Aspiring actors from around the world travel to Tinseltown to become a fantasy version of themselves. Many are thespians who want to transform into multiple characters (and win multiple awards), while some simply want to be famous (*cough* the Kardashians *cough*). But many wannabe movie stars want to be one thing above all — big-screen badasses. And who can blame them? What’s better than having your bulging biceps be 25-feet-wide on an IMAX screen while you drop some clever one-liner before blowing away the bad guy and taking home the love interest?
However, many movie stars past and present don’t have to pretend to be badasses. They already are badasses in real life! So what makes someone a badass? Well, the guys and gals on the list make up a motley crew of martial arts masters, decorated war veterans, real-life heroes, true tough guys, or simply dudes you’d never want to meet in a dark alley. This list includes some obvious entries, but there are some major surprises too. Who are these actors, and what made them so tough? Let’s take a look at the most badass actors to ever have lived.
Chuck Norris didn’t make the list — he is the list
The real Chuck Norris is even more badass than the legendary one. From his un-shaveable beard to his unstoppable boot, Norris’ legend has spawned a list of jokes as far-reaching and devastating as his roundhouse. We won’t dare say his list of famous feats are imagined (he can hear us), but there’s more to the man than his myth.
Born Carlos Ray Norris in 1940 in Ryan, Oklahoma, Norris began training for 20+ hours a week in Tang Soo Do and Judo while serving in the United States Air Force in South Korea in the late 1960s. Norris did pretty well, eventually winning the world middleweight karate championship six years in a row. He even founded his own style, a Korean-American hybrid called Chun Kuk Do, or "Universal Way," now known as "the Chuck Norris System." Among his other real-life feats are training Steve McQueen in karate, having his own line of "Action Jeans," and being the first Westerner to earn the rank of eight-degree black belt grand master in Taekwondo (as well as black belts in Judo, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, and Tang Soo Do). Norris hasn’t lost a fight since 1968, though we’re pretty sure he only lost in the first place to prove that yes, he can do anything.
Bruce Lee was a badass actor and a martial arts master
The father of Western martial arts films, Bruce Lee gave us some truly epic fight scenes, but his big screen adventures weren’t the result of special effects — Lee was the real deal. And when you know what he was capable of, you know he totally could’ve taken Brad Pitt’s character in Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood.
Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940 and became a child actor in Hong Kong. Lee was no Shirley Temple, though, and he began training in kung fu when he was just a kid. Lee eventually returned to the U.S., where he attended the University of Washington and opened a martial arts school. While Lee is best remembered for being a pioneering Asian-American movie star who stood toe-to-toe with studio bosses to break down stereotypes and bring kung fu movies to American audiences, he was also a once-in-a-generation martial artist too, both onscreen and off. Lee developed his own style, Jeet Kune Do, or "Way of the Intercepting Fist," and he could even knock a man down with a one-inch punch. Sadly, Bruce Lee tragically died in his early 30s from a cerebral edema. Had Lee lived longer, his badass bona fides would’ve been too long to list.
Ronda Rousey breaks glass ceilings (and arms)
Ronda Rousey’s filmography may not have any Oscar contenders in it (The Expendables 3 was robbed!), but who needs to collect awards when your nickname is "the Arm Collector?" As a child, Rousey fell in love with Judo. She competed in her first Olympics in Athens in 2004 when she was just 17, and she returned four years later to Beijing, winning the Bronze medal.
Rousey wasn’t done winning and moved on to mixed martial arts, becoming the female standard bearer for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, winning the women’s bantamweight belt and racking up a UFC record of 6-2 (12-2 for her total MMA career). More impressive than her official fight record was the fact she brought mainstream attention and millions of eyeballs to women’s fighting, and she made herself a major star in the process. In addition to her movie roles, Rousey is also a professional wrestler with the WWE, and she made history at WrestleMania 35, participating in the first women’s match to main event a WrestleMania.
Mel Brooks’ war service was no laughing matter
Mel Brooks is known as the mind behind some of the funniest comedies of all time — Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Producers, and Spaceballs to name a few. Despite his reputation as one of America’s most successful funnymen, Brooks’ military career is no laughing matter. Born Melvin Kaminsky in 1926 in Brooklyn, Brooks was drafted into World War II. While overseas, Brooks served as a corporal in the 1104 Engineer Combat Battalion, 78th Infantry Division. His job title was combat engineer and one of his duties was, get this, defusing landmines. No wonder Brooks never sweated a bad review — he defused bombs in WWII, for crying out loud!
