Most people aren’t surprised to learn that John David Washington is the son of Denzel Washington. They have the same swagger. Their intonations are similar. They even sorta walk the same. All of that is on display in John David Washington’s latest movie, Malcolm & Marie, where he plays an aspiring filmmaker who is on the cusp of his first major success. (Zendaya is his long-suffering girlfriend who’s about to cut him down to size.) At the age of 36, John David is starting to put together an impressive filmography. But he’s hardly the only actor who has a famous father in the same field. Where does Denzel’s son rank among the all-time great Hollywood offspring?
I decided to rank the 10 best acting sons, focusing on their careers in front of the camera. (This disqualified Rob Reiner, who’s been more of a filmmaker than an actor, although he’s great in The Wolf of Wall Street.) An impressive track record made a difference — which is why Dan Levy didn’t make the cut, since he’s just getting started — and I ultimately decided that my 10 finalists all had to be living. (Sadly, Peter Fonda, son of Henry, died in 2019.)
On the one hand, having a celebrity dad would probably be a big help if you’re trying to become an actor. But as some of these men have discovered, that connection also brought with it some obstacles that they’ve had to navigate. With each of my 10, what’s interesting is that, as impressive as the sons are, I can’t help but think about their fathers. It’s inevitable — you feel their dad’s very essence in their work — but they’ve all had strong enough careers to stand on their own.
10) Adam Arkin
“I used to try and make a point of not talking too much about my father,” Adam Arkin said in 2014, “and I find as I get older, I talk about him more and more. His attitude about his own career as an actor was that it was incumbent on everyone to develop as much diversity as possible.” His dad, Alan, won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine, and he’s equally adept at drama (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) and comedy (The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming), with his gruff deadpan style being his trademark. Few can make quiet exasperation so expressive.
Adam has been just as comfortable on the big and small screen, moving between funny and serious, so he’s definitely listened to his dad about diversifying. While he’s still probably best known for the TV drama Chicago Hope and his Emmy-nominated run on Northern Exposure, he’s been a secret MVP of lots of shows and films. He earned praise as a peculiar superfan of Frasier Crane’s on a memorable episode of Frasier, and he’s delightful as Larry Gopnik’s not-quite-fully-invested divorce lawyer in A Serious Man. But this century, Adam has been just as focused on directing, helming episodes of Masters of Sex and Sons of Anarchy while also acting in them. Other sons of stars have had showier careers, but Alan’s has been remarkably consistent — even if he kept getting confused with George Clooney back in the day.
9) John David Washington
Maybe I’m grading on a bit of a curve here — he hasn’t made many movies yet — but I think John David Washington has the potential to have a pretty major career. As major as his dad’s? That will be tough, of course, as even he knew growing up. “I saw how people changed when they found out who my father was,” John David said last year. “I used to lie, saying he was a construction worker or in jail, just to have some sense of normalcy. I felt like there was no way people would take me seriously, even if I was good. They would always judge me. So I hid who my father was. I guess I was protecting myself.”
He’s emerged in the last few years. After being part of HBO’s Ballers, the former athlete had a stellar 2018, starring in the Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman, where he worked with his dad’s longtime collaborator Spike Lee. But he’s even better that year in Monsters and Men, playing a good cop feeling pressure from all sides. And in the past few months, he’s continued to prove himself to be a dynamic presence. In Tenet, he’s a cocky secret agent who’s our anchor in Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending, deeply confusing, time-reversing thriller.
Like Denzel, John David brings an authority to his roles that lets you know his character is in charge — he’s the person you’re supposed to be paying attention to. Even in the flawed Malcolm & Marie, he makes Malcolm’s bloviating and arrogance weirdly compelling. We’ve all met a dude like this — a guy who thinks he walks on water — and Washington brings him to life, while also exposing what a fool he is. Who wouldn’t be excited to see what Washington does next?
8) Charlie Sheen
Because of his scandals, bad behavior, addiction issues and outrageous comments — not to mention the shock of his HIV diagnosis — it’s easy to overlook that period of time in which Charlie Sheen seemed destined to be a huge movie star. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was part of teen classics (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Best Picture-winning war films (Platoon), state-of-the-decade dramas (Wall Street), irreverent sports comedies (Major League), a hit Western (Young Guns) and the funniest spoof since the heyday of ZAZ (Hot Shots!). Even more so than his brother Emilio Estevez — who eventually segued into directing — Sheen had an onscreen charisma that made him pop. And this century, Two and a Half Men provided him with a comeback vehicle that may never have been critically acclaimed, but god knows it was popular.
