Not every Hollywood star rose to fame, fortune, and accolades in their early 20s. For many the road to success was a long one. While not always celebrated, these stories are often wrought with false starts, personal obstacles, and hard, unglamorous work. Here are 15 stars who experience their breakout roles late in life.
Jeremy Renner experienced mild success at the age of 24 when he won a small role in National Lampoon’s Senior Vacation. Unfortunately, the film was a massive critical flop, forcing Renner to spend several years surviving on television guest spots while also working as a makeup artist. A leading role in the indie film Dahmer led to small roles in features like S.W.A.T. and Lords of Dogtown. After scoring progressively larger and larger roles, Renner eventually won the lead in The Hurt Locker. He was 37 when the film became a breakout success, won an Oscar for his efforts and has been one of America’s favorite leading men ever since.
Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson transitioned from acting in plays during the 1970s to garnering minimal roles in films like Coming To America in the 1980s. Though his acting career began to yield financial results in the early 1990s thanks to bit roles in Goodfellas and Do The Right Thing, Jackson found an addiction to heroin and coke compromising his success. After a stint in rehab, the actor returned to work on Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, ironically playing the role of a crack addict. His performance garnered a specially made Best Supporting Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival. This led to more substantial, small roles in Jurassic Park and True Romance, the latter of which inspired Quentin Tarantino to write a role for Jackson in Pulp Fiction. Jules Winfield became an iconic character in the actor’s oeuvre and made Jackson a Hollywood star at the age of 46.
After failing to establish himself as a Hollywood actor during the 1950s, British actor Roger Moore achieved major success in 1962 when he took the lead role in the classic TV series The Saint. His involvement in the show would attract the producers of the James Bond franchise, but due to contractual obligations Moore was unable to take the role of the super-spy. Finally in 1973, Moore took the mantle of James Bond in Live or Let Die. He was 45 at the time and would not retire from the role until the age of 58.
Daniel Craig spent the majority of his 20s in British theater and television before garnering a role as the love interest/antagonist to Laura Croft: Tomb Raider (opposite Angelina Jolie). He would continue to fill supporting roles in Road To Perdition, Munich and Sylvia. In 2005, at the age of 37, Craig nabbed the coveted role of James Bond for the reboot Casino Royale and has been a worldwide box office sensation ever since.
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British actress Brenda Anne Blethyn worked as an administrator through her early 30s. After a experiencing a divorce in the early 70s, she enrolled in the Guildford School of Acting. By 1980 she had made her debut on British television on Mike Leigh’s Grown Ups, leading to supporting roles in films like The Witches. In 1992, the actress received a breakout role in Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It, thus cementing her career as a versatile and prolific British actresses. More recent hits for Blethyn include Atonement and Pride and Prejudice.
Iconic cinema tough guy Charles Bronson returned from World War II to begin working a series of odd jobs before joining a theatrical troupe in Philadelphia. This would lead him to a modest career playing small roles in films like House of Wax (1953) and on television shows like Have Gun – Will Travel. After gaining the lead on the ABC series Colt .45 and Roger Corman’s “B” gangster drama Machine Gun Kelly, Bronson gained national attention for his turn in The Magnificent Seven (1961). The actor became a major European star thanks to Once Upon A Time In The West (pictured above), but Bronson wouldn’t become a major star in America after Death Wish in 1974. He was 50 at the time.
After a successful career as a graphic designer, British actor Alan Rickman decided he wanted to pursue an acting career. He won an audition to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Thereafter the actor began participating in experimental theater before garnering a role as Reverend Obadiah Slope on the BBC Series Barchester Towers. In 1985, Rickman would receive a Tony for his lead performance in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses. This led to Rickman playing the iconic villain Hans Gruber in the 1988 action film Die Hard. The breakout role happened when the actor was 42.
