Most actors spend their entire careers working tirelessly to make money from several different characters, movies, and TV shows. Others, however, are lucky enough to find a single role that will define their legacies and financially secure them forever.
Some of those profitable roles yield critically-acclaimed performances, and some less so. Some of those characters are found in several movies, TV seasons, or media properties, while some appeared just once. Some of those success stories are common knowledge, while several are actually surprisingly obscure. What all of these money-making fictional characters have in common is that they made the actors who brought them to life rich – filthy rich! And in many cases it just boiled down to great negotiation skills.
We’ve done the math, and it’s official: throw your guesses and favorites out the window! Here are the 16 Actors Who Made The Most Money Playing Just One Character.
16 ROBERT PATTINSON AS EDWARD CULLEN ($30 MILLION)
Robert Pattinson might not have been a huge fan of the Twilight saga of films that made him famous, but he sure got rich for it!
Pattinson’s salaries for Twilight, New Moon, and Eclipse don’t add up to much, but the retroactive money he made off of a percentage in The Twilight Saga’s ongoing profits was substantial. Plus, he reportedly made $25 million just from the final two installments, Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2. It is safe to assume that the actor made around $30 million for portraying the vampire Edward Cullen opposite Kristen Stewart’s Bella Swan.
The entire Twilight franchise took place between 2008 and 2012, with one movie opening every year. Since then, Robert Pattinson has tried to escape the limelight he was propelled onto during his vampire days by focusing mostly on indie films. Surprisingly enough, the actor is not even the only member of this list with an actual, serious grudge against the character who made him the most money.
15 HARRISON FORD AS HAN SOLO ($35 MILLION)
It’s common knowledge that Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill did not make a lot of money from their performances in the original Star Wars trilogy. A New Hope wasn't expected to have such a huge impact, and even when Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi came, it was at a time when actors didn’t have multi-millionaire contracts.
Ford made this list for portraying one of the most iconic characters in the history of cinema, who appeared in four unforgettable movies and is part of the fabric of popular culture around the world. But don’t be fooled! His Han Solo fortune came from just movie: The Force Awakens. Which means he has a lot to thank Disney and J.J. Abrams for.
14 JACK NICHOLSON AS JOKER ($50 MILLION) - TIE
Tim Burton is credited as the first filmmaker who took superhero stories seriously as his 1989 Batman movie introduced Hollywood to the concept of adult, gritty, and commercially successful films based on comic books. But another Batman pioneer often goes uncredited.
Jack Nicholson not only forever shaped the way we understand the character of The Joker in live-action movies, having inspired The Dark Knight’s Oscar-winning Heath Ledger performance and Suicide Squad’s brief Jared Leto cameo, but he is also (still!) the highest-earning actor in any Batman movie, ever.
As reported by Investopedia, Jack Nicholson agreed to be paid only $6 million for portraying the Joker as long as he could get a share from the movie’s profits. Back then, it wasn't so obvious that a superhero movie was going to bring in huge box office numbers... but he made the right call! After Batman blew up and became a lucrative worldwide phenomenon, the actor was able to make as much as $50 million for that risky, yet brilliant performance. That’s $44 million just off of his percentages from the film’s gross profit.
13 RUPERT GRINT AS RONALD WEASLEY ($50 MILLION) - TIE
You knew the Harry Potter main trio had to be on this list, and you were right. Rupert Grint, the ginger best friend we all wish we had (not to be confused with Ed Sheeran!), made a lot of dough from playing the beloved sidekick/comic relief Ronald Weasley. However, maybe not surprisingly, he made the least of the three lead actors of the franchise. His role as Ron, which was developed over eight Potter films, grossed the actor $50 million. Not shabby at all for such a young actor, but definitely below what his two leading co-stars were able to earn.
Also unlike Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, Rupert Grint’s acting career hasn’t exactly blossomed post-Harry Potter. Though, to be fair, he’s the one who has seemed to try the least, focusing more on investments and businesses, such as his very own company Clay10. He's made a recent foray back into acting, starring and executive producing a TV remake of Guy Ritchie's Snatch for streaming service Crackle in March of 2017.
12 DANIEL CRAIG AS JAMES BOND ($59 MILLION)
Daniel Craig might have beaten Robert Pattinson on this list, but the actor’s disdain for playing James Bond comes as a close second to Pattinson’s indifference to Edward Cullen.
After playing 007 in the franchise’s four latest installments, Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and Spectre, and being mum about his presence in the yet-untitled Bond 25, Craig is officially the actor who has made the most money from playing this iconic character. He is also the second longest-serving James Bond actor, only behind Roger Moore. As reported by The Telegraph, Daniel Craig will have made over $59 million in total for his performance in the series of films. He has by far surpassed Pierce Brosnan’s highest salary as James Bond – a $12 million contract for Die Another Day. Sean Connery, the original 007, was paid an average of $4 million dollars per movie in the franchise.
No wonder Tom Hiddleston is so interested in succeeding Daniel Craig’s tenure, huh?
