The Best Supporting Actor category at the Oscars is often one of the most crowded and competitive fields in the entire Academy Award ceremony. Supporting actor roles tend to be some of the juiciest parts penned by screenwriters and often provide the perfect opportunities for talented actors to sink their teeth in and disappear into character. Join us in taking a look at 20 of the greatest Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor winners of all time, but first, let’s take a look at the complete list of winners over the years.

List of Academy Award Winners for Best Supporting Actor

Every Best Supporting Actor Winner

2020: Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah

2019: Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood

2018: Mahershala Ali (Green Book)

2017: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

2016: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight

2015: Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies

2014: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash

2013: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club

2012: Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)

2011: Christopher Plummer (Beginners)

2010: Christian Bale (The Fighter)

2009: Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds

2008: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight

2007: Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men)

2006: Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine

2005: George Clooney (Syriana

2004: Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby

2003: Tim Robbins (Mystic River

2002: Chris Cooper (Adaptation

2001: Jim Broadbent (Iris

2000: Benicio Del Toro (Traffic)

1999: Michael Caine (The Cider House Rules

1998: James Coburn (Affliction

1997: Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting

1996: Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire)

1995: Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects

1994: Martin Landau (Ed Wood

1993: Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive)

1992: Gene Hackman (Unforgiven

1991: Jack Palance (City Slickers

1990: Joe Pesci (Goodfellas

1989: Denzel Washington (Glory

1988: Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda)

1987: Sean Connery (The Untouchables

1986: Michael Caine (Hannah and Her Sisters)

1985: Don Ameche (Cocoon

1984: Haing S. Ngor (The Killing Fields

1983: Jack Nicholson (Terms of Endearment

1982: Louis Gossett Jr. (An Officer and a Gentleman

1981: John Gielgud (Arthur

1980: Timothy Hutton (Ordinary People

1979: Melvyn Douglas (Being There

1978: Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter)

1977: Jason Robards (Julia

1976: Jason Robards (All the President’s Men)

1975: George Burns (The Sunshine Boys

1974: Robert De Niro (The Godfather: Part II

1973: John Houseman (The Paper Chase)

1972: Joel Grey (Cabaret

1971: Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show

1970: John Mills (Ryan’s Daughter

1969: Gig Young (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?)

1968: Jack Albertson (The Subject Was Roses)

1967: George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke)

1966: Walter Matthau (The Fortune Cookie)

1965: Martin Balsam (A Thousand Clowns

1964: Peter Ustinov (Topkapi

1963: Melvyn Douglas (Hud)

1962: Ed Begley (Sweet Bird of Youth

1961: George Chakiris (West Side Story)

1960: Peter Ustinov (Spartacus

1959: Hugh Griffith (Ben-Hur

1958: Burl Ives (The Big Country)

1957: Red Buttons (Sayonara

1956: Anthony Quinn (Lust for Life

1955: Jack Lemmon (Mister Roberts

1954: Edmond O’Brien (The Barefoot Contessa

1953: Frank Sinatra (From Here to Eternity

1952: Anthony Quinn (Viva Zapata!

1951: Karl Malden (A Streetcar Named Desire

1950: George Sanders (All About Eve

1949: Dean Jagger (Twelve O’Clock High

1948: Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)

1947: Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street

1946: Harold Russell (The Best Years of Our Lives)

1945: James Dunn (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn)

1944: Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way

1943: Charles Coburn (The More the Merrier

1942: Van Heflin (Johnny Eager

1941: Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley

1940: Walter Brennan (The Westerner)

1939: Thomas Mitchell (Stagecoach

1938: Walter Brennan (Kentucky)

1937: Joseph Schildkraut (The Life of Emile Zola

1936: Walter Brennan (Come and Get It

Without further ado, let’s rank the best winners of all time.

Who won supporting actor?

20. Edmund Gwenn — Miracle on 34th Street

Perhaps the best portrayal of Santa Claus  •  Academy Award supporting actor

We’re starting right out with our oldest performance on this list, from 1947 when the Academy Awards were just in their 20th annual iteration. Edmund Gwenn plays Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, and it is arguable that there has never been a better Santa Claus on screen in all of the years since. He just might be the definitive portrayal of this oft-portrayed character.

Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars

Conclusion

Miracle on 34th Street is obviously one of the best Christmas movies and worth watching around the holiday season.

Academy Award for best supporting actor at the Oscars

19. Martin Landau — Ed Wood

In Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood, Martin Landau took on the role of Bela Lugosi. Filling the shoes of a real-life screen icon like Bela Lugosi, best known of course for playing Dracula, can be a tall order. Martin Landau is perfectly suited to the task and turns in a performance that is both hilarious and, at times, touching. Plus, his Hungarian accent is a lot of fun.

Here's his introduction in the script that we imported using StudioBinder's screenwriting software. Follow the image link to read the entire scene.

Introducing an icon in a coffin  •  Read the entire scene

Best supporting actor winners

Conclusion

Ed Wood also won for Best Makeup at the Academy Awards.

Oscar best supporting actor

18. Gene Hackman — Unforgiven

Gene Hackman’s Oscar acceptance speech

Gene Hackman won his first Oscar for his lead performance as the hard-nosed detective Popeye Doyle in William Friedkin’s The French Connection. 21 years later, Gene Hackman would go on to win his second Oscar in 1992, this time for Best Supporting Actor, for portraying another intense lawman in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

See where The French Connection ranks on our list of the best action films ever made and see where Unforgiven ranks amongst Clint Eastwood’s best films.

Oscar winners Best Supporting Actor

Conclusion

Gene Hackman steals every scene he is in throughout Unforgiven.

Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor

17. Kevin Kline — A Fish Called Wanda

It is quite a rarity for a purely comedic performance to be recognized at the Academy Awards and even more rare for one to actually win in any of the acting categories, but that is exactly what happened with Kevin Kline’s hilarious performance in 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda.

It goes to show just how funny he is in that film. Otto is quite possibly the only Oscar-winning character to swallow a live fish during an interrogation. 

A Fish Called Wanda landed on our list of the best comedies ever made for scenes like this one.

An iconic scene from A Fish Called Wanda  •  Read the entire scene

Who won Best Supporting Actor?

Conclusion

For an American actor to come off as the funniest of the bunch in a British-made film acting opposite two Monty Python alumni is quite the accomplishment.

Academy Award winners Best Supporting Actor

16. Sean Connery — The Untouchables

Sean Connery out acts Kevin Costner in every scene

Though still best known for his portrayal of the iconic James Bond character, Sean Connery has shown great depth in range across the performances throughout his career.

Whether working with directors like Alfred Hitchcock or Sidney Lumet, or, in the case of The Untouchables (1987), with Brian De Palma.

Academy Award Supporting Actor

Conclusion

The Untouchables is a classic of the gangster genre and contains one of Sean Connery’s best performances.

Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role

15. Walter Huston — The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Walter Huston wins at the 21st Academy Awards

From 1948, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a classic of the adventure genre and is jam-packed with noteworthy performances from the entire cast. The performer who left the biggest impression was Walter Huston, extra impressive considering he was acting opposite what might be Humphrey Bogart’s best performance.

This is a cast that elevated each other and the material, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a rare instance of a father being directed by his son, John Huston, to great effect.

Best Supporting Actor winners

Conclusion

Father and son both won Oscars for their work on the film and John Huston also took home another Oscar for penning the screenplay.

Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor

14. Robert De Niro — The Godfather
Part II

Releasing in 1974, two years after the first Godfather film, Robert De Niro had big shoes to fill when stepping in to play the younger version of Don Vito Corleone. Which, if you didn't know, was played by Marlon Brando in what is in the running for the title of ‘most iconic performance of all time.’

Luckily, De Niro was more than capable of making the part his own and took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his efforts while Brando had previously taken home the Best Lead Actor Oscar for the role.

Brando winning the Best Lead Actor Oscar is a bit odd considering his performance would also be considered a supporting role by most metrics. Just like De Niro’s performance, while Al Pacino, who was the film’s true lead, was placed into the Best Supporting Actor category instead.

Pacino and Brando would both end up boycotting the Academy Awards ceremony that year for different reasons.

