Happy 72nd Birthday, Tommy Lee Jones! Though he has played his share of rednecks in films, the Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG Award winner is in real life a top-notch polo player and famously was Vice President Al Gore‘s roommate while both were studying at Harvard. Jones is an actor who is always full of surprises.
Having gotten his start acting in soap operas and independent films, Jones quickly moved up the ladder, earning his first Golden Globe nomination as singer Loretta Lynn‘s husband in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (opposite Academy Award champ Sissy Spacek). As his work continued to grow, so did Jones’ trophy case. In his film career of over four decades, Jones earned four Oscar nominations (including a win for 1993’s “The Fugitive,”) three Golden Globe nominations (also including a win for “The Fugitive”) and four Screen Actors Guild nominations (including two SAG trophies for 2007’s “No Country For Old Men” and 2012’s “Lincoln”).
So, in honor of Jones’ birthday, let’s cut the cake and count down his 12 greatest films, ranked from worst to best, in the photo gallery above.
12. JACKSON COUNTY JAIL (1976)
“Jackson County Jail” was one of a long line of exploitation films that regularly played drive-in theaters in the 1970s, films that critics routinely ignored. But this film about a white businesswoman (Yvette Mimieux) who gets raped by several men and thrown in jail had one element that made critics sit up and take notice — an young actor with a craggy face and an unusual delivery.
11. HOPE SPRINGS (2012)
Jones is reunited with his “Prairie Home Companion” co-star Meryl Streep in David Frankel‘s comedy/drama as a married couple who suddenly find themselves as empty-nesters who feel that they need to reconnect physically so that they can save their marriage. Kay (Streep) drags the grumpy Arnold (Jones) to see a marriage counselor (Steve Carell) who tries everything he knows to get through to the resistant Arnold.
10. COBB (1994)
Ron Shelton‘s first baseball-themed film after “Bull Durham” is anything but the fun romance of that earlier movie. Sportswriter Al Stump (Robert Wuhl) is hired to write the official biography of baseball legend Ty Cobb (Jones) who is in failing health. Instead of being a baseball elder statesman, Cobb is now a pernicious, racist drunk who quickly becomes abusive to Stump, as the pair make the cross-country drive for Cobb’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
9. IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (2007)
Jones earned his third Academy Award nomination for this real-life story of military police vet Hank Deerfield (Jones) who begins his own investigation when his son, who recently returned from Iraq, goes missing. He teams up with a local cop (Charlize Theron) to try to get to the truth, and both become suspicious when military officials step in to stop the investigation.
8. A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (2006)
Jones joined fellow Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in their first experience of working with the late master Robert Altman. Based on Garrison Keillor‘s radio show, the film deals with the possible cancellation of the show by the radio station and theater’s new owners, personified by The Axeman (Jones), who is the one who has to decide whether the show will be axed.
7. THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA (2005)
Jones won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for this, his directorial debut. He plays rancher Pete Perkins, who is the best friend of Melquiades Estrada, an illegal immigrant who is shot by Border Patrol Officer Norton (Barry Pepper). Perkins, who had promised his friend a burial in Mexico orders Norton to dig up the body, which he then returns, along with prisoner Norton in tow, across the border to Mexico. Jones’ directing style here is simple and no nonsense.
6. MEN IN BLACK (1997)
Barry Sonnenfeld‘s sci-fi comedy was Jones’ biggest financial success ever, enough to spawn two sequels in which Jones also appeared. He co-stars as Agent K, veteran of the Men in Black (MIB) unit, who takes on rookie Agent J (Will Smith) as his new partner. Together they ferret out aliens on earth who are disguising themselves as humans in order to take over the planet. Jones’ droll wit is perfectly matched by Smith’s hyperactive enthusiasm.
5. COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER (1980)
Jones transitioned from the indie world of “Jackson County Jail” to the big time with his portrayal of Doo, the devoted husband of singer Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek), who gives up his job in the forest industry to become Loretta’s de facto manager. Jones’ portrayal of Doo was warm and loving, and the chemistry between Jones and Spacek was palpable — they really felt like both a couple and a team. For his performance as Doo, Jones earned his first Golden Globe nomination.
4. JFK (1991)
Jones earned his first Academy Award nomination for his performance as the real-life Clay Shaw, a gay New Orleans businessman who is investigated and indicted by D.A. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) for conspiring to kill President John F. Kennedy. Shaw’s trial consumes most of “JFK’s” third act, in which Jones’ character is mostly reactive, yet Jones reveals volumes about what the ever-smoking Shaw is thinking, not through histrionics through his subtly fey gestures.
3. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)
In the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 2007, Jones stars as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who learns that deputy sheriff Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) has absconded with $2 million in drug cartel money and that brutal killer Anton Chigurh (Oscar winner Javier Bardem), who has been hired to recover the cash, is hot on his trail. Jones plays Sheriff Bell with a world-weariness that is both skillful and rings absolutely true.
2. THE FUGITIVE (1993)
Andrew Davis‘ film based on the hit 1960s television series stars Harrison Ford as Dr. David Kimble who is falsely convicted of killing his wife and escapes from custody. He is tracked down relentlessly by Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard, who is determined to capture the fugitive. When found by Gerard, Kimble holds him at gunpoint and pleads, “I didn’t kill my wife.” Gerard, his hands raised, simply responds, “I don’t care.” And he doesn’t. For his performance at Lt. Gerard, Jones won his first Academy Award and his first Golden Globe Award.
1. LINCOLN (2012)
Jones plucked the plum role of abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in Steven Spielberg‘s epic story about Abraham Lincoln (Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis), and Jones’ performance earned him his second Screen Actors Guild Award. The colorful Rep. Stevens tried to hold President Lincoln’s feet to the fire when it came to not turning his back on emancipation, and the President followed through, getting Congress to pass the historic 13th Amendment designed to ensure racial equality. For “Lincoln,” Jones was also nominated for his fourth Academy Award and his third Golden Globe Award for film.