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
2. Sean Connery
3. Harrison Ford
4. Morgan Freeman
5. Anthony Hopkins
6. Robert De Niro
7. Liam Neeson
8. Meryl Streep
9. Steve Martin
10. Robert Redford
11. Denzel Washington
12. Jack Nicholson
13. Al Pacino
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.