Much of this performance is non-verbal  •  Read the rest of the scene

Oscar Best Supporting Actor

Conclusion

Robert De Niro spent months learning the Sicilian accent so he could deliver the Italian lines as authentically as possible.

Who won Best Supporting Actor?

13. Chris Cooper — Adaptation

Chris Cooper disappears into character in Adaptation

In a film with Nicolas Cage pulling double duty as both a fictionalized version of the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, and his completely fictionalized brother Donald; as well as having the incomparable Tilda Swinton and Meryl Streep in supporting roles, it’s a wonder that Chris Cooper was the performer who managed to outshine his co-stars and take home the golden statuette.

It was a much deserved win as Chris Cooper disappeared fully into the character of John Laroche within this 2002 meta-narrative. Find out where Adaptation ranks on our list of the best Charlie Kaufman movies.

Oscar winners Best Supporting Actor

Conclusion

Chris Cooper’s character might arrive to the plot a bit later than the other main characters but he makes his presence felt immediately.

Academy Award winners Best Supporting Actor

12. Benicio Del Toro — Traffic

Benicio Del Toro wins at the 2001 Oscars ceremony

Benicio Del Toro has provided a high-volume of bold and intense performances throughout his career but it was his supporting role in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) that nabbed him his only Oscar win to date. In such a star-studded cast, Benicio Del Toro stands out in a way that seems effortless. The win did wonders for Del Toro’s career, helping him to land bigger and better roles in years to follow.

Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor

Conclusion

Traffic won three additional Oscars: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing.

Best Supporting Actor winners

11. Robin Williams — Good Will Hunting

Robin Williams improvised this comedic scene

In one of his more understated and reserved performances, Robin Williams finally took home an Oscar after being nominated four times. Robin Williams is the heart of the film and the true reason to watch 1997’s Good Will Hunting. He brings along the improvisation he was known for but roots everything from a place of character.

Who won best supporting actor

Conclusion

Robin Williams previously received Best Lead Actor nominations for Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, and The Fisher King.

Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor

10. Brad Pitt — Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood

Tarantino has separated more women from their shoes than the TSA

In one of the most recent films to make our list, and in his second Quentin Tarantino collaboration (third if you count the Tarantino penned True Romance), Brad Pitt took home his second Oscar after sharing a Best Picture win for producing 12 Years a Slave.

As Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Brad Pitt plays the epitome of a cool, likable protagonist. He is someone you just want to be around and hang out with, just like his movie-star employer does.

Oscar Best Supporting Actor

Conclusion

A case could be made for Brad Pitt’s role as ‘leading’ rather than ‘supporting’ as the film is really a double-hander with Pitt and DiCaprio and the two share about the same amount of screentime.

Best Supporting Actor winners

9. Sam Rockwell — Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Sam Rockwell wins a much-deserved Oscar

Sam Rockwell’s first — and so far only — Oscar win came for this 2017 film with his first nomination but after a long series of snubs. Having appeared in nearly 100 films by the time Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri came out, Sam Rockwell had already made a name for himself as both a compelling character actor and leading man.

Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor

Conclusion

Dixon is a hateful character that undergoes a gradual redemption arc that few actors would be able to pull off as well as Sam Rockwell.

Oscar Best Supporting Actor

8. Mahershala Ali — Moonlight

Mahershala Ali wins his first of two Oscars for Moonlight

Mahershala Ali gave a revelatory performance in Barry Jenkins’ 2016 drama Moonlight. His character may be confined to just the first of the film’s three distinctly divided acts but he leaves a lasting impression.

You truly feel his absence once he has left the film, which says a great deal about both the viewer’s watching experience and the experience of our main character who misses him all the same.

Oscar winners Best Supporting Actor

Conclusion

Mahershala Ali would go on to win his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar just two years later with Green Book but it is his performance in Moonlight that shines the brightest.

Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor

7. Heath Ledger — The Dark Knight

A compilation of the Joker’s scenes from The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger’s unfortunate passing happened before the 2009 Academy Award ceremony. His Best Supporting Actor Oscar was awarded posthumously and was accepted by his family members.

His performance as The Joker is legendary and well deserving of the honor. He truly made the iconic character his own and is easily one of the best actors to play The Joker.

