Top Box Office Stars in Classic Movies Made Every Year Since 1945

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Casting movies is a complicated process. Directors usually make the final call, but sometimes producers or the financiers of the movie may demand to choose the lead actors  — and their choice is often based on bankability.

Such actors are often offered roles without auditioning, based on the strength of their prior performances or potential to bring in audiences.

To determine the top grossing actor in America’s classic movies made every year between 1945 and 2000, 24/7 Tempo calculated total box office earnings for each actor for each of those years using data from the Internet Movie Database, Rotten Tomatoes, and film industry site The Numbers. Only films with at least 25,000 votes on IMDb were considered in our analysis.

Some of history’s top-grossing actors — such as Will Smith and Tom Hanks — made movies that ended up with huge profits over the course of long careers. Others starred in huge hits with recurring roles in franchises early on. 

Before COVID-19 devastated the motion picture industry, movies were making more money at the box office than ever. It was not unusual for blockbuster films to gross more than $100 million domestically. In 2021, a year when movie theaters gradually started reopening, the top grossing movie is “Godzilla vs. Kong” — it has made over $306 million so far. These are the top-grossing movies of all time

To determine the top box office star in America’s favorite movies, 24/7 Tempo calculated total box office earnings for each actor for every year since 1945, using data from the Internet Movie Database, Rotten Tomatoes, and film industry site The Numbers. Only films with at least 25,000 votes on IMDb were considered in our analysis.

Actors were ranked based on the domestic box office for all films in which they were listed as lead actor on IMDb in a given year. 

Only actors with at least five lead credits throughout their entire careers were considered. For years in which no films with box office data starring an actor with at least five career lead film credits were released, the threshold was lowered to four films, or three films, two films, and so on. 

Domestic box office data came from IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, and The Numbers.

Source: Keystone / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1945: Ray Milland
> Most famous movie(s) with Ray Milland made in 1945: The Lost Weekend
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Ray Milland: $11,000,000

Source: Archive Photos / Moviepix via Getty Images

1946: Cary Grant
> Most famous movie(s) with Cary Grant made in 1946: Notorious
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Cary Grant: $24,464,742

Source: Keystone / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1947: Rita Hayworth
> Most famous movie(s) with Rita Hayworth made in 1947: The Lady from Shanghai
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Rita Hayworth: $10,000

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

1948: John Wayne
> Most famous movie(s) with John Wayne made in 1948: Red River
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with John Wayne: $9,012,000

Source: tom-margie / Flickr

1949: Orson Welles
> Most famous movie(s) with Orson Welles made in 1949: The Third Man
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Orson Welles: $450,000

Source: Archive Photos / Moviepix via Getty Images

1950: Toshirô Mifune
> Most famous movie(s) with Toshirô Mifune made in 1950: Rashômon
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Toshirô Mifune: $100,000

Source: FPG / Archive Photos via Getty Images

1951: Humphrey Bogart
> Most famous movie(s) with Humphrey Bogart made in 1951: The African Queen
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Humphrey Bogart: $540,000

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Moviepix via Getty Images

1952: John Wayne
> Most famous movie(s) with John Wayne made in 1952: The Quiet Man
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with John Wayne: $10,550,000

Source: Columbia Pictures / Moviepix via Getty Images

1953: Burt Lancaster
> Most famous movie(s) with Burt Lancaster made in 1953: From Here to Eternity
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Burt Lancaster: $30,500,000

Source: Paramount Pictures / Moviepix via Getty Images

1954: James Stewart
> Most famous movie(s) with James Stewart made in 1954: Rear Window
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with James Stewart: $36,760,000

Source: Archive Photos / Archive Photos via Getty Images

1955: Cary Grant
> Most famous movie(s) with Cary Grant made in 1955: To Catch a Thief
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Cary Grant: $8,750,000

Source: Graphic House / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1956: Charlton Heston
> Most famous movie(s) with Charlton Heston made in 1956: The Ten Commandments
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Charlton Heston: $85,400,591

