Most of the actors we know and love got their start early, moving out to Hollywood to chase their dreams, starting as extras or playing minor roles until getting discovered in their 20s. But that isn’t always the case. Many famous actors didn’t get big until later in life, proving that your glory days can be at any age. The same goes for poker players, many of whom didn’t reach celeb status for years. Both cases are proof that work and determination can pay off.
Some famous actors had entirely separate careers before they got into acting. But many of Hollywood’s late bloomers just didn’t take off until later. In an industry that’s saturated with young, beautiful talent, being an older actor or actress can be tough—but the best of the best have proven their worth over time. Here are 7 big celebrities who took center stage at an older age.
- Samuel L. Jackson
You’ve heard his voice all over the place (he’s even an option for Amazon’s Alexa assistant now), but you might not have seen Samuel L. Jackson on the big screen until his big break in the 1990s. He worked as a social activist and small-production actor for the first part of his life, then started getting big-time attention when he appeared in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever in 1991. He sealed the deal with Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in 1994, and he’s been on a roll ever since.
He was already in his 40s when he rose to fame, but he still had time to make more money in the box office than any other living actor. He’s been in more than 100 films and has averaged almost $90 million per film. He’s been a huge success…but if you’d told him at 25 where he’d be today, he might not have believed you.
- Judi Dench
Judi Dench had a successful theater career before getting into movies in the 1990s. After years doing Shakespeare and playing a leading role in Cabaret, she started working in television, though her appearances were few and far between. Then, she earned international notoriety for playing “M” in the James Bond film GoldenEye in 1995. She played the head of the MI6 Secret Intelligence Service, who is Bond’s boss.
She continued appearing in James Bond films up through Skyfall in 2012, and M was later replaced by Ralph Fiennes. She appeared in other well-known films like Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Chocolat (2000) and has won numerous awards in her career. Since leaving the Bond franchise, she’s shone in her golden years in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel as well as its sequel, and in Murder on the Orient Express.
- Lucille Ball
Lucille Ball, known for her iconic role as Lucy in I Love Lucy, didn’t break through in Hollywood until her 40s. She had been in various Broadway productions and minor roles, even having to pick up radio work as a side job to supplement her income. Radio ended up saving her, when she played a quirky housewife in a program called My Favorite Husband on CBS Radio. With the success of the show, CBS asked her to turn it into a television show.
That’s when I Love Lucy was born, where Lucille and her real-life husband at the time, Desi Arnaz, captivated the nation with comedy. The duo even started their own business, a TV production company called Desilu, which Lucille would continue to run after their divorce.
Lucille Ball didn’t just make America laugh in the 1950s. She and her production company started a lot of innovative TV production methods that are still common today. They popularized filming with a live studio audience with multiple camera angles and various sets on stage.
- Steve Carell
You know him as The World’s Best Boss in The Office, where he played Michael Scott starting in 2005. But before Steve Carell was on The Office, he was pretty normal. He played hockey in college, but never had a career in sports, and then worked as a mail carrier until he was told he delivered the mail too slowly.
That’s when he got into show business, taking small roles until he worked as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart where he got noticed for his comedy. When he left the show, he took a role as the star of The Office on NBC. The first season didn’t get much attention, but after Carell’s successful role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the ratings picked up and it became a beloved sitcom.
He left The Office to focus on films and has appeared in and done voice acting in popular films like Despicable Me, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Big Short. He also produced several films he appeared in, including Get Smart and Crazy, Stupid, Love.
- Morgan Freeman
Morgan Freeman is an icon in Hollywood, known for his great deep voice and incredible calm. He’s now 82 and has only spent a little more than half his life on acting. He got a lot of attention for his roles in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and Million Dollar Baby (2004).
In addition to acting, he’s well-known for voice acting, and is featured in many documentaries and commercials. He has won both a Golden Globe Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award.
- Harrison Ford
Harrison Ford is known as one of the silver screen’s biggest adventurers, but he got a slow start. In his 20s and early 30s, he appeared in a few minor roles, but never really made a name for himself. He was turned down for a number of roles, and eventually got frustrated with his lack of success. He taught himself carpentry and worked to support his family.
But he wouldn’t stay out of acting for too long. He started his big-time acting career in the late 1970s, when he played Hans Solo in Star Wars. The huge success of Star Wars helped kick-start his career, and he continued to appear in the franchise as well as in its sequels in the 2010s. The world loved Hans Solo and his co-pilot Chewbacca who commanded the famous Millennium Falcon.
Ford got noticed for his talent playing the role of an adventurer, and he landed a leading role in the Indiana Jones series. The first film was Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, and the franchise continued through the 80s, with a revival in 2008. Ford played archaeologist Indiana Jones, who had a taste for adventure and always wore a fedora and leather jacket. People went wild over the films, particularly because of how much they loved the main character.
- Melissa McCarthy
Melissa McCarthy’s career has exploded recently as people have recognized her great sense of humor and wide range of roles. She played Sookie, the lovable but quirky cook in Gilmore Girls from 2000-2007. But it wasn’t until Bridesmaids in 2011 that she really got noticed. The film earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and also brought her to the attention of other film projects.
She co-starred alongside Sandra Bullock in the 2013 comedy The Heat, which was a huge box office success. She also played one of the ghost hunters in the Ghostbusters 2016 reboot. While she’s known for her comedy, she’s played some serious roles as well, like in the 2018 film Can You Ever Forgive Me? about an unsuccessful writer who tries to make money by forging letters from deceased authors. She was praised for her role in the film and earned an array of nominations for the performance.
McCarthy doesn’t just work as an actress. She is also known for her line of plus-size clothing, Seven7, which keeps her busy when she’s not acting. She seems to be good at maintaining a work-life balance though, with a happy family and constant sense of humor.
Could you be the next big star?
If these actors can teach us one thing, it’s that it’s never too late to achieve your dreams…or to change your mind about what your dreams are. Almost all successful actors have had slumps in their career or had to fight hard to get started. It may be harder to get noticed when you’re older, but these actors proved that they had what it took, and that maybe those extra years of experience paid off.
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