10 Best Hollywood Breakthroughs Achieved by Actors Later in Life in 2023


10 Best Hollywood Breakthroughs Achieved by Actors Later in Life in 2023

Becoming a successful movie star can be unpredictable and limited, but lesser-known talents who have been nurtured over time often have remarkable staying power. These actors may have started their careers later in life or embraced more realistic expectations. Surprisingly, rejecting traditional notions of success can actually work in their favor. The rise of high-quality television shows and streaming platforms has played a significant role in transforming long-time actors into sensational stars.

Both the small screen and independent films frequently showcase performances that might go unnoticed in big-budget movies. However, there are also actors who effortlessly navigate both worlds throughout their careers. They work tirelessly in relative obscurity, at least from the viewpoint of mainstream American audiences, only to achieve immense fame when they finally get their big opportunity in their 40s or 50s.

1. Alan Rickman

Alan Rickman
Alan Rickman was a versatile actor who excelled in two distinct genres: he was equally adept at playing villains and captivating the hearts of thinking women. His voice, which took time to develop its full richness, possessed the power to manipulate and unsettle. Throughout the late 1970s and ’80s, Rickman had already established a presence in British television and theater, but it was at the age of 42 that he achieved international fame with his debut film, Die Hard. In this action-packed thriller, he portrayed the cunning Hans Gruber, the mastermind behind a group of East German criminals, pitted against Bruce Willis’s street-smart NYPD cop, John McClane.

Following this breakthrough, Rickman’s villainous performances soared to new heights in the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, albeit with a touch of campiness. In the 1990s, he delved into romantic roles in films such as Truly, Madly, Deeply and Sense and Sensibility. However, it was during the next century’s Harry Potter series, from his mid-50s to mid-60s, that he left an indelible mark on the imaginations of children worldwide. Rickman’s portrayal of the enigmatic and brooding Professor Severus Snape added layers of complexity to the character’s mysterious motives.

In his final performance, Rickman lent his captivating voice to the character of Absolem the Butterfly in Alice Through the Looking Glass.

2. Ian McKellen

Ian McKellen
Ian McKellen and Malcolm McDowell both have distinct voices that blend elements of the north of England and received pronunciation. McKellen’s voice, in particular, has the ability to project from deep within and captivate audiences both on stage and on screen. While he had a successful career in the theater, it wasn’t until the 1990s, when he was in his 50s, that his film roles started to gain more prominence.

During this period, McKellen took on leading roles in films such as Richard III, where he even co-wrote the screenplay, Apt Pupil, portraying a Nazi character, and Gods and Monsters, which depicted the final days of James Whale, a horror film director.

However, it was in his 60s that McKellen’s fame truly soared. His portrayal of the embittered Magneto in the X-Men franchise brought him immense popularity. Yet, it was his iconic role as Gandalf the Grey (and later the White) in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that made him a bona fide superstar. The first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, was released when McKellen was 62. He reprised the role of Gandalf in The Hobbit series as well, further solidifying his status as a cinematic wizard.

Despite his tremendous success in film, McKellen continues to seamlessly transition between the big screen and the theater, showcasing his versatility and talent.

3. Samuel L. Jackson

Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson had a humble beginning as a theater actor in New York during the 1970s. He gained recognition for his performances in August Wilson plays, including a revival of “The Piano Lesson” on Broadway by his wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson. In the 1980s, he started collaborating with Spike Lee, starting with “School Daze.” He also had small, uncredited roles in movies like “Ragtime,” “Coming to America,” and “Sea of Love.” Jackson’s struggle with cocaine addiction ended just in time for his portrayal of the crack-addict Gator in Lee’s “Jungle Fever.” His performance was so impressive that a supporting actor category was created for him at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.

Interestingly, it was Quentin Tarantino, despite his often contentious relationship with Spike Lee, who played a pivotal role in transforming Jackson’s career. Tarantino’s blockbuster film “Pulp Fiction” came out when Jackson was 46, and he specifically wrote the character of hitman Jules Winnfield for him. Jackson’s delivery of the famous Bible-verse monologue in the film became iconic and helped elevate his career to new heights. Since then, Jackson has continued to collaborate with Tarantino, and he has also had recurring roles in the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe franchises. Additionally, he has done extensive voice-over work, making him one of the most sought-after actors in the industry. At times, he has been the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, receiving significant paychecks and even securing a contractual promise of a nearby golf course in exchange for his magnetic presence.

4. Patrick Stewart

Patrick Stewart
For 16 years, Yorkshireman Patrick Stewart had a dual career as a pop-up actor in British television dramas and as a member of the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. Alongside his passion for classical theater, he nabbed small roles in movies like Excalibur and Dune during the early 1980s. As the late ’80s approached, Stewart embarked on a new path, sharing his knowledge of dramatic literature with university students.

It was during his time at UCLA that Stewart caught the eye of TV producer Robert Justman, who had a hunch that he had found the perfect captain. Taking a risk, Justman cast an unknown Shakespearian actor as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The gamble paid off. At the age of 47, Stewart’s commanding stage presence proved to be an impeccable fit for Picard’s leadership on the USS Enterprise.

Following the success of the TV show’s seven seasons, which also spawned a few Star Trek films, Stewart found himself in a new role alongside his old friend and fellow theater aficionado, Ian McKellen. The two joined forces in the X-Men series, with Stewart portraying the benevolent mutant Professor X. At the age of 60, and outside the realm of Star Trek, Stewart experienced great success at the box office.

In recent years, after a long and diverse career in film, theater, and voice-over work, Stewart once again took on the role of the captain, bringing a fresh perspective to the character in the CBS TV series Star Trek: Picard.

5. Judi Dench

Judi Dench
Judi Dench, a well-established actress in the British theater scene and a favorite for Shakespearean roles, gained fame in the UK long before the rest of the world recognized her talent. During the 1960s, she made a name for herself in British crime dramas like Four in the Morning and He Who Rides a Tiger. While maintaining a consistent presence on stage, she also appeared in various respectable films over the next thirty years. Her popularity expanded significantly with the success of two British sitcoms centered around middle-aged romance: A Fine Romance, where she starred alongside her late husband Michael Williams, and the beloved PBS show As Time Goes By.

In the late 1990s, Dench’s career reached new heights, surpassing the expectations typically placed on actresses of her age. She broke barriers as the first woman to portray MI6 boss M in the James Bond series, starting with GoldenEye when she was already 60 years old. Dench continued her involvement in the Bond franchise well into the Daniel Craig era. Additionally, her role as Queen Victoria in the made-for-TV film Mrs. Brown, which unexpectedly became a hit thanks to Miramax’s efforts, garnered attention in the same year as her second Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies. Already a revered Dame, Dench’s portrayal of Queen Victoria earned critical acclaim. The following year, her eight-minute appearance as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Dench’s ability to deliver exceptional performances extended into her later work, as seen in films like Philomena and Belfast, proving that she can still shine in an industry that often overlooks octogenarian talent.

6. Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman
Morgan Freeman’s iconic voice has captivated audiences worldwide with its undeniable power and calmness. Whether on the big screen or behind a microphone, Freeman’s soothing tone and level-headed demeanor have become his trademark. But before he became the voice of authority, Freeman started his career as a dancer and stage actor in musicals and dramatic theater. He honed his skills and left a lasting impact on countless kids in the 1970s through his role in The Electric Company alongside Rita Moreno.

Despite his talent, Freeman spent over two decades playing small roles in feature films like Brubaker and Harry & Son. It wasn’t until he landed the part of Fast Black, a pimp, in Christopher Reeve’s passion project Street Smart in 1987 that he found his breakthrough in Hollywood. Although the film didn’t achieve commercial success, Freeman’s performance earned him Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, solidifying his status as a rising star.

In 1989, at the age of 52, Freeman had a remarkable year with the release of two acclaimed films on the same day. He played Sergeant Major John Rawlins in the Civil War drama Glory and portrayed a chauffeur in the unlikely hit Driving Miss Daisy, which explored the unique friendship between Freeman’s character and Jessica Tandy’s wealthy widow. Once again, Freeman’s talent was recognized with an Oscar nomination for his role in Driving Miss Daisy, catapulting him further into professional demand.

Freeman continued to deliver outstanding performances in films like The Shawshank Redemption, a sleeper hit that frequently tops all-time movie lists, and Invictus, which earned him additional Oscar nominations. It wasn’t until his late 60s that Freeman finally won the coveted award for his supporting role as retired fighter Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby.

Throughout his career, Morgan Freeman has proven himself as a versatile actor, captivating audiences with his voice and commanding presence. From his early days on television to his unforgettable performances on the silver screen, Freeman’s talent and dedication have made him a true Hollywood legend.

7. Kathy Bates

Kathy Bates
Kathy Bates spent nearly twenty years taking on minor roles in movies like Taking Off and Straight Time, as well as appearing in episodic television. However, her true passion lay in New York theater, where she held a steadfast position.

It was during the late 1980s when Rob Reiner, while watching a Wallace Shawn play in Los Angeles featuring his then-girlfriend Elizabeth McGovern, noticed Kathy Bates playing a character who was an overzealous fantasist.

After renowned actresses such as Bette Midler and Anjelica Huston declined the female lead in Reiner’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery, the decision was made to cast the relatively unknown 42-year-old Bates as Annie Wilkes. Annie was the number one fan and deranged captor of novelist Paul Sheldon, played by James Caan.

Bates’s remarkable ability to portray a small-town, meek individual with hidden, disturbing tendencies behind closed doors earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress. From that point on, she has consistently received critical acclaim and nominations for her dramatic and comedic performances in films like Titanic, About Schmidt, Dolores Claiborne (another Stephen King adaptation), as well as her work in the television anthology series American Horror Story.

8. Brian Cox

Brian Cox
Scottish actor Brian Cox has always been a familiar face in the entertainment industry. With a quick glance at his impressive filmography, you’ll remember his numerous supporting roles in thrilling movies filled with star power, such as The Long Kiss Goodnight and the Bourne franchise. Cox initially gained recognition as a respected Shakespearean actor on the British stage before venturing into Hollywood in the 1980s. It was during this time that he made history by becoming the first actor to portray the iconic fictional serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, in Michael Mann’s Manhunter.

However, it was Cox’s involvement in two Hollywood films centered around Scottish history, Rob Roy and Braveheart, both released when he was nearly 50 years old, that truly made him a recognizable face in the United States. These performances instantly established him as a versatile actor capable of excelling in any genre. Cox’s ability to steal scenes was evident in a wide range of films, including 25th Hour, Adaptation, Troy, and Super Troopers.

In his early 70s, Cox took on a role that has become one of his most defining characters to date. He portrayed Logan Roy, the head of a dysfunctional and backstabbing media family, in HBO’s popular black comedy series, Succession. Cox’s unwavering demeanor and delivery made him the perfect fit for Roy’s memorable and profanity-laden put-downs.

Brian Cox’s talent and presence have solidified his status as a respected actor in both Hollywood and the television industry. With an extensive and diverse body of work, he continues to captivate audiences with his performances.

9. Christoph Waltz

Christoph Waltz
Christoph Waltz, much like iconic actors such as the Walkens and the Goldblums, has carved out a unique space in the entertainment world that no one even realized was missing until he came along. On the silver screen, Waltz effortlessly embodies the persona of a mischievous troublemaker, always plotting his next move. His sly smile alone suggests that his mind operates on a completely different level than those who observe him.

Originally hailing from Vienna, Waltz spent thirty years honing his craft on both the grand stages and small screens of Europe. He even took on the lead role in the satirical British European Union TV series, The Gravy Train and its sequel, The Gravy Train Goes East. However, it was at the age of 52, when he played the SS Colonel Hans Landa, also known as “the Jew hunter,” in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, that Waltz truly made his mark. Audiences and critics alike were captivated and terrified by his portrayal of Landa’s passive-aggressive cunning.

Since his breakthrough in Inglourious Basterds, Waltz has continued to impress with his roles in films such as Django Unchained, another Tarantino masterpiece, where he played a memorable Bond villain character, Blofeld, in Spectre and No Time to Die. He has also lent his voice to the conniving puppet master Count Volpe in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. Whenever Hollywood is on the hunt for a European villain, Waltz often finds himself at the top of their list.

10. Charles Bronson

Charles Bronson
Charles Bronson was part of a generation of film actors who had experienced more than just acting. They had fought in a war, lived through the Depression, and faced other challenging life situations. In his movies, Bronson always had the aura of someone who had seen a lot. In the early days, he was credited as Charles Buchinsky, but due to the Red Scare and the House of Un-American Activities Committee, he had to change his last name.

For more than two decades, Bronson became a familiar face in Westerns and action films like Machine-Gun Kelly, The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape. Interestingly, he turned down the lead role in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, which inadvertently helped make Clint Eastwood a star. Instead, Bronson accepted a part in Once Upon a Time in the West.

However, it wasn’t until he was cast in Michael Winner’s Death Wish at the age of 52 that Bronson’s own stardom as a leading man skyrocketed. He continued to play the vigilante character Paul Kersey, seeking revenge after a brutal attack on his family, in four sequels, including his final feature film, Death Wish V: The Face of Death.

Even in his senior years, Bronson continued to star in trigger-happy movies, often sharing the screen with his wife Jill Ireland. One exception to this trend was his small but meaningful role as a reflective father in Sean Penn’s directorial debut, The Indian Runner, which interestingly was executive produced by Steve Bannon.

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