Top Five Film Stars of the 1970s

Redford, McQueen, Newman, Reynolds and Streisand. The top five money-making stars of the decade, according to several sources. I would have substituted Clint Eastwood for McQueen, Warren Beatty for Newman, and Jack Nicholson for Streisand, but we’ll go with the money list. All were stars in the prior decade but Burt Reynolds and Robert Redford entered the decade poised to become not only white-hot at the box office but were arguably the biggest movie stars in the world. In the decade of the 1970s, star power was allowing the A-List members to wield power as producers but to also move into the director’s chair. Movie stars setting up production companies was not a new thing but it had been reserved for only a select few like James Stewart, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. With the death of the studio system and the big studios, changing commercial tastes, and the growth of theater chains in underserved areas, the film-going public reshaped the cinematic landscape. Some top film stars carried forward to the new decade while others, who had paid their dues in television or in B films, found daylight and tremendous success.

deliveranceOf the five, Reynolds is perhaps the most interesting and tragic, both personally and professionally. An athlete turned actor, Reynolds paid his dues in the television during the 1960s, first as a support player on series like Riverboat and then Gunsmoke. By the end of the decade he had starred in a short-lived Hawk, while appearing in the occasional film (Navajo Joe, 100 Rifles, Sam Whiskey). He began the 1970s staring in Skullduggery, a film that was supposed to break him as a lead actor. The film was a disappointment and he returned to television as detective Dan August, which lasted one season. He hadn’t given up on films, appearing with Raquel Welch in Fuzz, and then took to the river in Deliverance, which proved to be the vehicle he was waiting for. He followed with several other films that began to build on his appeal and image including The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, White Lightning and the big hit, The Longest Yard. Over the next few years, Reynolds would rocket to the top of the box office and solidify his “good ole boy” image that would both help and hurt his career. More of Burt in the next blog.

Robert Redford’s career began in the theater and gravitated toward television roles in the 1960s, before entering films midway through the decade. Unlike Reynolds, Redford’s early films were A List, although he played the co-star to Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, and Marlon Brando, before taking the lead role in Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, and Downhill Racer. the-stingWhile those two starring roles were good, his third film of 1969 was the homerun: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. His next several films were solid if not spectacular as he continued to climb by working with up-and-coming directors and getting him ready for his next huge leap. The year 1973 kicked his career up another level with The Way We Were and The Sting. Now on the acting A List, he had his pick of the best roles, although his choices were uneven, and the time between projects increased as he moved into producing and other interests, such as the development of his Sundance project, and planning his move to the director’s chair.

Steve McQueen came to the 1970s as one of the world’s biggest stars. His 1970s films ranged from the hugely successful Papillon and The Towering Inferno to disappointing Le Mans and An Enemy of the People. While his film output was low, his box office draw and his enigma were still huge. His off-the-field interests and marital troubles took his eye off his day job. Steve McQueen is probably more known for all of the films he turned down during the decade, and for his ego-fueled competition with Paul Newman during The Towering Inferno. Legend is that each star required exactly the same number of lines, and producer Irwin Allen had to get creative to figure out how to give Newman and McQueen equal billing in credits and ads. McQueen was offered Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but struggles over how to share credit with Newman kept him from accepting the role. Sadly, McQueen died of cardiac arrest while being treated for cancer in 1980. In death, McQueen’s legacy is huge and is said to be one of the top earners of deceased celebrities.

way we wereBarbra Streisand was already a huge stage, film and recording star by 1970. Her films of the 1970s were very uneven choices ranging from the commercial and critical success of A Star is Born to the very low earning Up the Sandbox. Her output at the beginning of the decade was plentiful but by 1976, she would appear in only two more films until 1981. One of her best films was a 1972 screwball comedy directed by Peter Bogdanovich, What’s Up Doc? Barbra Streisand obviously had the clout to pick any film and director of interest to her. She was even a partner in the film production company First Artists. Her films were a range of commercial subjects to more obscure source material that seemed to challenge and stretch her as an actor.

Paul Newman, like his rival Steve McQueen, entered the 1970s as a huge star with the power to pick his material and take time off to pursue other interests as he desired. In the 1970s, Newman’s choice of material was also uneven, as he picked roles where he would work with his wife, direct, and play offbeat characters. His first few films of the decade were unspectacular, WUSA and Pocket Money among them, until he reteamed with Redford in 1973 for blockbuster The Sting. Over the rest of the decade his films would wander between commercial projects like Slapshot and The Towering Inferno, and his two films with Robert Altman (Buffalo Bill and the Indians and Quintet). You have to wonder if Paul Newman seemed to lose his interest in films. During the decade he mourned the death of his son from drugs, pursued his passion in racing, and followed his political interests. Making movies provided a creative outlet and earned him a good living but he didn’t live to make films. In the next decTowering-Infernoade he would rekindle his acting fire and he’d become one of the world’s best-loved philanthropists.

Not appearing on this list are some notable actors who enjoyed tremendous success during the decade, and beyond. Not to slight these folks, here is a partial list: Jack Nicholson, Charles Bronson, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Jane Fonda, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Gene Hackman, John Wayne and Faye Dunaway.


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