Five decades is a long time to do anything, even if it’s not as stressful as being in the public eye. We’re in awe of the skill and perseverance needed to take on major acting roles for such a long time. That’s a lot of character-building. Some of the industry’s longest lasting actors began their entertainment careers as children. Twilight Zone and Lost in Space child star Bill Mumy, who just missed our list, does cartoon voice work these days (though he’s far from a household name, like the actors on our list). Others started later in life, and some we just had to mention because they’re so wicked awesome. We’re looking at you, Betty White!
Our list is made up of actors who have been working in film and TV for at least 50 years. But there’s more. These actors often play younger, more vibrant characters that belie our expectations for people of their age. Don’t be too discouraged if your favorite actor with a half-century-long career isn’t listed. We swear it isn’t personal.
Here are 15 Awesome Actors You Forgot Have Had 50+ Year Careers.
15. Mark Hamill
Mark Hamill, best known as Luke Starkiller…er, Skywalker, doesn’t seem like he could possibly have been in the business for 50 whole years. Sure, Star Wars was a long time ago. But it hasn’t been a half-century since the ‘70s. Mark Hamill was born in 1951, and got his first acting role in 1963. He was on the daytime soap opera General Hospital for two seasons. He was also in the pilot for the prime time dramedy Eight is Enough, but was replaced during studio-mandated retooling, along with several other cast members.
If you’re not a hardcore Star Wars nerd, you might not know that it was original Freddy Krueger Robert Englund who recommended that Hamill audition for the role of Luke Skywalker. When he’s not looking wistfully into the sky thinking about the Force, Mark Hamill is still an active performer. He’s had guest appearances on Criminal Minds and The Flash, and he recently had a small role in Kingsman: The Secret Service as well. Hamill is known for voicing tons of comic book villains, including Solomon Grundy, Hobgoblin, Klaw, and the Joker. You’ve probably heard that last one once or twice.
14. Goldie Hawn
We know Goldie Hawn has been acting for a long time, but can it really be 50 whole years? Yup! Her first TV role was Sandy, main character Larry’s dimwitted girlfriend on Good Morning, World. Soon after the show was unceremoniously canceled, she wowed the world on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. If you’ve never had the pleasure, it’s awfully dated and pretty hilarious.
When she moved on to film, Ms. Hawn won an Oscar in 1969 for her first starring role in Cactus Flower. Goldie Hawn was known for being a perky type, and had big movie hits in the ‘70s (Foul Play, Shampoo), ‘80s (Seems Like Old Times, Overboard), ‘90s (First Wives Club, Death Becomes Her), and the fan-favorite Banger Sisters in 2002. She was nominated for a second Oscar for her leading role in Private Benjamin, but lost to Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter.
We haven’t seen Goldie in a few years, since she’s devoted most of her time to the Hawn Foundation. Her film career’s not done yet, however, as she’s got a new comedy coming out in 2017. Snatched also stars Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Christopher Meloni. It promises to be hilarious.
13. William Shatner
Like Jesus or Santa Claus, there’s something timeless about William Shatner. Shatner’s first starring role came in 1958, when he played Yul Brynner’s youngest sibling in The Brothers Karamazov. Later, he got his fortune told and alerted us all to a gremlin on the wing of a plane in the Twilight Zone. From there, Shatner’s career was a bit of a rollercoaster ride.
Of course, the actor’s most famous role was his career-defining take on Captain James Tiberius Kirk in Star Trek, a character he portrayed for decades on film and television. His work on TJ Hooker inspired a slightly less loyal fan base, but his next big TV role won him a Golden Globe for his work as Denny Crane, the eccentric lawyer on The Practice spinoff, Boston Legal.
William Shatner is iconic in ways that few actors could ever hope to be. Being a household name, though, doesn’t guarantee anyone a happy life. Shatner has suffered his share of tragedy and heartbreak, though he’s channeled his emotions into charitable causes. These days, Shatner does a good deal of narration and other voice work. He’s due to play Two-Face in the upcoming Batman v Two-Face animated vid, that will also feature Adam West, Julie Newmar, and Burt Ward. Really.
12. Charlotte Rampling
It’s always a little suspicious when models transition into acting. Surely, acting is something that should be studied, sacrificed for…many models just don’t have the vocal skills, introspective tendencies, or understanding of the human condition to really be successful at leading acting roles. Ms. Rampling is a deviation from that rule—a big one. After a stint in modeling, Charlotte Rampling was cast as the best friend, Meredith, in Georgy Girl, which was an enormous film in its day. From there, she did a series of European “arthouse” films, Italian and French ones in particular.
Rampling’s film career has been varied and acclaimed. Zardoz, Stardust Memories, Angel Heart, and The Verdict were all huge successes with loyal followings. Meanwhile, movies like Swimming Pool and TV appearances on shows like Dexter have earned her admiration from younger fans as well. Ms. Rampling has a few projects coming out this year, including Valley of the Gods and Sanditon, the latter of which is based on an unfinished Jane Austen novel.
