The Hollywood filmmaking behemoth is one hell of a machine. They create new films every year, every month, every week that they release them to the public and when things go right, the people show up in droves. Although that is an amazing idea to consider, the fact of the matter is that the executives and number crunchers who work for these massive companies don’t do it out of the kindest of their heart. They do it so movie theater turnstiles continue to be used. They do it so we open our wallets or purses and hand over our hard earned cash.
It makes perfect sense then, that the men and women who make up the cast of films that bring the people in become stars who deserve their share of the proceeds. It’s a question of supply and demand. An actor who has a proven track record of playing parts in massive movies is in charge of the supply and over time, they are able to increase their asking price again and again. If the fat cats are raking it in, then surely the megastars that put their resume, reputation and their very livelihood on the line with each film deserve to get rich too, right?
As we count down our list of the actors who made the most off a single performance, we only request you remember that we aren’t in fact accountants. We didn’t see any of the cheques clear and we can’t say the figures are 100% accurate. We can, however, tell you that our accounts of these actor’s salaries have been reported by multiple sources and they are, to the best of our knowledge legitimate, if not rounded off.
19 Jim Carrey for Yes Man - $35 million
The biggest payday of this Canadian funny man’s career surprisingly enough came several years after his heyday. A veteran of a slew of successful comedies by this time, including Dumb and Dumber, The Mask, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and many others, betting on him to put butts in the seats made perfect sense. However, he doesn’t owe his large paycheck to the confidence of the studio. Instead, Jim gambled on his own drawing power by taking a rather hefty 36.2% of the film’s profits in lieu of any money upfront. Certainly seems to have been a great bet!
18 Robert Downey Jr. for Avengers: Age of Ultron - $40 million
When Marvel Studios hired Robert Downey Jr. to play Tony Stark in the first Iron Man movie, despite the actor seeming to perfectly personify the character, it was seen as a rather large risk at the time. Fast Forward a few years and the negotiating power had clearly switched, as he managed to out-earn his co-stars, all of whom are famous in their own right, by a sizeable amount. Making $40 million dollars in comparison to Scarlett Johansson, the next best-paid actor on the film, who made twenty million or Mark Ruffalo, who made $2.8 million, is a startling achievement. Seems like the other Avengers needed to get better agents, especially Chris Evans, who is about to star in a third hit for the studio but only made $6.9 million.
17 Tom Hanks for Saving Private Ryan - $40 million
Arguably the most beloved actor in today’s Hollywood, getting Tom Hanks to star in your movie is certain to make it be taken a lot more seriously. Although he has his fair share of box office hits under his belt, his inclusion hasn’t been proven to ensure your project sells the types of tickets the some of other actors on this list have. In fact, of the forty-four major movies he’s been a part of; only eighteen have managed to exceed one hundred million dollars domestically. Steven Spielberg, Private Ryan’s director must have felt that he couldn’t have made this war drama without Hanks as he has never made that much money since. Fortunately, the risk paid off in spades, as the movie managed to pull in nearly five hundred million worldwide.
16 Robert Downey Jr. for The Avengers - $50 million
In a surprising turn of events, it appears that Robert actually made more money for the first Avengers movie than the second, which is far from the norm. That may be as a result of the actor’s rather shrewd decision to negotiate a piece of both film’s profits and Age of Ultron didn’t quite live up to the first film’s figures. The first movie to ever bring together so many franchise leading heroes into a single story, the world was practically salivating to get a look at Marvel’s mightiest heroes together on the big screen. The Avengers tallies left Robert laughing all the way to the bank.
15 Johnny Depp for Alice in Wonderland - $50 million
It may be a daunting task to explain to any of the younger generation but there was a time that Johnny Depp was seen as an incredibly talented, arthouse actor. Boy, has that changed in the last decade. Reuniting with director Tim Burton, the man who he worked with repeatedly before in the past, Johnny was the actor this Disney adaptation was banked on. Although the Mad Hatter is a supporting role in the original story, his character was beefed up, the advertising largely centered on him and he was the only actor featured on the principal poster. Selling more than a billion dollars’ worth of tickets, it’s safe to say the studio was satisfied.
