45 Stars Who Didn't Become Famous Until After 40
The only thing more inspiring than a great success story is a great success story that happened later in one's life. There's something uniquely inspiring about stars who didn't become famous overnight but rather saw their persistence finally pay off well into their careers. And there are plenty of those in Hollywood. Actors like Steve Carell, Viola Davis, and Samuel L. Jackson—all ubiquitous in Hollywood today—pounded away at their craft for what probably felt like a lifetime before striking it big. Even major TV hosts like Martha Stewart lived in relative anonymity until well into middle age. So, to inspire you to never give up on your dreams, here are 40 A-list celebrities who didn't get famous until after 40.
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Viola Davis is the first Black actor to earn the Triple Crown of Acting (an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony). Though the first part of her career took place mostly on the stage, in the late '00s and early '10s, she made it big in Hollywood when she was in her early 40s. With roles in films like Doubt and The Help and top-billing on ABC's How to Get Away with Murder, Davis solidified herself as a superstar.
Larry David got his start as a writer for Saturday Night Live when he was in his late 30s, but he wasn't exactly successful. As he told Vanity Fair, "The sketches would get cut. I only had one sketch on the entire year." Then, when he turned 42, he co-created Seinfeld, and the rest is TV sitcom history.
To be perfectly clear, Yuh-Jung Youn has been famous in her home country of South Korea for decades and has starred in dozens of films and TV series. But in 2020, at the age of 73, she became an international star with the release of the period drama Minari and her subsequent Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actress.
Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson is a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Star Wars franchise, and is a favorite of Quentin Tarantino, so you might think that he's been a silver screen mainstay since, well, forever. But Jackson didn't score his first big role, in Jungle Fever (1991), until he was 43. And he didn't secure his most famous role, as Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction (1994), until he turned 46.
You likely know the explosively hilarious Melissa McCarthy from films like Identify Thief, The Heat, and Spy. (And, if you're a super-fan, you know she had a longtime role on Gilmore Girls.) But it was 2011's Bridesmaids that really catapulted McCarthy to stardom, and she was 41 when it hit screens.
Margo Martindale had been working steadily since the '80s, including appearances in big films like Million Dollar Baby and Dead Man Walking, but it was her Emmy-winning turn as the terrifying matriarch Mags Bennett on the FX series Justified that made her a bonafide star. She was 60 at the time, and has gone on to bigger roles in shows like The Americans and Sneaky Pete.
The late, great Alan Rickman made a name for himself playing infamous villains (Die Hard, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), beloved conflicted heroes (the Harry Potter series), and plain old jerks (Love Actually). But before Rickman made it big on-screen, he was a graphic designer. His first cinematic win—as Hans Gruber, in Die Hard—didn't occur until he was 42.
Before 2014, Leslie Jones was a relatively unknown stand-up comedian. Then, in October of that year, when she was 47, she became a cast member on Saturday Night Live—one of the most beloved, to boot. In 2018, she even received an Emmy nomination for her work on the show.
The late Burt Reynolds might have been a major sex symbol, but that vaunted status didn't come until he rounded 40. The Academy Award-nominated actor didn't star in career-making hits such as Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit until well into his fifth decade.
Though she had minor roles in TV and film over the years, Connie Britton didn't become a household name until she turned 40, when the first season of Friday Night Lights launched in 2006. (She was also in the 2004 film of the same name.) By the time the series concluded, in 2011, Britton had received two Emmy nominations for her role. She went on to star in the country music drama Nashville and is currently on the HBO Max show, The White Lotus.
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Today, we all know Steve Carell for his eight-year turn as Michael Scott on The Office. But the eventual Oscar nominee—who got his big break with the 2005 comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin—didn't book his life-changing sitcom role until he turned 43. And for more Hollywood insight, sign up for our daily newsletter.
Stage and screen star Norm Lewis is another actor who had been treading the boards for years before nabbing TV and film roles that made him known to a wider audience. He was 49 when he began appearing on Scandal as Senator Edison Davis, and the next year, he sang the role of Javert (which he had already played many times) in the 25th anniversary gala concert production of Les Misérables.
Few public figures are more prolific than Martha Stewart. In addition to writing more than two dozen books and headlining The Martha Stewart Show (which came to an end in 2012), she also publishes a magazine (Martha Stewart Living) and stars on a hit VH1 show (Martha&Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party). What's more, she even hosted a season of The Apprentice and played a role in an episode of Law&Order: Special Victims Unit (as is required of all famous people).
