With the year 2000 fast approaching, it is the season of millennial lists. Life magazine got there first, with a special issue on the 100 most important people of the last 1,000 years (No. 1: Thomas Edison; No. 13: Adolf Hitler; No. 67: Cao Xueqin), but there’ll be plenty more, so you might as well get used to it.
Anyway, we worked long and hard on this ranking. You may notice that nobody from Asia or Africa was deemed worthy of our Top Five. All we can say about that is, well, better luck next millennium. Further, our decision to include German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (tied for No. 4) was reached only after heated debate around the office. While she may have been a Nazi, or at least a highly effective promoter of the Nazi cause, her thrilling films simply left us with no alternative but to choose her.
As intense as things got around here in the matter of Ms. Riefenstahl, our decision to go with the Beatles (tied for No. 5, with French filmmaker Georges Méliès) over all other music makers led to even nastier arguments. One contingent favored Mozart, another liked 13th-century Chinese string-and-bow virtuoso Xi Chueng, but the Beatles’ delightful body of work won out in the end.
But in this, the office was unanimous: Of all the many, many actors in the last 1,000 years–don’t forget, we’re not counting the ancient Greeks–not one came close to the incomparable Tom Hanks.
We know our picks are likely to cause controversy. So let us assure our readers that this ranking has nothing to do with the personal biases or tastes of the editors, but merely reflects the realities of the entertainment landscape over the last 1,000 years.
1. William Shakespeare, playwright, poet, actor (1564-1616)
Perhaps this Renaissance-era wordsmith stole a plot here and there, but for 400 years, his 38 plays (with the exception of a stinker or two) have really packed the house. Equally at ease with the one-liner and the big speech, Shakespeare had a real knack for language. He could make ’em laugh and make ’em cry. And with his parade of colorful characters, he managed to capture every facet of human experience, with the possible exception of alcoholic marital frustration–in this, he was Edward Albee’s inferior. Oh, well. And, oh, we almost forgot–he was savvy enough to include lots of fight scenes. Best bets: Hamlet , Macbeth , Romeo and Juliet , Coriolanus . Don’t bother: Antony and Cleopatra , Cymbeline . Score: 98.
2. Dag of Iceland, comedian-storyteller (1022-1070)
In his prime, Dag of Iceland was, quite simply, the funniest man on earth. He made his name at the age of 10, getting huge laughs before the Althing, Iceland’s ruling body, with an extended routine on the frustrations inherent in thawing large hunks of meat. He went on to perform elaborate comical pantomimes, such as “Stupid Hunter,” “Confused Bird” and–his best known work, still performed at festivals today–”Beached Whale.” In his later years, apparently after a difficult battle experience, Dag of Iceland turned away from comedy and tried to reinvent himself as a practitioner of the dramatic monologue. But his works from this period (“Gruesome War Tale”; “Dead Bodies After Battle”; “Remorse After Slaying Enemies”; “I Will Kill No More”; “I Don’t Want to Go Into Battle Again”; “Let’s Not Invade Other Lands”; “Our Enemies Are O.K. With Me”) met with very mixed success. Still, the comical Viking who gave us “The Mammoth’s Honeymoon” will never be forgotten. Score: 94.
3. Tom Hanks, actor, director (1956-present)
After an itinerant childhood, Tom Hanks made an inauspicious debut in the ABC television sitcom Bosom Buddies , playing a man who, for reasons too obscure to go into here, had to dress as a woman from time to time in order to continue living in a certain apartment building. After that show ran its course, he exploded, with funny, likable performances in such films as Bachelor Party , Volunteers , The Money Pit , Big , Sleepless in Seattle , Philadelphia and Forrest Gump . He also directed the charming That Thing You Do! In the chaotic final decades of 20th-century America, Mr. Hanks was known as an “everyman’s everyman.” He also happened to be the greatest motion picture actor on the planet. Score: 92.
4. Lars of Iceland, comedian-singer (1025-1051)
Unfortunately, much of Lars of Iceland’s work was overshadowed by his contemporary, the brilliant Dag of Iceland (see above), but this comic troubadour of the Dark Ages still stands head and shoulders above almost every other singing comedian of the last 1,000 years. (Forget Harry Lauder and Danny Kaye!) For confirmation, song-comedy aficionados need look no further than his compelling musical routine known as “Hunters at Night,” which is laugh-out-loud funny even today. He could be poignantly wry (“Why Must Our Helmets Have Horns?”), amusingly confessional (“The Old Elkskin Blanket Has Worms, Mother”) and flat-out angry (“The Trip Across the Sea Wasn’t Worth It”). But Lars of Iceland was one thing above all else: Hilarious. Score: 91.
