While no one seriously expects Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger to compete with their action movie characters John Rambo and Colonel John Matrix in real life, most of us have wondered how much of the toughness the actors display on screen is for real. In this article we list some of the movie tough guys who impressed us as tough in real life and others who are only tough on screen.
For the purpose of this list, we assume that readers are already familiar with famous names such as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood, so we don't include them.
More stars have recently taken up training in the martial arts. Jessica Biel, Naomi Watts, and Ashton Kutcher, for example, have received training. Katheryn Winnick and Sarah Michelle Gellar hold black belts in Taekwondo, and Ed O’Neil holds a black belt in jiu-jitsu.
While we acknowledge that it takes a lot of discipline to achieve proficiency in the martial arts, we de-emphasize the mere fact of formal training and focus instead on actors who may not have training but showed exceptional courage in real-life situations.
The inclusion of the name of an actor on our list of those who are only tough on screen is not meant to suggest the actor is a wimp. It only shows that actors who portray tough guys are human like the rest of us.
Here are 13 Actors Who Are Legitimate Tough Guys And 12 Who Are Only Tough On Screen.
25 Legitimate Tough Guy: Sir Christopher Lee
Sir Christopher Lee (1922-2015) holds the Guinness World Record for most film acting roles, having appeared in more than 240 movies since his debut in 1946. He played major villain roles, such as Count Dracula in the Hammer Horror movies, Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, and the Middle-Earth wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and The Hobbit Trilogies (2012-2014).
Although some researchers later refuted claims that he served during World War II in the British SAS and SOE, there was never any need to embellish his service record because he served meritoriously in North Africa and Italy as an RAF pilot officer. He even took time off in the middle of war to climb the dangerous volcano Mount Vesuvius, which erupted only days after he had climbed it.
24 Tough Only On Screen: Vin Diesel
Actor Mark Sinclair, better known as Vin Diesel, has portrayed some of the toughest movie characters ever, such as Dominic Toretto in the Fast and Furious series, Richard Riddick in The Chronicles of Riddick series, and Xander Cage in the xXx series.
Although his onscreen characters tend to be very tough guys, Diesel does not hide the fact that he is not a tough guy in real life. He describes himself as a nerdy guy whose only experience of action outside the film set is through role-playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons. Diesel admitted that he spends practically all his spare time playing RPGs, and that besides Dungeons and Dragons, he loves playing the World of Warcraft.
He is not afraid to show his emotional side in public. Fans were moved to see him openly grieving the passing of Paul Walker in 2013.
23 Legitimate Tough Guy: Mickey Rourke
Mickey Rourke started off as a boxer after graduating from high school in 1971, winning his first match as a bantamweight boxer at the age of 12. He trained at the 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach and joined the Police Athletic League.
He left amateur boxing in 1973, with a record of 27 wins and only 3 losses. He went into acting and, during the 1980s, he appeared in several films, including Diner (1982), Rumble Fish (1983) and Angel Heart (1987).
He returned to boxing in 1991 to start a professional career, but retired in 1994, undefeated in eight fights. He resumed his acting career and won a Golden Globe in 2009, a BAFTA award, and a nomination for an Academy Award for his role in The Wrestler (2008). He also appeared in Iron Man 2 (2010) and The Expendables (2010).
22 Tough Only On Screen: Hugh Jackman
Actor Hugh Jackman is best known for playing the ferocious adamantium enhanced mutant Wolverine in the X-Men movie series. His convincing portrayal of the character makes it difficult to imagine him in real life as being unlike the fierce but troubled character he portrays on the screen. Fans therefore tend to be taken aback when they see Jackman singing and dancing in Broadway musicals, and playing roles in romantic comedies.
Jackman doesn't pretend to be a tough guy in real life. He is a devout Christian and a gentleman. People who have met him often gush about how "incredibly nice" he is.
Jackman once wet his pants while playing Gaston in a production of Beauty and the Beast. He hadn’t been feeling well and had taken a lot of water to fight dehydration. He recalled the embarrassing moment the audience began laughing when they saw him wetting his pants.
21 Legitimate Tough Guy: Danny Trejo
Danny Trejo had a very rough upbringing. He wanted to become a professional boxer but ended up becoming an addict and spent 10 years in prison for crimes. While serving his sentence in San Quentin, he honed his boxing skills.
After leaving prison and completing a rehabilitation program, he was offered a minor role in the movie Runaway Train (1985). However, the screenwriter, who had known him at San Quentin and was aware of boxing skills, hired him to train the actors for the action scenes.
While training Eric Roberts for his role, the director noticed him and offered him a more prominent role. The role gave him the exposure he needed to start an acting career and, because of his tough appearance, he quickly became the go-to actor for hardened roles.
