Benicio Del Toro has built a prominent career in film and on television, earning an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his role in “Traffic.” This stellar career trajectory may not have been predicted when he began his career with his first film role. Everyone has to start somewhere and for Del Toro it came in “Big Top Pee-Wee,” in which he played Duke the dog-faced boy opposite Pee-Wee Herman.
Born in Puerto Rico to a family of lawyers, Del Toro thought he too would pursue that type of career and he started college as a business major at the University of California, San Diego. There he found his true passion was in acting, so he left school to pursue it full time.
His first jobs included appearances on “Miami Vice” and other episodic television shows. He appeared in Madonna’s video for her song “La Isla Bonita,” and when he was 21 had a small role in the James Bond film “License to Kill.”
Despite his early success Del Toro struggled with being typecast as thugs and drug dealers. He was able to make the most of those roles and eventually became accepted as a wider variety of characters.
His early success culminated in the year 2000 when he swept all the major awards including the Oscar, SAG, Golden Globe, BAFTA, New York Film Critic’s and National Society of Film Critic’s awards for his role as a dedicated cop in Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic.” He received a second Oscar nomination three years later when he appeared in “21 Grams.”
Take a photo gallery tour of his 10 greatest film performances, ranked from worst to best. In addition to the movies mentioned above, we also include “The Usual Suspects,” “Sicario,” “Sin City” and more.
10. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)
Director: James Gunn. Writers: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Glenn Close.
Del Toro joined the all-star cast of Marvel’s popular story of a group of intergalactic criminals who ban together to stop global doom. He plays The Collector, who as his name would suggest is a person who collects all sorts of space relics and obsessively stores them. Director James Gunn described the character as an outer space version of Liberace.
9. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998)
Director: Terry Gilliam. Writers: Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies, Alex Cox. Starring Johnny Depp, Tobey Maguire, Craig Bierko.
Based on the novel of the same name by famed “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson, this is a story reflecting his feelings of how the 1960’s counterculture movement had failed. Johnny Depp plays the character based on Thompson while Del Toro plays his sidekick, a lawyer who joins him on a drug fueled trip to Las Vegas.
8. INHERENT VICE (2014)
Director and writer: Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson.
Del Toro plays another lawyer involved in the drug world in Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a private detective trying to figure out the disappearance of a former girlfriend of his. The film met with only limited critical acclaim as many found the plot too complicated.
7. CHE (2008)
Director: Steven Soderbergh. Writer: Peter Buchman. Starring Demian Bichir, Oscar Issac, Julia Ormond.
Del Toro won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for this biopic of Che Guevara, who was involved in the Cuban Revolution and helped Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) topple the American backed regime that was in power at the time. Despite the film’s acclaim it had trouble finding an audience due to its length. The film ran more than four hours and was released in some places in two parts.
6. FEARLESS (1993)
Director: Peter Weir. Writer: Rafael Yglesias. Starring Jeff Bridges, Rosie Perez, Isabella Rossellini.
Del Toro had a key supporting role in this film from Peter Weir about the survivors of a major airline crash. Jeff Bridges stars as a man whose heroism saved others but he is having traumatic after-effects dealing with the event. Rosie Perez was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as a woman whose infant son was killed in the crash. Del Toro plays her husband, who is more concerned with how much money he can get from the airline than he is in his wife’s grief.
5. SIN CITY (2005)
Director: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino. Starring Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Bruce Willis.
A trio of directors assembled this collection of stories based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name. Del Toro plays the trouble making ex-boyfriend of a barmaid played by the late Brittany Murphy.
4. SICARIO (2015)
Director: Denis Villeneuve. Writer: Taylor Sheridan. Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Jon Bernthal.
Del Toro received a BAFTA nomination and a number of mentions from critic’s groups as Best Supporting Actor for this film about the F.B.I.’s battle with drug cartels along the US/Mexico border. He plays a secretive member of the Department of Justice whom the lead character (Emily Blunt) is assigned to work with.
3. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)
Director: Bryan Singer. Writer: Christopher McQuarrie. Starring Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri.
This popular film won Oscars for its script and Supporting Actor Kevin Spacey. Its intricate plot involves five criminals who are put together in a police lineup. As the story evolves it is unclear who is exactly who. Interestingly, though Spacey won the Oscar and other prizes this year, Del Toro was the only cast member nominated at the Independent Spirit Awards, where he won the award as Best Supporting Actor.
2. 21 GRAMS (2003)
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Writer: Guillermo Arriaga. Starring Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Danny Huston.
Del Toro received his second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in this film from Alejandro G. Iñárritu. The title refers to the amount of weight experimenters found that leaves the body upon death. Some felt this proves the existence of the soul and the loss of 21 grams is because of its leaving the body. Del Toro plays an ex-con trying to restore his life after he killed the husband and children of a woman played by fellow Oscar nominee Naomie Watts.
1. TRAFFIC (2000)
Director: Stephen Soderbergh. Writer: Stephen Gaghan. Starring Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle.
Del Toro plays a good-hearted Mexican cop in this film that tells a number of interconnected stories about the effects the drug traffic is having on US and Mexican citizens. He ran the whole range of awards this year, taking prizes as Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, Golden Globes, BAFTA, and both the New York and National Society of Film Critics. An interesting bit of awards trivia is that he was accidentally submitted for SAG Award consideration as a Lead Actor (this happened a few times in the early days of the guild awards as people got used to the balloting system) and still managed to pull off a win despite being up against actors with much larger roles.