4. (tied) Leni Riefenstahl, director, actress, photographer (1902-present)
Was she Adolf Hitler’s mistress? Given such gorgeously composed documentaries as Triumph of the Will , Olympiad and Day of Freedom–Our Army , who cares? The Nazi subjects of her documentaries may have been repugnant killers, but Leni Riefenstahl never let politics come between her and a beautiful work of art. Score: 91.
5. The Beatles, composers, musicians, actors (1962-1970)
Of anyone who made music between the years 1000 and 2000, the four moptops from Liverpool, England–John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey)–were the best. They could be tender (“Yesterday”), tough (“Yer Blues”) and both at the same time (“Love Me Do”). In the mid-1990’s, the three surviving members (Messrs. McCartney, Harrison and Starr) reunited, briefly, to add fresh vocal and instrumental tracks to old Lennon recordings. Former Electric Light Orchestra frontman Jeff Lynne served as producer for these sessions. While the two songs that resulted–”Free as a Bird” and “Real Love”–did not reach the level of the band’s finest work, neither did they detract from the Fab Four’s fantastic contribution to Western music. Cheap thrill: Ringo’s drum fills on “Rain.” Score: 89.
5. (tied) Georges Méliès, film director, illusionist (1861-1938)
Long before there was an Industrial Light and Magic, this French genius practically invented special effects. He made over 1,000 films before 1913, and his A Trip to the Moon is as fresh today as the day it was made. (Never mind that we now know there are no creatures living on the moon!) Monsieur Méliès pioneered the “stop camera” technique. He would film, say, a bare stage for a few seconds and then he would stop the camera . Next, Mr. Méliès would have an actor step onto the stage–and then he would start the camera again. The startling effect on the viewer was that of a man popping into existence out of nothingness! This “stop camera” technique became a favorite among hobby-happy cinéastes who used their home video cameras to achieve much the same effect with their unaware babies and house pets late in the 20th century. Score: 89.
No-Show Frisa Is Back
Dan Frisa, the former Representative of Nassau County, L.I., did O.K. during his time in Congress. He wore a “Snoopy Goes Fishing” tie, voted against an assault weapons ban bill, and was generally a fun guy to have around. But in the final weeks of his re-election campaign two years ago, he practically went AWOL. And on the night he lost his seat to Carolyn McCarthy, things really fell apart. Instead of making the usual brave concession speech before the supporters and television cameras, he did nothing at all. Amused reporters stood waiting for him in a deserted American Legion Hall.
Now Mr. Frisa, 42, is trying to re-form himself on his way toward getting his old seat back from Ms. McCarthy. It won’t be easy. For one thing, Ms. McCarthy became something of a folk hero for transforming herself into an activist after her husband was killed and her son was injured by crazed gunman Colin Ferguson on a commuter train. For another thing, people remember Mr. Frisa’s big no-show on election night in ’96. In an age of bland, TV-ready politics, his failure to appear might have been a nicely human touch. But it’s not exactly the kind of thing that inspires voter confidence.
The candidate explains he merely failed to adequately inform the press about his whereabouts that night–and that he threw in the towel at the Piping Rock Club, Republican Party headquarters. “I could have done a better job scheduling that evening,” Mr. Frisa said.
Mr. Frisa’s fellow Republican Fred Parola, the Nassau County comptroller, isn’t ready to get over the ex-Congressman’s performance in the last days of the ’96 campaign, however. “He missed everything,” said Mr. Parola. “He missed stops. It was very strange.”
Political consultant Bill Green agreed. After Mr. Frisa’s trashing of campaign protocol in 1996, Mr. Green said the leadership “has no use for him at all. I’m sure they’ll want to rid the party once and for all of Dan Frisa.”
Case in point: Senator Alfonse D’Amato wasn’t too happy that he appeared in Mr. Frisa’s TV commercials; Mr. D’Amato’s spokesman quickly told Newsday that the Frisa ads “in no way should be taken as an indication that the Senator D’Amato had endorsed his candidacy.”
Still, Mr. Frisa’s got the political fever again, and he’s not above making grand claims for himself: “When Bill Clinton talks about being the Comeback Kid when he was second in New Hampshire, or Donald Trump touts himself in his recent book, The Art of the Comeback , those two folks should take a back seat to me,” Mr. Frisa gushed.
Good luck, pal.