18 Actors Who Had Their Big Hollywood Breakthrough Late In Life
Movie star success can be fickle and finite, whereas under-the-radar talent, accrued over time, can often develop into true staying power. Actors of this ilk may have gotten a late start in acting, or may have simply surrendered to tenable career expectations. Sometimes, renunciation of traditional success can work in an actor’s favor. The rise of production values in television and streaming services is partly responsible for creating stars out of talent that have been plugging away at the acting game for years.
Both small screens and indie screens have frequently drawn attention to performances that can be overshadowed in cinematic star vehicles. Then again, sometimes there are actors who qualify for both distinctions over the course of their careers, plugging away in relative obscurity (at least to American multiplex audiences), and then soaring to A-list stardom once they get their big break in their 40s or 50s.
- 127 VOTESPhoto: Star Trek: The Next Generation / Paramount Domestic Television
For 16 years, in addition to being a pop-up actor in British television dramas, Yorkshireman Patrick Stewart was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. A connoisseur of classical theater, he added on small roles, in the first half of the 1980s, in Excalibur and Dune. In the latter half of that decade, Stewart began teaching dramatic literature at universities. While at UCLA, he was spotted by TV producer Robert Justman, who became convinced that he had found his captain.
Casting an unknown Shakespearian actor as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation was a gamble that paid off. Stewart was 47 years old when the first season aired in 1987. It quickly became apparent that his commanding stage presence was perfectly suited to Picard’s governance over the USS Enterprise. After the TV show’s seven seasons, which included a few Star Trek films, Stewart was cast opposite his old friend and fellow theater thespian Ian McKellen as the benevolent mutant Professor X in the X-Men series. Aged 60, and outside of the Star Trek media franchise, Stewart achieved box-office success. More recently, after many years of film, theater, and voice-over work, Stewart breathed new life into the captain for the CBS TV series Star Trek: Picard.
- 244 VOTESPhoto: Pulp Fiction / Miramax Films
Samuel L. Jackson toiled away during the 1970s as a New York theater actor - notably in a couple of August Wilson plays, one of which (The Piano Lesson) was in more recent years revived by his actor/director wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, on Broadway. The 1980s marked the start of his collaboration with Spike Lee (beginning with School Daze) as well as blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nameless roles in Ragtime, Coming to America, and Sea of Love. Jackson’s coke habit ended just in time for his portrayal of crack-addict Gator in Lee’s Jungle Fever. For his head-turning performance in the role, a supporting actor category was created at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.
Ironically, it was Quentin Tarantino, who is often on the receiving end of Lee’s ire, who transformed Jackson’s career with his box office triumph Pulp Fiction, released when Jackson was 46. Tarantino wrote the character of hitman Jules Winnfield specifically for Jackson, whose delivery of the infamous Bible-verse monologue helped catapult his career to rare heights. Further collaborations with Tarantino, recurring roles in the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe franchises, and a ton of voice-over work have kept Jackson as one of the most in-demand actors in the game. At times the highest paid actor in Hollywood, Jackson takes a significant check and the contractual promise of a nearby golf course in exchange for a taste of his magnetic presence.
- 343 VOTESPhoto: Die Hard / 20th Century Fox
Alan Rickman occupied at least two strong areas of film: as a villain, and as the thinking woman’s romantic lead. His voice, which needed a fine wine amount of time to fully mature, had the ability to coerce and unsettle. No stranger to British television and theater audiences through the late 1970s and '80s, Rickman hit the international jackpot at 42 with his first feature film, Die Hard. In it, he played East German criminal mastermind Hans Gruber opposite Bruce Willis’s streetwise NYPD cop John McClane.
Soon after, his on-screen villainy reached the heights of camp as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Romantic roles in Truly, Madly, Deeply and Sense and Sensibility followed in the 1990s, but it was his recurring role, from his mid-50 to his mid-60s, in the next century’s Harry Potter series that rattled the imaginations of children around the world. Rickman’s interpretation of the brooding Professor Severus Snape added further complexity to the character’s opaque agenda. In Rickman’s final performance, he donated his dulcet tones to Absolem the Butterfly in Alice Through the Looking Glass.
