Kentucky is known for its bluegrass, its bourbon, its tobacco, its horses...it is not known for its actors, however, although the commonwealth has, in fact, turned out many both great and successful.
Here we have a list of--in my opinion--the ten most successful actors to have come out of Kentucky. In reverse order.
# 10-Harry Dean Stanton: Born in West Irvine, Kentucky, Harry Dean Stanton may never have become a big star but he has long been the ultimate character actor! A WWII veteran, he started in movies and television in the fifties, appearing memorably in small roles over the years before finally getting bigger parts in the seventies. In 1979, Harry was part of the emsemble crew of the original ALIEN and. in 1984, he took the lead in PARIS, TEXAS, an acclaimed and inspirational picture directed by Wim Wenders.
This past year, 2012, Harry Dean Stanton not only had a notable cameo in THE AVENGERS but also became the subject of an artsy documentary entitled HARRY DEAN STANTON: PARTLY FICTION. Now 86, his credits continue to pile up.
# 9-Una Merkel: Born in my own hometown of Covington, Kentucky, Ms. Merkel is best remembered today for her catfight with Marlene Dietrich in the 1939 classic western, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN starring Jimmy Stewart. She had been working in films since the silent days, however, and would continue to do so up into the mid-sixties, transforming her image from that of a flirty young blonde to that of a middle aged matron. Appropriately Ms. Merkel had a major role in 1955's THE KENTUCKIAN. Among her later pictures were Disney's THE PARENT TRAP and Elvis Presley's SPINOUT. In her career, she was nominated for an Academy Award once and won Broadway's Tony Award for her stage work.
There is a historical marker for Una Merkel at Covington's Goebel Park and she was buried near here upon her death in 1986.
# 8-Tom Ewell: From Owensboro, Kentucky, Tom Ewell apparently disappointed his family by going on the stage at age 19 but in just a few short years, he was appearing on Broadway. Best known for his dramatic and comedic supporting roles in plays and, increasingly, motion pictures, he took the lead in Broadway's THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. He took the Tony for his acting and re-created his role on film, that version co-starring Marilyn Monroe in what would become one of her most iconic roles. He similarly appeared opposite Jayne Mansfield in the now classic early rock & roll flick, THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT. After that, he spent much time on stage or on televisoon, memorably costarring with Robert Blake on BARETTA in the seventies.
Upon his death in 1994 at the age of 85, Tom Ewell was surprisingly survived by his mother who went on to live another four years before passing at age 109!
# 7-Warren Oates: From the small Kentucky town of Depoy, Warren Oates, one of Hollywood's legendary "bad boys," began acting in plays at The University of Louisville in the fifties. By the end of that decade, he was in Hollywood doing character roles in TV dramas and small parts in films. Bigger and bigger roles kept coming and in 1969, he co-starred in Sam Peckinpah's controversially violent THE WILD BUNCH. Throughout the seventies, he played a number of memorable roles including a brilliant turn in BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. Not long after his memorable performance in an atypical role in Bill Murray's 1981 STRIPES, Warren Oates died of natural causes brought on, no doubt, by hard living.
After his death, several more films were released posthumously and, in 1993, a documentary about the actor was made. The acclaimed biography, WARREN OATES: A WILD LIFE, came out in 2009.
# 6-Ned Beatty-Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Ned Beatty is yet another of the truly great character actors. Believe it or not, his classic, oft-parodied performance in 1972's DELIVERANCE marked his film debut! In short order, though, he was in just about everything throughout the seventies including a number of Burt Reynolds pictures and SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. He even briefly had his own TV series, done in by its unpronounceable title: SZYSZNYK (Siz-Nik, as I recall).
Beatty has worked steadily ever since, in roles both big and small, and is always a familiar and welcome presence in films or on television. Most recently, he's even been doing voice work in animated features such as RANGO and TOY STORY 3.