11 TOM HANKS AS FORREST GUMP ($60 MILLION) - TIE
Life is indeed like a box of chocolates, because you never know what you’re gonna get. Or do you?
Tom Hanks didn’t get paid all that much upfront for portraying the title character in Forrest Gump, but his deal to take a percentage of the box office profits definitely brought in the actor a hefty amount of cash. Per Investopedia, due to the movie’s incredible commercial success, the actor has made at least $60 million for portraying Forrest. If that wasn’t enough, the character also gave Hanks the 1994 Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, a year after winning in the same category for Philadelphia.
Forrest Gump was a money machine in every sense. To date, the film has made well over $660 million worldwide. It also spun the seafood chain restaurant Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, which presently has 44 locations across the world.
It’s safe to say that John Travolta should definitely not have turned down that role, eh?
10 EMMA WATSON AS HERMIONE GRANGER ($60 MILLION) - TIE
Emma Watson is the second Harry Potter alum on this list. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Watson made an overall of $60 million for her portrayal of the witch Hermione Granger in the eight Potter films produced by Warner Bros. That's $10 million more than her co-star Rupert Grint, but a lot less than Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, who shows up later on the list.
As a comparison, the actress received $3 million upfront from Disney to portray Belle in the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, which is probably the most commercial thing she has done since the Harry Potter films came to a conclusion.
Hermione Granger, the character, is alive and well in the West End theatre circuit in London. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a two-part play based on a story by J.K. Rowling herself, has Noma Dumezweni taking the helms of the witty witch of Hogwarts.
9 HUGH JACKMAN AS LOGAN / WOLVERINE ($65 MILLION)
There are several reports that talk about Hugh Jackman’s pay cut for Logan, but not a single one points out a precise number. Adding up the actor’s salary for the three first X-Men movies, his cameo in X-Men: Days of the Future, and both X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine, Hugh Jackman made around $55 million. Considering that he was paid $20 million for each of the solo Wolverine movies, and that he took a pay cut for Logan, it is definitely safe to add up that Hugh Jackman has made around $65 million for portraying the superhero on screen in all seven films.
That’s quite a legacy for Jackman, otherwise known for non-franchise movies such as The Prestige, Australia, Prisoners, and Les Misérables. It’s hard to imagine, however, that his Wolverine numbers might someday go up. The 48-year-old actor's time as Wolverine seems to be at an end.
8 CAST OF FRIENDS ($88 MILLION EACH)
If we were to single them out, the cast of Friends would occupy six different positions on the list, so it’s probably fairer to bundle them up. That’s because from season 3 and on, Jennifer Aniston (Rachel), Courteney Cox (Monica), Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe), David Schwimmer (Ross), Matthew Perry (Chandler), and Matt LeBlanc (Joey) made the point of negotiating their contracts with NBC as a group, which means that the ensemble made the same amount of money for each episode.
Each of the actors made a total of $10 million for seasons 1 through 6, then $36 million for seasons 7 and 8, and a whopping $42 million for the final two seasons. That’s a grand total of $88 million per person/character for the duration of Friends’ 10-year run.
In fact, many credit the Friends cast’s negotiating skills for The Big Bang Theory’s cast achievement in getting Jim Parsons, Kaley Cuoco, and Johnny Galecki to all reach the $1-million-per-episode mark together.
7 ASHTON KUTCHER AS WALDEN SCHMIDT ($96 MILLION)
Unless you are a serious Two and a Half Men fan, you probably never met the Mark Zuckerberg-ish character Walden Schmidt. It’s safe to say that Ashton Kutcher’s entry to this list is the most obscure character in comparison to the others, but Schmid still brought in an incredible amount of cash for the actor. It also marked his return to mainstream sitcoms years after That ‘70s Show ended.
Due to Charlie Sheen’s dramatic exit from the CBS sitcom (more about that later on this list), producers were willing to do anything to prove a point, and it just so happened that Ashton Kutcher ceased the opportunity. The actor made $24 million in each of his four years as Walden Schmidt, totaling a $96 million gross over the course of his Two and a Half Men run. That's a lot more money than his efforts in movies such as The Butterfly Effect and What Happens In Vegas. Sometimes, the stars just really all align!
6 CAST OF THE BIG BANG THEORY ($98 MILLION EACH)
The Big Bang Theory’s central trio Jim Parsons (Sheldon), Kaley Cuoco (Penny), and Johnny Galecki (Leonard) is one rich group of actors. They started out making $60,000 per episode for the show’s first three seasons, but as Big Bang was catapulted into mainstream success, their episodic salaries quickly became $200,000 for season 4, and $250,000 for seasons 5 through 7. Most likely inspired by Friends, the trio began to always negotiate as a group of actors with CBS. Per reports from AOL Finance, their price tags got even higher for the latest three seasons, 8 through 10, in which the three actors were paid $1 million per episode.
