The 20 Greatest Scottish Movie Actors
There may be some surprises in this list of great Scottish star actors. Not least is the fact that you may not have even known they were Scottish. But all of them certainly are and quite a few are famous all around the world. They may not all be in the stellar league of the Hollywood A-List, but let's say they're stars in the particular Caledonian solar system of the acting profession.
Some of them are leading men and others are renowned for supporting character roles, but these are perhaps the best of the best to have come from Scotland. They're not merely fine actors, but also actors with star quality. Here is my Top 20 stars from Scotland listed in alphabetical order.
Born in Airdrie, Lanarkshire in 1928. Perhaps regarded more as a character actor than a major star. However Ian Bannen certainly deserves inclusion because of his acting pedigree and tremendous screen credits. Although rarely playing the leading man, he has dominated many movies in the UK and in Hollywood. He appeared in classic films like 'The Hill', 'Flight of the Phoenix', 'Gandhi, 'Gorky Park' and 'Braveheart'.
But arguably, his greatest role was that of the suspected pedophile in 'The Offence' in a masterclass of acting where he jousted with Sean Connery, the brutal police interrogator. Ian also starred on TV in later life in 'Dr Findlay's Casebook' as well as the Irish movie 'Waking Ned'. He sadly died in a car crash in 1999 in Loch Ness.
Born in Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire in 1891. An old school actor who began his career in the silent era. Suave and debonair in style and appearance he was perfect for the 'talkies' revolution that followed. He exuded the sophisticated glamour of the urban gentleman among the society people.
However he often played the quintessential Englishman despite his native birth. His best known movie was 'Band Wagon' in 1953 which starred Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Other highlights were 'Monte Carlo', 'The Sky's the Limit', 'Break the News' and the original 'Brewster's Millions'. He died in London in 1966.
Gerard was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire in 1969. So we are spanning the generations to a current Caledonian heart-throb in the Hollywood industry. Early appearances in 'Mrs Brown' with Billy Connolly in 1997 and also 'Reign of Fire' starring Matthew McConaughey in 2002 brought his presence to the fore.
Prestigious lead roles followed in 'The Phantom of the Opera' and more importantly in terms of popularity was '300' where he played King Leonidas, leader of the Spartans. He quickly rose to celebrity status and is now one of the most famous Scotsmen in the world. He has played a starring role in many Hollywood movies such as 'The Ugly Truth, 'Law Abiding Citizen', 'The Bounty Hunter' and the Mike Banning 'Fallen' series of films.
Born in Glasgow in 1961. An extremely versatile actor who has played many different roles.He made television audiences take notice in 1994 with his portrayal of a murderous Scouser in 'Cracker' with Robbie Coltrane. His first real starring role was in the charming BBC TV series 'Hamish MacBeth' as a Highland policeman.
After returning to dark characters, his world breakthrough came with 'Trainspotting' in 1996 as the violent Edinburgh thug Begbie. Robert's multi-talents have since led to various roles as a Russian terrorist in the James Bond movie 'The World is not Enough', an unemployed Yorkshireman in 'The Full Monty' and even as Adolf Hitler. He has also starred in acclaimed Ken Loach movies like 'Riff Raff' and 'Carla's Song'. He returned to TV work as a regular on 'Stargate Universe' in 2009 and still going strong.
Born in Edinburgh in 1930. Without a doubt the most famous Scottish actor ever in the history of the movies. A true A-list celebrity for decades beginning with his classic James Bond 007 era in the 1960s. Sir Sean is however remarkable for retaining that Scottish brogue in any role he plays.
Whether playing a Russian submarine commander in 'The Hunt for Red October', an immortal Spaniard in 'Highlander' or even his Oscar-winning performance as an Irish cop in 'The Untouchables' that familiar accent is always there. But such is the charisma and sheer presence of the great man that audiences do not mind, even when playing the dad of Indiana Jones. In any case, his acting talents are never in doubt considering his towering performances in movies like 'The Hill', 'The Offence' and 'The Name of the Rose'.
