With the right amount of good-looks, gravitas, and charisma, an actor can have a multi-decade movie career. People will first believe him as an impish youngster before graduating him to a smoldering leading-man, until finally relegating him to a movie’s wise elder. Consider Denzel Washington, 60 this year, who was in Carbon Copy in ’81, Training Day in 2001, and Safe House in 2012: impish, smoldering, and finally wise.
These 17 actors make so much money that they could finance an entire nation (well, their careers could.) They're as lucrative as the manufacturing and import/export industry. Interesting to ponder, because we don’t technically "need" movies (nor do we really "need" textiles, or at least not in as a bountiful amount as we have), but they’re such a cash crop that people keep making them.
If you’re excited, get ready to find out the 17 highest grossing actors in Hollywood, who have each made the industry literally billions of dollars throughout their careers.
Please note that we’ve only provided the domestic numbers, because each studio has different contracts with foreign markets, which might falsify the intensity of some numbers.
17 Robert DeNiro – Total Gross $2,927,000,000
First on the list is Mr. Robert DeNiro, known for his role in Goodfellas and The Godfather Part II. But his most lucrative movie was neither one of those two. It was the Ben Stiller led comedy Meet The Fockers, which brought in $279,000,000 domestically. DeNiro movies typically gross around $39,000,000, which is surprisingly low given his total motion picture count of 75. There are other actors with fewer movies that average much more money, which increases the concentration from both ends, so to speak. That being case, DeNiro still pulls through as the 17th entry on the list.
16 Liam Neeson – Total Gross $2,941,000,000
At the age of 63, Liam Neeson is the 16th highest-grossing actor of all time. He has made 62 feature films, with each one grossing an average of $47,000,000. His most ‘expensive’ movie was Star Wars: Episode One - The Phantom Menace (1999), directed by George Lucas. It made $474,500,000. But Neeson also has his own, personal set of super-successful action flicks: the Taken franchise. This is where he uttered the eternal phrase: “ I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
15 Gary Oldman – Total Gross $3,030,000,000
Who would have guessed that freakin’ Gary Oldman, who played Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK, would be the 14th highest-grossing actor of all time? With 36 total movies and an average gross of $84,000,000, this 57-year-old Brit makes production companies very happy. His highest-grossing movie? The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan that made $535,000,000. He is best known for that and the two other Batman movies in that series: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, but he also plays George Smiley in the movie adaption of John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
14 Cameron Diaz - Total Gross $3,031,000,000
Cameron Diaz is known for her beauty, her character, and most of all, her astonishing set of legs. But she's also the 14th highest grossing actor in Hollywood. Who would've thought that among the ranks of Anne Hathaway, Scarlett Johansson, and Jennifer Lawrence, it's Cameron Diaz would would bring in the most money? Her average gross is 89.2 million, and, unsurprisingly, her best-selling movie is Shrek 2. She has made $3,031,000,000 over only 34 movies (she's quite a bit younger than many people on this list), so like twice the GDP of Brunei.
13 Ian McKellen – Total Gross $3,150,000,000
That Ian McKellen would be one of the highest-grossing actors is, unlike the last entry, not surprising at all. Think about the extremely popular franchises he’s been in: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and X-Men. He’s been in 31 movies in total, relatively few considering his advanced age (he’s more than three quarters of a century old at 76). His most lucrative movie was Return of the King, directed by Peter Jackson like ever movie in both Tolkien franchises, which brought in $377,000,000. His work has been recognized as he’s been nominated for two Oscars.
12 Stellan Skarsgard – Total Gross $3,172,000,000
Another unexpected entry on this list is the father of Alexander, Stellan Skarsgard. He’s made a handsome forty-two movies, each garnering an average of $75,500,000. The #1 most lucrative movie he made? The Avengers, which made $623 million (probably the reason his average is so high: 623 million / 42 = ~15 million.) Stellan Skarsgard has been in many other very popular movies, including Thor, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (appropriate, considering his Swedish heritage), and Good Will Hunting.
11 Bruce Willis – Total Gross $3,186,000,000
Having made 58 total movies, Bruce Willis is one of Hollywood’s most famous action movie stars. He’s John McClane from Die Hard, he’s Church from The Expendables, he’s Frank Moses from Red, he’s Harry Stamper from Armageddon. An action movie with Bruce isn’t very action-packed, at all! His movies gross an average of $55,000,000. The highest-grossing one is actually The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, which made $293,000,000. Although it’s low-key surprising that an M. Night Shyamalan movie could be Bruce Willis’s best-earning, the now-fallen-from-grace Indian director was red hot at the time…
10 Michael Caine – Total Gross $3,262,000,000
Another movie machine is the velvet smooth Brit, Michael Caine. At 82 years old, he’s made fifty-six movies at an average of $58,000,000 each. His most lucrative? Another win for The Dark Knight, which hasn’t made more than $535,000,000 since we talked about it earlier with regard to Gary Oldman. But unlike Oldman, Caine has been in many money-harvests in the past couple of decades, including Austin Powers in Goldmember, Inception, and Now You See Me, which is getting a sequel due out in 2016, called Now You See Me: The Second Act.
