14 Stars Who Played Their Most Famous Character After 40
These actors had decades of experience before scoring the roles that defined them.
The entertainment business is a difficult industry to break into, and a lot of it comes down to luck. There are celebrities who manage to hit it big early in their careers, while for others, breaking through takes a little more time. In fact, some of the stars who we consider to be at their very top of their game didn't even score the roles they're most famous for until after they turned 40, proving that persistence is definitely key.
Of course, many of these actors had solid careers before hitting the jackpot with these massive movie and TV hits, but it wasn't until after their 40th birthdays that they finally played that role that they'd be known for the rest of their lives. So if you're feeling a bit behind the curve, don't worry—these stars found success later in life, so you're certainly in good company if you're still working towards your goals!
Betty White made her television debut in 1939 and had been in radio programs even before that, but she was 63 years old when she took on the iconic role of Rose in Golden Girls. The actor, who is also beloved for her earlier role of Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore show will turn 100 in 2022 and is still performing and making people laugh. Talk about staying power!
Samuel L. Jackson
Hollywood wouldn't be the same without Samuel L. Jackson, and that required him snagging the role of Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction at the age of 46. After that Quentin Tarantino flick hit theaters, he quickly became one of the most in-demand actors in the industry and has remained so for 30 years.
Ty Burrell is synonymous with the sweet but dorky dad character of Phil Dunphy on Modern Family—after all, it's a role for which he won multiple Emmys. But it took him so long to break out in Hollywood that he almost quit acting before scoring that job.
"That winter before pilot season, my wife and I were talking seriously about how or if I could do something else," he told Glamour in 2012. He was 42 when Modern Family premiered. "Auditioning was just getting the better of me. I had used up all my toughness getting to 40 and auditioning. You go on five or six auditions a week, and most of them are all rejections."
It's hard to imagine anyone else besides Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester on Glee. The comic actor was 49 when the musical show premiered. She later told The Guardian that she didn't get into acting until she was 33, and while she did book roles, she didn't have instant name-recognition.
"Being the workaday actor that I have been–and will always be, if this goes away–can be thankless," she said. "There's a part of us that wants recognition. And it's easier when you get the affirmation and you're making more money and people ask you what you think."
In 2008, Viola Davis turned heads with a searing single-scene performance in the movie Doubt, and at the time, she was 42 years old. But that role lead to bigger parts in movies including The Help, and eventually her starring role of Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder, which she carried through six seasons.
Though Melissa McCarthy played Sookie St. James on Gilmore Girls for years, it wasn't until her Oscar-nominated supporting role in Bridesmaids (when she was 41 years old) that she really hit her stride and became a huge box-office draw. Today, she and her husband Ben Falcone make movies of their own through their production company.
"We were watching the numbers come in, and we jumped up, got in the car, and ran in and out of two different movie theaters," she told InStyle of witnessing the movie's instant success. "They were both packed, and the audiences were enjoying it. I felt like that was a whole change, like, maybe our sensibility works and we're not alone. Maybe I can write stuff."
That's right, Golden Girls was a total breakout moment for two of its stars. Estelle Getty, who passed away in 2008, was 62 when she started playing Sophia Petrillo on the series. And while she'd already been working for 40 years by that time, she'd hit a rough patch before the role came along.
"I have not been unemployed now for 11 years," Getty said in a 1992 interview. "I just got really, really lucky after years of obscurity."
For more celebrity trivia sent right to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
Morgan Freeman was 52 years old in 1989—the year that he took theaters by storm as he starred in the triple whammy that was Driving Miss Daisy, Lean on Me, and Glory. While some actors may have felt bitter about working for so long without a ton of recognition, when asked by Interview magazine in 2016 how he felt about the trajectory of his career, Freeman said, "Ecstatic. It couldn't be better."
Lucille Ball wouldn't have been the legendary star that she was without I Love Lucy. She was 40 years old when the sitcom that she co-created with then-husband Desi Arnaz hit the airwaves. Prior to their unprecedented success on TV, Ball had worked primarily as a model, a Broadway chorus girl, and in some bit movie parts.
Bryan Cranston came to fame playing dad Hal in Malcolm in the Middle, at which point he was 44 years old. But the role that would bring him a ton of awards and even more acclaim was still to come. Cranston has said that if Malcolm in the Middle had been renewed for an eighth season, he would have completely missed out on playing Walter White in Breaking Bad.
"It is absolutely my belief, I dogmatically believe this, that a career in our business cannot be fully realized without a healthy dose of luck sprinkled throughout," he said on the Smartless podcast.
Leslie Nielsen, who died in 2010, started off his career as a dramatic actor. And though he consistently booked jobs, he didn't become a full-fledged star until he turned to comedy. Nielsen was 54 when he played Dr. Rumack in Airplane!, which led to many more comedic roles, including that of Frank Drebin. Nielsen played the dimwitted hero in the Police Squad! TV series and three Naked Gun movies.
Though she's not joining the rest of the cast in the upcoming Sex and the City revival, we'll never be able to forget Samantha Jones, and that's all because of Kim Cattrall. Cattrall was 42 when the original series premiered on HBO, and she's even said that playing the character helped her get over her own internalized ageism.
"You know they always accuse Hollywood of ageism, but I found that I was doing that to myself. Because I was really questioning if I could indeed play a woman who was that sexual. I'm not kidding you," she told the Boston Herald in 2008. "People started to look differently because of shows like Sex and the City about 40. Now to have one of your main characters at the end of a big Hollywood movie say, 'I'm 50, and I'm fabulous,' it really gives me a lot of hope for the next decade."
Steve Carell will always and forever be Michael Scott. But The Office didn't come around until Carell was 43. Though he was known as a correspondent on The Daily Show and for his hilarious supporting role in Anchorman, it was The Office and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (which hit theaters the same year the show premiered) that made him a comedy icon.
Kathy Bates had a lot of success on stage prior to that, but her biggest Hollywood break and most enduring character came when she was 42 and starred in 1990's Misery as Annie Wilkes. Since then, she's kept churning out amazing performances, though she knows that's not the case for all women actors her age.
"I hate to complain about it, but never being considered the romantic lead–which is fine, I'm over that, been there, done that–means they look at me in a different way," she told The Guardian in 2020. "But then I look at my friends who are beautiful girls but not working after 40–very few of them."
RELATED: The 20 Oldest Living Celebrities in 2021.