Born in Rutherglen, near Glasgow in 1950. Robbie was best known for many years in comedy roles on TV. He enjoyed success in Scotland with 'A Kick Up the Eighties' and the 'Tutti Frutti' series. This was followed by UK network guest appearances on shows like 'The Young Ones' and 'Blackadder'. Serious acting came in the superb 'Cracker' detective show as the Police Psychologist Fitz. He also played Falstaff on the big screen in Kenneth Branagh's remake of 'Henry V' in 1989.
After starring in movies like 'Nuns on the Run' and 'The Pope Must Die' he became a bigger star on the international scene. A popular role as Valentin Zukovsky in two Bond movies was superseded by his most well-known character to date, that of Hagrid in the enormously successful 'Harry Potter' series.
Born in Glasgow in 1942. A legendary Scotsman best known for his genius in stand-up comedy. Without doubt one of the best in the world. However Billy's acting career began as far back as the mid 1970s. He was cast in the classic Peter McDougall TV plays 'Just Another Saturday' and 'Elephants Graveyard' with John Morrison starring. He later reunited with writer McDougall in 1993 as a lead actor in 'Down Among the Big Boys'.
At the cinema his most celebrated performance was in 'Mrs Brown' in 1996 appearing alongside Judi Dench who was in the role of Queen Victoria. Other great roles were in 'Still Crazy', 'The Last Samurai', 'Quartet' and 'The Hobbit'.
Born in Paisley, Renfrewshire in 1941. A very underrated actor who has rarely played leading roles, but deserves the utmost recognition for his fine acting and many great performances in his movies. He has actually been top of the bill in lesser known movies in the 1980s such as 'Heavenly Pursuits' and 'Saving Grace' where he played a Pope living incognito in an Italian village.
He is also fondly remembered for his role as the Greek taverna owner in 'Shirley Valentine' with Julie Walters. A best actor nomination at the Oscars came for his star role in 'Reuben, Reuben' in 1983. Perhaps his greatest performance was that of the title role in 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence' in which he starred with David Bowie in 1983.
Born in Clydebank near Glasgow in 1948. Another Scottish actor who is rarely a leading man. But a tremendous performer with true star quality who dominates the big screen whenever he appears. He has a massive record of small-screen appearances in many great UK TV shows.
He was often typecast in guest appearances as a tough Scotsman on either side of the law in shows like 'The Sweeney', 'The Professionals' and 'Minder'. Internationally he is best known for roles in 'Highlander', 'Trainspotting', 'Braveheart', 'Troy' and the sci-fi short movie '2081'. He also recently appeared in the TV series 'Game of Thrones' as Jeor Mormont.
Born in Dundee in 1946. An actor who took many years to reach the top of the international scene. But before that Brian had an extensive resume of excellent stage and TV work in the UK. However his Hollywood career really started to take off in the 1980s.
He played a pre-Hopkins Hannibal Lecter in the 1986 movie 'Manhunter' where he verbally and psychologically battled with detective William Peterson. Many marvelous roles have since followed in both Scottish and international movies. From 'Complicity' to 'X-Men 2', from 'Strictly Sinatra' to 'The Bourne Identity' and from 'The Flying Scotsman' to 'Rob Roy'.
Born in Larbert, Stirlingshire in 1887. Who can forget the immortal Jimmy Finlayson? Who else could have competed for laughs with Laurel and Hardy back in the 1930s? After dropping out of school at Edinburgh University and following the death of his parents he moved to the USA in 1911.
He appeared in many silent movies and was an original member of The Keystone Cops. But it was, of course, his many appearances with Stan and Ollie that the public remembers. This included actor Dan Castellaneta who stole Finlayson's mono-syllabic catchphrase of "Dohhhhh!" which was shortened and put in the mouth of Homer Simpson. Jimmy died in 1953 of a heart attack at his home in Los Angeles.
