When two people hit it off, it usually isn’t because efforts were made to get them together. Yet when it comes to movies, that’s exactly what casting professionals are charged with doing. Naturally, it doesn’t always pay off. Here are 10 examples of acting duos in movie history that did find that special something, no matter what got them together in the first place.
10. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan
They’ve starred in three movies together, beginning with 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano. While that’s an awful title for a film, it’s hardly as bad as the picture’s screenplay. Hanks and Ryan did work well together on screen, however. They appeared as an item again in the 1993 love story Sleepless in Seattle, one of the biggest hits of the decade, although the actors spend most of the movie apart. Their pairing was anticipated in another romance, 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, but writer/director Nora Ephron no longer had the touch she exhibited on Sleepless and especially her 1989 film When Harry Met Sally, in which Ryan exuded tremendous chemistry with Billy Crystal. Hanks and Ryan worked well together because they were immensely likable in each other’s company, a quality vital on motion pictures like those in which they appeared.
9. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
They made eight movies together during the 1960s, although most people today are only able to recall two, and in both cases it was their off-screen collaboration that gave the on-screen proceedings their power. Burton and Taylor had met years before they began working together on Cleopatra, but it was during that epic’s two-and-a-half-year shoot that their torrid love affair began. It was illicit as well. Taylor was married at the time to Eddie Fisher, who left the set in a huff, as did Burton’s then-wife Sybil Williams. Cleopatra was not received well upon its release in 1963 and had gone hugely over budget, but interest in Burton and Taylor’s affair helped it break even. Three years later filmmaker Mike Nichols would draw vivid performances out of them as an unhappy married couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, although it took a toll on their actual marriage.
8. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd
The Back to the Future trilogy succeeded for a number of reasons. For time-travel movies, they didn’t unnecessarily hurt the heads of the audience. They were family-friendly, but still cool enough for teens to see with their friends (teens of the 1980s, anyway). And then there was the duo of Michael J. Fox, as Marty McFly, and Christopher Lloyd, playing Doc Brown, Marty’s mad professor pal. The two actors couldn’t have been more physically dissimilar, which the camera loved, and they worked so well together that their on-screen friendship was consistently convincing. The partnership almost didn’t happen. McFly and Brown were to be played by Eric Stoltz and John Lithgow at one point. Lithgow would’ve been fine, but director Robert Zemeckis shot for four weeks with Stoltz before they both concluded he wasn’t right for the part.
7. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby
It’s a bit of a challenge today attempting to sit through any one of Hope and Crosby’s seven Road movies, beginning with 1940’s Road to Singapore, and continuing with trips to Zanzibar, Morocco, Utopia, Rio, Bali and Hong Kong, the last in 1962. The comedies are full of in jokes about the culture of the moment that have become lost to the mists of time, and they were never great art. But nobody — with the notable exception of Frank Sinatra — was bigger than Hope and Crosby in the 1940s, when most of these movies were made, and it shows in the confidence the stars exude on screen. The comic and the crooner — Dorothy Lamour often came along for the ride — were having a great time, and it was assumed audiences were, too. If you do happen upon one of the Road films, stick around to see how many of today’s best-known screen gags began with Hope and Crosby.
6. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy
Of the nine films they made together, the best of the bunch was probably 1942’s Woman of the Year, with Adam’s Rib (1949) and Desk Set (1957) following close behind. It was on Woman of the Year that the actor and actress first met, beginning a 26-year off-screen relationship unorthodox even for Hollywood. Although the two seemed perfect for each other, Tracy never left his wife. Hepburn was with him when he died in 1967, but stayed away from Tracy’s funeral out of respect for his wife. That Hepburn and Tracy were a natural couple was plain for all to see in their screen appearances together, which were both delightful and ahead of their time. Woman of the Year, in particular, makes much of the tension created when a woman becomes as successful in the world as her man, and no wonder. Hepburn and Tracy were living it.
5. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis
The straight man and the comedian was already a tried-and-true act by the time Martin and Lewis came along to put their own spin on it in the post-World War II years. After each moved on to bigger and brighter solo careers 10 years later nobody else really did it as well. Their films — more than a dozen of them from 1949 to 1956 — were only one aspect of their partnership, which began as a vaudeville-type routine in nightclubs up and down the East Coast. Radio and television helped them raise their profile. A perception that the appreciation for Lewis’s talent was outpacing that for Martin’s led to a rift between the two that ended the act to their mutual benefit. Solo, Martin was able to blossom as a singer while retaining his high showbiz profile with the Rat Pack. Lewis went on to make his best movies in The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor. Years later, the two made up.
4. Robert Redford and Paul Newman
Unlike some of the other duos on this list who appeared in many films together, only to see most of those films lost to memory, Robert Redford and Paul Newman co-starred in just two movies. Both are classics. Redford’s role as Sundance in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was originally offered or considered for Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, Marlon Brando and Jack Lemmon (who turned it down because he didn’t like riding horses). The seemingly effortless chemistry of Redford and Newman in Butch led to their second pairing in The Sting four years later, in which it was again fully on display. The fact that both stars were A-list leading men with busy schedules made it difficult for them to reunite on screen, although they had reportedly settled on a script when Newman’s health worsened; he died in 2008.
3. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
Today’s dance fans have television shows they can tune in to on a weekly basis, which sure tops having to wait for a movie to come out. But there’s no topping films like Top Hat, Swing Time and The Gay Divorcee. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in a total of 10 motion pictures together, including these three, largely during the 1930s. The silver screen’s greatest dancing duo had the good fortune to appear on the scene when dancing saw its greatest popularity in film. And who wouldn’t want to dance to classic songs like The Way You Look Tonight, Cheek to Cheek and Night and Day? Fred and Ginger eventually parted ways to pursue solo careers, but remained friends. Rogers won an Oscar, for Kitty Foyle in 1941, and Astaire kept on dancing, appearing in several successful movie musicals.
2. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
The fact that all but a handful of the 107 films they made together are still available, and that their bits and routines remain well-known 80 years later, speaks to the enduring popularity of this comedy duo. Laurel, an Englishman, and Hardy, an American from Georgia, both started early in show business and had already worked extensively before being fortuitously paired in the 1927 short silent film Putting Pants on Philip. Unlike a lot of actors working at the time, Laurel and Hardy easily adapted to talkies since the bulk of their appeal was visual comedy. Their biggest laughs came from misunderstandings that led to physical altercations, often involving property damage. Despite their contrasting on-screen personas, Laurel cowering next to Hardy’s 280-pound frame, Laurel was the leader, taking charge of the writing, directing and editing on their films.
1. William Abbott and Lou Costello
One argument for Abbott and Costello’s success could be that American culture needed a comedy duo to fill the gap between the heydays of Laurel and Hardy and Martin and Lewis, and that if it hadn’t been them it would’ve been another act. It could also be argued that Abbott and Costello were simply the best at what they did, which is closer to the truth. The two were performers in the New York burlesque scene when they paired up in 1935, and they largely kept on doing what had worked for them on stage for the next 20 years, altering their routines for radio, television or the 36 movies they did. Films like Buck Privates (1941) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) still stand up well today. Audiences eventually got tired of hearing their “Who’s on First?” bit, which led to their decline, but it remains a classic for the ages.
One More: R2-D2 and C-3PO
The little guy, R2-D2, is an Astromech droid hailing from the planet Naboo, while his taller, golden companion, a protocol droid, calls Tatooine home. But the two are largely inseparable as they appear in all six of the Star Wars films, often saving the day. The characters were portrayed by the same actors throughout the series, a feat unique to those movies (yes, there was a man under R2-D2’s exterior, although there were robotic versions of the character as well). R2-D2’s beeps and whirrs are unintelligible to the audience, but C-3PO understands him, being fluent in over six million forms of communication, and that’s all that matters. Watching the pair cavort across the galaxy, it’s clear Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas had some famous acting duos in mind when he created them. In fact, R2-D2 and C-3PO simply couldn’t exist without those earlier inspirations.