Ah, Ancient Greece. Where everything—wars, entertainment and medicine—was seen as a communion with the Gods. But there’s no doubt that their dedications to the deities wouldn’t have been so impassioned were the Gods not so physically awe-inspiring—specifically, if their king, Zeus, the prolific sex fiend and certified nutcase, didn’t possess such an enviable beard. Nothing says, “I cut open my dad’s stomach to free my digested siblings,” like a big bushy mane.
Seeing as our society seems to be in a hurry to abandon democracy, philosophy and quality writing, it looks like Ancient Greece’s biggest influence on our modern times is the image of Zeus with peerless facial hair, a tradition continued by his appearance in the form of Russell Crowe in Thor: Love and Thunder. But some Zeuses are decidedly more impressive than others, and it’s worth breaking down which godly scruff is up to snuff. Seeing as I haven’t yet found a use for my one year of Classical Studies, nor grown a beard my friends haven’t pleaded with me to shave, I believe the Gods want me to step up to such a task.
Here is every film and TV version of Zeus, ranked by their facial hair:
16. Luke Evans, Immortals (2011)
A shockingly poor effort to start us off. This young, buff Zeus from a Zack Snyder rip-off trails far behind the young, buff Zeus we get from an actual Zack Snyder film. This barely qualifies as facial hair, rather more like the stubble you get the day after you decide to grow a beard out, before balking and immediately shaving. This Zeus looks lifted straight from a Magic Mike Greek mythology number. Actually, that’s unkind to the Magic Mike crew—they know a wild, crazy beard is far more titillating than whatever Evans has here.
15. John Bach, Young Hercules, “Valley of the Shadow”
Welcome to the first of our Zeuses from the Hercules-Xena-verse. It’s fitting we start with the least revered, Young Hercules, where the Labors of a golden-haired Ryan Gosling were rewarded in the finale by a visit from his father, another great instance of Zeus’ “less is more” style of parenting. Well, he certainly wasn’t spending all season grooming his beard. Maybe it’s less defined because they were trying for a younger-looking Zeus to match his demigod son, but unlike Hercules, Zeus doesn’t age, so this was a massive blunder from the team at Young Hercules.
14. Sean Bean, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2010)
How do you make sure Sean Bean doesn’t die in a movie? Cast him as someone who can’t die! Unfortunately, this Zeus’ facial hair was destined to be overshadowed by 2010’s other Greek mythology adventure, but Bean has the honor of sporting the first beard on this list that’s actually good. A neatly trimmed, short boxed beard may not be the first style that comes to mind when thinking of Zeus, but thinking of shooting schedules, this is likely the same beard he wore in Game of Thrones the next year. Ned Stark’s scruff went off with his head, but there’s some solace knowing that this beard will live forever.
13. & 12. (tie) Roy Dotrice and Peter Vere-Jones, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
They had so many actors playing Zeus across Hercules and Xena. There’s actually an extra two not featured on this list because, well, they don’t have beards. Two Legendary Journeys actors even wear the same costume, making our facial hair comparison more direct, despite neither rise above being average. Dotrice’s has a lovely copper hue and seems a little more full, which suits Zeus’ vitality; Vere-Jones gets points for a neater, better-maintained beard in the iconic white/gray—perfect for an authoritative god. Still, neither of them scream, “I can transform into a literal beam of sunshine (for sex).”
11. Sergi Constance, Justice League / Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Zack Snyder capitalized on a ubiquitous meme in the production and promotion of his megalodon director’s cut, but he may have snuck in another, as his depiction of Zeus is a spitting image for the GigaChad. This ultra-macho iteration doesn’t spend his seconds of screentime idling around heavenly courts, as there’s an interdimensional titan to battle. Darkseid was undoubtedly impressed with this beard; its jet-black, thick look is emphasized by a high cheek line, a lush scruff perfect for showing off with bared-teeth yelling. And it doesn’t look too dry on the arid, fiery battlefield, meaning he’s probably using moisturizing shea butter. There’s no digitally removing this facial hair.
10. Laurence Olivier, Clash of the Titans (1981)
Before Disney and Liam Neeson, the famous English thespian was the most well-known incarnation of Zeus, appearing in Ray Harryhausen’s final stop-motion work. But the animation guru could have spent some time on Olivier’s beard, which didn’t crack the top half and is in dire need of life. This beard lacks in anything transcendent, it still holds onto a distinctly earthly quality—an older British man grew a completely perfunctory beard. Its iconic status isn’t totally undeserved, but this Zeus should spend less time playing with clay figures and more time getting his beard a better shine with a good beard oil.
9. Michael Chiklis, Ducktales, “New Gods on the Block”
Now we’re really off the rails. Yes, we’re including animated beards; even though the voice actors listed didn’t grow the beards in question, someone still designed and drew them, and seeing as some of the animated beards don’t look as good as some of the live-action ones, they deserve to be ranked accordingly. This mallardian mane is in the, ahem, ducktail style, and also likely apes the animated Hercules look. Regardless, it looks sturdy yet feathery, likely treated with specialist beard conditioner. This is probably how Zeus looked when he turned himself into a swan (again, for sex).