Source: Archive Photos / Archive Photos via Getty Images

1957: William Holden
> Most famous movie(s) with William Holden made in 1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with William Holden: $33,300,000

Source: Ron Burton / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1958: James Stewart
> Most famous movie(s) with James Stewart made in 1958: Vertigo
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with James Stewart: $3,200,000

Source: Keystone Features / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1959: Charlton Heston
> Most famous movie(s) with Charlton Heston made in 1959: Ben-Hur
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Charlton Heston: $73,000,000

Source: Hulton Archive / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1960: Kirk Douglas
> Most famous movie(s) with Kirk Douglas made in 1960: Spartacus
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Kirk Douglas: $30,000,000

Source: Central Press / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1961: Paul Newman
> Most famous movie(s) with Paul Newman made in 1961: The Hustler
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Paul Newman: $7,600,000

Source: 97453745@N02 / Flickr

1962: Gregory Peck
> Most famous movie(s) with Gregory Peck made in 1962: Cape Fear, To Kill a Mockingbird
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Gregory Peck: $89,529,846

Source: ateam / Flickr

1963: Sean Connery
> Most famous movie(s) with Sean Connery made in 1963: From Russia with Love
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Sean Connery: $24,800,000

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Moviepix via Getty Images

1964: Sean Connery
> Most famous movie(s) with Sean Connery made in 1964: Goldfinger
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Sean Connery: $51,100,000

Source: Express / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1965: Sean Connery
> Most famous movie(s) with Sean Connery made in 1965: Thunderball
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Sean Connery: $63,600,000

Source: yagisu / Flickr

1966: Clint Eastwood
> Most famous movie(s) with Clint Eastwood made in 1966: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Clint Eastwood: $6,100,000

Source: 97453745@N02 / Flickr

1967: Dustin Hoffman
> Most famous movie(s) with Dustin Hoffman made in 1967: The Graduate
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Dustin Hoffman: $104,950,000

Source: Central Press / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1968: Charlton Heston
> Most famous movie(s) with Charlton Heston made in 1968: Planet of the Apes
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Charlton Heston: $33,395,426

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

1969: Paul Newman
> Most famous movie(s) with Paul Newman made in 1969: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Paul Newman: $102,308,900

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

1970: Dustin Hoffman
> Most famous movie(s) with Dustin Hoffman made in 1970: Little Big Man
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Dustin Hoffman: $31,560,000

Source: Roy Jones / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1971: Clint Eastwood
> Most famous movie(s) with Clint Eastwood made in 1971: Dirty Harry, Play Misty for Me
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Clint Eastwood: $47,700,000

Source: Evening Standard / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1972: Gene Hackman
> Most famous movie(s) with Gene Hackman made in 1972: The Poseidon Adventure
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Gene Hackman: $84,560,000

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

1973: Paul Newman
> Most famous movie(s) with Paul Newman made in 1973: The Sting
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Paul Newman: $159,616,327

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

1974: Paul Newman
> Most famous movie(s) with Paul Newman made in 1974: The Towering Inferno
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Paul Newman: $116,000,000

Source: Evening Standard / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1975: Jack Nicholson
> Most famous movie(s) with Jack Nicholson made in 1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Jack Nicholson: $108,981,275

Source: United Artists / Moviepix via Getty Images

1976: Sylvester Stallone
> Most famous movie(s) with Sylvester Stallone made in 1976: Rocky
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Sylvester Stallone: $117,235,147

Source: John Minihan / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1977: Richard Dreyfuss
> Most famous movie(s) with Richard Dreyfuss made in 1977: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Richard Dreyfuss: $169,100,479

Source: Paramount Pictures / Moviepix via Getty Images

1978: John Travolta
> Most famous movie(s) with John Travolta made in 1978: Grease
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with John Travolta: $181,813,770

Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures Corporation

1979: Dustin Hoffman
> Most famous movie(s) with Dustin Hoffman made in 1979: Kramer vs. Kramer
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Dustin Hoffman: $106,260,000

