The entertainment business is notorious for its obsession with youth, so it’s great when a more seasoned performer gets to be Hollywood’s hot, new talent. While some celebrities seem to come out of nowhere, many have to put in years — or even decades — of hard work before being recognized.
Here are some of the most famous stars who didn’t become really famous until later in life. These people are all proof that you should never give up on your dreams, no matter how far-fetched they may seem.
The music industry is dominated by pop stars who are in their teens and 20s but Susan Boyle showed those youngsters how to sell records in 2009. That year, the Scottish singer auditioned for “Britain’s Got Talent” at the age of 47 and became a global sensation. Boyle had been singing her entire life but had spent most of her life caring for her ailing mother, who died before she decided to finally try to make it as a musician. Her debut album, “I Dreamed a Dream,” came out when she was 48 years old and it became 2010’s best-selling album in America.
It’s tough to picture Steve Carell as a young man because we didn’t really know him then. The comedy icon had small acting roles in various TV shows during the 1990s but didn’t start gaining mainstream recognition until starting his role as a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in 1999, when he was 37 years old. He truly became a star when NBC’s “The Office” debuted in 2005, when he was 42.
One of Hollywood’s most beloved figures, the legendary Betty White was no spring chicken when she first became a major star. She was 31 years old when she landed her first starring role in the 1953 TV sitcom “Life with Elizabeth,” but her most enduring roles didn’t come until decades later. She was 51 when “The Mary Tyler Moore” show debuted in 1973 and she was 63 when “The Golden Girls” launched in 1985, making her a star to multiple generations. As she nears 100 years old, she continues to land great roles.
In 1971, a 34-year-old Morgan Freeman made his television debut on the beloved educational series “The Electric Company.” He continued to find steady work on television and with small movie parts in the decades after that but became an A-list star in 1987. That year, he earned his first Oscar nomination for a supporting role in “Street Smart.” He was 50 years old and his Hollywood career was just taking off.
Comedian Ricky Gervais first made his name as a stand-up comic in the 1990s, when he was well into his 30s. He didn’t become a star until 2001, when he created and starred in “The Office” for British television. He was 40 years old when the show debuted and he’s been a mainstay of television ever since. Gervais didn’t get his first leading role in a film until 2008’s “Ghost Town,” when he was 47.
Before Martha Stewart became a star in the worlds of cooking and home entertaining, she worked as a fashion model and a stockbroker. She gradually got into design and catering, which led to her first cookbook being published in 1982. She was 41 years old when “Entertaining” hit stores and she was just getting started in her new venture. In 1993, Stewart’s first TV show, “Martha Stewart Living,” debuted when she was 52 years old.
It’s pretty well known that Steve Buscemi worked as a New York City firefighter for several years before becoming an actor. That meant his road to stardom took a bit longer than some performers. He made his screen debut in 1985, at the age of 28 but it wasn’t until he hooked up with director Quentin Tarantino that Buscemi became a mainstream figure. When he starred in Tarantino’s 1992 movie, “Reservoir Dogs,” Buscemi was 34 years old. It could be argued that he didn’t get his first true, major leading role until HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” which debuted in 2010 when he was 52.
Now one of Hollywood’s leading players, Viola Davis didn’t graduate from the prestigious Juilliard School until she was nearly 30. She spent the first part of her career on stage, racking up accolades including a Tony Award in 2001 at the age of 36. It wasn’t until 2008, in the movie “Doubt,” that she became widely known to filmgoers. Her Oscar-nominated role in 2011’s “The Help” made her a mainstream star and in 2014, at the age of 49, she landed her first starring TV role in ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder.”
The world of comedy can be a very tough place to break out of as a star. It took Rodney Dangerfield several decades to finally hit the big time. In 1967, after years of doing stand-up, he made his debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and became an overnight star at the age of 45. But it wasn’t until years later that Dangerfield became a top movie star, following his immortal turn in 1980’s “Caddyshack,” which hit theaters when he was 58.
Another comic who waited a while to make her name was Joy Behar. She started her career as a high school English teacher before getting hired as a receptionist at “Good Morning America.” During that time she started working as a comic and eventually landed a role in NBC’s 1988 sitcom, “Baby Boom,” when she was 46 years old. But Behar had to wait even longer to become a major, mainstream figure, when she landed the gig co-hosting ABC’s “The View” at the age of 54 in 1997.
With as many incredible comic book characters as he created, you probably figured Stan Lee was making them up as a child but you’d be wrong. The legendary Marvel Comics leader worked in the comics industry but didn’t create his first original characters until he was 38 years old, when the Fantastic Four debuted in 1961. The following year, he created the Hulk and Spider-Man, among others, and followed that by creating characters like Iron Man and the X-Men when he was 40. Who says superheroes are just kids’ stuff?
Author Frank McCourt didn’t write his first book until he was past what many consider retirement age — but it led him to win a Pulitzer Prize. The Irish-American writer worked as a teacher for much of his life after being raised in extreme poverty. In 1996, he published his memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” and it made him an overnight literary sensation at the age of 66. In 2005, when he was 75, McCourt wrote another memoir called “Teacher Man,” about his previous career.
