40 Celebs Who Found Fame After 40

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Samuel L. Jackson

Although he had many acting credits in his early years, Jackson didn’t really hit the big time until his role in the movie “Jungle Fever” when he was 43. Before this, he struggled with drug addiction, and he’s previously admitted that as a young actor he didn’t go through the usual phase of career building. Jackson starred in the crime film “Pulp Fiction” when he was 46 and his acting career skyrocketed from there. The movie was nominated for as many as seven Oscars, including Best Picture.


Alan Rickman

This legendary English actor began his career working in the graphic design industry. He attended the Chelsea College of Art and Design, followed by the Royal College of Art. He went on to work as a graphic designer, which Rickman considered a much more stable occupation than acting. He decided to go to acting school when he was in his twenties and went on to star in some of the world’s most famous movies, including “Die Hard” and “Harry Potter”.


Vera Wang

Vera Wang may be one of the world’s most famous fashion designers today, however, she didn’t begin her career in this field. She was previously a figure skater, developing a love for the sport at the age of eight. Whilst she was in high school, she trained with her pairs partner James Stuart, and went on to compete at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1968. Unfortunately, she failed to make the U.S. Olympics team, and this was when she entered the fashion industry.


Julia Child

Julia Child didn’t always make a living from cooking. After graduating from college, she moved to New York, where she worked as a copywriter for W. & J. Sloane’s advertising department. She also worked in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during WWII. It wasn’t until she met her husband, Paul, also an OSS employee, that she developed a love of cooking. Paul was known for his sophisticated palate and introduced her to fine cuisine. Her cooking show, “The French Chef” premiered in 1963 when Child was 51.


Leslie Jones

Leslie Jones wasn’t always so famous. She started doing stand-up comedy in college when a friend encouraged her to sign up for the “Funniest Person on Campus” contest. She won and ended up moving to LA not long after, where she performed at various bars and clubs. However, she struggled to make ends meet and worked shifts at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, as well as UPS to get by. She attended an audition for “Saturday Night Live” in her late 40’s, and the rest is history.


Christoph Waltz

This Austrian-German actor wasn’t well-known until he played Colonel Hans Landa in “Inglorious Basterds” at age of 53. This role earned him an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, and BAFTA Award, as well as the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival. He quickly became a household name and offers of acting work flooded in. Before this, he was largely a television actor, playing Dr. Hans-Joachim Dorfmann in the British TV show “The Gravy Train” in 1990.


Jane Lynch

Jane Lynch was 43 when she landed her first big acting role in Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show” in 2000. She later went on to play Paula in the comedy “The 40 Year Old Virgin” at the age of 45, bringing her more fame. Before this, she played small roles in a few films, including “Vice Versa”, and “The Fugitive”. During the 1990s, Lynch made several TV commercials, including one for Frosted Flakes which was directed by Christopher Guest.


Melissa McCarthy

“Bridesmaids” is the movie that skyrocketed Melissa McCarthy to stardom at the age of 41. Before this, she struggled to land big roles, often being cast in small supporting roles. She played Sookie St. James on the TV show “Gilmore Girls” (2000-2007), and also appeared as Dena on the sitcom “Samantha Who?” (2007-2009). In recent years, she has taken on more starring roles in movies including “Tammy” (2014), “Spy” (2015), “The Boss” and “Ghostbusters” (2016). In 2015, Forbes named her as the third highest-paid actress in the world.


Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder is famous for writing the “Little House on the Prairie” children’s books. However, the first of these books wasn’t published until 1932, when she was 65. Before she became a writer, Wilder was a teacher. She began teaching at a young age, at just 16. She later admitted that she didn’t really enjoy teaching, but felt she needed to help her family financially. Her teaching career ceased when she wed her husband, Almanzo Wilder.


Connie Britton

Although Britton had small roles in several TV shows and movies, including, “The Brothers McMullen (1995), “Spin City” (1996) and “The Last Winter” (2006), it wasn’t until she starred in “Friday Night Lights” at the age of 40 that she really hit the big time. Britton starred as Tami Taylor in this acclaimed drama series from 2006 to 2011, and impressed critics and viewers alike. She was nominated for two Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.