But all this didn't come until she passed 40. Her big break, the 1982 book Entertaining, didn't hit shelves until she turned 41!
It's not that Vera Wang had to wait for success—she was hired as an editor at Vogue right out of college—but she didn't become a famous designer until years later, when she began pursuing that career full-time. She launched her bridal collection when she was 40 and almost immediately became the go-to for celebs tying the knot.
Christoph Waltz had been consistently booking roles in German films and TV shows since the '80s. But the German-Austrian actor didn't enter the international zeitgeist until he turned 53, for playing Colonel Hans Landa in Quintin Tarantino's Inglorious B*******—a performance that won him an Academy Award.
Octavia Spencer booked bit parts in everything from legal dramas (A Time to Kill) to superhero flicks (Spider-Man). But her big break came in 2011, when she won an Oscar for her role in The Help, at the age of 41. Oh, and Spencer is also a children's book author. Her most recent title, Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective: The Sweetest Heist in History, came out in 2015.
Just as the U.S. version of The Office launched Steve Carell's post-40 career, the original U.K. version did the same for Ricky Gervais, who also co-created it. The now iconic workplace show premiered when he was 40. Gervais went on to create and star in Extras, Derek, and After Life, among other series.
Kathy Bates was a major theater actor in the '70s and '80s, and even picked up a Tony nomination along the way (in 1983). But her big Hollywood break didn't come until she was 42, though, when she played a terrifying kidnapper in the 1990 Stephen King adaptation Misery.
Comic book legend Stan Lee passed away in 2018 at the age of 95, known to the whole world for basically being the imagination behind Marvel as we know it. But though he'd penned many comics before that, Lee and co- Jack Kirby didn't create the hugely popular Fantastic Four until Lee was 39. More and more iconic heroes and villains would follow, and in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would launch with the premiere of Iron Man, making the characters even more famous than they were on the page.
Comedian Ty Burrell made a name for himself in theater as a Shakespearean actor; among other plays, he had roles in Macbeth, Coriolanus, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and Henry V. But he became a household name when he booked the role of Phil Dunphy on Modern Family, at the age of 42. The series ran for 11 years.
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Yes, it feels like Betty White started to bless the world with her comedic chops since before any of us can remember. But the queen of TV didn't get started until she was in her 40s. Before she was on Golden Girls, White earned an Emmy at the age of 53 for her performance as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The late John Mahoney was already 47 when he got the Clarence Derwent "Most Promising Male Newcomer" Award from his Broadway peers. But while theater fans were familiar with his work, he wouldn't become a household name until he joined the cast of the Cheers spinoff Frasier in 1987, taking on the role of Frasier's dad, Martin Crane, when he was 53 years old.
Jane Lynch was 43 when she landed her first big gig in Christopher Guest's 2000 mockumentary Best in Show, and later gained even more fame after a side-splitting role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin at the age of 45. Today, though, she's probably best known for playing the sadistic Sue Sylvester on Glee, for which she won an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a SAG Award.
Regis Philbin's career didn't exactly hit the ground running. It wasn't until 1988, when he was 57 years old, that Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee premiered and made him a household name.
In the '70s, Joy Behar taught English at a high school on Long Island. But in 1997, when she was 55, she joined The View, which she's co-hosted on-and-off ever since.
Sir Patrick Stewart kicked off his career on the British stage circuit. But he didn't land his first major TV gig—as Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation—until he was in his 40s. And he's since returned to the part that made his name, in the CBS All-Access series dubbed simply Picard.
Dame Judi Dench
Dame Judi Dench also became famous on the stage in England earlier in her career. But she didn't cross the pond and become a Hollywood name until she played M in the James Bond film GoldenEye at age 61. Three years later, she scored an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love.
Tommy Lee Jones
Though Tommy Lee Jones picked up minor roles throughout the '70s and '80s, it was his turn in 1993's The Fugitive—for which he received an Oscar nomination—that really ushered him into stardom. He was 47 at the time.
After minor appearances on the big and small screens in the early 2000s—on The Parkers and in The Fighting Temptations—NeNe Leakes gained national fame at 41, thanks to the reality series The Real Housewives of Atlanta. She continues to be an all-time Housewives fan-favorite.
Before Bryan Cranston was Walter White on Breaking Bad, he was Malcolm's dad, Hal, on Malcolm in the Middle. But even that breakout role didn't come about until he was 44.
