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Samuel L. Jackson, 68, whose latest film, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, put his career gross earnings over the $5.1 billion mark, is now the biggest movie star in the world — ahead of superstar award winners such as Tom Hanks, and even his friend and mentor Morgan Freeman.
The test of a movie star’s power is getting people to see a lousy movie (like Tom Cruise in Cocktail), and Jackson, who did brilliant work in obscurity until his mid-40s, not only jolted the formulaic buddy-comedy chase-thriller script to life, he rewrote some of the Hitman script to make it sing — and of course he incorporated his signature phrase, “mother#@&*@*!” Without his skills, the film wouldn’t have been No. 1 at the box office for three weeks, the longest winning streak of the summer.
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Jackson’s talent is so big it changes rules: The Cannes Film Festival created its best supporting actor award to honor his breakthrough work in Spike Lee’s 1991 Jungle Fever, and when someone at a test screening of 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight shouted, “You can’t kill Samuel Jackson!” the filmmaker revised his death scene so that his character survives.
Why has Jackson survived so long at the top? “It is easy to see why SJ is No. 1,” says Deadline Hollywood awards columnist Pete Hammond. “No one has been better than Sam about putting themselves in blockbusters.” Though he got an Oscar nomination for Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and does a fair share of arty film (narrating the 2018 Oscar contender James Baldwin doc I Am Not Your Negro, acting in films by Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton, plus seven by Tarantino), he also goes for Marvel movies and astounded the producers of Snakes on a Plane by campaigning for its star part. “He wants to be in movies that he would like to see, and that’s worked out nicely,” says Hammond.
Jackson has no shame about even his silliest roles. “Snakes on a Plane doesn’t speak volumes about s—,” Jackson once said. “It just says people are still making movies that people are having fun going to watch.” And if any mother, father, son or daughter doesn’t like it, Jackson suggested, "Wait until they have Snakes on Brokeback Mountain or something!”
So how many of our current top 20 box office stars are over 50? Yes, 17 out of 20. So if movie makers gave more grownup actors a chance — wouldn’t they make more money? We know what Jackson would say.
Below, the top 20 actors — determined by film grosses — today:
1. Samuel L. Jackson, 68
2. Harrison Ford, 75
3. Tom Hanks, 61
4. Morgan Freeman, 80
5. Robert Downey Jr., 52
6. Eddie Murphy, 56
7. Stanley Tucci, 56
8. Tom Cruise, 55
9. Scarlett Johansson, 32
10. Ian McKellen, 78
11. Johnny Depp, 54
12. Anthony Daniels, 71
13. Michael Caine, 84
14. Gary Oldman, 59
15. Robin Williams, 63 (deceased)
16. Robert De Niro, 74
17. Emma Watson, 27
18. Will Smith, 48
19. Bruce Willis, 62
20. Stellan Skarsgard, 66