Sex appeal undoubtably sells seats, whether for a play or a movie. For example, when the Guthrie produced Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Patrick Stewart playing George was a huge draw for me. It wasn’t the role, It was the opportunity of hearing that amazing, richly sexy voice! Richard Burton was another actor with sex appeal whose voice was his greatest asset. Don’t believe me? See the 1952 version of My Cousin Rachel, in which Burton easily seduces Olivia de Havilland. Or is it de Havilland who seduces Burton?

The three actors below all have sex appeal in different ways: Barry Nelson’s easy nature and shining intelligence, Frank Langella’s boyish charm which yields to an elegant maturity, and James Earl Jones’ magnificent voice all had audiences clamoring for seats in movie theaters and playhouses.

Barry Nelson (1927-2007)

Here’s a little trivia you may not know: the first James Bond was an American. Later made famous by such men as Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Daniel Craig and notably by Barry Nelson. Casino Royale was first dramatized for a 1954 episode of Climax, a CBS anthology series. It featured Peter Lorre as La Chiffre and Linda Christian as Valerie Mathis. In a black and white production directed by William H. Brown, Jr., no one attempts a European accent. Plot and characters from Ian Fleming’s novel are combined, but it’s a surprisingly good adaptation made for live television. (I found this in a box of $1 videos at Wal-Mart some years ago, though it is also available on YouTube). It’s better than John Huston’s 1967 op-art version too.

Burn in San Francisco, Nelson was signed by MGM fresh out of UC-Berkeley. He had small roles in feature films but found his place on the New York stage, where he never lacked for roles. Beginning with Winged Victory (he also appeared in the film version), he also appeared in Light Up the Sky. He appeared opposite Barbara Bel Geddes in The Moon is Blue and originated the role of Dr. Julian Winston in Cactus Flower, co-starring Lauren Bacall. His roles in the latter two would be played onscreen by men wo also had sex appeal: William Holden and Walter Matthau. As he aged, Nelson was cast as Liza Minnelli’s husband in The Act and director Julian Marsh in 42nd Street.

One role he played both onstage (opposite Barbara Bel Geddes) and screen (with Debbie Reynolds) was Bob, the ex-husband in Jean Kerr’s Mary, Mary. The play remains one of the longest runs in Broadway history, playing 3½ years.

Working Actor

Nelson never focused on his sex appeal. He was far too busy working, featured on such TV series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare and What’s My Line? He was featured in the films Airport (which was shot in the Twin Cities) and The Shining (as Stuart Ullman).

Barry Nelson was married twice. His first ended in divorce, but his second lasted until his death. He and his wife lived in the U.S. and in France. Always at ease and bringing out the intelligence of his characters, Nelson’s poker face, sense of timing and knowing where to focus attention are key elements to his acting.

Frank Langella (1938- )

When I was in high school, American cinema went through a period similar to the French New Wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Hip and trendy films were projected across America’s screens, with titles like The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider and The Godfather. When Diary of a Mad Housewife joined these titles, it was meant as a star vehicle for Carrie Snodgress (1935-2004). In the leading role, Snodgress played an executive’s wife facing a midlife crisis.

While she was rather good, Snodgress never really fulfilled her promise onscreen. Instead, it was her co-star, Frank Langella who captured everyone’s attention. Cast as a popular young writer, he spent much of the movie in various stages of undress, seductively eyeing the camera as he engaged Snodgress in a love-hate affair.

Frank Langella definitely has sex appeal and it’s only gotten better with age. He built his career in the theater, working both on and off Broadway appearing in such plays as The Immortalist, Old Glory, Yerma and A Man for All Seasons. He played an angry young Will Shakespeare opposite Ann Bancroft’s Ann Hathaway in William Gibson’s A Cry of Players.

Of course, and actor who impacts film audience like Langella must return to the screen and his film work includes Mel Brooks’ delightful (and rarely seen comedy) The Twelve Chairs. Masters of the Universe, Good Night and Good Luck, Superman Returns, Robot and Frank and Dave have given him feature roles. His television appearances include The Americans, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Law and Order: SVU and opposite Blythe Danner in Tennessee Williams’ revised version of Summer and Smoke newly titled  Eccentricities of a Nightingale.


Arguably one of his best roles, which also played into his sex appeal was Count Dracula. He played the role in a 1977 revival at the Martin Beck (now Al Hirschfeld) Theater, which played almost 1,000 performances. Fortunately for us, his performance was captured in a beautifully shot film co-starring Kate Nelligan and Lawrence Olivier (as Von Helsing). Moved ahead in time to the 1930s, Langella provided a youthful eroticism, leaving past characteristics behind. This film is truly entertaining.

He’s won four Tony Awards: one for Edward Albee’s Seascape; Fortune’s Fool, co-starring Alan Bates in his final Broadway role; Frost/Nixon in which he played the former President opposite Michael Sheen’s David Frost; and The Father, a beautiful play, translated from the French, about a man falling into dementia.  Other Broadway roles included Sherlock Holmes, Cyrano de Bergerac and King Lear. His memoir, Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I knew Them is a genuine treat to read – it’s a perfect beach read, and available at the public library.

James Earl Jones (1931- )

James Earl Jones CV is amazing – winner of an EGOT for over six decades of distinguished work, he’s been highly commercially successful, including the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars series and the voice of Mufasa in The Lion King: He has appeared as himself on The Big Bang Theory, recorded Great American Documents (for which he won a Grammy), and appeared onstage in such roles as Othello, Paul Robeson and Jack Jefferson.

A veteran of the Korean War, he worked as a maintenance engineer while studying through the American Theater Wing, responsible for the Tony Awards. His early work was in regional theater and radio, but he first drew attention when he starred opposite Jane Alexander in The Great White Hope, based on the life of boxer Jack Johnson. He earned his first Tony Award for this performance. For the film version, both Jones and Alexander were nominated for Oscars as well. He appeared onstage as Lenny in Of Mice and Men, Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Measure for Measure and Hamlet. He co-starred with Leslie Uggams in On Golden Pond, played Big Daddy in Debbie Allen’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and starred opposite both Vanessa Redgrave and Angela Lansbury in Driving Miss Daisy. Most recently, he appeared opposite Cicely Tyson in a revival of The Gin Game.

Stanley Kubrick saw his potential and cast him in Doctor Strangelove and he’s appeared in The Comedians, Claudine, Matewan and Field of Dreams. In 1975, Jones and Estelle Parsons played Barney and Betty Hill, a multiracial couple who were taken aboard an alien vessel in 1961 in the seldom seen TV movie, The UFO Incident (available on YouTube). The film is a true story and Jones gives one of his best performances in this intense story.

When his wife passed on from ovarian cancer, Jones chose to make public his own struggle with Type-2 diabetes, hoping to raise awareness of the disease.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Jones onstage twice. In 2001, I was in the audience for a presentation he made at Teacher’s Convention, specifically addressing the stutter that plagues him as a child. Prior to that, he opened the Guthrie’s 1983-84 season in Master Harold and the Boys, written and directed by Athol Fugard. I believe it was part of the National Tour, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical experience.

Performances by these three actors with sex appeal can be found online, on cable and elsewhere. Take a look at their work and you’ll see what I mean.

From this article, I’m taking a break with actors and writing about influential directors throughout this past century and beyond.