Oscar Best Supporting Actor

Conclusion

Heath Ledger is the only Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner to have been awarded posthumously.

Best Supporting Actor

6. George Kennedy — Cool Hand Luke

George Kennedy wins at the 40th annual Academy Awards

George Kennedy had a difficult task to pull off as the character of Dragline in Cool Hand Luke (1967). He begins in the role of an antagonist that audiences hate and manages to successfully pull off a shift to become the protagonist’s greatest ally and someone audiences can like and root for.

It’s the kind of complex character arc you typically only find in lead characters but George Kennedy makes it look easy in his supporting role.

Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor

Conclusion

George Kennedy’s Oscar was the only win for Cool Hand Luke at the 1968 Oscars, a travesty considering the film contains one of Paul Newman’s absolute best performances.

Best Supporting Actor Winners

5. Christoph Waltz — Inglourious Basterds

How Tarantino keeps you hooked throughout the lengthy opening scene  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Christoph Waltz is simply mesmerizing as Col. Hans Landa, the “Jew Hunter.” It’s an incredibly challenging role: multilingual, threatening, viscous, and intimidating, while also restrained, calculating, and, in a way, charismatic yet cowardly. It was a role that Tarantino despaired casting as finding the perfect actor seemed remarkably daunting. Luckily, he did end up finding the perfect actor for the part.

See where Inglourious Basterds (2009) ranks on our rundown of Quentin Tarantino’s entire filmography.

Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor

Conclusion

Christoph Waltz won a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his second collaboration with Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained, another excellent performance.

Academy Award Best Support Actor

4. J.K. Simmons — Whiplash

Are you rushing or are you dragging?

2014’s Whiplash is a great film in all regards but the film wouldn’t have a leg to stand on with a lesser performance as the intense music teacher, Fletcher. J.K. Simmons MAKES this movie. It is a career best performance from an actor who always delivers quality work, no matter how small the role.

The entire film could crumble without Simmons serving as the magnetic lynchpin to hold it all together.

Best Supporting Actor Oscar Winners

Conclusion

Whiplash also earned well-deserved Oscars for Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing.

Best Supporting Actor

3. Javier Bardem — No Country for Old Men

How the Coen Brothers direct comedy and violence  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Javier Bardem is downright chilling as the villainous Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers’ 2017 film No Country for Old Men. His ominous presence, imposing appearance, and ruthless violence make him one of cinema’s absolute best realistic villains

If the villain in Cormac McCarthy’s source novel was already frightening enough, putting a face to the force of evil makes him all the more terrifying.

Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor

Conclusion

No Country for Old Men was a hit at the Academy Awards, scoring eight nominations and winning in four categories including Best Directing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture.

Best Supporting Actor winners

2. Christopher Walken — The Deer Hunter

Walken loses his composure

The often imitated Christopher Walken rarely gets the credit he deserves as a dramatic actor these days. His 1978 performance in The Deer Hunter is astonishing. Managing to come out favorably in a cast filled with the likes of Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and John Cazale who all give excellent performances, is quite the impressive accomplishment in and of itself.

Who won Best Supporting Actor?

Conclusion

Christopher Walken’s portrayal of a broken man with PTSD feels heartbreakingly real and emotionally raw.

Best Supporting Actor

1. Joe Pesci — Goodfellas

Pesci keeps his speech short and sweet with just five words

Has there ever been a more volatile character put to screen than Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas (1990)? Joe Pesci is the ONLY actor who could have played this part to perfection the way he did.

Pesci’s performance in Goodfellas shines as an all-time best supporting role and fits nicely alongside the three other Pesci & Scorsese collaborations in Raging Bull, Casino, and The Irishman, all of which generated excellent performances. Find out where Goodfellas ranks on our list of the best gangster films ever made.

Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor

Conclusion

Joe Pesci’s Oscar was the only win out of Goodfellas’ six Academy Award Nominations.

UP NEXT

Best Supporting Actress Oscar Winners

So, those were our picks for the top 20 Best Supporting Actor Oscar Winners of all time. Now that we’ve covered the Best Supporting Actors, it’s the perfect time to take a look at the Best Supporting Actress Oscar Winners.

Up Next: Supporting Actress Winners →
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