It Takes Two: The 15 Most Influential Actor-Director Movie Combos of All Time

Leo + Scorsese, Spike + Denzel, Hanks + Spielberg + beyond.

Since the movies began, collaborative duos of certain performers and filmmakers have ignited creative fires that lit up the screen in unique ways. Coming off the recent Oscar-rich run of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg with Bridge of Spies (2015), and as Leonardo DiCaprio is presently in preproduction with Martin Scorsese on Devil in the White City, their sixth cinematic collaboration, let’s look back on the all-time most combustible actor-director combinations in film history.

  1. Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock

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    Collaborations: Rope (1948); Rear Window (1954); The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956); Vertigo (1958)

    The Master of Suspense worked with a number of the greatest leading men Hollywood has ever produced, including Cary Grant (North by Northwest), Gregory Peck (Spellbound), and Henry Fonda (The Wrong Man), but only Jimmy Stewart and his deceptively “aw, shucks” sensibility could have made Alfred Hitchcock’s two all-time most sophisticated and acclaimed thrillers come so brilliantly alive. Just try to imagine Rear Window and Vertigo starring anyone else. The prospect is frightening!

  2. Diane Keaton and Woody Allen

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    Collaborations: Play It Again, Sam (1972); Sleeper (1973); Love and Death (1975); Annie Hall (1977); Interiors (1978); Manhattan (1979); Radio Days (1987); Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

    Woody Allen established himself as a supreme master of stand-up comedy before trying his hand at movies with the uproarious Take the Money and Run (1969). Once the Woodman found his perfect romantic foil, on-screen and off, in Diane Keaton, he went from filmmaking funnyman to cinematic genius, peaking with Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979).

  3. Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese

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    Collaborations: Mean Streets (1973); Taxi Driver (1976); New York, New York (1977); Raging Bull (1980); The King of Comedy (1982); Goodfellas (1990); Cape Fear (1991); Casino (1995)

    Before Leo, Marty had Bobby. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, two Italian-American kids from rough-hewn New York City, first set movie screens ablaze with Mean Streets, a scrappy saga with a big bite about hotheaded hoodlums and big-hearted neighborhood folk shot on the very streets where they grew up.

    All told, the Scorsese-De Niro team made seven masterpieces out of eight efforts—and even the one exception, the often-maligned musical tragedy New York, New York, is a fascinating exercise in imagination that only these two wizards could have brought to such unique cinematic life.

  4. Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese

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    Collaborations: Gangs of New York (2002); The Aviator (2004); The Departed (2006); Shutter Island (2010); The Wolf of Wall Street (2013); Devil in the White City (2017)

    Just when Martin Scorsese sought some fresh, less-seasoned fire to power up his creative engines anew, Leonardo DiCaprio came along and enabled the director to finally realize Gangs of New York, a project he’d been developing since the 1970s.

    Since then, Leo and Marty have become not just the most invigorating team in contemporary cinema, they’re also a proven box office powerhouse when combined. Audiences know that when these two invest their time and talent in a project, it’s always worth getting out to a theater in order to take in the full experience.

  5. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg

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    Collaborations: The Money Pit (1986); Joe vs. the Volcano (1990); Saving Private Ryan (1998); Band of Brothers (2001); Catch Me If You Can (2002); The Terminal (2004); The Pacific (2010); Bridge of Spies (2015)

    Beginning with Tom Hanks’ hit home repair comedy The Money Pit, which Steven Spielberg produced, the two blockbuster machines generally acknowledged as the nicest guys in Hollywood have collaborated with only intermittent breaks over the past three decades.

    Hanks has starred in four Spielberg-directed films (Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, Bridge of Spies), and together they produced HBO’s two epic World War II miniseries, Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

  6. Denzel Washington and Spike Lee

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    Collaborations: Mo’ Better Blues (1990); Malcolm X (1992); He Got Game (1998); Inside Man (2006)

    Denzel Washington and Spike Lee joined forces just as their respective star power clicked into hyper-drive. The success of their music drama Mo’ Better Blues enabled Denzel and Spike to, at last, create Malcolm X, a properly respectful and dramatically powerful biopic of assassinated civil rights giant.

    Since then, Denzel has supplied the heat that only he can to two of Spike’s best-loved films, He Got Game and Inside Man, which are also among the director’s most popular hits.

  7. Johnny Depp and Tim Burton

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    Collaborations: Edward Scissorhands (1990); Ed Wood (1994); Sleepy Hollow (1999); Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005); Sweeney Todd (2007); Alice in Wonderland (2010); Dark Shadows (2012); Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

    Tim Burton’s fantastical take on cinema met its perfect match in Johnny Depp back in 1990. Using the clout he’d earned by making Batman (1989), Burton embarked on a his long-envisioned Edward Scissorhands, just in time for Johnny Depp to shake off his teen idol image once and for all by taking on a bizarre character and delivering a fearless performance.

    The world has been a more wondrous place since then, with new Burton-Depp collaborations filling it with fresh magic and imagination every few years. Next up is Burton’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, which promises an even bigger role for Depp in his return as The Mad Hatter.

  8. Wes Anderson and Bill Murray

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    Collaborations: Rushmore (1998); The Royal Tenenbaums (2001); The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004); Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009); Moonrise Kingdom (2012); The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

    Wes Anderson garnered acclaim for his 1997 debut Bottle Rocket, but the film barely registered at the box office (it later caught on as a cult favorite). At the same time, Bill Murray, once the biggest star in comedy, found himself foundering in a series of big-screen misfires on the order of Larger Than Life and The Man Who Knew Too Little. Then, in 1998, Anderson and Murray came together for Rushmore and one of the most unique and incandescent partnerships in movie history was born.