Born in Glasgow in 1923. He will forever be associated by the British TV public with two roles in the 1970s. First as Hudson the butler in the classic period drama 'Upstairs, Downstairs'. Later, as the tough-guy George Cowley in 'The Professionals' who commanded Bodie and Doyle played by Lewis Collins and Martin Doyle respectively.
However, Gordon had a long and distinguished movie career dating back to the 1940s. Then in the 1950s came hits such as 'Whisky Galore', 'Tunes of Glory' and 'Mutiny on the Bounty'. A massive part followed in the blockbuster 'The Great Escape' in 1963 among an incredible cast of stars. Other roles came in 'Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines', 'The Ipcress File' and 'The Night of the Generals'. Gordon passed away in 1990 in London after a period of illness.
JAMES ROBERTSON JUSTICE
Born in 1907 in London. Although born in England, James was a true Scot. He came from an Aberdeenshire family and included Gaelic among the many languages that he spoke. He was extremely well-known to cinema-goers and could play both comic and serious roles with equal skill.
But he was best remembered as the bad-tempered and domineering Sir Lancelot Spratt in the 'Doctor' series of movies in the 1950s and 60's. Other major hits were 'Above us the Waves', 'Moby Dick', 'The Guns of Navarone' and 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'. James died in 1975 after suffering a long period of ill health. His ashes were scattered in the Highlands of Scotland.
Born in Shotts, Lanarkshire in 1926. As a young actor Andrew made many appearances on stage. He moved into the world of film in the 1950's. His most famous part came in 1967 when he played Professor Quatermass in the successful sci-fi horror 'Quatermass and the Pit'. Prior to that, he had built up an impressive resume of fine movies.
He was in the Scottish classic 'The Maggie', the Titanic disaster movie 'A Night to Remember' and the epic 'Cleopatra' which starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. He had also appeared in several Hammer Horror movies. His last important role was in the 1995 hit 'Rob Roy' where he played the Duke of Argyll. He died in London in 1997 aged 71.
Born in East Kilbride, Glasgow in 1979. A new kid on the block who has become a big name. Compared to many of his acting compatriots James has enjoyed overnight success at a young age. He first rose to prominence on TV in 'Band of Brothers' and then the UK series 'Shameless' portraying a young rogue.
He quickly transferred his talents to the movie industry. In 'The Last King of Scotland' in 2007 he played a fictitious young Scottish doctor alongside Forrest Whittaker as the monstrous Idi Amin. This gave a great boost to his fortunes and even bigger parts came his way. Since then he has appeared in 'Atonement', 'The Conspirator', earned a plum role as a young Charles Xavier in 'X-Men: First Class' and also 'Trance'.
Born in Glasgow in 1933. Easily recognizable to a young audience as Dr Donald 'Ducky' Mallard in the 'NCIS' TV series. David has therefore enjoyed a resurgence of fame and fortune in his older age. He had even greater success back in the 1960s as Illya Kuryakin, the Russian agent alongside Robert Vaughn in 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E' TV series and movies.
He was also another Scot who appeared in 'The Great Escape' but like Gordon Jackson and Angus Lennie his character died in a hail of bullets. Other notable movies by David were 'The Long, the Short and the Tall', 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' and 'Mosquito Squadron'. He also starred on American TV as 'The Invisible Man' in the 1970s and in the UK with the cult sci-fi series 'Sapphire and Steel' in the early 1980s partnering Joanna Lumley .
Born in Perth in 1971. A hugely successful actor with a string of star roles. He has perhaps taken over the reigns of Sean Connery as the top Jock in Hollywood. In the 1990s a starring role in TV's 'Lipstick on your Collar' was quickly followed by the acclaimed 'Shallow Grave' movie. But it was the smash-hit 'Trainspotting' in 1996 that proved the launchpad to the A-List. Since his memorable role as Renton the drug-addict Ewan has never looked back.
