An actor (alternatively actress for a female; see terminology) is a person who acts in a dramatic or comic production and works in film, television, theatre, or radio in that capacity. The ancient Greek word for an "actor," ὑποκριτής (hypokrites), means literally "one who interprets"; in this sense, an actor is one who interprets a dramatic character.
After 1660 in England, when women first appeared on stage, actor and actress were initially used interchangeably for female performers, but later, influenced by the French actrice, actress became the usual term. The etymology is a simple derivation from actor with ess added. The word actor refers to a person who acts regardless of gender, and this term "is increasingly preferred", although actress, referring specifically to a female person who acts, "remains in general use". Within the profession, however, the re-adoption of the neutral term dates to the 1950s–60s, the post-war period when women's contribution to cultural life in general was being re-evaluated. Actress remains the common term used in major acting awards given to female recipients.
The gender-neutral term "player" was common in film in the early days of the Motion Picture Production Code with regards to the cinema of the United States, but is now generally deemed archaic. However, it remains in use in the theatre, often incorporated into the name of a theatre group or company (such as the East West Players).
The first recorded case of an actor performing took place in 534 BC (though the changes in calendar over the years make it hard to determine exactly) when the Greek performer Thespis stepped on to the stage at the Theatre Dionysus and became the first known person to speak words as a character in a play or story. Prior to Thespis' act, stories were only known to be told in song and dance and in third person narrative. In honour of Thespis, actors are commonly called Thespians. Theatrical legend to this day maintains that Thespis exists as a mischievous spirit, and disasters in the theatre are sometimes blamed on his ghostly intervention.
Actors were traditionally not people of high status, and in the Early Middle Ages travelling acting troupes were often viewed with distrust. In many parts of Europe, actors could not even receive a Christian burial, and traditional beliefs of the region and time period held that this left any actor forever condemned. However, this negative perception was largely reversed in the 19th and 20th centuries as acting has become an honoured and popular profession and art.