Best Actor Oscar Winners of the 1960s

Big Performances in a Big Decade

Oscar tends to favor big, dramatic performances in big, “important” films. While many worthy performances were Best Actor Oscar winners in the 1960s, the academy sometimes missed the mark, failing to honor or even nominate many of the most memorable and groundbreaking performances of the decade. The envelope for Best Actor, please:
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1960 Best Actor – Burt Lancaster in ‘Elmer Gantry’

Elmer Gantry
Elmer Gantry. United Artists

Lancaster’s flamboyant performance as an evangelical huckster won out over strong competition in a great year for movies, including Jack Lemmon’s break-your-heart schmo in The Apartment, and Sir Laurence Olivier’s masterfully sleazy turn in The Entertainer. Lancaster also beat out Spencer Tracy's wise, moving performance in Inherit the Wind, and Trevor Howard’s drunken coal-miner in Sons and Lovers. John Wayne’s Davy Crockett in the disappointing The Alamo failed to win a nomination, as did Tony Perkins as the disturbed Norman Bates in Psycho.

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1961 Best Actor – Maximillian Schell in ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’

Judgment at Nuremberg
Judgment at Nuremberg. United Artists

Although I’ve always felt Paul Newman deserved the win for The Hustler, Schell was powerful as the German defense lawyer in the courtroom drama addressing the disturbing issue of how to prosecute the Holocaust’s unthinkable crimes. Schell beat fellow cast member Spencer Tracy as the weary, painstaking American judge, along with Newman, Charles Boyer in Fanny, and Stuart Whitman in The Mark. Snubbed were Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun and Albert Finney for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

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1962 Best Actor – Gregory Peck in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird. Universal Pictures

Peck won his only Oscar for his portrayal of the warm, wise and humane widower Atticus Finch, despite tough competition in a year filled with wonderful films. He bested Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, Burt Lancaster as The Birdman of Alcatraz, Jack Lemmon as a struggling alcoholic in Days of Wine and Roses and Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce, Italian Style. Overlooked were the ebullient Robert Preston in The Music Man, Marlon Brando’s spirited Mutiny on the Bounty and Laurence Harvey’s creepy turn in The Manchurian Candidate.

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1963 Best Actor – Sidney Poitier in ‘The Lilies of the Field’

The Lilies of the Field
The Lilies of the Field. United Artists

Poitier’s statuette was the first and only of his career, and the first major Oscar won by an African American. (It would be nearly 40 years before another African American, Denzel Washington, would win in 2001 for Training Day.) Poitier beat out Albert Finney in the ribald title role of Tom Jones and Paul Newman as the randy, amoral cowboy Hud, along with Rex Harrison in the overblown Cleopatra and Richard Harris in The Sporting Life. Two oversights: Steve McQueen’s iconic performance in The Great Escape, and Jerry Lewis’s indelible gig as The Nutty Professor.

As marvelous as Harrison’s performance was, Oscar snubbed Peter Sellers’ amazing triple role in the best black comedy of all time, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In a year when strong male roles abounded, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole both lost for Becket, and Anthony Quinn lost for the role of his life, Zorba the Greek. Going without nominations were Sellers again for his hilarious Inspector Clouseau in A Shot in the Dark (the first Pink Panther movie), and Sean Connery as James Bond in Goldfinger.

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1965 Best Actor – Lee Marvin in ‘Cat Ballou’

Cat Ballou
Cat Ballou. Columbia Pictures

Oscar rarely hands out its big awards for comedy roles, but Lee Marvin beat the odds with a dual role in the charming western spoof Cat Ballou, playing a sinister murderer with a tin nose and a drunken, washed up gunslinger riding a horse that was just as sloshed. It was an upset for Rod Steiger in his searing role as The Pawnbroker. Also denied were Richard Burton for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Oskar Werner in Ship of Fools and, incredible as it seems today, Laurence Olivier in blackface as the Moor in Othello. Yikes. Meanwhile, Ivan Dixon was ignored for his role in Nothing But a Man.

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1966 Best Actor - Paul Scofield in ‘A Man For All Seasons’

A Man For All Seasons
A Man For All Seasons. Columbia Pictures

Scofield was terrific as the courageous cleric standing up to King Henry VIII, but I think a comic role should have won: Alan Arkin’s gentle Russian sailor in the sweet, silly Cold War comedy The Russians are Coming, the Russians Ae Coming. In a strongly competitive year, Richard Burton continued his losing streak with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Michael Caine’s deliciously amoral womanizer Alfie also lost, along with Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles. Denied even a nomination were Sean Connery in A Fine Madness, Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight and Zero Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

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1967 Best Actor – Rod Steiger in ‘In the Heat of the Night’

In the Heat of the Night
In the Heat of the Night. United Artists

In another year of great performances, Rod Steiger beat the scorching competition as the sheriff of a small town dealing with crime and racism. He won over Warren Beatty‘s coolly murderous lead in Bonnie and Clyde, Spencer Tracy’s heartwarming final role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Paul Newman’s anti-hero in Cool Hand Luke and Dustin Hoffman’s title role in The Graduate, Oscar-worthy performances all. The worst omission was Robert Blake’s chilling delivery as a disturbed criminal in In Cold Blood, and Poitier was snubbed for both In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

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1968 Best Actor - Cliff Robertson in ‘Charly’

Charly. ABC Pictures

Robertson’s moving portrayal of a mentally challenged man in the tragic Charly was his only career nomination, and an upset. He won against Peter O’Toole for the Lion in Winter (nominated again for a role as Henry II); Alan Bates falsely accused as a child murderer in The Fixer; Ron Moody as petty criminal Fagin in Oliver!; and Alan Arkin’s astonishing work as a deaf/mute in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Zero Mostel’s funny business in The Producers was ignored, as were both Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau for their hilarious work in The Odd Couple.

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1969 Best Actor - John Wayne in ‘True Grit’

True Grit
True Grit. Paramount Pictures

The Duke won in 1969 for a film that was not his best performance, and certainly nowhere near the best film in a year packed with classics. The sentimental favorite was seen as long overdue for an Oscar, and beat out both young stars of the gritty, groundbreaking Midnight Cowboy, Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, who was simply outstanding. Richard Burton lost again as Henry VIII in Anne of the Thousand Days and Peter O‘Toole as the schoolmaster in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Snubbed were both Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.