Nine Movie Stars Who Remained on the A-List for Over 50 Years

Jane Fonda

Recently I saw a production of Shakespeare's Henry IV with none other than Tom Hanks playing Falstaff. He was very funny, and it was moving to see this huge star, whom I'd admired since Bosom Buddies in 1980, perform before my very eyes. 38 years in, Hanks's career is still going strong. Yet 38 years isn't 50 years, which made me wonder: what stars have stayed on top for half a century? I'm not just talking about those with long careers like Cloris Leachman or Mickey Rooney, but those who retained top billing in major motion pictures with no "slumming" period (e.g., Playhouse 90 TV stints in the late '50s, straight-to-video titles in the '90s, "sassy grandma" supporting parts today). That excludes such luminaries as Kirk Douglas, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Angela Lansbury, Christopher Plummer, and Alan Arkin, impressive as their 50+ year careers have been. For this list, I started with the year each actor became a star, and counted to 50 from there.

  1. KATHARINE HEPBURN. The four-time Oscar winner set the standard for A-list endurance: choose roles carefully, even if you don't work every year. She broke out in 1933 with Little Women, and every decade since produced at least one landmark Hepburn performance: The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Rooster Cogburn, On Golden Pond. The latter may have capped off Hepburn's movie stardom in 1981, two years shy of the half-century mark, but she kept going with first-billed roles in network TV movies – not quite slumming – and a final big screen role (supporting) in 1994's Love Affair.
  2. WARREN BEATTY. Speaking of Love Affair, the star of that ill-fated romance also belongs on this list, even if he took 15 years off between the flops Town & Country (2001) and Rules Don't Apply (2016), which he also directed. Hey, I never said the movies had to be hits! Regardless, Beatty became a star in 1961 with Splendor in the Grass and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, so even if he never acts again, his A-list status still survived for 55 years.
  3. SHIRLEY MacLAINE. Beatty's older sister has also shown remarkable A-list longevity. Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry made her the "It" girl of 1955. Flash-forward to the 21st century and okay, you've got some of those sassy grandma roles, like Bewitched and Downton Abbey. But MacLaine also headlined Bernie (2011) and The Last Word (2017). She's still got it.
  4. ROBERT REDFORD. The Sundance Kid never even left the A-plus list. 1965's Inside Daisy Clover made him a star. Fifty years on, he was playing Dan Rather in Truth opposite Cate Blanchett, after delivering his best work in All Is Lost and a nifty turn in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He next stars in The Old Man & the Gun.
  5. PAUL NEWMAN. Now, some might argue that his voice work in 2006's Cars doesn't exactly count as a "performance". (His tenure on the A-list began exactly fifty years prior, with 1956's Somebody Up There Likes Me.) Well, I say it does count, as Cars was the only Pixar film to name-check its stars on its poster, probably because of Newman's iconic status.
  6. JANE FONDA. Already the daughter of showbiz royalty, Fonda shared top billing with Anthony Perkins in her first film, 1960's Tall Story. Of her many '60s films, only Cat Ballou, Barbarella, and They Shoot Horses, Don't They? are remembered today. But Fonda herself, despite a Beatty-like screen absence of 15 years (along with numerous personal reinventions), went back to work in 2005 with the regrettable Monster-in-Law and has kept busy ever since, recently headlining 2018's Book Club and carrying on with her Emmy-nominated role on Grace and Frankie.
  7. MICHAEL CAINE. And what of the many thespians across the pond? Laurence Olivier's career took a nosedive after 1980, so he didn't quite make it to fifty years on the A-list. Vanessa Redgrave and Maggie Smith are well into their sixth professional decade, but they've been stuck with supporting parts since forever. Meanwhile, consider Michael Caine. No Shakespearian he, just 100% movie star. He arrived in 1964 with Zulu, and was still being top-billed in 2017's Going in Style. Next up: King of Thieves. Caine may have had his share of stinkers, but never a fallow period.
  8. MARLON BRANDO. It's incredible that the notoriously difficult Brando completed any film after Apocalypse Now, but he did indeed make it to the half-century mark in 2001 with his final outing The Score. Fifty years earlier, A Streetcar Named Desire made him an icon. He certainly didn't leave his career the same way he came into it, but come on – it's Brando.
  9. CLINT EASTWOOD. You thought I was going to forget this guy? Eastwood was a name as early as 1959, thanks to the TV series Rawhide, but A Fistful of Dollars cemented his stardom in 1967 (although it was made in 1964!). His robust directorial career unexpectedly peaked during the last decade, even if Eastwood himself hasn't been in front of a camera since 2012's Trouble with the Curve. Don't think that adds up to fifty years? Well then, he next stars in 2019's The Mule (which he's also directing) as an elderly criminal. Notably, Caine's and Redford's upcoming vehicles have them playing elderly criminals as well. Career advice for future octogenarian Tom Hanks.