All of that is pretty impressive, but it’s the extracurricular activities that have diminished his legacy, turning him into a laughingstock. (When he played himself in Being John Malkovich, the joke was that the distinguished Oscar-nominated actor couldn’t actually be friends with a sleazeball like Sheen.) Sadly, Charlie’s chemical addictions weren’t a surprise to his father Martin, who also has had dependency issues. (“[W]hen you’re addicted, you don’t grow emotionally,” Martin Sheen said back in 2011. “So when you get clean and sober you’re starting at the moment you started using drugs or alcohol. You’re emotionally crippled.”) And after Charlie announced in 2015 that he was HIV positive, his dad came out in support of his son, saying, “I think all of us are striving to lead honest lives. That’s a requirement of every human being. It’s most difficult when you are known. The bigger your celebrity, the more difficult it is to lead an honest life because your past is always present.”
The tabloid issues and tragedies that have befallen Charlie Sheen have minimized some really good performances. (In a lot of ways, he’s been his own worst enemy.) But the films speak for themselves.
7) Alexander Skarsgård
Many viewers first encountered Alexander Skarsgård on True Blood, the sexy, shameless vampire series, in which the Swedish actor had to get used to nudity. But Skarsgård was unfazed by that considering the family he grew up in. “My dad and his side of the family are old hippies. I was 14 the first time I saw my dad wearing pants,” he said. “He was always naked.”
His dad is Stellan Skarsgård, the respected veteran actor who’s been part of several Lars Von Trier films, as well as the Thor franchise. Alexander has also worked with Von Trier — on the apocalyptic study of depression, Melancholia — but in recent years, he’s niftily oscillated between well-regarded indies (What Maisie Knew) and blockbusters (the soon-to-be-released Godzilla vs. Kong). In particular, Skarsgård has demonstrated a disturbing ability to play bad men: In both The Diary of a Teenage Girl and the HBO series Big Little Lies, he gave us abusers who try to win our sympathies, even though they’re utterly despicable human beings. And the 44-year-old actor continues to do excellent work: Keep an eye out for him in the forthcoming period drama Passing, which was one of the most acclaimed films from this year’s Sundance.
6) Beau Bridges
Older brother of Jeff and son to Lloyd, Beau Bridges has had a career that’s perhaps less flashy than either of those other men. (And don’t forget Jeff and Beau’s mom Dorothy was also an actor.) But Beau has seemed less interested in the spotlight, indicative of a performer who’s rather soft-spoken. His humility is in keeping with something he learned from his dad. “He talked a lot about respect,” Bridges said in 2019. “Respect yourself and respect people you are working with, and the rest will soon take care of itself.”
If he lacks his brother’s magnetic star power, Beau is nonetheless a superb character actor, conveying a quiet soulfulness that suggests that the people he plays possess a depth that’s maybe not immediately apparent. Whether it’s in The Fabulous Baker Boys alongside Jeff — where he was awarded Best Supporting Actor by the National Society of Film Critics — or in a small but crucial role in The Descendants, he sneaks up on you, surprising you with his characters’ lived-in humanity.
This is how unassuming Beau Bridges is: You probably don’t know how many awards he’s earned over the years. He has three Emmys, two Golden Globes, even a Grammy. (He narrated Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth audiobook.) And he reliably shows up as a guest actor on shows you like, such as Masters of Sex. He doesn’t dominate the screen, but he’s always a welcome presence on it.
5) Kiefer Sutherland
When Kiefer Sutherland was growing up, his father Donald was making movies for grownups that he was too young to see. It was only when Kiefer was in his teens and seriously thinking about acting that he finally checked out his old man’s movies, classics like Don’t Look Now and M*A*S*H. He was stunned.
“I called him up and I actually cried on the phone, I was so embarrassed that I didn’t know what an important actor he was,” Kiefer later admitted. “And I considered myself a serious actor. So that was very embarrassing and I apologized for that and he was so sweet. He said, ‘Oh my God, that’s okay, it’s not your fault, how would you know?’”
While his dad is a respected character actor and occasional leading man, Kiefer is a more traditional star, becoming a heartthrob thanks to 1980s hits like The Lost Boys and Young Guns. But that early fame came with a price — namely, people thought he was a lightweight. Earning respectability has been a challenge, but he’s gotten over that hump by doing compelling work in dramas like A Few Good Men and Melancholia. (And if you’re looking for an under-the-radar example of his excellence, I recommend the 2017 Michelle Pfeiffer drama Where Is Kyra?)
But, really, it was the Emmy-winning 24 that cemented his reputation as an actor with heft. (Running around saving the world has a way of doing that.) He probably still doesn’t have the gravitas (or career résumé) of his father, but he’s more than proven his skill as an underrated actor.
4) Josh Brolin
The Man Who Would Be Thanos grew up as the son of James Brolin, who won two Golden Globes and earned multiple Emmy nominations for his work on the 1970s series Marcus Welby, M.D. Not that Josh’s life was easier because his dad was a star. “There’s always this perception that if your dad’s an actor, it’s going to be easy for you,” Josh said in 2016. “My dad was a moderately successful celebrity on TV. He would work and then not work for a long time. We would have things and then we wouldn’t have things. I just didn’t understand that level of financial insecurity when I was a kid.”