During his stint in the military he also fought in the Battle of the Bulge, a German counteroffensive that was halted by Allied forces, effectively stopping the Nazis in their tracks. Despite seeing the horrors of the Nazis up close in World War II, Brooks came home and figured the best way to fight the tyranny they represented was by ridiculing them. Brooks’ The Producers is perhaps best known for the absurd musical number "Springtime for Hitler," which makes of mockery of his old wartime adversaries.
Jimmy Stewart was a badass actor who fought in World War II
James Stewart is so beloved by moviegoers that he’s remembered as "Jimmy" Stewart, as if he were an old friend and not a classic movie star. But don’t let his folksy demeanor and all-around nice guy status fool you — Jimmy Stewart was a badass.
James Stewart was born in Pennsylvania in 1908, studied architecture at Princeton, and launched a successful acting career on Broadway and Hollywood. Despite being one of the brightest young stars in Hollywood — including being nominated for an Oscar in 1939 for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and winning one in 1941 for The Philadelphia Story — Stewart was drafted into the Army in 1941 and didn’t seek a deferment. In fact, when the Army said he was too skinny to serve, he gained weight and even asked Army doctors to add a few ounces so he’d qualify.
Stewart became a pilot in the Army Air Force, ending his war service with 20 combat missions and rising to the rank of colonel. He remained in the United States Air Force Reserve and was eventually promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 1959. His accolades include two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and more. James Stewart was not only the nicest guy in Hollywood history, he was the highest-ranking actor in military history. (Well, not counting Ronald Reagan, who eventually became commander-in-chief.)
Mickey Rourke played ‘The Wrestler,’ but he’s a real-life boxer
You wouldn’t want to take on Mickey Rourke in an acting competition, and you darn sure wouldn’t want to raise hands against him. Born Phillip Andre Rourke Jr. in Schenectady, New York, he’s one of the most celebrated actors alive today. He’s also got a devastating right hook. In fact, Rourke was throwing hands long before he was reciting lines, wracking up an impressive 27-3 record, with 17 victories by knockout, as an amateur boxer in the 1960s and 1970s.
Rourke returned to the ring after establishing himself as a thespian, and then he returned again in 2014, at age 62, fighting Elliot Seymour, a 29-year old former California state Golden Gloves champion. Rourke knocked Seymour down twice before the referee stopped the fight and awarded the win to Rourke. Seymour claims he took a dive, but if that’s the case, he’s as good an actor as Rourke. Whether the fight was fixed or not, there’s no denying that Rourke, an Oscar-nominated actor for The Wrestler, was a badass boxer.
Dwayne Johnson is as tough as a rock
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is one of the most popular and profitable movie stars in Hollywood today. But before he was swinging from vines in the Jumanji series, revving 18-wheelers in The Fast and The Furious movies, or flexing his massive biceps on Instagram, the Rock was doing stuff that more than qualifies him for badass status.
For one thing, Johnson was one of the most successful pro wrestlers ever. Yes, pro wrestling is pre-planned so it isn’t a "real" sport in the traditional, competitive sense. But the tragic, grueling lifestyle of being a professional wrestler takes such a toll on your mind and body that only an incredibly tough person can make it big in the wrestling business, especially at the highest level. And before Johnson became a pro wrestling superstar, he was also a college athlete, playing defensive linemen for the National Championship-winning Miami Hurricanes. Unfortunately for the Rock, he played the same position as arguably the greatest defensive linemen ever, Warren Sapp. When Johnson asked Sapp what he was doing in the defensive linemen locker room, Sapp said, "I’m here for your job, b***h." And take it he did. There are no hard feelings, of course, and why would there be? Warren Sapp is a NFL Hall of Famer, and Dwayne Johnson is, well, the Rock.
Arnold Schwarzenegger terminated the bodybuilding competition
Arnold Schwarzenegger practically invented the modern action hero genre that defined the 1980s. After all, he was a one-man army who solidified his big screen persona in films like The Terminator, Predator, Total Recall, The Running Man, and Commando, just to name a few. But you don’t take down thousands of bad guys without breaking a sweat if you don’t have the bulk to match. Schwarzenegger did.
