Dharmendra won the Filmfare new talent award and came to Mumbai from Punjab looking for work. Starting with Arjun Hingorani’s Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere (1960) he worked in several romantic black and white films in the early 1960s, hitting solo hero stardom with Phool Aur Patthar (1966). At the start of his career, he was usually cast as a romantic hero and later in the period from 1974 onwards as an action hero. He starred with several leading actresses at the beginning of his career. He worked with Nutan in Soorat Aur Seerat (1962) and Bandini (1963), Mala Sinha in Anpadh (1962) and Pooja Ke Phool (1964), Saira Banu in Shaadi (1962) and Ayee Milan Ki Bela (1964) and with Meena Kumari in Main Bhi Ladki Hoon (1964), Kaajal (1965), Poornima (1965) and Phool Aur Paththar (1966).
Phool Aur Paththar became the highest grossing film of 1966 and Dharmendra received his first Filmfare nomination for Best Actor. He formed a very successful pairing with actresses like Meena Kumari, Saira Banu, Sharmila Tagore, Mumtaz, Asha Parekh, Parveen Babi, Zeenat Aman and Hema Malini. His most successful pairing was with Hema Malini, who went on to become his future wife. They formed a hit pair delivering phenomenal hits like, Raja Jani, Seeta Aur Geeta, Sharafat, Tum Haseen Main Jawaan, Jugnu, Dost, Charas, Maa, Chacha Bhatija, Azaad, Teesri Aankh and Sholay. The 1980 film, The Burning Train also saw the Dharam-Hema chemistry in full flight.
His most notable acting performance was Satyakam with Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Sholay, where he appeared as the inimitable Veeru.Sholay went on to become one of the biggest hits in the history of Hindi cinema and is listed by Indiatimes as one of the “top 25 must see Bollywood films of all time” Dharmendra went on to star in numerous successful Bollywood films in the 1970s and 80s like Pratigya, Dharam Veer, Charas, Azaad, Katilon Ke Kaatil, Ghazab, Bhagavat, Dharam Aur Kanoon, Hukumat, Watan Ke Rakhwale, Aag Hi Aag, Ghulami, Hathyar and Loha.
He has worked with various directors, each having different styles in their film-making, like Bimal Roy and Mohan Kumar in drama films, Yash Chopra and Raghunath Jhalani in romance films, Raj Khosla, Ramesh Sippy, Arjun Hingorani, Anil Sharma and Rajkumar Santoshi in action films and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterji and Rajkumar Kohli in comedy films. He also has the distinction of appearing in quite a few films opposite actresses who have also starred opposite his son Sunny Deol. Notable amongst those are Sridevi in Naaka Bandi, Jaya Prada in Elaan-E-Jung, Dimple Kapadia in Shehzaade, Amrita Singh in Sachai Ki Taaqat, Kimi Katkar in Humlaa and Poonam Dhillon in Sone Pe Suhaaga.
He has also periodically done films in his native tongue of Punjabi, starring in Do Sher (1974), Dukh Bhanjan Tera Naam (1974), Teri Meri Ik Jindri (1975), Putt Jattan De (1982) and Qurbani Jatt Di (1990). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he continued to appear in many more films playing leading roles or supporting roles. In 1997, he received the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award. While receiving the award from Dilip Kumar and his wife Saira Banu, Dharmendra became emotional and remarked that he never received any Filmfare award in the Best Actor category despite having worked in so many successful films and nearly a hundred popular movies. He was glad that his contributions had finally been recognized. Speaking on the occasion Dilip Kumar commented, “Whenever I get to meet with God Almighty I will set before Him my only complaint-why did You not make me as handsome as Dharmendra?”
He has also experimented with film production; he launched both of his sons in films: Sunny Deol in Betaab (1983) and Bobby Deol in Barsaat (1995) as well as his nephew Abhay Deol in Socha Na Tha (2005). In one of her interviews, actress Priety Zinta has been quoted as saying that Dharmendra is her favourite actor. She has gone on to recommend him to play her father’s role in Har Pal (2008).
After a few years hiatus from acting since the early 2000s, he is reappearing in films as a character actor. His 2007 films Life in a Metro and Apne were both successful at the box office. In the latter, he appears with both his sons, Sunny and Bobby for the first time. His other release was Johnny Gaddaar, where he played a villainous role. His latest film Yamla Pagla Deewana co-starring his sons Sunny and Bobby was released on January 14, 2011