Breaking through in The Goonies as a teenager, Josh has experienced his own professional struggles, being part of the Western series The Young Riders before finally establishing himself as an actor who’d shed the young-performer stigma. This century, he’s been integral to several celebrated dramas, including No Country for Old Men, American Gangster, Milk and Inherent Vice. And while it may be a controversial opinion, I think he’s great as George W. Bush in the underrated W. (He absolutely nails our former president’s utter inability to be a man of depth.) He did a great Tommy Lee Jones impression in Men in Black 3, and he’s been a fun addition to the Deadpool and Avengers films.
Josh’s dad experienced lean years as an actor, but in recent times, the son has been on a hot streak. As for James, he seems very happy, at 80, to sit back and let his boy get the attention. “I’m Barbra Streisand’s husband and Josh Brolin’s father,” James said last year. “Those are my important credits!”
3) Ben Stiller
Ben Stiller’s parents were an ace comedic duo, Stiller and Meara, who encouraged their son’s dream of breaking into comedy. “My first instinct, when I was eight, nine, 10 years old, was that I knew I loved movies and I wanted to be a director,” Ben said last year. “And my dad really supported that. He went out and got a Super 8 camera, and got me the editing equipment, and would act in movies that I would make. He was just there, all the time, for that.” That close partnership would continue throughout Ben’s career, with his dad appearing in Zoolander and the remake of The Heartbreak Kid.
But where Jerry focused on comedy, Ben has occasionally branched out into drama, whether starring in the addiction portrait Permanent Midnight or directing the Showtime series Escape at Dannemora. His bread-and-butter, though, has remained making people laugh, becoming a superstar thanks to There’s Something About Mary and the Night at the Museum films, as well as earning plaudits for his work in edgier fare like Flirting With Disaster. And he never had a bigger fan than his dad, who died last year at the age of 92. “You’ll always know if I’m in the audience when Ben or our daughter, Amy, is performing,” Jerry once said. “I’m the one laughing loudest.”
2) Michael Douglas
Kirk Douglas, who died almost exactly a year ago at the age of 103, was an intense, charismatic actor. The same can be said of his son, who brings a high-wire urgency to his roles. Michael said that his dad once offered him this advice: “Whatever you do in life, just do it to your utmost ability. Do it with full commitment, and then, screw it. If it doesn’t work out, move on. But, you know, you left it with the idea that there is nothing more you could have done.” And it seems like Michael took those words to heart, winning his first Oscar for producing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and then earning a second for Best Actor in Wall Street.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Michael Douglas became Hollywood’s go-to actor for brash, morally bankrupt characters, essaying a series of sleazy, often repugnant men in Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and The Game. (And don’t forget his performance in Falling Down, which presaged so much angry-white-men behavior we’ve seen recently.) There’s a frankness to his portrayal of those bad guys, but he can also project a deep warmth when the role requires it. He’s the ideal Commander-in-Chief in The American President and a lovable screwup as the wayward author in Wonder Boys. He’s been terrific twice in Steven Soderbergh flicks — Traffic and Behind the Candelabra — and even enjoyed a late-career boost in the Ant-Man movies. His dad’s shadow is long, but Michael has found a way to escape it.
1) Jeff Bridges
When the Oscar-winning actor was a boy, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. “I had a lot of different interests,” Jeff Bridges told NPR in 2017. “I wanted to get into music and painting. … And my father said, ‘Oh Jeff, don’t be ridiculous. That’s the wonderful thing about acting — you get to incorporate all of your interests in your parts.’”
A generation that’s grown up thinking of the 71-year-old legend as merely the dude from The Big Lebowski are in for a treat: Starting with 1971’s The Last Picture Show, he’s been one of Hollywood’s most passionate and eternally youthful actors. In his early career, he conveyed a sense of reckless abandon, often playing characters with their whole lives in front of them — and not quite sure what to do with themselves. As a leading man in the 1980s — Against All Odds, Starman, The Fabulous Baker Boys — he was a heartbreaker, conveying both intelligence and sex appeal. And after Lebowski, he was embraced as a cultural icon and beloved Hollywood institution. In between, he’s made so many underrated classics — for starters, try Fat City, Cutter’s Way and Tucker: The Man and His Dream — that his overlooked gems are more impressive than other people’s highlights.
Jeff learned his love of acting from Lloyd, who got his son hooked as a kid by having Jeff run lines with him for his 1950s series Sea Hunt. “Unlike a lot of showbiz parents,” Jeff once recalled, “my father really loved show business and encouraged my brother and me to get into it. … He taught me all the basics of acting. How important it is to listen to the other guy. How to make it feel like it’s happening for the first time. How to do a line in many different ways. It was like being home schooled in acting.”
The old man must have been a master teacher.