TV host Wendy Williams started as a shock jock in the Virgin Islands; Washington, D.C.; and New York City before getting her own talk show, The Wendy Williams Show, at 44. In 2009, she was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame.
In the '50s, the late Rodney Dangerfield worked as an aluminum siding salesman. Then, in 1967, he gave stand-up a shot. After booking a slot on an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show, he became a sensation at the age of 46; over the following four years, he made more than a dozen appearances on the program, and then went on to film.
Kim Cattrall booked pretty impressive parts throughout the '80s, including characters in Police Academy, Big Trouble in Little China, and Mannequin. Her biggest role, however—as Samantha Jones, on Sex in the City—didn't come about until 1998, when she was 42 years old.
Billy Bob Thornton
In 1996, Billy Bob Thornton wrote, directed, and starred in Sling Blade. The film won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and also turned Hollywood on to Thornton's talents. He was 41 at the time.
I Love Lucy, the show that cemented Lucille Ball as comedy royalty, didn't start airing until Ball turned 40. Of course, it kicked off an impressive screen career—including the shows Here's Lucy, Life with Lucy, and The Lucy Show—that spanned four decades.
Airplane!, one of the funniest movies of all time, is Leslie Nielsen's claim to fame. It didn't hit theaters until he was 54. Prior to booking the role of Dr. Rumack, Nielsen was mostly known as a serious, dramatic actor. Airplane! kicked off a comedy career that went on to include the Naked Gun movies and several parody flicks.
After decades of success on the stages of London's West End, Helen Mirren finally made it across the pond to star on Broadway in 1994, at the ripe age of 49. Eventually, she crossed over to the big screen with roles in 2001's Gosford Park and 2003's Calendar Girls, both of which came about when she was in her late 50s. And Mirren didn't win her first Oscar—for her performance as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen, in 2006—until she was 61 years old.
Ang Lee has been directing films since the early '90s, but his breakout hit—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—didn't hit the silver screen until he was in his 40s. Since then, he's won two Academy Awards for Best Director: one for Brokeback Mountain (2006) and one for Life of Pi (2012).
Kathryn Bigelow will go down in the history books as the first woman to win an Academy Award for directing, with the critically acclaimed 2009 war drama The Hurt Locker. Though she was by no means new to Hollywood—she'd already directed action flicks like Blue Steel and Point Break—Hurt Locker, which Bigelow started directing at age 57, officially launched her into the realm of A-list filmmakers.
Though he was well known in England before American Idol, producer personality Simon Cowell gained international fame thanks to the harsh persona he took on as a judge on the reality show when he was 43.
The late Bea Arthur found success on Broadway early in her career, including a Tony-winning role in the 1966 musical Mame when she was 44. TV came calling in the '70s, though, when Norman Lear asked her to make a guest appearance as Maude Findlay on All in the Family. She was so beloved by audiences that she got her own sitcom, Maude, just as she turned 50 years old. She found even more success with her next sitcom, The Golden Girls.
F. Murray Abraham
F. Murray Abraham is one of those perennial actors who feels like he's been around forever. Indeed, Abraham has been landing roles on stage and screen since the '70s. But it wasn't until he was 45 that he landed the role of composer Antonio Salieri in the 1984 cinematic masterpiece Amadeus, and his life changed forever. The performance earned him critical acclaim, an Academy Award, and a film career that continues to this day.
Ricardo Montalbán became a household name after taking on the role of Mr. Roarke, the suave host of the ABC drama Fantasy Island in the late '70s and early '80s. The Mexico-born actor—whose own talent agent once referred to him as "a major name that never got a major role"—won the star-turning gig when he was 57, long past typical leading male age.
And then, at 62, he was cast in perhaps the biggest role of his career, as Khan Noonien Singh, the ruthless enemy of Captain Kirk, in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
From The West Wing to Desperate Housewives, two-time Emmy winner Kathryn Joosten has a résumé more impressive than many A-listers'. But her career didn't officially start until she turned 42, when she reportedly started pursuing her dream of acting after going through a divorce.
In 1987, Morgan Freeman had his major breakout role in Street Smart, for which he scored an Oscar nomination. He was 50 at the time. Now in his 80s, Freeman is among the top earners in Hollywood of all time, ranking at No. 7 with $4.5 billion at the box office throughout his career.
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