20 Tough Only On Screen: Sylvester Stallone
Sylvester Stallone first came to prominence as Rocky Balboa in the Rocky film series and later played the super-soldier John Rambo in the Rambo series. Widely shared anecdotes suggest that while he tries to live up to his onscreen tough guy image, he isn't much tougher than the average joe.
Once, while auditioning for a role in Rocky III, the heavyweight boxer Earnie Shavers had to spar with Stallone. Although Shavers did not want to hurt Stallone, he was forced to hit a little harder when it appeared that Stallone was unimpressed with his effort.
Stallone doubled up and rushed to the bathroom where he was heard vomiting for several minutes. He later said that Shavers "nearly killed" him. In a separate incident, Dolph Lundgren (see below) sent Stallone to the hospital for days with only one punch.
19 Legitimate Tough Guy: Dolph Lundgren
Swedish actor Hans "Dolph" Lundgren is a mixed martial arts expert who holds a third dan back belt in Kyokushin Karate and was the former European Karate champion (1980-1981). He holds a degree in chemical engineering from the Royal Institute of Technology (Stockholm) and a master's degree in the same disciple from the University of Sydney.
He met actress Grace Jones in Sydney and came to the U.S. in 1983 after being awarded a Fulbright Scholarship. But he left MIT and joined Jones in NYC where he worked as a bouncer at The Limelight, a Manhattan nightclub. Jones helped him to obtain a minor role in the James Bond movie A View to a Kill (1985).
He got his breakthrough when he landed the role of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV (1985). He went on to star in several films, portraying tough fighting characters.
18 Tough Only On Screen: Roger Moore
Despite his tough guy roles as Simon Templar in The Saint (TV series 1962-1969) and as James Bond in the 007 series (1973-1985), Sir Roger Moore (1927-2017) was known to be scared of handling firearms in real life. This would come as a surprise to fans who have watched him handle guns with seeming expertise in movies such as Live and Let Die (1973), The Spy Who Love Me (1977), and For Your Eyes Only (1981).
Moore's firearms phobia -- hoplophobia -- dated back to his youth when he served in the military. Once while handling a gun, it exploded in his hands, leaving him temporarily deaf. The incident caused him to develop a fear of guns which he struggled for years to overcome. Some claim they’ve seen Moore fearfully shutting his eyes as he prepared to fire his weapon in some of his movie scenes.
17 Legitimate Tough Guy: Steve Buscemi
Steve Buscemi worked for some years as a firefighter in the 1980s before he became a successful actor. He has been portrayed more often in movies as a spineless villain than a tough guy, but it turns out that the real-life Buscemi is a hero. He showed courage and selflessness when he volunteered to work with his former firefighter colleagues in NYC after the 9/11 attacks. He spent more than 12 hours daily for several days helping with rescue efforts under dangerous conditions.
Many people were not aware of Buscemi's involvement in the efforts to rescue people trapped in debris and rubble after the terrorist attacks only because he avoided talking to the media about it. When he was later asked why he joined the firefighters and risked his health and life in the forefront of rescue efforts, he answered that he only wanted to help his "brothers."
16 Tough Only On Screen: Steven Seagal
Steven Seagal holds a 7th dan black belt in Aikido. Nobody disputes his martial arts expertise, but going by the testimony of multiple independent sources, Seagal may not be as tough as he appears in the movies
Ivan "Judo" Gene LeBell, a martial arts expert who holds a 9th dan in jujitsu and taihojutsu, claimed some years ago that after Seagal bragged that no one could choke him out, he put him in a choke hold until he lost consciousness and soiled his pants. Seagal denied the story, describing LeBell as out of his mind, but LeBell insisted he was speaking the truth and many believed him.
Several other people, including John Leguizamo, have told stories of personal encounters with Seagal that create a pattern suggesting he is not popular among people who have worked with him due to his tendency to be overbearing and to bully people.
15 Legitimate Tough Guy: Sean Bean
Sean Bean, best known for his role as Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, has the reputation of being a tough guy in real life. In 2012, while hanging out at a bar in London, someone made a smutty comment about his date. Bean confronted the man who left and returned later. He tried to stab Bean with a shard of glass, but he blocked it with his forearm.
Bean later walked calmly into the bar and asked for the first aid kit. He dressed up his wound and returned to his drink although the bar workers offered to call an ambulance. However, Bean would not have his night ruined by something as ordinary as a gash in the arm. The bar workers said they were not surprised by his reaction. He was a regular at the bar and they already knew he was a tough guy.
14 Tough Only On Screen: Liam Neeson
Liam Neeson has played so many tough guy movie roles that he is sometimes described as one of the toughest "tough guys in cinema history." He appeared as Bryan Mills in Taken franchise, as Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins (2005), as Darkman in Darkman (1995), and as Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace (1999).