- 434 VOTESPhoto: GoldenEye / MGM/UA
A veteran of the British stage and the go-to actress for Shakespeare’s women, Judi Dench was a household name in the UK for many years before the rest of the world caught on. She made a small splash on the swinging '60s screen with major roles in two domestic crime dramas, Four in the Morning and He Who Rides a Tiger. Alongside consistent stage work, she appeared irregularly in respectable films for the next three decades. Two British sitcoms about middle-aged courtship - A Fine Romance, in which she co-starred with her late husband Michael Williams, and PBS anglophile favorite As Time Goes By - broadened her audience considerably.
The mid-to-late '90s was the period in which Dench’s bankability increased far beyond the usual expectations for an actress of her age. She was the first woman to play MI6 boss M in the James Bond series. Cast opposite Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye (released when she was 60), Dench stuck with the franchise well into the Daniel Craig era. In the same year as the release of her second Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, a Miramax push made an unlikely hit out of the meant-for-TV film Mrs. Brown, in which Dench, already a doyen of Dame-hood, played Queen Victoria. The following year, her role as another Queen of England, Elizabeth I, in Shakespeare in Love, won her the Oscar for best supporting actress despite only eight minutes of screen time. Her later work in such films as Philomena and Belfast has proven she can still deliver star-level work in an industry not exactly designed to accentuate octogenarian talent.
- 526 VOTESPhoto: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring / New Line Cinema
Ian McKellen, in a similar fashion to Malcolm McDowell, has a voice that loiters in the north of England between bursts of received pronunciation. It projects from somewhere deep in order to hit the back of a theater and wields equal power in its transition to the screen. McKellen had a fruitful career in the theater, in the West End and on Broadway, for decades. For the longest time, his film appearances seemed incidental by comparison. A shift in the 1990s, which coincided with him reaching his 50s, presented him to a wider cinema audience due to leading roles Richard III, for which he co-wrote the screenplay, Apt Pupil, as the Nazi next door, and Gods and Monsters, about the last days of horror film director James Whale.
McKellen’s fame skyrocketed in his 60s when he was cast as the embittered magnetic field tamperer Magneto in the X-Men franchise, but principally, his superstardom came from playing Gandalf the Grey (and the White) in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, was released when McKellen was 62. Movie wizardry may have peaked with McKellen’s Gandalf, whom he revived in The Hobbit series, but McKellen’s work continues to flit successfully between film and theater.
- 641 VOTESPhoto: Driving Miss Daisy / Warner Bros.
Morgan Freeman’s voice had to be marinated in life’s lessons before it could convince the world of its irrefutable omnipotence - particularly useful when playing God. Audiences have come to expect the soothing sound and the level-headedness of Freeman’s persona, whether it's on screen or simply a voice. Originally a dancer and stage actor in musicals and dramatic theater, Freeman enhanced the reading and writing skills of a legion of 1970s TV-watching kids in The Electric Company opposite Rita Moreno. He took small roles in feature films, including Brubaker (starring Robert Redford) and Harry & Son (directed by and starring Paul Newman), for over 20 years before he was cast as the pimp, Fast Black, in Christopher Reeve’s 1987 passion project Street Smart.
Though Street Smart was not a commercial hit, Freeman, who was Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated at age 50 for the role, has credited the film with giving him his Hollywood breakthrough. The Civil War drama Glory, in which Freeman played Sergeant Major John Rawlins, and Driving Miss Daisy, an unlikely hit about an unlikely friendship between Freeman’s chauffeur and Jessica Tandy’s wealthy widow, were both released on the same date in 1989 when Freeman was 52. For the latter film, he was once again Oscar-nominated, putting him officially in professional demand. The Shawshank Redemption - a sleeper hit that often tops all-time movie lists - and Invictus also landed him Oscar nominations. He won the coveted award in his late 60s for his supporting role as retired fighter Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby.