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13 Movie Stars Who Peaked Over 50 At The Box Office

UPDATED: As Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, and Taken 3 star Liam Neeson can tell you, life in Hollywood doesn't have to end when you reach middle age.

Originally posted on
Updated on

It's an adage as old as Hollywood (which is, mind you, really, really old) that the older a movie star gets, the less of a draw that star is at the box office. Younger people supposedly go to the movies more often than older people, and young people don't like to be reminded that they will, in fact, get old. Only wrinkle-free skin and coming-of-age stories matter.

Yet, a small handful of stars have enjoyed the best opening weekends of their careers after they turned 50 — especially (though not exclusively) over the last decade or so. And they've done so not in wizened supporting roles, or even in major starring roles in massive brand-name franchises. These are movies in which one of the central selling points is that this particular actor over 50 is starring in this particular lead role.

The most recent member to join the elite club of Success Stories Post-50 is Liam Neeson, whose 2009 megahit Taken pioneered a new career path for Baby Boomer male actors: kick-ass action star. For the last six years, Neeson has headlined a series of old-school action films, peaking — so far — with 2012's Taken 2, which opened with $49.7 million when he was 60.

And now, at 62, Neeson's starring in the third (and final?) film in that series, Taken 3, which opened this weekend with a phenomenal estimated debut of $40.4 million — within spitting distance of Taken 2's peak opening grosses. So it seemed fitting to celebrate the actors like Neeson who have proven life in Hollywood can get even sweeter after turning 50.

(A note on criteria: I drew from the 150 top-grossing stars according to Box Office Mojo, and focused on each star's top opening weekend gross, the best — but still flawed — barometer for a star's peak drawing power. I also adjusted for ticket price inflation. I concentrated only on live-action films in which the actor in question had a lead, above-the-title role, and did not include films for which the franchise itself was the main draw — like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. This meant some over-50 actors who are popular, like Samuel L. Jackson and Ian McKellan, didn't make this particular list.)

1. Dustin Hoffman

Universal / Courtesy Everett Collection

Movie: Meet the Fockers (2004)

Age at release: 67

Opening weekend (adjusted): $60,009,300

Current age: 77

Hoffman was past standard retirement age when he co-starred in the enormously lucrative sequel to 2000's Meet the Parents, performing alongside Barbra Streisand as Ben Stiller's titular parents. This movie was such a gargantuan hit ($516.6 million worldwide! And it's a comedy!) that it also served as the box office high watermark for someone else on this list. (See No. 6.)

2. Sean Connery

Buena Vista / Courtesy Everett Collection

Movie: The Rock (1996)

Age at release: 66

Opening weekend (adjusted): $45,828,500

Current age: 84

Connery's early career was haunted by the ghost of James Bond, but by the 1980s, he had become a full-fledged star outside of 007's tuxedo, with hits including The Untouchables, The Hunt for Red October, and Rising Sun. But he reached his box office peak with one of director Michael Bay's earliest films, as the only Alcatraz inmate to ever escape from the prison. Fun fact: This is also co-star Nicolas Cage's best opening weekend ever. He was 32.

3. Harrison Ford

Paramount Pictures

Movie: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Age at release: 65

Opening weekend (adjusted): $112,689,900

Current age: 72

Indiana Jones may be a name brand franchise, but Ford's face is that brand — there is no separating the two. As such, the fourth adventure for the whip-cracking hero rates as Ford's top debut ever. (Without Indy, Ford's box office peak is still impressive: 1997's Air Force One, when Ford was 54.)

Incidentally, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with Ford returning as Han Solo, opens this December, at which point all box office records ever will almost certainly be rendered meaningless.

4. Morgan Freeman

Universal Pictures

Movie: Bruce Almighty (2003)

Age at release: 65

Opening weekend (adjusted): $91,055,200

Current age: 77

This is perhaps fudging things a little, since Bruce Almighty is first and foremost a Jim Carrey movie (and also his top debut ever, when Carrey was 41). But Freeman was credited above the title, and he is playing the Almighty. So...

Also, Box Office Mojo has Freeman listed as literally the second top grossing actor of all time, and yet his first major break as a film actor was in the 1987 film Street Smart — when he was 50. So...

5. Anthony Hopkins

MGM

Movie: Hannibal (2001)

Age at release: 63

Opening weekend (adjusted): $82,803,000

Current age: 77

Like Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones, Anthony Hopkins is so deeply identified with Hannibal Lecter that no one could imagine anyone else playing him. (In a movie, anyway.) While the producers were fine with recasting Clarice Starling with Julianne Moore after Jodie Foster passed on this Silence of the Lambs sequel, there wouldn't have been a movie — and one of the highest February debuts ever — without Hopkins in this role.

6. Robert De Niro

Universal / Courtesy Everett Collection

Movie: Meet the Fockers (2004)

Age at release: 61

Opening weekend (adjusted): $60,009,300

Current age: 71

Adjusting for ticket price inflation, Meet the Fockers grossed $356.9 million in the U.S. To put that in perspective, in the last 25 years, the only other live-action comedies that have made more in inflation-adjusted grosses are 1993's Mrs. Doubtfire and 1990's Home Alone.

Which is to say that we live in a world in which Robert De Niro is one of the most successful comedy stars of the last 25 years.

7. Liam Neeson

20th Century Fox

Movie: Taken 2 (2012)

Age at release: 60

Opening weekend: $49,699,300

Current age: 62

After Taken became a surprise blockbuster in 2009, Hollywood has worked hard to replicate Liam Neeson's Baby Boomer action hero formula with several other actors over 50. While the first two Expendables movies and the 2010 retired assassin film Red did fine, no one has come close to matching Neeson's success at the U.S. box office when striking out on their own. Not Bruce Willis, not Sylvester Stallone, not Arnold Schwarzenegger, not Kevin Costner, and not John Travolta.

There is just no stopping the Liam Neesons.

8. Meryl Streep

20th Century Fox

Movie: The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Age at release: 57

Opening weekend (adjusted): $33,969,600

Current age: 65

Streep has always held a unique place in Hollywood as an unquestionable acting powerhouse, but it is only relatively recently that that has translated into major box office success. Her recent string of hits — including Mamma Mia!, Julie & Julia, It's Complicated, and Into the Woods — started here, with Streep demolishing all those around her as the impossible-to-please fashion editor Miranda Priestly. (Based just on raw numbers, December's Into the Woods actually opened with Streep's best box office debut ever, but The Devil Wears Prada surpasses it when adjusting for inflation.)

Depressingly, Streep's box office prowess also makes her unique in Hollywood as the only female star to have her biggest box office debut after 50.

9. Steve Martin

Disney / Courtesy Everett Collection

Movie: Bringing Down the House (2003)

Age at release: 57

Opening weekend (adjusted): $41,674,300

Current age: 69

Martin's been a comedy fixture since his debut hit, 1979's The Jerk, which still ranks as his top grossing film overall when adjusting for inflation. But in 2003, Martin enjoyed the most successful year of his career with back-to-back comedy hits. The first was Bringing Down the House, which co-starred Queen Latifah (whose career was also hot off the success of 2002’s Oscar-winning Chicago) as an escaped convict. Perhaps more impressive than its opening weekend box office returns (which make it Martin's biggest debut ever) is its precarious tightrope walk over a bottomless pit of racial insensitivity. The second was the remake of Cheaper by the Dozen. This is perhaps a good time to note gently that this story is recognizing financial milestones, not creative ones.

10. Robert Redford

Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

Movie: Indecent Proposal (1993)

Age at release: 55

Opening weekend (adjusted): $35,887,000

Current age: 77

There was a time in Hollywood when a movie star's appeal was not judged on box office prowess alone, and Redford is one of our last symbols of that bygone era. Still, there was a stretch of 1993 when everyone was talking about this movie, in which Redford played a 1 percenter who propositions a married couple (Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore) with $1,000,000 to sleep with the wife. In 2015 dollars, it made more than $200 million in the U.S. When was the last time a contemporary adult drama did that?

11. Denzel Washington

Universal / Courtesy Everett Collection

Movie: American Gangster (2007)

Age at release: 52

Opening weekend (adjusted): $51,163,700

Current age: 60

Since 2000's Remember the Titans, virtually all of Washington's movies in wide release have opened with more than $20 million, a level of consistency that is enviable in modern Hollywood. (And, alas, underappreciated, according to stolen emails recently revealed in the Sony Pictures hack.) But Washington's track record peaked with this 2007 Ridley Scott–directed crime saga co-starring Russell Crowe. And given the recent solid success of Washington's film The Equalizer, it would appear Liam Neeson actually does have a rival for the title of biggest Baby Boomer action hero.

12. Jack Nicholson

Warner Bros.

Movie: Batman (1989)

Age at release: 52

Opening weekend (adjusted): $82,407,300

Current age: 77

Decades before comic book adaptations ruled the day in Hollywood — indeed, well before the concept of a "movie franchise" governed every studio executive's life — director Tim Burton's dark take on the Caped Crusader was a true box office phenomenon, grossing roughly $508 million in 2015 dollars. Yes, of course, Batman had a long-established fanbase, but what also helped to rake in all that money money money was Nicholson's go-for-broke performance as the Joker. He was even billed over Michael Keaton as Batman — people wanted to see what Nicholson had in store as this character.

13. Al Pacino

Paramount Pictures / Via dvdbeaver.com

Movie: The Godfather Part III (1990)

Age at release: 50

Opening weekend (adjusted): $37,537,600

Current age: 74

Like Redford, Pacino has never really operated as a massive box office star. Still, it is rather fitting that 1972's The Godfather launched Pacino's career, and 18 years later, the third film in the series served as his best debut ever.

A final thought…

Perhaps the best indicator yet that Hollywood ageism may be waning: Two of the industry's biggest stars — Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock — recently enjoyed their biggest debuts ever when they were 49, Pitt with 2013's World War Z, and Bullock with 2014's Gravity. Both actors are now in their fifties, and show little sign of slowing down. Then again, it is telling that both of these movies rely heavily on visual-effects-driven spectacle as much as genuine star power.

This post has been updated to include opening weekend figures for Taken 3.

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