes on Mary Poppins, Van Dyke’s Burt called him out for his outrageous claim, directly challenging the idea that an authoritative female figure had somehow robbed him of his status as head of the household.
The 1960s were a frustrating time for fans of machismo, but for an everyman with a good heart and nothing to prove, Dick van Dyke showed us that common decency never goes out of style.
The 1970s – RICHARD DREYFUSS
American Graffiti (1973), Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), The Goodbye Girl (1977)
Runner Up: Kurt Russell
The 1970s were undoubtedly the most cynical decade of America’s last century. Between the questionable value of the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, the American public would never again trust their government as a respectable and benevolent force. The perceived value of “the institution” was at an all-time low and the hippie movement was on the rise. After a decade of fierce fighting against racial inequality, segregation was still a lingering issue. Now, more than ever, people were looking to themselves for answers.
Richard Dreyfuss’ characters started the decade in the way many everymen felt at the time. In American Graffiti, he played a kid whose sure place in society felt less certain as time went on. Two years later, he co-starred in the original summer blockbuster, Jaws. The sidekick to Roy Scheider’s shark-hunting police chief, Dreyfuss’ character is highly educated and from an incredibly rich family, yet still functions as an underdog to the system. The mayor doesn’t care about his scientific expertise and Captain Quint constantly questions his manhood. His shark-thwarting gadgets don’t even prove terribly useful versus the dreaded great white, but he still throws himself into its path to protect the people of Amity. He may be the first “everyman” to verbalize his privilege as a well-to-do American, and subsequently, acknowledge the responsibility that goes with it. Close Encounters of the Third Kind would once again show Dreyfuss challenging the status quo at the risk of looking like a loon. In the end, he is afforded some extra-terrestrial transcendence for his efforts.
Richard Dreyfuss’ everyman appeal may not have translated as well into subsequent decades as others on this list, but he was the poster child of an average dude in the 1970s – educated, self-assured, and fighting the system to protect the underdogs of the world.
The 1980s – TOM HANKS
Bosom Buddies (1980-82), Splash (1984), Big (1988), The ‘Burbs (1989), Joe vs The Volcano (1990)
Runner Up: Steve Guttenberg
The 1980’s were a veritable Breakfast Club of archetypes – Nerds, Jocks, Freaks, Punks, Heroes, Villains. After an exhaustingly cynical decade in the 1970s, the cinema veered toward “high on fun, low on existential reflection.” Despite the prevalence of black and white status qualifiers, the movies still had their share of everymen. Luke Skywalker is “out-cooled” in his own adventures by scoundrel buddy Han (who thankfully gets the girl). Marty McFly has a lot going for him but suffers from crippling self-doubt. It was in this decade of cartoony villains and First World Problems that Tom Hanks became one of the ultimate everymen of cinematic history.
Hanks made a name for himself by following in the footsteps of greats and dressing like a woman. The sitcom Bosom Buddies primarily got by on his ability to simultaneously play absurd scenarios for laughs and sympathy. This continued into his breakout role in the feature comedy Splash, in which his everyman unknowingly falls in love with a mermaid. This, as well as a lot of his other films – The ‘Burbs, Turner & Hooch, and Joe vs The Volcano – play to his frustration with the tedium of everyday well-to-do, middle-class, American life. Like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, he’s looking for something greater to live for – and it usually comes in the form of adventure and/or love.
Tom Hanks would continue to play, and perfect, his everyman persona well into the 90s in films like Sleepless in Seattle, Saving Private Ryan, and even Toy Story. Cast Away was the ultimate test of this. (Only an everyman can hold an audience for a 2 1/2 hr one-man show.) After the 90s, he began leaning more towards period figures and characters that played against his image, but with a significantly lower success rate. Fortunately, his role in this week’s Sully looks like a perfect everyman role for him. Hanks is a great actor, but it’s hard to believe him as anything other than the ultimate everyman.
The 1990s – WILL SMITH
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96), Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997)
Runner Up: Michael Keaton
First and foremost, Will Smith’s role as the everyman of the 90s is significant. He was, perhaps, the first black man to be widely accepted in a lead role by white audiences, and this wasn’t due to a sacrifice of his “blackness”. Perhaps this says as much about Smith’s charisma as it does about how far America had come towards racial acceptance. It’s a trend that the following decade defined with the election of the first (half) black United States President.
There’s also a downside to recognizing Smith as the avatar for men in the 90s. Despite his charisma, confidence, and effectiveness as a hero, Smith would also represent the pride that would come before a fall. In The Matrix, Agent Smith declares 1999 as “the peak of your civilization.” New generations were too far from times of struggle to understand their place in the world. Living in the U.S. came with the privilege of being the most successful country in the world, and 80s kids had no tangible concept of the political, social, and military struggles that saw the nation to that point. It’s telling that Smith’s “rough backstory” in Bad Boys revolves around trying to gain acceptance as a cop despite being a trust fund kid. (Talk about First World Problems.)
Smith’s Fresh Prince entered the scene at the dawn of the decade, and he’s followed up that role with many similar performances since. Smith’s characters are everymen in spite of their “coolness.” Every smooth moment Smith gets is undercut by the reveal that it’s all a big show. He’s relatable because he’s a phony – because, in a decade of success, he’s just one of many clueless Americans pretending he’s earned it. It’s why we can feel for Smith’s struggles while laughing when he looks foolish. If a guy this good at playing the game looks dumb sometimes, it made us feel better about being so bad at it.
The 2000s – JASON SEGEL
Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014), Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
Runner Up: Seth Rogen
The 2000s were the decade when America’s youth began to realize that things weren’t going as well as society told them it would. It began with the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, an ultimate statement of resistance from members of the Third World who saw our First World economy as oppressive. The U.S. responded by pouring billions of dollars of military intervention into the Middle East, in an attempt to stabilize the region. Too-big-to-fail banks and Wall Street investors had organized a system that benefitted them and hung the lower and middle classes out to dry. As a result, our economy started on shaky ground and eventually imploded under across-the-board mismanagement. For kids who grew up being told they were special and should pursue their dreams, it was a wake-up call.
Enter Jason Segel, whose career as a 2000s everyman revolved around seeing his bubble burst. Segel’s first major role was in Freaks and Geeks, where he played an awkward high schooler, betting his livelihood on becoming a world-class drummer. The cult show started a lot of careers, and only lasted a season, but by the end, it was a fair bet that Segel’s character wasn’t going to fulfill his destiny. The show took place in the 80s, but its view of the world reflected troubles to come.
Segel isn’t the first everyman on this list to get dumped, but he’s the first to lead a whole movie about getting over it. Forgetting Sarah Marshall challenges the toxic notion that men are somehow above falling apart emotionally. True outward grieving, especially over a lost relationship with a woman, has historically been seen as too distastefully “feminine” for even an everyman to get away with. Despite its presence in a silly comedy, these themes are fully explored, and Segel’s character comes out the other side a stronger person because of it.
Of all the characters in the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Segel’s character is the heart. He’s sensitive and strong, has an oddball sense of humor and tastes, but is most likely to come through as the voice of reason and moral center of his group of friends. He’s a law student and the only guy in a stable relationship. His arc revolves around the very real struggle of balancing the financial demands of starting a family with finding a firm to work for that he doesn’t find morally reprehensible. He ends up giving up his career dreams, digging into corporate work, so he can support the family he always wanted.
Jason Segel is truly the everyman of our changing times. He’s sensitive, and sometimes silly, but his struggles are honest, and they’re deeply indicative of the tumultuous 2000s.
The 2010s – CHRIS PRATT
Parks and Recreation (2009-15), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Jurassic World (2015), The Magnificent Seven (2016) Passengers (2016)
Runner Up: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Chris Pratt’s character in Parks and Recreation started off the 2010s in the same place a lot of men did – unemployed and living off of a significant other with no job prospects. Like a lot of folks who got hit the worst by the recession, he’s settled into, well… being a loser. The show watches as his character hits rock bottom, literally. He gets kicked out by his girlfriend and ends up living in the pit that caused his inciting injury. Pratt’s character is laughably lazy, simple-minded, and self-assured, but his arc sees him slowly climb out of his own self-involvement, revealing the big heart underneath. He may not be the brightest crayon in the drawer, but his positive attitude and compassion for his friends see him grow into a successful entrepreneur and father by the show’s end.
Pratt exploded into leading role status in Guardians of the Galaxy. Originally, director James Gunn didn’t even want to consider “the chubby guy from Parks and Rec.” In his own words, “I was tricked into hearing Chris read [by Marvel casting director Sarah Finn] and within one minute I saw beyond his body shape and realised he was the guy.” Pratt got into superhero shape for the role of Peter Quill (though he calls himself Star-Lord, the legendary outlaw). Quill is also a loser who learns to care about more than himself, and overcome his misguided arrogance to work with others towards the greater good. By the time Jurassic World rolled around, Pratt was a convincing everyman hero, who is defined by his level-headedness and empathy.
The decade hasn’t closed yet, but Pratt will be appearing in two more films before the year closes: The Magnificent Seven and Passengers. Sources say the former is set to follow Pratt’s zero-to-hero arc in exciting ways, while the latter will feature large portions of the film with Pratt as a one-man-show. The battles his characters face are often their own selfishness. His enlightenment comes from accepting his flaws and remembering his inherent decency. As the everyman of now, one can only hope we follow his fine example.
They say history is written by the winners, but at least in Hollywood it’s written by the everymen. Let’s hope the everymen of the next 100 years are similarly defined by their decency and perseverance.