In fact, Schwarzenegger built his larger-than-life legend one curl, crunch, squat and press at a time. Literally. Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger was born in Austria in 1947, but he dreamed of coming to America and saw bodybuilding as the way to make that happen. It worked out pretty well for him, as he racked up an incredible list of accomplishments in bodybuilding, including seven Mr. Olympias, one of the best records in the history of the event. Oh yeah, he also served as governor of the most populated state in the U.S. too, so there’s that. For being the literal definition of a self-made man and one of the most accomplished competitors in his sport’s history, Schwarzenegger is definitely a badass.
Harrison Ford to the rescue
Most movie stars would consider themselves lucky to play one iconic big screen hero. Harrison Ford has played two — Indiana Jones and Han Solo. In fact, Ford’s heroic roles are so memorable that he placed twice in the top 15 on AFI’s 100 greatest heroes list, with the intrepid archaeologist ranking #2. Throw in Rick Deckard from Blade Runner, Dr. Richard Kimble from The Fugitive, and Jack Ryan from the Tom Clancy series, and Harrison Ford has plenty of unforgettable moments and characters that put him in the movie hero hall of fame.
However, Ford has proven that the best way to be a believable big screen hero is to also be one in real life. Ford is a trained airplane and helicopter pilot, and on numerous occasions, he’s come to the rescue of people in danger. In 2000, he saved two hikers who got stranded at the top of Table Mountain in Wyoming. The next year, he rescued a 13-year old Boy Scout who got separated from his troop. And that’s not even counting the times Ford has saved people in roadside accidents. While nobody wants to be in danger, it must be nice having Dr. Jones come save you.
Christopher Lee was a badass actor with incredible secrets
Sir Christopher Lee is known for playing some of cinema’s most diabolical villains, including Dracula, Saruman, and Francisco Scaramanga, aka one of the very best Bond villains. But while nobody was better at being bad in the movies, Christopher Lee was a good guy in real life, and he took on some of history’s worst villains.
Born in 1922, Lee had served the Finnish in the Winter War against the Soviet Union in 1939. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1940 and served in the Long Range Desert Group during World War II, where he fought behind enemy lines and destroyed German aircraft. Ever the dutiful soldier, Lee kept quiet about his service well into his later years, saying, "I was attached to the SAS from time to time, but we are forbidden — former, present, or future — to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that." As if that isn’t badass enough, Lee also had a career in heavy metal, and he set a Guinness World Record in 2007 for the most screen credits for a living actor, 244 film and TV movies. On a list full of certifiable badasses, Sir Christopher Lee may rule them all.
Danny Trejo went from prison inmate to beloved star
You’re probably not shocked to see Danny Trejo on this list, but what makes him a true badass may surprise you. See, Trejo went from inmate to action star, meaning he’s a badass both on and off the screen. A Los Angeles native, Trejo became a criminal at an early age, getting tossed into juvie after hitting a kid with a rock. He wasn’t a one-time offender, either. He spent his teen years as the getaway driver for his robber uncle, and he even stabbed a sailor with a broken bottle.
Trejo was finally busted for selling "heroin" to an undercover agent, though it was actually just sugar. Trejo became a celebrity in the slammer for his boxing prowess, telling TMZ Sports, "I was lightweight and welterweight champion of every penitentiary I was in, and I was in all of them." Trejo did stints in San Quentin, Folsom, and Soledad, and he even spent time in solitary for hitting a prison guard with a rock during a prison riot. But Trejo’s background behind bars isn’t what makes him such a badass — it’s his redemption. Trejo turned his life around, earning his high school diploma in prison and serving as a drug counselor after being released. For fighting and conquering his demons, Trejo is totally a badass.
Dolph Lundgren’s IQ (and roundhouse) will break you
The 6’5" Swede who’s best known for breaking Apollo Creed in Rocky IV could’ve beaten him just as easily (and far less bloodily) in chess or debate. Dolph Lundgren is trained in the Kyokushinkai style of karate, and while serving in the Swedish Marine Corps, he competed in the Second World Open Karate Tournament in Tokyo in 1979. Lundgren was only a green belt at the time and had to borrow a brown belt in order to compete, but he went the distance against a second-degree black belt in the finals before losing in a controversial decision.