9 Johnny Depp – Total Gross $3,271,000,000
Ask any lady who her movie star crush from the last twenty years is, and chances are she’ll tell you it’s Johnny Depp. People adore that man. Even guys probably have a thing for his delicate features, cool bracelets, and Jack Sparrow guyliner. He’s made only 44 movies, but his average gross is still $74.3 million. His highest-grossing movie is Pirates of the Caribbean: The Dead Man’s Chest, which raked in $423,300,000 domestically (astronomical figure.) Now think that there have been four PoTC movies, not including Dead Men Tell No Tales, due out in 2017, and you can understand where all those zeroes come from.
8 Robin Williams - Total Gross $3,279,300,000
Robin Williams: you know him as the genie from Aladdin, as the elusive Mrs. Doubtfire, as Teddy Roosevelt from Night at the Museum, he dabbled in everything throughout his life. But it's surprising to find out that he's the 8th highest grossing actor. Perhaps it is due to the extreme length of his career; he was around from the mid 70s onwards. Hard to imagine that someone could keep trucking for so many decades without achieving some box-office clout. Although studio execs might miss him for his character, they also probably miss them for their vacation houses in Boca.
7 Robert Downey Jr. – Total Gross $3,539,000,000
Robert Downey Jr., now best known for playing Tony Stark in Iron Man, has made over fifty movies. His star only really went supernova after he landed the role of the leading metallic man. But his career also sagged in middle after a succession of arrests, he was sent to the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, in Corcoran, California. He came back ready to rumble with the movie industry, and became one of the highest-paid actors in the biz. His biggest movie of course was The Avengers, which made as much money as it did when we referred to it earlier concerning Stellan Skarsgard.
6 Tom Cruise – Total Gross $3,585,000,000
Even though Tom Cruise has been a bit of a joke since his couch antics on Oprah, he’s still one of the actors in Hollywood that almost guarantees a movie’s success. He’s only been in 36 films, but they gross an average of almost $100,000,000. Compare that to DeNiro, who’s made roughly twice as many movies with each movie making roughly half as much. Tom Cruise has, like Bruce Willis, headlined several action franchises, Mission Impossible and Jack Reacher, as well as some of the biggest action movies ever: Top Gun, Born on the Fourth of July, Minority Report, and War of the Worlds. The last one is his highest grossing movie at $243,000,000.
5 Eddie Murphy – Total Gross $3,810,000,000
Eddie Murphy ranks among the top five highest-grossing actors of all time. Aside from a disparate few dramatic roles (Dreamgirls) Eddie Murphy tends to stick pretty faithfully to comedy. He led The Nutty Professor, Dr. Doolittle, and Beverly Hills Cop. He was the supporting voice in the billion iterations of the Shrek franchise. His movie that made the most money? Shrek 2, which pulled in almost four-hundred and fifty million USD.
4 Harrison Ford – Total Gross $3,935,000,000
One doesn’t really have a forty-year Hollywood career without becoming one of the neighborhood’s highest-earners. Nor does one star in two of Hollywood’s most reputed action franchises without acquiring multi-generational fame. Harrison Ford was in both Indiana Jones, which made fedoras popular, and in Star Wars, which made sci-fi cool, both of which are extremely difficult achievements. Surprisingly, Ford has only made forty motion pictures. His average gross is almost 100 million dollars. His most popular movie? The 1977 Star Wars flick, Episode IV.
3 Tom Hanks – Total Gross $4,264,000,000
Another surprising entry is Tom Hanks, at #3. Who would have thought that the king of the romantic comedy would be the third most lucrative actor in the U.S.? Granted, his highest-grossing movie is Toy Story 2, hardly a romantic comedy, but Hanks’ legacy, aside from The DaVinci Code, is Saving Mr. Banks, Cloud Atlas, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, You’ve Got Mail, and Sleepless in Seattle. Although not all total, down-to-the-wire rom-coms, these movies are no thrashing superhero flick, either. His most action-packed movies are always sort of cerebral (Saving Private Ryan.) Still, he grosses an average of $101.5 million, which is quite a pretty penny.
2 Morgan Freeman – Total Gross $4,315,000,000
Morgan Freeman does his community proud by occupying the number two spot, especially in a year where black absence in popular media has been so conspicuous. Freeman grosses an average of $75 million per movie over 58 movies. His highest grossing movie? The Dark Knight, here for the third time on the list. Once again, the Christopher Nolan movie reaped $535 million domestically.
1 Samuel L. Jackson – Total Gross $4,589,000,000
Samuel L. Jackson is almost 70 damn years old. At that, he’s still in fighting shape, appearing as the badass Nick Fury in The Avengers franchise. He has made 66 movies, garnering an average of $70 million. That must be because the top tier of movies he’s been in have grosses astronomical amounts of money: xXx, Star Wars, The Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, Die Hard, Jurassic Park, The Incredibles, Pulp Fiction. It’s like everything Sam Jackson becomes a cultural phenomenon. Although his taste only asks for Kangol hats, with all the money he makes from being such a consistent presence in the best of Hollywood, he could afford a 10-gallot hat of solid 10-carat gold.