People who have worked with Neeson all agree that he is a very nice and decent man, this being one of the greatest qualities of real manhood. He once admitted that despite his onscreen tough guy image, he suffers an intense fear of heights. In his own admission, you don't need to take him to the top of a building or ask him to climb up a few rungs of a ladder to bring out his terror of heights. You only need to ask him to stand on a chair to change a light bulb.
13 Legitimate Tough Guy: Ronda Rousey
Judo and mixed martial arts practitioner Ronda Rousey became the UFC Bantamweight Champion in February 2013 after joining from Strikeforce and went on an epic run with the belt. Before becoming a professional MMA fighter she had won a gold medal at the 2004 World Junior Judo Championship in Budapest. She became the first U.S. female athlete to win an Olympic medal in judo when she won a bronze at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
She made her amateur debut in mixed martial arts in 2010 and never lost a fight until she lost to Holly Holm in November 2015.
She made her film debut in 2014 in The Expendables 3 (2014) and later appeared in Furious 7 (2015).
12 Tough Only On Screen: Harrison Ford
Harrison Ford, beloved for his role as Han Solo in Star Wars and as Indiana Jones, will rank high on any list of tough guy actors. His willingness to fly risky search and rescue missions and his refusal to give up flying after barely escaping with his life in a number of crashes also suggests he is a tough guy in real life.
However, the last that anyone would expect of a tough guy is a terror of doing something as commonplace as giving a speech or an interview before a live studio audience. Ford has publicly admitted that his "fear of people" forced him to avoid the talk show circuit for years. It's a totally understand fear and one that makes sense when you look at his past, but it's just pretty surprising for someone like Ford.
11 Legitimate Tough Guy: Michael Jai White
Michael Jai White is a native of Brooklyn, who made his debut in Toxic Avenger II. He is as much a tough guy in real life as he is on screen. He holds black belts in seven karate disciplines, including Shotokan, Taekwondo, Tang Soo Do, Goju Ryu, and Kyokushin. He has won more than 25 martial arts titles, including the North American and U.S. Open titles.
He starred as Al Simmons in Spawn (1997) and played the role of Marcus Williams in Why Did I Get Married? (2007) and Why Did I Get Married Too? (2010). He also appeared in Mortal Kombat: Legacy as Jax Briggs, and portrayed Mike Tyson in the HBO movie Tyson (1995). All in all, he's every bit as tough as he looks on-screen.
10 Tough Only On Screen: Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck is known at the moment for his role as Batman in the DC Extended Universe. He has also starred in many action movies, such as The Accountant (2016) and Live By Night (2016).
However, many fans will be surprised to learn that despite playing the role of Gotham City's gliding crusader, Affleck has a fear of flying. But his fear of flying is understandable. It stems from a terrifying experience he had as a 9-year-old traveling alone by air to Washington D.C. The plane in which he was flying was suddenly hit by lightning and caught fire.
However, Affleck has managed, despite his fear of flying, to successfully play his role as Batman. He played Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and in Justice League (2017). His role as Batman involves considerable aerial action, such as gliding stealthily in the air and dropping unexpectedly on villains, and flying his Batplane.
9 Legitimate Tough Guy: Audie Leon Murphy
Before his acting career, Audie Leon Murphy (1925-1971) served in the U.S. Army and saw action in North Africa, Italy and France. After being initially rejected for enlistment in 1941, he finally joined the Army in 1942, at the age of 17, and went on to become one of the most decorated combat soldiers of World War II, receiving practically every available U.S. Army award for valor.
He received the Medal of Honor at the age of 19 after he climbed alone into a burning tank and exchanged machine gun fire with a company of German troops, while his company retreated.
He became an actor after the war and appeared in more than 40 movies between 1948 and 1969.
8 Tough Only On Screen: John Wayne
Marion Mitchell Morrison (1907-1979), better known as John Wayne, was the quintessential movie tough guy who built a reputation of rugged masculinity through swaggering cowboy and frontier hero exploits on screen. But the truth about Wayne in real-life led some writers to describe the public image he cultivated as a "living lie."
According to the biographer Scott Eyman, author of John Wayne: The Life And Legend, Wayne struggled to live up to his tough guy image by hiding the sensitive side of his personality. Although he starred in the World War II movie Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), and won an Oscar for his role portraying acts of bravery by U.S. Marines, he was plagued by a sense of guilt for having avoided military service.
7 Legitimate Tough Guy: James Doohan
James Doohan, who played Scotty in the Star Trek series, served with the Canadian Armed Forces during World War II. He was nicknamed the "Craziest Pilot in the Canadian Air Force" for his wild aerial antics, although he flew only as an artillery spotter and was actually never a member of the Air Force. Doohan once performed a dangerous stunt in a Taylorcraft Auster Mark IV, which involved meandering through a line of telephone poles only because someone dared him.
