Age and Achievement: Supporting Actors Oscar Winners

Updated: February 9, 2020.
Part 3 in a Series of 5 Articles about Age of Winning the Oscar.
If you want to know more about the Oscars, please read my book:

Part One deals with the Best Actresses.

Part Two deals with the Best Actors.

Part Three deals with the Best Directors.

Part Four deals with the Best Supporting Actors.

Part Five deals with the Best Supporting Actresses.

 

Winning the Oscar Award is considered to be the ultimate achievement in the film world, the epitome of peer recognition and professional success.

If all ambitious performers strive to win the Oscar at an early phase of their work, it’s because they know that the award will have a vast impact on their future careers.

Winners Age

In theory, it is possible to win the Oscar Award at any age, and, indeed, there have been winners in every age group, from the very young to the very old.

In practice, however, the best chances to win the Oscar are between the ages of thirty and forty-nine, with two-thirds of all winners in these age brackets.

As with first nomination, actresses are much younger than actors when they receive their first Oscar. The gap in winning age is significant in the lead categories: Over fifty percent of the Best Actresses but only a minority of the Best Actors are younger than thirty five at their first win.

Within each category, there’s a concentration of winners in one or two age groups. Among the Best Actresses, the largest group of winners is in their late twenties and early thirties. By contrast, the dominant group among the Best Actors is winners in their early forties.

There’s no dominant norm in the two supporting categories, in which the age range is wide, from winners in their early teens to those in their late seventies.

The likelihood of winning at a particular age is determined by the range of screen roles allotted to men and women and to leading versus supporting players. Cultural norms have prescribed these roles, and these prescriptions are more rigid and confining for women and lead players.

Compared with the lead roles, there are no specific requirements that character roles be played by young or attractive players, hence the great age variability of supporting winners.

Younger than 20

No actor

20-29: 4

Timothy Hutton, 20 (youngest winner in history)
George Chakiris, 27
Cuba Gooding Jr. 29

Heath Ledger, 29

30-39: 16

Van Heflin, 34
Harold Russell, 32
Karl Malden. 39
Anthony Quinn, 37 (winner of 2 Supporting Oscars)
Frank Sinatra, 38
Edmond O’Brien, 39
Jack Lemmon, 30
Red Buttons, 39
Peter Ustinov, 38 (winner of 2 Supporting Oscars)
Robert De Niro, 31
Christopher Walken, 35
Denzel Washington, 35
Kevin Spacey, 36
Benicio Del Toro, 33

Javier Bardem, 38

Christian Bale, 36

40-49: 24

Walter Brennan, 42  (winner of 3 Oscars, all in this category)
Joseph Schildrkraut, 42
Thomas Mitchell, 47
James Dunn, 44
Dean Jagger, 46,
George Sanders, 44
Burl Ives, 49
High Griffith, 47
Martin Balsam, 46
Walter Matthau, 46
George Kennedy, 42
Joel Grey, 43
Louis Gossett Jr., 46
Jack Nicholson, 46

Hang S. Ngor, 44
Kevin Kline, 41
Joe Pesci, 47
Tommy Lee Jones, 47
Robin Williams, 46
Tim Robbins, 45
George Clooney, 44

Jared Leto, 42

Mahershala Ali, 42 (winner of 2 Supporting Oscars, 2016, 2018)

Sam Rockwell, 49

50-59: 12

Donald Crisp, 59

Barry Fitzgerald, 56
Gig Young, 56
Ben Johnson, 53
Jason Robards, 54 (winner of 2 Oscars)
Michael Caine, 53 (winner of 2 Oscars)
Sean Connery, 57
Jim Broadbent, 52
Chris Cooper, 51

Christoph Waltz, 53 (winner of 2 Oscars)

Mark Rylance, 55

Brad Pitt, 56

60-69: 10

Charles Coburn, 66
Walter Huston, 64
Ed Begley, 61
Melvyn Douglas, 62
Jack Albertson, 61
John Mills, 62
Gene Hackman, 62
Martin Landau, 66
Morgan Freeman, 67

J.K. Simmons, 60

Older than 70: 8

Edmund Gwenn, 70
John Houseman, 71
George Burns, 79
John Gielgud, 77
Don Ameche, 77
Jack Palance, 72
James Coburn, 70

Alan Arkin, 72

Older than 80: 1

Christopher Plummer, 82 (oldest winner in this category)

Conclusions

Of all four acting categories, the Best Supporting Actor Oscar is the most democratic or egalitarian in terms of age.

Over the past 90 years, there have been winners in every age category, ranging from 20 to 82.

Summary

No Child Actors

Unlike their female counterparts, no child actors have won the Oscar, though child actors have been nominated.

Youngest Winner

The youngest winner in the Academy annals is still Tim Hutton, 20, who won for his very first nomination, playing a troubled youngster in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, which won Best Picture of 1980

Next to Hutton, the youngest winners are George Chakiris, 28, for the musical “West Side Story” in 1961, and Cuba Gooding Jr, also 28, for “Jerry Maguire” (“Show Me the Money”) in 1996.

Oldest Winners

The oldest winners in Oscar history are Christopher Plummer, who was 82, and George Burns, who was 79, when winning for “The Sunshine Boys.”

Other old winners (in their 70s) include John Gielgud and Don Ameche, each at 77.

Best Age to Win

The best age to win seems to be middle-age: One third of Supporting winners (24 out of 75) have been in their 40s; the latest to join this age group is Sam Rockwell, for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

British Winners

The British winners are older than their American counterparts for several reasons. Several, like Michael Caine, began their careers and were nominated for Best Actor at a young age. Others, like Sean Connery, appeared mostly in James Bond or commercial fare. Still others, like John Gielgud, began his career on stage and had made very few motion pictures.

Not to Despair

Quite a large proportion (17 out of 75 winners) have won the Supporting Oscar while in their 60s and 70s.

Acknowledgment

Thanks to two grants from Wellesley College, where I was a professor, I was able to conduct several statistical and sociological studies about the Academy Awards, which resulted in my book, All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards.

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