Manly Men: Classic American Tough Guys, Seen Through LIFE’s Lens

Actor John Garfield smokes and studies the script for the movie, 'They Made Me a Criminal.'
Alfred Eisenstaedt—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Actor John Garfield studies the script for the movie They Made Me a Criminal.

Once again, the Super Bowl is upon us, and once again, the occasion brings with it all the marketing mayhem, fan frenzy and trash-talking that titanic sporting events are heir to. With the Super Bowl, however, the hoopla is cranked up to 11 — and no wonder. Pro football is unique among American sports due to its sheer, outsized spectacle. It’s louder than baseball, brasher than basketball, and more routinely violent than the phenomenally physical sport of NHL hockey and the high-speed lunacy of NASCAR. In fact, of all the major sports in North America, football is arguably the one that brings out whatever vestiges of machismo might be lurking in even the most seemingly mild of fans.

Football, after all, is for manly men. That said, the intensely masculine (we hesitate to call it homoerotic) energy that swirls around the event every year — and perhaps especially this year, with the manliest man of them all, Peyton Manning, at center stage — got us thinking about that chimerical figure, the American Tough Guy. Specifically, how was he, as a sub-species of the universal male ideal, portrayed in the pages of LIFE through the years?

There are many types of toughness, of course. Mental toughness (Jackie Robinson); quiet toughness (Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper); gritty toughness (a weary, determined American Marine); crazy, spasmodic toughness (Cagney’s sociopath, Cody Jarrett, in White Heat); run-right-over-you toughness (Jim Brown); and on and on.

Here, on the eve of the 48th Super Bowl, offers a look back at some of the iconic faces and personalities that, in their own time and in their own chosen pursuit, were tough enough to answer that age-old question: Who’s the man?

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