He served with the 14th Field Artillery Regiment of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and participated in the D-Day landing at Normandy. He killed two Nazi snipers while leading his platoon up the mined beaches, but later came under "friendly fire" and got shot six times. He lost the middle finger of his right hand as a result. Doohan took care to hide the amputation on the Star Trek TV series.
6 Tough Only On Screen: Robert De Niro
Although Robert de Niro built his acting career around portraying tough guys on screen, he really isn't a tough guy in real life. His convincing portrayal of iconic mobster characters, such as Don Vitto Corleone in The Godfather (1972), Paul Vitti in Analyze This (1999), and hardened criminals, such as Max Cady in Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear (1991), was due to his skills as an actor.
The closest that de Niro ever came to being a gangster in real life was when he joined a New York "street gang" as a teenager. However, the "street gang" was only a group of adventurous youngsters who often got involved in wild escapades that only proved tiresome distraction to busy law enforcement officers. De Niro's friends and personal acquaintances have admitted that he is a passionate, hardworking man with a sober demeanor in real life. He is also somewhat reclusive and enjoys outdoor activity.
5 Legitimate Tough Guy: James Stewart
Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) is one of the most respected movie stars in American film history. He is ranked by the American Film Institute, alongside Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, as among the greatest American actors ever. Stewart was already a film legend by the time his military career took off in 1941. He fought in World War II and served during the Vietnam War. He was a highly decorated war hero, rising to the rank of a USAF Reserve Brigadier General.
It is widely recognized that Stewart could easily have avoided active service in World War II, but he joined the Air Corps in 1941, and despite the reluctance of his superiors to let him risk his life as a military pilot, he insisted that he wanted to go on combat missions. He served as a squadron leader and led his men in bombing raids over Germany.
4 Tough Only On Screen: Tom Hardy
Tom Hardy has played many rugged tough guy roles in movies such as Bronson (2008), Warrior (2011), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), The Revenant (2015), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). But he admitted in a 2014 interview with Esquire magazine that despite his tough guy movie image, he is not tough in real life. According to Hardy, he only tries to "mimic" being tough on screen to fulfill his movie roles.
He talked frankly about his insecurities in real life, saying that he struggled for years with his fear of going to the gym to work out with bigger and stronger men. He admitted that he felt intimidated by real-life tough men and that he compensated in his movies by imitating them, and playing the tough guy role convincingly. He emphasized that his tough guy image on screen was only "mimicry" and not reality. We commend his honesty!
3 Legitimate Tough Guy: Ed O'Neill
Although he is best known for his role as the paunchy dad in TV sitcoms such Married.... with Children (1986-1997), and Modern Family (2009-), Ed O'Neill was a capable athlete in his high school days and won a football scholarship to Ohio University. He later moved to Youngstown State University where he played as a defensive lineman. He wanted to become a professional football player but was unable to fulfill his dream, so he turned to acting.
O'Neil holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). He was reportedly introduced to BJJ by his friend, director John Milius. He studied BJJ for 22 years under Grand Master Rorion Gracie before he received his black belt in December 2007. He said in the documentary film I Am Bruce Lee (2012) that his black belt was the greatest achievement of his life after his children.
2 Tough Only On Screen: Matt Damon
Actor Matt Damon played the hard-boiled CIA assassin Jason Bourne in the Bourne action movie series (2002-2016), appeared as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf in True Grit (2010), and as astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian (2005). However, he does not try to live up to his tough guy onscreen image in real life and his admitted that in interviews.
Damon has a passion for promoting humanitarian and charitable projects. He is involved in several charities, including Feeding America, Water.org, H2O Africa Foundation, and ONEXONE Campaign. He co-founded Not On Our Watch Project, an organization that campaigns to prevent human rights violation in war-ravaged regions, such as Darfur.
1 Legitimate Tough Guy: Mark Wahlberg
Mark Wahlberg was born and raised in a tough Dorchester neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts, and as early as 13, he was selling and using illegal substances. By 15, he was well known to the Boston police as a vicious hooligan. He was charged with violent crimes and sentenced to 2 months in prison, but served only 45 days. He later expressed regret for his actions and in 2016, he apologized to the victim.
After a stint as a singer and rapper, he settled down into acting. He appeared in The Substitute (1996) and in Renaissance Man (1994). As part of preparation for his role in Shoot (2007), Wahlberg was required to take shooting lessons. His trainers were amazed when he was able to hit a target at 1100 yards on the second of day of training, instead of weeks.
Have we missed any actor who is a legitimate tough guy or any who is tough only on screen? Let us know in the comments below.
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