11. Kurt Russell
Largely known for ‘80s movies like Escape from New York and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, Kurt Russell doesn’t seem like he could have been in the business for more than 50 years. Even when you consider that his longtime love, Goldie Hawn, is also on our list—it just doesn’t seem possible. Is he really that old? Well, kind of. Kurt Russell got his acting start at a very young age. We wouldn’t quite call him a child actor, but he’s pretty close. After his debut on a TV western in the early ‘60s, Russell signed with Disney to appear in films like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, and The Strongest Man in the World.
You’d think someone might get tired of being awesome for so such an incredibly long stretch of time. But not Kurt Russell. Recently, he starred in the gruesomely bloody Bone Tomahawk, and later in the equally bloody and gruesome The Hateful Eight. His upcoming films include Fast and the Furious 8 and Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Some resume, eh?
10. Helen Mirren
Given her stature today, you’d probably never guess that Dame Helen Mirren got her start in an uncredited role in a film described as “the sexual fantasies of a young man.” But it’s true. Press for Time‘s release in 1967 is why Ms. Mirren makes our list of actors with 50-year careers…albeit just barely. Since then she’s played Ophelia in Hamlet, appeared opposite Malcolm McDowell in Caligula, and played Morgana in Excalibur…an impressive career for anyone. But she wasn’t done yet.
It’s possible that her English and Russian heritage is what inspired her casting in the action films Red and Red 2, which she was utterly amazing in. Not only does Helen Mirren have a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame, she was granted the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her contributions to performing arts. She is also appearing in Fast and the Furious 8, and is currently filming The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, which is due out next year.
9. Adam West
Did you know that “Adam West” is actually a stage name? The guy most of us think of as our first Batman was born William West Anderson. He didn’t choose his stage name until he was chosen as the sidekick on a children’s show that he then went on to headline. That was 7 years before being cast as Batman/Bruce Wayne after being spotted in a Nestle Quik commercial. As the camp-tastic Caped Crusader, West developed a loyal fan following that has never left him.
Perhaps more amazing than the length of his career, is that Adam West never really dropped out of the public eye. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, West did a long string of film roles that included The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood. Lately, West does a ton of cartoon voices, including Batman in video games and animated movies, and the mayor of Quahog on FOX’s sitcom Family Guy. Adam West can still be spotted at conventions, and will still put on the cowl if you ask him really, really nicely.
8. Veronica Cartwright
Being a child actor has changed a lot since the 1950s, and for good reason. It’s an old stereotype that many child stars grow up to be drug-addled, dysfunctional people–if they even make it to adulthood at all. For whatever reason, the Cartwright sisters (Veronica’s sister Angela enjoyed a 20+ year career of her own) appear to have avoided this Hollywood curse. Veronica’s career began in the late 1950s with a recurring role as Violet Rutherford (Lumpy’s little sister) on Leave it to Beaver. Soon after, she appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, The Birds. In the 1970s came her two biggest sci-fi hits, Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Veronica Cartwright does more TV than film work these days, having appeared on LA Law, The X-Files, The Closer, and Six Feet Under. More recently, she has reprised her role from Alien for the Alien Isolation video game, and was in the recent remake of The Town that Dreaded Sundown. An impressive 50+ years in the business, to be sure.
7. Jackie Chan
What else is there to say about the great Jackie Chan that fans don’t already know? He was born in Hong Kong, and sent to study drama at a Peking Opera school. His father made this choice for him, since he kind of sucked at studying. A martial artist for the ages, he’s trained primarily in Hapkido and Kung Fu. Chan’s first credited film appearance, at age eight, was in the 1962 film Big and Little Wong Tin Bar. Later, he appeared as a stunt performer in both Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. Hilariously, Chan also appeared nude in a bawdy adult film called All in the Family in 1975. This film was in no way related to the Norman Lear series of the same name. We don’t recommend following through on that Google search you’re thinking about performing.
Since moving from stunt man to leading man, and fighter to comic actor, Jackie Chan has also taken turns as a dramatic actor (in movies with zero fight scenes) and even a singer. Well, after more than 50 years in the business, it makes sense that he’d want to branch out.
6. Jane Fonda
This lady is known for a great many things. You might know her best as the queen of workout tapes, or maybe as a leader in the movement for women’s rights—and now, various humanitarian causes. Jane Fonda has been a model, actress, activist, author, and outspoken feminist (is there another kind?), as well as being a founding member of the Women’s Media Center. If that sounds like a lot, keep in mind that she’s also from a famous family and that Lee Strasburg himself convinced her to get into acting in 1958. That means she’s been in the business for almost 60 years.
When she’s not making the world a better place, or writing down her memoirs for future publication, Jane Fonda does primarily TV roles. She was Leona Lansing on HBO’s The Newsroom, playing a media mogul that skewered her ex, Ted Turner. She also stars in the current series Grace and Frankie about two women coping with their husband’s coming out at the same time. It’s one of Netflix’s most underrated gems.