14 Robert Downey Jr. for Iron Man 3 - $50 million
Damn, it turns out playing Iron Man is a license to print money. The last solo film the character has starred in to date, Iron Man 3 also happens to be the most successful Marvel movie to date except The Avengers films. Taking advantage of his incredible popularity and the fact that the entire MCU was built on the back of his character, Robert managed to negotiate a sweetheart deal for himself. Taking a piece of the back-end royalties for the first time in his career and the franchise as a whole, Robert must’ve informed his bosses that they needed to back up a money truck if they wanted his services.
13 Johnny Depp for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - $55 million
After the first three Pirates movies made more than 2.5 billion dollars worldwide, it seemed utterly obvious that the studio wouldn’t want to give up their cash cow. The thing that even casual observers realized was that without Captain Jack, the man the series had been based around, any sequel would more than likely be instantly rejected. Like others before him, Depp was able to negotiate a part in the film’s profits, which led to him making fifty-five million dollars off the role. A feat that was all the more impressive considering he’d previously told Vanity Fair that he was overpaid for the role, way back in 2011.
12 Leonardo DiCaprio for Inception - $59 million
Like Tom Hanks, Leonardo is best known for the prestige he brings to the movies he appears in. Inception, a totally original movie that despite being made by Christopher Nolan, the man behind two box office Batman behemoths at the time, was seen as a very risky proposition. In this day and age, studios seem intent on banking on franchises or the few actors at the tip top of the salary scale. Since the movie and actor didn’t fall into those categories, they were unwilling to give Leo his normal salary so he agreed to appear for a fraction of his quote and a piece of the back-end. Starting to see a trend in these entries when it comes to finagling a piece of the profits? As you may have already known, Inception trounced every expectation and earned Nolan, the studio, and Leo a great deal of cash.
11 Jack Nicholson for Batman - $60 million
The oldest film on this list by a considerable margin, if we based this list on adjusted figures, Jack would find himself right near the top. The earliest instance of an actor getting a piece of the pie that we know of, Nicholson’s Batman involvement has had a huge impact on the business. Although Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman had already appeared in Superman, no comic book movie had included a star quite of the caliber of Jacky boy. Absolutely respected by his peers and audiences, Nicholson needed to be wooed to appear in the movie, a far dicier proposition at the time. After Batman became the biggest movie of the year, Jack’s unorthodox deal made him the best-paid actor of all-time to that point.
10 Harrison Ford for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - $65 million
Harrison, the star of two of the biggest franchises of all time, by the time he was a part of the fourth Indiana Jones movie, hadn’t had a hit in nearly a decade. Still, if you want to bring Indy back, which was clearly going to be a very fiscally rewarding move, you needed to hire the former film titan. A man who seemed content with his legacy as it is, you had to make him an extremely attractive offer, to bring him in and Lucasfilm did just that. Unable to afford an immense upfront figure, as the movie’s budget ended up being 185 million, Ford was awarded a piece of the profit to the amount of sixty-five million dollars.
9 Tom Hanks for Forrest Gump - $70 million
Considering we’ve already gone over Hanks reputation for awards over ticket sales, we bet you’re surprised to see him on this list yet again. The story of how he brought home the duckets must be clear by now but the actual numbers are pretty incredible. After he’d already filmed a large part of his performance as Forrest on set, the studio became concerned that the project was about to exceed its budget. Wanting to slash costs they approached the actor and renegotiated his deal. Giving back half of his already agreed upon salary, Tom received a remarkable ten percent of the film’s profits in return. As amazed as we were to find out that the studio gave away such a large percentage, we were absolutely shocked when we learned that Tom, had his original deal stayed in place, would have only earned ten million dollars. What a lopsided deal, even without the benefit of retrospect.