Ang Lee

Ang Lee is famous for directing the movies “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain”, as well as other iconic films. However, Lee was a stay-at-home dad until his early 40s. Lee found few opportunities after graduating and was out of work for six years. His wife, Jane Lin, was a molecular biologist and the breadwinner for their family of four. Whilst this arrangement wasn’t easy for the couple, Lin gave her husband her support and understanding, allowing him to continue chasing a career in film.


Steve Carell

Carell shot to fame at the age of 43 when he starred in the hit NBC show, “The Office”. His role as Michael Scott won him a Golden Globe Award and a Television Critics Association Award. The show was a massive success and Carell was soon in high demand. Before he hit the big time in “The Office”, he has minor roles in several TV shows and movies. He also says that he worked as a mail carrier but quit after six months as he wasn’t fast enough!


Morgan Freeman

Freeman rose to fame on the 1970s children’s TV show “The Electric Company” when he was in his 30’s. However, he’s often said that he considers Fast Black in the movie “Street Smart” (1987), which he filmed at the age of 50, to be his breakthrough performance. He received an Oscar nomination for this film. In his later years, Freeman has gone on to star in many iconic movies, including “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.


Kathy Bates

Kathy Bates had to wait until she was 42 to get her first big break. Although she had some acting successes under her belt, it was the role of Anne Wilkes in “Misery” (1990) that shot her to fame. Her performance was widely praised, and she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. A starring role in the 1991 movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” and a supporting role in “Titanic” (1997) followed. Bates also impressed as the political advisor Libby Holden in the film Primary Colors (1998).


Bryan Cranston

Before he played Walter White on the hugely successful crime drama “Breaking Bad”, Cranston was Malcolm’s dad, Hal, on the sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle”. Despite the fact that he’s starred in two long-running series, Cranston was 44 years old when he premiered in “Malcolm in the Middle”. Cranston had many jobs before he started working as an actor, including waiter, truck loader, and CCTV security guard. He was also ordained as a minister and regularly performed weddings!


Ricky Gervais

British comedian Ricky Gervais is best known for starring in the British version of the “The Office”, which didn’t premiere until he was 40. Whilst the first season of the show aired to little fanfare, the second was hugely successful. It was after this that Gervais was named the most powerful person in TV comedy by Radio Times. Gervais began his career working in the music industry, trying to forge a career as a pop star in the 1980s.


Dame Judi Dench

Although Dame Judi Dench has been famous for many decades in England, she didn’t become a true Hollywood name until she landed the role of M in the James Bond movie “GoldenEye” when she was 61. This film catapulted Dench to international fame, making her one of the most sought-after actresses in the business. She continued to play M until “Spectre” (2015). Dench is best-known for her work in theatre, which has been her forte during her long acting career.


Joy Behar

In 1997, Joy Behar became a panel member on the daytime talk show “The View”, catapulting her to stardom aged 55. She wasn’t always so well known. She struggled as a stand-up comic for many years, working the comedy club circuit in an effort to catch her big break. She was a co-host of the “The View” for 16 years, during which time the show became immensely popular. She, along with her other co-hosts, won the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk Show Host in 2009.


Simon Cowell

Although Simon Cowell was well-known in England, he only started to gain international fame when “American Idol” premiered when he was aged 43. He became a judge on the show and became renowned for his blunt put-downs of contestants. His prominence grew with the show’s success, making him one of the most famous people in the world. When Cowell left American Idol in 2010, the show was on its seventh season and had become one of the most popular primetime programs in the USA.


Bob Ross

Painter Bob Ross became famous thanks to his TV show “The Joy of Painting”. The show aired from 1983 to 1994 in the USA, during which time he became a much-loved TV personality. He became an internet celebrity in the 21st century, hugely popular with fans online. However, he wasn’t always famous for his gentle voice and considered brushstrokes. Before that, he spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, eventually rising to the rank of master sergeant.