    Anderson created The Life Aquatic specifically for Murray, and the duo has been keeping cinema quirky, offbeat, and innovatively idiosyncratic to the point of pretty much inventing their own genre together.

  9. John Wayne and John Ford

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    Collaborations: Stagecoach (1939); The Long Voyage Home (1940); They Were Expendable (1945); 3 Godfathers (1948); Fort Apache (1948); She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949); Rio Grande (1950); The Quiet Man (1952); The Searchers (1956); The Wings of Eagles (1957); The Horse Soldiers (1959); The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); How the West Was Won (1962); Donovan’s Reef (1963);

    “My name is John Ford,” frequently announced the one man Orson Welles named as cinema’s all-time top three greatest directors. “I make westerns.”

    That John Ford did, and his complex, beautiful, philosophical, thrilling, and challenging takes on the myths surrounding cowboys, settlers, Native Americans, and the human experience of creating what would become our modern country never packed more of a punch than when they starred the definitive western icon of the silver screen, John Wayne

    In addition to their homages to and deconstructions of the Old West, Ford and Wayne also brilliantly took on modern warfare with They Were Expendable, The Wings of Eagles, and Donovan’s Reef.

  10. Molly Ringwald and John Hughes

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    Collaborations: Sixteen Candles (1984); The Breakfast Club (1985); Pretty in Pink (1986)

    Come the 1980s, teen cinema became a boys club dominated by the raunchy likes of Porky’s and The Last American Virgin. Even more sophisticated and sensitive takes on growing up such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Risky Business told their stories from a predominantly male perspective.

    Then, in 1984, along came Molly Ringwald and John Hughes with Sixteen Candles, and, with them, a fully realized female point-of-view expanded the cinematic playing field. The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink then finished what Ringwald and Hughes started, created a universal touchstone for multiple generations of adolescents.

  11. Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino

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    Collaborations: Pulp Fiction (1994); Jackie Brown (1997); Inglourious Basterds (2009); Django Unchained (2012); The Hateful Eight (2015)

    Much ado has been made regarding writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s employment of racially explosive language in his screenplays. Alas, that’s where Samuel L. Jackson comes in and turns even the foulest language into soaring ballets of operatic word violence, and movie history gets made again and again.

    Tarantino’s reliance on Jackson’s genius is so total that the director even brought him on board the World War II adventure Inglorious Basterds, about Jewish commandos taking down Nazis in Germany, to narrate a semi-animated segment in that voice that let’s you know, “All right, Sam’s here! Now it’s a Tarantino movie!”

  12. Kirsten Dunst and Sofia Coppola

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    Collaborations: The Virgin Suicides (2003); Marie Antoinette (2006)

    Sofia Coppola debuted bright and boldly by directing the dark and disturbing The Virgin Suicides. The movie also marked a powerful transition for star Kirsten Dunst, then hot from the ebullient cheerleader comedy Bring It On and Spider-Man, allowing her to expand on the dramatic depth she showed in the teen drama Crazy/Beautiful.

    Coppola and Dunst teamed again for Marie Antoinette, a post-punk take on the royal casualty of the French revolution that quickly became a cult sensation as an uncompromised vision of what these two talents could deliver whenever they get together.

  13. Penelope Cruz and Pedro Almodovar

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    Collaborations: All About My Mother (1999); Volver (2006); Broken Embraces (2009); I’m So Excited (2013)

    Penelope Cruz has been a world-class star since her 1994 international smash Jamon Jamon. Among those who fell under her spell—perhaps even more than anyone else—was Spanish art-prankster and film visionary Pedro Almodovar.

    Cruz and Almodovar first worked together on All About My Mother, and became the closest of friends who also, every few years, treat the world to another big-screen collaboration emanating from how much they adore and inspire one another.

  14. Meg Ryan and Nora Ephron

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    Collaborations: When Harry Met Sally (1989); Sleepless in Seattle (1993); You’ve Got Mail (1998)

    Meg Ryan spent the latter half of the ’80s playing it cute in a succession of films from various genres before truly finding her big-screen persona in When Harry Met Sally, the definitive modern romantic comedy penned by esteemed novelist, essayist, and screenwriter Nora Ephron.

    Ryan and Ephron teamed again, this time with Nora in the director’s chair, for Sleepless in Seattle, and then made it a hat trick with You’ve Got Mail.

  15. Chow Yun-Fat and John Woo

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    Collaborations: A Better Tomorrow (1986); A Better Tomorrow II (1987); The Killer (1989); Once a Thief (1991); Hard Boiled (1992)

    Hong Kong’s premiere filmmaker John Woo (who also helmed Hollywood blockbusters on the order of Broken Arrow and Mission: Impossible II) found his perfect on-screen conduit in the minimalist, but still profoundly gripping and emotionally super-charged acting style of international superstar Chow Yun-Fat.

    The pair’s five ultra high-intensity action blowouts stand as epic achievements in cinema, turning shoot-outs, car chases, and chaotic outbursts of violence into mesmerizing works of explosive art.

Mike McPadden is the author of the book "HEAVY METAL MOVIES: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever!" (Bazillion Points, 2014).