8 Tom Cruise for Mission Impossible II - $75 million
If Tom Hanks is seen as a prestige actor, this Tom is his polar opposite. A great actor in his own right, Tom Cruise has also down as one of the biggest, if not the biggest, action stars of all time. The main actor in movies that combined have brought in more than eight billion dollars at the box office, he is the closest thing to a certain bet that we can think of. Returning to his character, Ethan Hunt, who’d previously appeared in the first Mission Impossible, which earned more than 450 million, he must have told his bosses to show him the money.
7 Tom Cruise for Mission Impossible III - $75 million
When you consider the fact that Tom Cruise purportedly has been paid more money, for his part in the Mission Impossible franchise, than any other actor has for a single role, he had to make our list again. When the second film in the franchise even managed to exceed the box office of the first film, Tom didn’t miss a beat in keeping his money train going. Earning another seventy-five million dollars, he managed to further cement his reputation as box office gold and a smooth operator and negotiator.
6 Keanu Reeves for The Matrix Revolutions - $76 million
For a guy who clearly eschews a lot of the trappings of the typical celebrity life, Keanu sure has done a marvelous job of earning the money he’d need to embrace such a lifestyle. After the first Matrix movie had revolutionized the way movies were made and had ended in a way that perfectly set up potential sequels, the world as a whole was begging for more. Managing to secure an astounding fifteen percent of the gross profits of each of the sequels take, both movies made him a millionaire many times over.
5 Sandra Bullock for Gravity - $77 million
The only woman to make our list, Sandra’s tour de force performance in this sci-fi thriller did a lot of the heavy lifting which made the film a commercial and critical juggernaut. Securing her typical twenty million dollar upfront fee, she also managed to receive fifteen percent of the first-dollar gross profit. Since that means she also was set to take a fraction of any syndication rights, home media sales, and any other revenue streams, her staggering earnings make perfect sense. Her Oscar nomination was just a really nice bit of icing on that cake.
4 Tom Cruise for War of the Worlds - $100 million
What do you get when you add an action star and the world’s most famous director with a well-established sci-fi story and amazing special effects? The answer, of course, should be people forking over their moolah for the ability to see the results of your efforts. When you then combine that intake with an actor who opted to forego an upfront cheque at all, in return for twenty percent, the results turn out to be Tom Cruise biggest take home pay for a single film.
3 Will Smith for Men in Black 3 - $100 million
The star of seventeen movies that made over $100 million dollars worldwide, prior to making this movie, Will had appeared in an awe-inspiring amount of hits since 1996’s Independence Day. Always expected to appear in a blockbuster every summer, convincing the charmer to return to the Men in Black series must have been no easy feat, considering he had his pick of the litter. Given his typical twenty million and some of the backend for the first time in his career, the film’s more than $600 million dollar take and $60 million dollar home video sales resulted in this haul.
2 Bruce Willis for The Sixth Sense - $100-120 million
When Bruce Willis, another one of the biggest action stars of the modern era, signed on to work with M. Night Shyamalan, an unknown entity at the time, he clearly needed to be pursued. Given a deal that included fourteen million dollars and seventeen percent of the profits, Bruce would have been a fool to turn it down, if he had any confidence in the outcome. As you already know, Bruce agreed to the deal and after giving a great performance in a film that got everyone talking, he must have been over the moon happy with the results. Although the final figure that was put in Bruce’s bank account is up for debate, with estimates fluctuating by several millions of dollars, he certainly earned the second slot on our list.
1 Keanu Reeves for The Matrix Reloaded - $126 million
As we went over previously on this list, Keanu made an incredible deal for The Matrix sequels. Beating out the amount he made for The Matrix Revolutions by fifty million dollars, the figure made him the best-paid actor for a single role ever. Perhaps the coolest part of this particular actor taking home that amount has to be what he did with a significant chunk of his it. Opting to give the production staff more money than they’d ever seen before when he was asked about his generosity he made it clear that he felt they were integral to the final product. We can’t think of a better way to end off a list that was entirely based on the bottom line than by looking at a man who puts it in perspective like that.