Kathryn Joosten

Actress Kathryn Joosten may have starred in the hit shows “Desperate Housewives” and “The West Wing”, but it may surprise you to know that she didn’t start acting until she was 42. She initially worked as a psychiatric nurse in Chicago and went on to marry a fellow psychiatrist and have two sons. Following her divorce in 1980, she started acting in community theater. In 1995, Joosten moved to Hollywood and took several guest roles in TV series, including “Roseanne”, “ER” and “Frasier”, to name a few.


Regis Philbin

Regis Philbin is best known for co-hosting the show “Live! With Regis and Kathy Lee”, which first aired in 1988 when he was 57. In the years before, he worked as a supply officer in the U.S. Navy, before taking on a few behind-the-scenes jobs in TV and radio, and eventually moving into the world of broadcasting. He hosted several failed talk shows and variety shows which suffered from poor ratings, including “Regis Philbin’s Saturday Night in St. Louis”.

Patrick Stewart

Stewart started his career in theater, being a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company for 16 years. Although he landed roles in several major TV shows, including “Coronation Street” and “ Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, he didn’t become a household name until he starred in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987–94) when he has in his 40s. Star Trek was a huge success, however, because Stewart had become typecast as Picard, he found landing other roles difficult. He also found returning to theater difficult due to his long departure.

Tommy Lee Jones

Jones was a star athlete at Harvard, playing offense guard on the unbeaten 1968 varsity football team. However, he had dreams of becoming an actor and moved to New York in the sixties. Although he landed many roles, he didn’t gain international fame until he appeared in “The Fugitive” (1993) when he was 47. His performance, which was widely praised, won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His other notable performances in the 1990s came in “JFK”, “Under Siege” and “Natural Born Killers”.


Stan Lee

Even though he began working at Timely Publications as a teenager, the company which would go on to become Marvel Comics was not a big success until 1961, when it published the acclaimed “The Fantastic Four”. By that time, Lee was 40. In his later years, he became the public face of Marvel Comics, frequently making appearances at various comic book conventions across America, and even lecturing at colleges. At the Comic-Con International in 2016, Lee introduced his digital graphic novel, “Stan Lee’s ‘God Woke’”.


NeNe Leakes

Although she made several minor appearances in various small TV shows, including “The Parkers”, it wasn’t until she starred in the reality series “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” in 2008, at the age of 41, that she became a household name. In recent years, Leakes has moved into scripted TV, playing Rocky Roades in the comedy “The New Normal” and landing a recurring role in “Glee” in the show’s third season. She also competed in the 18th season of “Dancing with the Stars”.

Billy Bob Thornton

Billy Bob Thornton became famous on an international scale thanks to his movie “Sling Blade” (1996), which he wrote, directed and starred in. He was 41 at the time. In his younger years, Thornton had a difficult time gaining acting work and went on to work in various jobs between auditions, including telemarketing, fast food management and offshore wind farming. Before Sling Blade brought him major success, he had some small roles in various 1990s films, including “Indecent Proposal” and “Bound by Honor”.


Rodney Dangerfield

This comedian hit the big time aged 46 when he stepped in as a replacement on “The Ed Sullivan Show’. The show was a big success, with Dangerfield praised for his performance. He began headlining shows in Las Vegas, whilst continuing to make frequent appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. He also regularly appeared on “The Dean Martin Show”, as well as “The Tonight Show”. Before he got his big break, he was struggling to forge a career as an entertainer, finding minimal success and falling into debt.


Octavia Spencer

Following several years of small roles in TV shows and movies, Spencer finally got her breakthrough at the age of 41 when she landed the role of Minny in “The Help” (2011). she won various awards for her performance in this acclaimed movie, including the Golden Globe, Academy Award, and BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress. She went on to appear in many other films, including the Ryan Coogler drama “Fruitvale Station” (2013), for which she received the Best Supporting Actress Award from the National Board of Review.


Leslie Nielsen

Leslie Nielsen acted in many small roles for years, but he had to wait until he was 54 to land his breakthrough role. This came in the movie “Airplane!”, which has frequently been voted the funniest movie of all time. His acting career began during “Television’s Golden Age”, and he appeared in 46 programs in 1950 alone. However, much of his early work as a dramatic actor was uneventful, and he went on to narrate documentaries and commercials.