Lundgren continued to compete, winning the British Open Knockdown Heavyweight title in 1980 and 1981 and winning the Australian Open Championship in the individual and team events in 1982. The idea of getting roundhouse kicked by Ivan Drago is frankly terrifying, but he’s just as skilled with his brain. He’s far from being a musclebound meathead, and he earned a degree in Chemical Engineering from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, a master’s from the University of Sydney in Australia (while working as a bouncer), and even received a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lundgren left M.I.T. to pursue acting, costing the world a brilliant scientific mind but gifting us a badass action star instead. As if that isn’t enough, Lundgren is also multilingual, so he can sound scary saying "I must break you" in several languages.
Steve Buscemi answered the call of duty
Steve Buscemi has built a cinematic career on playing creepy and/or meek characters, but in real life, he’s an honest to goodness hero. Before becoming an actor, Buscemi served as a firefighter for the New York City Fire Department after taking a civil service exam at the behest of his father. Buscemi fought fires for four years, and decades later, he could still vividly remember the sensations of being face to face with a raging inferno (which he compared to acting in theater).
Despite Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers having his phone number, Buscemi never forgot where he came from, and he answered the call to duty when it mattered most. Following the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Buscemi worked 12-hour shifts for several days, searching for survivors with other firefighters. Buscemi was as humble as he was heroic, saying, "It was a privilege to be able to do it."
Audie Murphy is the most decorated American soldier ever
The most highly decorated soldier in American military history was also an actor. Audie Murphy was born in Texas in 1925, and he helped raise his 11 brothers and sisters after his father abandoned the family, dropping out of the fifth grade to earn money as a sharecropper. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Murphy falsified his age and joined the Army at 17 years old in 1942. Murphy’s legendary military exploits are many, but his most courageous act was mounting an abandoned, burning tank destroyer and with a single machine gun taking on six German Panzer tanks and 250 infantrymen. Murphy single-handedly stopped the enemy advance, which allowed him to lead his men in driving the Germans from Holtzwihr in 1945.
After the war’s end, Murphy was discovered by movie star James Cagney and began a successful film career, particularly in Westerns. Murphy’s high point as an actor was playing himself in To Hell and Back, though he wanted the story to reflect the experience of all infantry men, not just himself. "I’ve always felt their story should be told," said Murphy. "I just play a part in it.
James Doohan was a sci-fi hero and a real-life badass
Before he was battling Klingons as Scotty, the chief engineer of the USS Enterprise, James Doohan was fighting Nazis in Europe during World War II. Despite his famous Scottish brogue, Doohan was actually Canadian, and when WWII broke out, he joined the Royal Canadian Artillery and was shipped to England in 1940. Doohan went years without seeing conflict, training for an eventual invasion of Europe. D-Day finally arrived on June 6, 1944, and Doohan was a key part of the Normandy invasion, single-handedly taking out two German snipers without getting scratched.
However, Doohan didn’t leave the war unscathed, as a Canadian soldier mistook him for a German and opened fire on Doohan with four shots to the legs, one in the chest, and one shooting off the middle finger of his right hand. Thankfully, the chest bullet was stopped by a cigarette case. After recovering from his injuries, Doohan became a pilot and earned a reputation as the "craziest pilot in the Canadian air force." Following the war, Doohan had dreams of pursuing a technical or scientific career, but when he heard crappy voice acting on the radio, he figured he could do better, and thus a Star Trek icon was born.
Robert Mitchum was an actor who made being bad cool
Robert Mitchum was as cool as they come during his Hollywood heyday. Whether he was playing a morally complicated hero, like in Out of the Past, or certifiable villainous psychopaths, like in Night of the Hunter or Cape Fear, Robert Mitchum was not a guy to be messed with. And that went for real life, as well, since the dude was a total badass.
In his early teens, he was picked up for vagrancy and served on a chain gang. Mitchum eventually made his way to Los Angeles, California, and found work as a ghostwriter and machine operator, before making the move to acting. But when his acting career started to take off, fame didn’t stop his rebellious streak. In 1948, he was arrested for possession of marijuana, which was a huge deal in the 1940s. Thanks to intervention by RKO studio chief Howard Hughes, Mitchum’s career survived, and his stint behind bars only served to bolster his "bad boy" image. But don’t let his time in the slammer, his boxing cred, or the fact he rode rail cars fool you. Mitchum was a Renaissance man who also wrote songs and poetry. And while this isn’t bad ass per se, he also recorded a Calypso album in 1957, because he could.