Kathryn Joosten began her career as a psychiatric nurse. After raising two children and experiencing a divorce in 1980, she joined a community theater at the age of 42. She moved to Hollywood in 1995 and began snagging small parts on series like Roseanne, The Drew Carey Show, and Murphy Brown. In 1999, Joosten won the part of Mrs. Landingham on The West Wing opposite Martin Sheen. She played the role for two seasons, earning even more prominent television guest roles before becoming a regular on Desperate Housewives She won an Emmy for her performance as Karen McCluskey in 2005.
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Late comedian Bernie Mac earned success in stand-up at the age of 32 when he won the Miller Lite Comedy Search. His career grew from there, garnering a spot on Def Comedy Jam as well as a brief role in House Party 3. From there Mac grabbed a series of character roles in Friday, The Player’s Club, and Life. His closing stand-up set featured in the Spike Lee concert film The Original Kings of Comedy made Mac a breakout star at the age of 43, garnering him a breakout role in major features like Ocean’s Eleven the following year.
Billy Bob Thornton
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Billy Bob Thornton moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s to pursue his career as an actor. After grabbing a featured role on the John Ritter sitcom Hearts Afire, Thornton wrote himself a noteworthy villainous role for the low budget film noir One False Move. This led to small roles in Tombstone, On Deadly Ground, and Indecent Proposal. Finally, Thornton decided to write, direct, and star in the Academy Award winning Sling Blade. The film made him an overnight star at the age of 41.
Steven Seagal spent his teenage years in Japan training in the martial arts discipline of akido. He would become the first foreigner to operate his own akido dojo in the country and became the head of the Osaka City Tenshin Aikido organization. After leaving the country in the early 80s, Seagal would establish dojos in New Mexico and California. Seagal’s proximity to Hollywood allowed him to work as the martial arts coordinator in such films as Never Say Never Again. From there Seagal would come to the attention of mega-agent Michael Ovitz, who convinced the actor to star in the action film Above the Law in 1987. After a string of successful action films, Seagal headlined the big budgeted Under Siege in 1992, a film that gave him mainstream success with worldwide audiences and made him a house hold name. Seagal was 40 at the time of the film’s release.
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Danny Glover began his career as a politician and city administrator before segueing into acting in the early 70s. His involvement in San Francisco’s Conservatory Theater led to a string of minor acting jobs in film and television. He debuted in the Clint Eastwood vehicle Escape from Alcatraz in 1979 and eventually grabbed a substantial role as a detective in 1985’s Witness. That same year Glover would be cast in the ensemble Western Silverado before taking the lead in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. The following year, Glover would star in the buddy cop film Lethal Weapon opposite Mel Gibson. The film catapulted both into the realm of full-fledged action heroes. Glover was 41 years old at the time.
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Harry Potter actor Brendan Gleeson would not start his acting career until the age of 34, having previously worked as a secondary school teacher in his native country of Ireland. After minor television work, Gleeson won the role of Irish statesman Michael Collins in the made-for-television film The Treaty. This success gave him small parts in such big-budget Hollywood films as Far and Away and Into the West. Gleeson rose to prominence thanks to a supporting role in the 1995 epic Braveheart at the age of 40. Since then Gleeson has enjoyed steady work as one of Great Britain’s most character actors.
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Danny Aiello began appearing in films during the earl 1970s with small roles in Bang The Drum Slowly and The Godfather: Part II. Lead roles came in the 1980s with films like Defiance, Fort Apache, The Bronx, and Once Upon A Time in America. This would lead to solid work as a go-to character actor. In 1989 director Spike Lee would pick Aiello to play the role of pizzeria owner Salvatore ‘Sal’ Frangione in the ensemble Do The Right Thing. The role won Aiello an Academy Award nod at the age of 56.
Kathy Bates began acting in the early 1970s, earning a small role in the Milos Forman film Taking Off. By the end of the decade, she had won a supporting role in the Robert Altman film Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The role led to Bates spending the majority of the 1980s as a bit player in various obscure films and television. In 1990 the actress would receive a breakout role as the psychotic Annie Wilkes in Misery. The role won her an Academy Award at the age of 42.