The Most Valuable Actors of All Time

By Michael B. Sauter, Alexander E.M. Hess and Samuel Weigley24/7 Wall St.

There are movie stars, and then there are actors whose involvement appears more important than the movie itself. Some are so critical to success that studios will pay them tens of millions of dollars to be in their pictures. Johnny Depp just signed a contract to make a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean, and some members of the press are speculating that Depp could earn as much as $95 million. That’s a big paycheck when the most recent Pirates movie grossed roughly $1 billion worldwide.

There are a small number of actors whose involvement in movies has resulted in billions of dollars in tickets sales. Because of their continued popularity and success, some careers have stretched over decades. Based on a review of films’ gross box office sales, adjusted for ticket price inflation, from online movie data resource Box Office Mojo, 24/7 Wall St. identified the most valuable actors of all time.

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In order to make this list, an actor needed to star in multiple hits, and not just a single powerful franchise. For example, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, who starred in all eight installments of the extremely successful Harry Potter series, are both among the top 20 actors based on the gross sales of films in which they have starred. However, they have only appeared in five other movies between the two of them. At this point, they may be typecast as one-franchise wonders, unable to break out of the role they have gained their fame through.

Nearly all the actors that made our list have starred in several high-grossing franchises. Harrison Ford, who is among the most valuable actors according to our measure, was in two, the Star Wars trilogy and the four Indiana Jones movies. However, all of these actors were also in multiple standalone films, showing their versatility by playing very different characters.

Sean Connery, for example, starred in seven different James Bond films, all of which grossed more than $100 million adjusted for ticket inflation. This would alone be enough to put him top 100 grossing actors, but Connery also starred in such hits as “The Rock” and “The Hunt for Red October,” each of which grossed well over $200 million adjusted for inflation.

Success in the box office is not the same as success with the critics. A look at the top actors on this list makes that clear. While a few are decorated actors, such as Tom Hanks who has won two Academy Awards for acting, most on this list have received little positive attention from critics. Harrison Ford, among the highest grossing actors of all time, has never won an Oscar for acting. Meryl Streep, who is the 43rd highest-grossing actor of all time, has won three.

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To identify the most valuable actors of all time, 24/7 Wall St. ranked nearly 700 leading actors in Box Office Mojo’s database. Actors ranked higher if they starred in more films, if the films they starred in averaged high ticket sales, and if they had among the highest combined box office gross adjusted for ticket price inflation. This last component was weighted more heavily. All film gross numbers are based on U.S. ticket sales only, and, unless otherwise noted, are adjusted for ticket price inflation, as calculated by Box Office Mojo. Awards, such as Oscar wins and nominations, came from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).

These are the most valuable actors of all time.

10. John Travolta > Total film gross: $4.3 billion > Average film gross: $99.7 million > Films: 43 > Top grossing film: Grease > Acting Oscars: 0

After starting his career on the TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter,” John Travolta’s film career took off in the late 1970s with starring roles in “Saturday Night Fever,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor in a leading role, and “Grease.” Adjusted for inflation, these remain the two highest grossing films of Travolta’s career. Since then, Travolta has starred in blockbusters in several different genres, including comedies such as “Look Who’s Talking” and more-violent films such as cult film “Pulp Fiction” and “Face/Off.” But not all films Travolta has starred in have been successful. In 2000, Travolta’s “Battlefield Earth” was released to universally negative reviews and was named by the Razzies — which highlight the worst movies and performances in film each year — as the “Worst Movie of the Decade” in 2010.

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9. Clint Eastwood > Total film gross: $4.3 billion > Average film gross: $93.3 million > Films: 46 > Top grossing film: Every Which Way But Loose > Acting Oscars: 0

Clint Eastwood has been a well-known actor for the past 45 years, with his first film — “A Fistful of Dollars” — released in early 1967. His highest grossing film, the 1978 blockbuster “Every Which Way But Loose,” brought in more than $283 million in current dollars. Other films starring Eastwood that have earned more than $150 million include “Dirty Harry,” “The Enforcer” and, more recently, “Gran Torino.” Eastwood also has been a successful director, winning a best director Oscar for “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby,” both of which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of the Year. He has yet to win an Oscar for his acting.

8. Morgan Freeman > Total film gross: $4.5 billion > Average film gross: $95.8 million > Films: 47 > Top grossing film: The Dark Knight > Acting Oscars: 1

Morgan Freeman was first nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in the 1987 film “Street Smart.” Over the course of his career, Freeman has been an Academy Award nominee five times, winning once, in 2005, for his supporting role in “Million Dollar Baby.” Freeman has also starred in a number of major box office hits, including the Batman trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan — one of the most successful franchises of all time — and the comedy “Bruce Almighty.” Freeman may be best-known for his voice, and has served as a first- or third-person narrator in a number of movies, including “The Shawshank Redemption” and “March of the Penguins.”

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7. Sean Connery > Total film gross: $4.5 billion > Average film gross: $122.9 million > Films: 37 > Top grossing film: Thunderball > Acting Oscars: 1

Sean Connery is one of six actors who have played the role of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Between 1963 and 1983, Connery played the secret agent in seven films. Adjusted for ticket price inflation, two of these movies — “Goldfinger” in 1964 and “Thunderball” in 1965 — each earned more than $500 million. Connery also has starred in a number of successful action movies, including “The Untouchables,” for which he earned his only Oscar, “The Rock” and “The Hunt for Red October.” Connery is currently retired as an actor. His last film, released in 2003, was “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman,” based on the comic book by Alan Moore.

6. Dustin Hoffman > Total film gross: $4.6 billion > Average film gross: $117.5 million > Films: 39 > Top grossing film: The Graduate > Acting Oscars: 2

Although Dustin Hoffman has appeared in nearly 40 movies, his first, 1967’s “The Graduate,” remains his highest grossing film, after adjusting for ticket price inflation. For his performance in the movie, Hoffman received the first of his seven Oscar nominations. He went on to win his first Academy Award for his leading performance in the 1979 drama “Kramer vs. Kramer” and his second Oscar for his role in “Rain Man,” in which he starred alongside Tom Cruise. In all, one-third of Hoffman’s films have grossed at least $100 million, ranging from political drama “All the President’s Men” to the comedy “Tootsie.”

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