He has starred in 'A life Less Ordinary', 'Moulin Rouge', 'Big Fish', 'Angels and Demons' and top of the heap in terms of fame was his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the 'Star Wars' prequels. He returned to that role as the master Jedi in a TV series of 2022. But he has kept his feet on the ground with supporting roles in movies like 'Little Voice' and 'Black Hawk Down'. In 2003 he also accepted the leading role in a local independent film in Scotland called 'Young Adam' with Peter Mullan and Tilda Swinton.
Born in Peterhead in 1959. He never quite soared to the stellar heights of Butler, McGregor and McAvoy, however Peter Mullan is one of the most outstanding actors of his time. A best actor award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival testified to that accolade. In 'My Name is Joe' under Ken Loach's direction he gave a powerful and searing performance of a recovering alcoholic in the tough streets of Glasgow.
Peter became a successful director himself with 'Orphans', 'Neds' and the brilliant Irish movie 'The Magdalene Sisters'. As an actor, his major movies have included 'Trainspotting', 'Miss Julie', 'Children of Men', 'Braveheart' and 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows'. He also starred on UK TV in the series 'The Fear' as well as the Scottish movie 'On a Clear Day'.
Born in Glenrothes in Fife in 1965. As a youngster Dougray studied drama in Wales before moving to London in 1998. After regular TV roles he entered the movies with early success. He had parts in the disaster movie 'Deep Impact' and the hilarious romantic comedy 'This Years Love'. An international breakthrough came in the year 2000 starring with Tom Cruise in 'Mission Impossible 2' as the villain Sean Ambrose.
He was also considered for the roles of Wolverine in the 'X-Men' movies and as a new James Bond but lost out to both parts. However his other notable works were 'Enigma', 'Ripley's Game', 'My Week with Marilyn' and 'United'. He has also been prolific on TV again with series like 'Desperate Housewives' and 'Sinbad'.
Born in Edinburgh in 1900. A brilliant actor who could say more with his facial expressions than a thousand words. Alastair preferred to perform on stage in his early career in Scotland. But he is still much-loved for his work in the old classic black and white movies. He perhaps gave the greatest ever portrayal of the Dickens character 'Scrooge' in the film of the same name back in 1951.
Other well-known movies were 'Waterloo Road', 'Stage Fright', 'An Inspector Calls', 'The Green Man' and 'The Ruling Class'. However he is best remembered for appearing in drag performances as the long-suffering school mistress Miss Fritton in the St Trinian's movies of the 1950s. He died in 1976 in London.
Of course there are many other great male actors from Scotland but for star quality these 20 have been chosen.
Special mentions should be given for the likes of John Hannah, Ewen Bremner, Angus MacFadyen, Kevin McKidd, Billy Boyd, Iain Glen, Peter Capaldi, Bill Paterson, David Hayman, Alan Cumming, Douglas Henshall and others who have indeed been leading men and also had some international success. But with so much talent it is always difficult to produce a Top 20 list.
Appsthatpayyou from London on July 11, 2013:
Indeed some surprises in that list. I'm looking forward to more great films from Gerard!
Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on May 13, 2013:
Hi Geekdom. Yeah, so many play English or American characters that audiences don't realise they're from Scotland.
Hi Glimmer. David was off the radar for many years, good to see him back.
Hi Thief12. Absolutely. Great actors they are.
Thanks for reading and commenting folks.
Carlo Giovannetti from Puerto Rico on May 12, 2013:
Nice list. Some good actors there.
Claudia Porter on May 10, 2013:
Interesting. I did not know David McCallum was from Scotland. I did know, and always enjoy his work, that Robert Carlyle was. This is a great list of actors.
Geekdom on May 10, 2013:
I had no idea so many great actors came from Scotland. I always assumed most of the foreign actors came from England and Australia. (And Canada when the television shows are shot up there)