Kim Cattrall

Whilst actress Kim Cattrall starred in many movies in her early years, including “Porky’s” (1982) and “Mannequin” (1987), it wasn’t until she landed her role in the HBO-produced TV show “Sex and the City” that she truly became a household name. Cattrall played man-eating PR worker Samantha Jones in a role which gained her almost instant international recognition. She received nominations for five Emmys and four Golden Globes, as well as two ensemble Screen Actors Guild Awards for the role.

Ty Burrell

Burrell acted on Broadway for many years, even playing the lead role in Macbeth. However, he didn’t become well-known until he landed the role of Phil Dunphy on the ABC sitcom Modern Family at 42-years-old. The show was highly acclaimed by critics during its first few seasons, leading Burrell to gain international recognition for his comedy acting. He went on to win the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in both 2011 and 2014, as well as five Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Lucille Ball

Even though Ball was signed to MGM, she never really found fame until “I Love Lucy” started in 1951 when she was 40. She created the sitcom with Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, who would go on to become her husband. The series became one of the most loved programs in TV history, with Ball gaining international recognition. Before the success of I Love Lucy, Ball had appeared in a few minor film roles, as well as on Broadway.


Larry David

Although David worked as a writer for “Saturday Night Live” from 1984-1985, he was only ever able to get one sketch on the show. This sketch aired at 12:50am, which was the last available time slot! It wasn’t until he co-created “Seinfeld” when he was 42 that he really made a name for himself. David was the executive producer and head writer of the show. He went on to gain more recognition for the series “Curb Your Enthusiasm”.


Viola Davis

Although David won an Emmy Award in her 30’s, she only gained major Hollywood success after starring in “Doubt” (2008) alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep when she was 43. Her role in the movie earned her a number of nominations, including the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. More nominations and awards have come Davis’ way in the years since, particularly for her role in the play and film adaption of “Fences”.


Wendy Williams

Wendy Williams became famous as the host of the TV talk show “The Wendy Williams Show” in 2008 when she was 44-years-old. Before this, she was radio DJ and became known as the “shock jockette” due to her spats with her guests. Although she was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame, she didn’t become a household name until she moved into television. Since then, she has written a best-selling autobiography and created numerous product lines, including a fashion line and jewelry collection.

Burt Reynolds

Burt Reynolds was probably your mom’s crush growing up (and may still be!), but this Academy Award-nominee didn’t actually star in hit movies like “Deliverance” (1972) and “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) until he was well into his 40s. He got his first big break when he landed a recurring part on the TV show “Riverboat” (1959-61), however, it wasn’t until his later years that he really became a household name. When “Smokey and the Bandit” was released, he quickly became the number one star in the country.

“Colonel” Harland Sanders

Yes, we’re talking about the KFC Colonel Sanders. He started selling the fried chicken that we all know and love from his roadside restaurant at the time of the Great Depression. However, he didn’t earn success from the fast food chain until the age of 65. Sanders had many jobs before this, including insurance salesman, steam train stoker and filling station operator. He also established a ferry boat company that operated on the Ohio River between Jeffersonville and Louisville, however, he later sold it.


Betty White

Betty White was 63 years of age when she began playing Rose on the “Golden Girls” in 1985. She is perhaps best-known for this role, which is why many people don’t realize that she had a lengthy acting career long before this. In fact, she has the longest TV career of any female entertainer. Whilst she won an Emmy Award for playing Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when she was 51, it was the “Golden Girls” that shot this legendary actress to fame.


Martha Stewart

It might seem as if domestic goddess Martha Stewart has been around forever. However, she actually didn’t gain fame until she was in her 40s when she started to write books and host TV shows. In her early years, she modeled for high profile clients, including Chanel, and appeared in several TV commercials. It was only when Stewart impressed Alan Mirkin, the head of Crown Publishing Group, with her cooking and hostess skills that she was offered the chance to develop her own cookbook.


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