5. Jeff Bridges
Every so often, you’ll encounter someone who doesn’t like Jeff Bridges. When you do, the only acceptable response is to look unphased and simply respond, “That’s just like…your opinion, man.” Like The Dude, Jeff Bridges simply…abides. In fact, Jeff and his brother Beau Bridges are from another great acting family. Their father, Lloyd Bridges was an acting giant in his day. The brothers Bridges had been appearing on their dad’s hit series, Sea Hunt, since they were toddlers, and both continued to act into adulthood—lucky for us.
The biggest star of them all, Jeff was nominated for Academy Awards for the ‘70s films Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Last Picture Show. Later, Tron endeared him to a fan base that would continue to adore him through to the present day. He even managed to rack up some long-deserved Oscar glory with his outstanding performance in the 2009 film, Crazy Heart, and he nearly notched back-to-back Best Actor wins thanks to his work in True Grit the following year (he was upset by Colin Firth…somehow).
Jeff Bridges is also an accomplished musician and an avid supporter of both the End Hunger Network and the Amazon Conservation Team. If you feel like you haven’t seen The Dude in a while, don’t despair. He’s slated to appear in the Kingsmen sequel that comes out later this year.
4. Kathy Bates
Most of us think of Kathy Bates as someone who rose to prominence after her role in the 1990 film Misery. After all, it’s pretty amazing to win an Oscar for your very first starring role. But in fact, Kathy Bates had been acting for years, on TV, films, and on Broadway since her first role in 1963 on a show called the Doctors. Next came a stint on All My Children. Bates was a regular on TV and Broadway until she was tapped to play the avid literature fan and dangerous psychopath Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner’s Misery, the thriller that introduced her to the world as a major star.
The work poured in after Misery, including films like Delores Claiborne (Bates’s second starring role in a film based on a novel by Stephen King), Titanic, and Fried Green Tomatoes. Kathy Bates has been nominated for 12 Emmy awards, winning 2 to date. Ms. Bates is slated to appear on American Horror Story yet again this season, as well as in the new series, Feud. Despite her contributions to the horror genre, there are still no Pop Funko figures of any of Kathy Bates’s characters, an injustice we hope will soon be rectified.
3. Sir Anthony Hopkins
Some actors seem like they’ve been playing old men for most of their careers (think Burgess Meredith or Morgan Freeman). Anthony Hopkins is another such performer. He looks older now than he did in say, Silence of the Lambs, but do we really remember him appearing in 50+ years of films? Maybe. It could actually be said that his breakout role was the second film he was ever in, The Lion in Winter. In it, he played Richard the Lionheart before he was king. His character was in love with King Phillip of France, played by Timothy Dalton. There’s no denying it: Hopkins has played an insane variety of roles over the years.
When Hopkins played Hannibal Lecter for the first time in 1991, he already had a strong horror pedigree. The popular films Magic and Audrey Rose demonstrated his talent for dark material. Most recently, Sir Anthony Hopkins blew our minds in the HBO series, Westworld. We can’t say with certainty if we’ll see him next season, and that won’t happen until 2018. In the meantime, you can catch his work in the 2017 blockbusters Thor: Ragnarok and Transformers: The Last Knight.
2. Betty White
Okay, we’ll be honest. It isn’t that shocking to see Betty White on this list. She’s 95 for crying out loud. Everybody knows she’s been in film and TV forever, since at least the ‘50s. But you know what? Making a list like this without Betty White would be a travesty, a sham, and affront to the craft of acting!
Betty White has been appearing on TV, radio, and film since 1939, which is just about 78 years. That makes her a legendary performer on a scale we rarely see. Chances are, she’s also your favorite of all the Golden Girls.
After being told she was “unphotogenic,” a polite way of saying “ugly,” Ms. White pursued work in radio, taking any jobs she could get. It didn’t take long for her to get her own radio program, which led to guest appearances on local TV and game shows. After a few guest appearances, she became a household name on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, as a woman who seemed sweet and charming but was unexpectedly salty. She’s been riding that delightful wave ever since.
1. Timothy Dalton
You may have noticed that most of the people on this list don’t just have stellar careers. They’re also pretty badass. Timothy Dalton has had one of the most badass careers in movie history, playing incredibly diverse roles, from the King of France, to the Prince of Arboria, the brooding Edward Rochester, Marc Antony, Rhett Butler in a TV sequel to Gone with the Wind, and two turns as James Bond. Among fans of the famous super spy, Dalton’s Bond is often described as the darkest and most depressing.
Dalton has continued playing various badasses since his portrayal of 007. On Doctor Who, he played a Gallifreyan elder. His hilarious turn as Simon Skinner in Hot Fuzz was a highly memorable one, to say the least. Most recently, he was Sir Malcolm Murray, father of Mina Murray, in Showtime’s excellent period drama, Penny Dreadful. Despite his years of experience, or maybe because of it, Dalton still performs action-heavy scenes, love scenes, and maintains a bold and impressive screen presence.
We hope you dug this list of actors with 50-year careers, and hope there was a surprise or two to be found. Which of these entries shocked you the most? What other actors would moviegoers be surprised to learn have enjoyed half-century-long careers? Let us know in the comments.