Samuel L. Jackson
No single actor in the history of Hollywood has had his movies gross as much money as Samuel L. Jackson, which is even more impressive when you figure he was a little late to the game. He worked as a stage actor during his early career and didn’t start getting regular film roles until 1988, when he was about 40 years old. His major breakthrough came in 1994, when he stole the show in “Pulp Fiction” at the age of 45 and earned his first — and, somehow, only — Oscar nomination.
A truly amazing story of starting late on your dream career, Kathryn Joosten worked in community theater and as a performer at Walt Disney World for part of her adult life. She didn’t really get serious about acting as a career until 1995, when she finally moved to Hollywood at the age of 56. When she was nearly 60, she landed a regular role in NBC’s “The West Wing” but her big star turn came when she was 66 years old in ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” She won two Emmys for her role as Karen McCluskey in that hit series.
Did you know Jon Hamm worked as a high school drama teacher before he caught his big break? It’s tough to imagine a guy with those looks and that smoldering talent sitting in a classroom telling teenagers how to read Shakespeare but that’s what he did in St. Louis in his 20s. He gave up teaching to act, landing regular roles in shows like “Providence” and “The Division,” but he didn’t become a known star until 2007. That year, when Hamm was 36 years old, he landed the lead role of Don Draper in AMC’s “Mad Men,” which would lead him to win an Emmy.
F. Murray Abraham
He’s famous for his role in a film about Mozart but actor F. Murray Abraham was no child prodigy himself. Throughout the 1970s, when he was in his 30s, Abraham found steady work with small roles in television shows and movies but he became a full-blown star in 1983. That year, when he was 45 years old, Abraham won an Oscar for his work in “Amadeus,” which led to more noticeable roles. He didn’t land his first major TV role until Showtime’s “Homeland,” which earned him his first Emmy nomination at the age of 76.
There aren’t many actors who wait until they are 35 to get into Hollywood and then immediately become A-list stars but that’s what Steven Seagal did. After spending years working as a martial arts teacher, Seagal jumped into the movie business in 1987, starring in and producing “Above the Law.” In 1991, he hosted an episode of “Saturday Night Live” at the age of 39, a true sign of breaking into the mainstream. From there, he released a string of hit action films that he starred in and produced throughout the 1990s.
He’s already won two Oscars but Christoph Waltz didn’t land on Hollywood’s radar until he was past 50. After decades of working in German cinema and television, the Austrian actor finally crossed over to American audiences with his role as a Nazi in 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds.” He was 52 years old when he landed that role and won his first Oscar. Since then, he’s had major roles in dozens of blockbusters, like “Muppets Most Wanted,” “Spectre” and “Alita: Battle Angel.”
Like some other great actors on this list, Ann Dowd had to pay some serious dues before becoming a star most viewers could recognize. She got her first screen credit in 1985, at the age of 29, but it would be a couple decades before she scored a breakthrough role. That came in 2012’s “Compliance,” when Dowd was 56 years old. After that award-winning performance, she landed a main part in HBO’s “The Leftovers” before scoring her Emmy-winning turn in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” at the age of 61.
Similar to Betty White, talk show icon Regis Philbin found plenty of work on TV in the 1960s, when he was in his 30s, but he became an A-list star long after that. When he was 57 years old, Philbin landed the gig that most people would know him for, as co-host of “Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee,” which he would do until he was 80. In case you wondered, Philbin was 68 when he started hosting “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in 1999.
TV cooking legend Julia Child didn’t become a world-famous gourmet until the second half of her life. She was 49 years old when her first cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” was published in 1961. Two years later, Child’s classic series, “The French Chef,” premiered and made her a sensation. She continued to be a mainstay on TV for decades after that, hosting her final show, “Julia Child’s Kitchen Wisdom,” in 2000 when she was 88.
Fashion is another industry that’s typically linked with younger people but Vera Wang didn’t start her career as a designer until she was 40. After her dreams of becoming an Olympic figure skater were dashed, Wang turned to fashion journalism and became an editor at Vogue when she was only 21 years old — making her a wunderkind in that particular business. She did that job for nearly 20 years before founding her own fashion line in 1990.
Director Michael Mann had found work making documentaries and TV projects during the early part of his career but didn’t get the chance to make a feature film until he was nearly 40. In 1981, Mann directed “Thief” when he was 38 years old, giving him more mileage than many first-time directors. In 1984, when he was 41, Mann worked as executive producer of NBC’s “Miami Vice,” opening up even more avenues for his burgeoning career.
If you can’t remember Brian Dennehy ever looking like a young man on screen, it’s because you probably never saw him as one. Before making it as an actor, Dennehy worked as a stockbroker, later saying it was a job he wasn’t very good at. His breakthrough performance came in 1982’s “First Blood” when he was 44 years old. He’d earn his first of six Emmy nominations in 1990, when he was 52, for his work in CBS’s TV movie, “A Killing in a Small Town.”
Italian singer Andrea Bocelli is so beloved it feels like we’ve been listening to him forever — but he hasn’t been on the scene all that long. After singing in piano bars and working as a lawyer, Bocelli got his big break in the early 1990s. He recorded his first album in 1994, at the age of 36, before his chart-topping record, “Bocelli,” came out a year later.