8. Charles Keating, Xena Warrior Princess
It’s difficult to place why exactly this beard works, especially when it looks so similar to beards that have ranked lower. What makes this work better than Olivier’s is contextual; this Zeus comes with a matching mane of hair, and the shoulder-length curls do a lot to frame this neatly trimmed but full beard. Keating’s dark, bushy eyebrows and heavily lined face compliment the facial hair, and it all adds to a higher-realm, otherworldly presence, made more impressive when considering Xena’s paltry ‘90s television budget. Out of the six performers to play Zeus across the Hercules-Xena-verse, Keating did a lot with not much at all.
7. Russell Crowe, Thor: Love and Thunder
The MCU’s approach to the interspersing of gods, aliens, superheroes and regular folk has been hazy at best, but treating heavenly characters with gravitas has never been on the franchise’s mind. In their tradition of light-hearted irreverence, Marvel gives us a Greek god to match their Norse and Egyptian ones, and you’d be forgiven for not noticing Zeus’ bushy but well-trimmed beard thanks to another of Russell Crowe’s classically strange accents. (Is he doing Greek? Italian?) The most attractive elements are the fine curls gathering around his chin, and seeing how unkempt Crowe’s beard has been in the past, you can imagine how many hours his aides spent finessing the unruly mane into shape.
6. Jason O’Mara, Blood of Zeus
That’s right, there’s an anime daddy Zeus and his hair looks good. A dark brown mustache and chin patch adds a lovely tone to the grizzled light gray. It looks all-natural, as you can tell by the matching streaks in his long, flowing hair, it’s clear Zeus made the decision to rock the salt-and-pepper look. This is a great midpoint between the darker, younger beards and wizened white ones; the gray adds an attractive, distinguished quality that Zeus is no doubt taking advantage of in his favorite pastime: Seducing women and then turning them into cows to avert his wife’s suspicion
5. Niall MacGinnis, Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Now we’re into the big dogs, with a reminder that a great beard is not exclusive to well-kept ones. Some 20 years before Olivier, MacGinnis gave us luscious locks and a beard that’s on the right side of bushy while avoiding being too scraggly. Covering his cheeks and neck before coming down in a long tuft from his chin, this is a Zeus not interested in meticulously sculpting his appearance, characterized in the film as a beleaguered disinterest in any mortal toils. Who cares if it’s not perfectly coiffed? It’s impressively messy, and MacGinnis owns it.
4. Angus MacFadyen, Jason and the Argonauts (2000)
Shot with a far bigger budget and ending up looking much cheaper, this miniseries remake features Zeus as…a floating head in the sky. In the other entries, Zeus makes personal visits down to mortal realms, or we’ve taken a visit to Olympus to see where he chills. Point being, everything has been done to avoid the comical effect of MacFadyen’s vacant expression composited over landscapes. But if the FX don’t work, the beard certainly does; his facial hair looks as light and fluffy as the clouds it rests on. To get that ultra-soft look, Zeus will have to trim and wash it daily, not to mention applying oils twice a day and giving it a thorough comb. It’s a lot of effort, but when you’re a massive face hundreds of feet in the air, you can’t cut corners.
3. Liam Neeson, Clash of the Titans (2010) / Wrath of the Titans
When Liam Neeson releases the kraken in the Clash of the Titans remake, you know it’s serious business—not just because he’s commanding the release of a gigantic amphibian monstrosity, but because of the massive beard he says it through. It extends from across his jawline all the way to his chest, styled into a sharp point. While the blown-out, lens flare-ridden lighting of the Olympia scenes make it difficult to see the beardly details, he gets to roam mortal plains in the sequel Wrath, and has opted to style his beard in ringlets instead. Maybe they don’t stock his brand of beard gel in ancient Greece.
2. Rip Torn, Hercules
No, Rip Torn didn’t actually grow this beard, but the beauty of Rip Torn’s vocal performance is that he definitely sounds like someone who could grow a beard this incredible. The animators went for a classical sculpture look to the characters, which certainly characterizes the beard; marble-white and literally glowing, it looks like a solid chiseled stone. The vertical lines imply vigorously combing, and like Neeson, it comes to a sharp point, so gel is definitely being used. It may be impossible for anyone to actually grow, but it adds to Zeus’ domineering vibe; no mortal could ever dream of having a beard this mighty.
1. Ernest Graves, Hercules in New York
Yup. This is the one we’re going for. The best beard of the bunch is the one that goes for broke. It’s gray, it’s black, it’s bushy, it’s wispy, it’s coiffed, it’s straggly, it’s curled. It looks like two beards placed on top of each other, and there’s no way it’s not a make-up appliance, but even imagining a real human being growing it makes the mind boggle. There isn’t even a mustache! It asks the question, what does Zeus, king of the gods, care about mortal grooming standards? If Zeus wants his beard ridiculous, he gets it. Arnold Schwarzenegger even brought everything full circle to his feature debut, leveling up from demigod Hercules to donning Zeus’ bushy white beard himself, which confused everybody when the poster dropped, before it revealed itself as a BMW commercial. To be honest, I was hoping more for cryptocurrency shilling or a casino mascot.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.