On Film
Actors who became famous at 50 or after: Clifton Webb, Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman and Judi Dench

Fame Starts at 50

An appreciation of film actors who achieved stardom only after hitting the Big Five-O

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following was part of Yo soy el cine (I Am Cinema), the pretentiously-named monthly column I wrote on U Magazine, focusing on movie culture, technology, trends and the future of film.

In an art world dominated by youth, it’s refreshing to see the emergence of mature movie stars that reach stardom with wrinkles on their faces. I’m not talking about people like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood and Helen Mirren, who found fame in their youth and have cultivated it for years. Rather, I mean thespians made famous at 50. As in, the movie-going public made them household names after they turned 50 years old and blew plenty of birthday cake candles.

Wrinkly Origins

This is a rare event, but hardly unprecedented. In 1945, Laura catapulted the career of Clifton Webb, a 55-year-old theater actor with no film experience. Webb got an Oscar nomination for his work, then starred in several Hollywood blockbusters. His hits include The Razor’s Edge, Sitting Pretty, Stars And Stripes Forever and the first Cheaper by the Dozen adaptation.

The Biggest Among the Famous at 50

Few individuals embody this better than the king of “famous at 50”, Morgan Freeman. He had been acting in movies since the 1970’s. Yet it wasn’t until 1989 that he became well-known. First as the chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy, then as a Civil War sergeant of the in Glory.

From there his career took off with hits like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Unforgiven, The Shawshank Redemption, Se7en, Bruce Almighty, Million Dollar Baby, The Bucket List, Batman Begins, Invictus, RED, The Dark Knight, Lucy, The Dark Knight Rises and The Lego Movie.

You can argue that Freeman transformed films like War of the Worlds and March of the Penguins into box office winners with his soothing voice alone, which communicates both wisdom and sweetness.

The Older Side of the Pond

These occurrences of “mature success” are actually quite common in Britain. Many actors hone their craft on the theater for decades on the other side of the pond. Eventually, when the time is right, they’re “discovered” by Hollywood and become famous at 50.

Ian McKellen is a good example. Sir Ian was a renowned stage actor in his homeland before he decided to risk it all at 56. He produced and starred in a film adaptation of Richard III, which teleported Shakespeare’s creation from the Middle Ages to an alternate-reality World War II. Its critical success led to major roles such as that of director James Whale in Gods and Monsters, the wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit saga and the extremist mutant Magneto in the X-Men franchise.

Fame Starts at 50: Film actors made famous at 50 years old or later
Aged to perfection (from left to right): Ian McKellen, Pete Postlethwaite, James Cromwell, Bill Nighy, Richard Jenkins and Mark Rylance.

It’s only been a few years since we lost one of cinema’s most versatile “elders famous at 50”, Pete Postlethwaite. The big-nosed Englishman first got noticed opposite Daniel Day-Lewis on In The Name Of The Father. Later, Postlethwaite won over fans with Romeo + Juliet, A Knight’s Tale and The Usual Suspects. Then he starred in big hits like Inception, Clash of the Titans and The Town despite undergoing cancer treatment.

Postlethwaite continued to work right until his death. Steven Spielberg, who directed him on Amistad and The Lost World: Jurassic Park, once described him as “the best actor in the world”, or so the story goes.

Equal Opportunity Stardom

This phenomenon is not limited to men. Dame Judi Dench was 61 years old the first time she played M, 007’s boss lady in GoldenEye. She embodied the role as her own and managed to continue alongside Daniel Craig’s James Bond until Skyfall in 2012. That performance led her to work on countless other renowned productions like Shakespeare in Love, Notes on a Scandal, Iris, Nine, Philomena and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, itself a grand example of a popular film starring the ripe and the talented.

The Epitome of Elder Fame

Of course, this article would not be complete if we failed to mention Sir Anthony Hopkins. He received critical acclaim for his roles in films like The Lion In Winter and The Elephant Man. Still, despite his talent, worldwide fame eluded him. That is, until his role as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. The film swept the Academy Awards and won him an Oscar for Best Actor.

Since then he’s played it all: kings, mythological deities, priests, murderers, gifted fugitives, vampire slaying doctors, African Americans, court judges, hooded vigilantes, werewolves, cowboy patriarchs, famous writers, legendary painters, spies, butlers, cereals inventors, motorcycle riders, several millionaires and at least two U.S. presidents.

Live Long and Prosper

This trend continues with performers like James Cromwell (Babe; L.A. Confidential), Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), Bill Nighy (Love Actually; About Time) and Mark Rylance, the 56-year-young Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actor in Bridge of Spies. The moral here is that if you’re persistent, it’s never too late to achieve glory.

The original version of this essay first appeared on the April 2011 issue of Revista U magazine. This translated version was updated with names of movies that premiered after its initial publication. Click here for the original article (in Spanish).

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