Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


An actor is a person who acts, or plays a role in an artistic production. The term commonly refers to someone working in movies, television, live theatre, or radio, and can occasionally denote a street entertainer. Besides playing dramatic roles, actors may also sing or dance or work only on radio or as a voice artist. A female actor is an actress, although a minority feel that the term "actor" is gender-neutral and prefer to use it for both men and women.

See: List of male movie actors, List of female movie actors (A-K) and List of female movie actors (L-Z), List of male theater actors and List of female theater actors

For information on the artistic craft, see acting

However, the word actor can be used in more general terms - for example in the analysis of policy, an interested person, party, group or an organization is often known as an actor.


The first recorded case of an actor performing took place in 534 B.C (probably on November 23rd, though the changes in calendar over the years make it hard to determine exactly) when the Greek performer Thespus stepped on to the stage at the Theatre Dionysus and became the first person to speak words as a character in a play. The machinations of storytelling were immediately revolutionized. Prior to Thespus' act, stories were told in song and dance and in third person narrative, but no one had assumed the role of a character in a story. In reverence to Thespus, actors are formally referred to as thespians. Theatrical myth to this day maintains that Thespus exists as a mischievous spirit, and disasters in the theatre are sometimes blamed on his ghostly intervention.


In the past, the term "actor" was restricted to men. Women did not begin performing commonly until the 17th century. When they did the term "actress" was used. In the ancient and medieval world, it was considered disgraceful for a woman to go on the stage, and this belief continued right up until the 17th century, when in Venice it was broken. In the time of William Shakespeare, women's roles were played by men or boys, though there is some evidence to suggest that women disguised as men also (illegally) performed.

Today, the term "actor" is often used to refer to both men and women, as some consider the term "actress" to be sexist. However, the term actress also remains in common use.

An actor usually plays a fictional character. In the case of a true story (or a fictional story that involves a real person) he or she may play a real person (or a fictional version of the same), possibly him- or herself.

See also: gender-specific job title, non-sexist language

Actresses in male roles

Women actors sometimes play the roles of prepubescent boys, because in some regards a woman has a closer resemblance to a boy than a man. The role of Peter Pan, for example, is traditionally played by a woman. The tradition of the principal boy in pantomime may be compared. An adult playing a child occurs more in theater than in film. The exception to this is voice actors in animated films, where boys are generally voiced by women. Opera has several 'pants roles' traditionally sung by women, usually mezzo-sopranos. Examples are Hansel in Hansel und Gretel, and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro.

Mary Pickford played the part of Little Lord Fauntleroy in the first film version of the book. Linda Hunt won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in The Year of Living Dangerously, in which she played the part of a man.

Having an actor play the opposite sex for comic effect is also a long standing tradition in comic theatre and film. Most of Shakespeare's comedies include instances of cross dressing, and both Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams appeared in hit comedy films where they were required to play most scenes dressed as women.

Acting awards

See also: movie star, stunt work, actors' hobbies and other careers

In graphical video games, an actor is a character uncontrolled by the player, except for his mimic and movements. In the computing sense, especially in the Unified Modeling Language, an actor plays a role.

In Greek mythology, Actor was the father of Menoetius and Astyoche. He was king of Opus in Locris.