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Moviepix via Getty Images

1980: Gene Hackman
> Most famous movie(s) with Gene Hackman made in 1980: Superman II
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Gene Hackman: $108,185,706

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

1981: Harrison Ford
> Most famous movie(s) with Harrison Ford made in 1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Harrison Ford: $225,686,079

Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

1982: Dustin Hoffman
> Most famous movie(s) with Dustin Hoffman made in 1982: Tootsie
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Dustin Hoffman: $177,200,000

Source: P. Shirley / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1983: Eddie Murphy
> Most famous movie(s) with Eddie Murphy made in 1983: Trading Places
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Eddie Murphy: $90,400,000

Source: Archive Photos / Moviepix via Getty Images

1984: Bill Murray
> Most famous movie(s) with Bill Murray made in 1984: Ghostbusters
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Bill Murray: $242,212,467

Source: Columbia TriStar / Moviepix via Getty Images

1985: Sylvester Stallone
> Most famous movie(s) with Sylvester Stallone made in 1985: Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rocky IV
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Sylvester Stallone: $278,285,432

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

1986: Tom Cruise
> Most famous movie(s) with Tom Cruise made in 1986: Top Gun
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Tom Cruise: $179,800,601

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

1987: Michael Douglas
> Most famous movie(s) with Michael Douglas made in 1987: Fatal Attraction
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Michael Douglas: $156,645,693

Source: Courtesy of United Artists

1988: Dustin Hoffman
> Most famous movie(s) with Dustin Hoffman made in 1988: Rain Man
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Dustin Hoffman: $172,825,435

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

1989: Michael Keaton
> Most famous movie(s) with Michael Keaton made in 1989: Batman
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Michael Keaton: $251,188,924

Source: Archive Photos / Moviepix via Getty Images

1990: Patrick Swayze
> Most famous movie(s) with Patrick Swayze made in 1990: Ghost
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Patrick Swayze: $217,631,306

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

1991: Kevin Costner
> Most famous movie(s) with Kevin Costner made in 1991: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, JFK
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Kevin Costner: $235,899,406

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

1992: Mel Gibson
> Most famous movie(s) with Mel Gibson made in 1992: Lethal Weapon 3, Forever Young
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Mel Gibson: $200,691,527

Source: Archive Photos / Moviepix via Getty Images

1993: Robin Williams
> Most famous movie(s) with Robin Williams made in 1993: Mrs. Doubtfire
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Robin Williams: $219,195,051

Source: Christopher Polk / Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images

1994: Matthew Broderick
> Most famous movie(s) with Matthew Broderick made in 1994: The Lion King
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Matthew Broderick: $421,785,283

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

1995: Tom Hanks
> Most famous movie(s) with Tom Hanks made in 1995: Toy Story, Apollo 13
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Tom Hanks: $366,296,000

Source: China Photos / Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images

1996: Tom Cruise
> Most famous movie(s) with Tom Cruise made in 1996: Mission: Impossible, Jerry Maguire
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Tom Cruise: $334,934,478

Source: Archive Photos / Moviepix via Getty Images

1997: Leonardo DiCaprio
> Most famous movie(s) with Leonardo DiCaprio made in 1997: Titanic
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Leonardo DiCaprio: $659,363,944

Source: Courtesy of DreamWorks Distribution

1998: Tom Hanks
> Most famous movie(s) with Tom Hanks made in 1998: Saving Private Ryan, You’ve Got Mail
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Tom Hanks: $332,156,580

Source: Larry Busacca / Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images

1999: Ewan McGregor
> Most famous movie(s) with Ewan McGregor made in 1999: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Ewan McGregor: $474,544,677

Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

2000: Mel Gibson
> Most famous movie(s) with Mel Gibson made in 2000: What Women Want, The Patriot, Chicken Run
> Domestic box office of most famous movie(s) with Mel Gibson: $402,929,380

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