The grand total? Parsons, Cuoco, and Galecki have each made $98 million from their respective characters in The Big Bang Theory, surpassing the cast of Friends’ individual $88 million overall gross. And unlike Friends, Big Bang has shown no signs of slowing down after ten years, giving the cast ample opportunity to renegotiate their salaries even higher in the near future.
5 DANIEL RADCLIFFE AS HARRY POTTER ($110 MILLION)
Like magic itself, the world’s most beloved wizard came with a price. According to multiple reports, such as one from ProjectCasting.com, Daniel Radcliffe’s net worth after the conclusion of the Harry Potter 8-movie movie franchise was around $110 million. Considering his multiple statements (even very recent ones!) reaffirming that he never touched a penny from the Potter fortune, it is safe to conclude that $110 million was the amount he made from portraying the boy wizard.
It is much more than any actor could ever dream of, but considering the hype that surrounded the Harry Potter franchise and J.K. Rowling’s ascension to the billion-dollar club, some people probably might've imagine that Radcliffe made more than the reported $110 million during his run as Harry.
Maybe J.K. Rowling will write more Potter books in a couple of years, and movies will be made, and Daniel Radcliffe can ascend on this list by playing Harry once again?
4 TOM CRUISE AS ETHAN HUNT ($150 MILLION)
It really doesn’t really get more A-list than Tom Cruise. The actor’s iconic Ethan Hunt character, from the Mission: Impossible series of films, has now existed for more than 10 years, having been originated in the 1996 movie that kicked off the franchise.
Like Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump and Jack Nicholson’s Joker money, Tom Cruise’s earnings from Ethan Hunt came more from his share of Mission: Impossible profits than from a salary per se. Investopedia cites that the actor cut a deal that gave him 30% of the gross sales from 2000’s Mission: Impossible II, and that he made around $75 million just from 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Overall, Cruise has made a profit of around $150 million for portraying the Impossible Missions Force agent Ethan Hunt.
With Mission: Impossible 6 on its way, the franchise shows no sign of slowing down, giving Cruise ample room to earn even more as this beloved action hero.
3 CHARLIE SHEEN AS CHARLIE HARPER ($288 MILLION)
As reported by Heavy.com, Charlie Sheen made an estimated $48 million per year during his six years in the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, where he played Charlie Harper. That salary easily puts him in third place on this list, with an overall gross of $288 million that came just from that single character.
Unfortunately, unlike the casts of Friends, Game of Thrones, and The Big Bang Theory, Charlie Sheen’s exit from Two and a Half Men wasn’t amicable in any way. Sheen’s struggle with drug abuse and his outlandish lifestyle caused the actor several PR problems and personal issues. The sitcom later replaced him with Ashton Kutcher, who also ranked on this list with the money he made from the same show.
After Two and a Half Men, Charlie Sheen moved on to FX’s Anger Management, but he was never able to charge the same fee as he had on Two and a Half Men.
2 JOHNNY DEPP AS CAPTAIN JACK SPARROW ($350 MILLION)
It shouldn’t be surprising that one of Disney’s most profitable franchises, Pirates of the Caribbean, would properly compensate its main star. As reported by TheWrap, after Johnny Depp closed a deal to return for a fifth Pirates movie, the actor had grossed around $350 million just from portraying Captain Jack Sparrow. That number that certainly seems to go against the pirate’s status of loser/underdog.
As Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales opens this May, Johnny Depp is surrounded by controversy, but undoubtedly a very rich man from playing the quirky, flamboyant Jack Sparrow. If Disney is able to bury Depp’s personal drama and keep the franchise going with him, the actor is most certainly poised to reach the #1 spot in a future installment of this list. Now that Disney owns Marvel and Star Wars, however, the future of the Pirates franchise is not as certain as one might assume.
1 ROBERT DOWNEY JR AS TONY STARK/IRON MAN ($430 MILLION)
It’s official: no one has managed to beat Robert Downey Jr. and his run as Tony Star/Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. According to a detailed breakdown from MoneyNation.com, RDJ is poised to have made $430 million from playing Iron Man. That’s adding up all of his Tony Stark performances until 2019, including his earnings for the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, Avengers: Infinity War, and the yet-untitled fourth Avengers. As these movies come out, the actor's contract with Marvel Studios is expected to end.
It's important to note the reports that Robert Downey Jr. made $500,000 for the first Iron Man, then upgraded to a $10 million salary for Iron Man 2, and got as much as $50 million apiece to act in Avengers and Iron Man 3. He clearly understood the value of what his performance had done for the Tony Stark character and for the MCU overall.
These are outstanding, unheard-of, history-making figures, but it's also nice to remember that Iron Man was Robert Downey Jr.'s ultimate comeback story on a personal and professional level, after several drug-related charges that took place between 1996 to 2001. Iron Man came out in May of 2008, kicking off Marvel Studios’ Cinematic Universe and giving RDJ his career back.
Do you think these characters deserved the huge paydays they earned their portrayers? Sound off in the comments!