Stars Who Peaked Way Later In Life

The following article includes references to addiction.

Societal pressures can sometimes make us feel guilty for not achieving career success earlier on in life. Of course, in a perfect world, we figure out what we want to do in or around high school. Then, when our 20s roll around, we're knee-deep in our chosen careers and achieve all of our professional goals before 30 hits. Yes, things happen like that for some people — but it's much more common to age out of those 30 Under 30 listicles, as a lot of folks might not find success until much later in life. Maybe it took some time for these people to discover their true passion; or possibly, they might've known all along what they wanted to do, but it took many years for their skills and talents to be recognized.

Take, for instance, the following celebrities who've peaked later in life. Some of these stars found success right after they were about to give up, while others quit their profession but returned years later after their work finally got discovered. If anything, these showbiz stories are about never giving up, keeping our eyes on the finish line regardless of how difficult the race is, and knowing that the seeds we've planted early in our career could blossom into something beautiful any day now. 

Ready to get inspired? If so, let's jump right into it.

Viola Davis' success didn't come quickly

Hollywood loves youth and youth culture. At least, that's the way it appears based on who a lot of showbiz advertising is geared toward. It also seems that many of the actors who achieve breakout success do so in their 20s, many far younger than that — which any child star can attest to. Viola Davis, however, didn't snag mainstream success until her early 40s after appearing in 2008's "Doubt." Then other films like "The Help” really fueled her ascension to the A-list, as did the ABC series "How to Get Away with Murder." 

For her part, the talented EGOT winner spoke about ageism in Hollywood during an interview with Essence and how she's navigated it. "I'm probably not a great person to ask about age because I never lie about my age, I love my age," Davis explained in 2021. "Even when I was younger, I'd look in the face of Helen Mirren and Jane Fonda and Cicely Tyson, and all I'd see was beauty. But yes, the industry does put a lot of pressure on you. There's a feeling like you're no longer valuable when you get older." 

Stating that the world of entertainment "is very much image conscious," Davis also noted, "I don't feel that our society has embraced what comes with aging. ... They think that you just get old, we don't value wisdom and we don't value experience." How amazing it would be if that changed one day, huh?

Sheryl Crow sang jingles and waited tables

"Everyday is a Winding Road" is the name of Sheryl Crow's 1996 single, but the title can also be used to describe her career before music success came. "One of the good things and the weird things is my first record came out when I was 29," she told "The Howard Stern Show" of 1993's "Tuesday Night Music Club." "So I'd already ... had jobs, like real jobs in the real workforce."

Some of those jobs included working as an elementary school music teacher in St. Louis, Missouri and a jingle singer for McDonald's commercials. After moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the music business, the singer-songwriter did some waitressing while passing around her demo tape. An audition to sing backup for Michael Jackson came later — a gig she was able to land. Of course, becoming a solo artist by the end of her 20s is still incredibly young, but it seems famous musicians often get discovered much earlier. Taylor Swift, for example, signed her record deal at 14 years old and released her self-titled debut at 16.  

Looking back, Crow told Spotify that one thing she'd change about her career would be not working as hard and learning to enjoy life more. In 2022, she explained to CBS News what drives her to still be in the music business: "There have been moments where I've felt like I've really been not taken seriously, that I've been overlooked, that I've been an outsider into the cool club. And maybe that's why I'm still going."

2 Chainz got a late start in his solo career

People have often claimed that hip-hop is strictly a young person's game. One could say proof of that is the bevy of rappers who've made it big in their 20s and even younger. But things have shifted over the years, as an increasing number of rappers have found success in their 30s, the Atlanta rapper 2 Chainz being one of them

2 Chainz was 35 when he released his 2012 solo debut album "Based on a T.R.U. Story" — though he was no newbie to the industry. The reason for 2 Chainz's apparent late start is because he'd previously found chart success in the late 2000s alongside Dolla Boy in Playaz Circle, a duo that was signed to Ludacris' Disturbing tha Peace record label. Plus, 2 Chainz's original rap moniker was the not-so-PG Tity Boi, but he later changed it, which has admittedly helped his career. "2 Chainz was just a natural progression. I didn't wake up one day and say I'm gonna change it," 2 Chainz told VladTV, adding, "[The new name is] definitely child-friendly, people-friendly." 

So, why did 2 Chainz decide to break out from the "Duffle Bag Boy" duo's contract by the close of the 2000s? "I just started growing as an artist," the Grammy winner explained on "Drink Champs" in 2022. "... Started recognizing my power and how I change the room. How I could go places." 2 Chainz is still going strong, as of this writing, between touring and prepping a joint album with Lil Wayne. 

Lucille Ball said it took several years to get a lead role

How many of us have wiped tears of laughter from our eyes after watching Lucy Ricardo get herself into hilarious mischief on "I Love Lucy," only to escape it by the skin of her pearly whites? Of course, the beloved Lucy character was masterfully played by Lucille Ball, who became a huge TV star because of the 1950s sitcom. Ball's journey to stardom was anything but short, though, because she was 40 when the show began. 

"I started from a small dinky town back in Jamestown, New York," the Emmy winner explained in a clip posted by American Film Institute. "... It never dawned on me to be in pictures. ... And I was going to get into vaudeville, 'cause that's the only thing I'd ever seen. And finally, I got so hungry I went into modeling. ... I was a starlet, and then I was a B-picture girl." 

Ball then said it took about seven or eight years for her to get a lead role in Hollywood, before explaining why she was thankful for that time and those B-girl parts. "You'll be learning something, you'll be working with people, you'll be meeting someone," Ball explained. "Maybe out of the 30, 40 people you meet, one person will pop up a little later and be so damned important to you, you don't realize it."

Octavia Spencer is happy about success coming later

As it did for Viola Davis, the 2011 film "The Help" did wonders for Octavia Spencer's acting prospects. Spencer won an Oscar for the role, in fact, and it happened in her 40s. Before "The Help," she'd appeared in numerous films and TV shows, but still flew under the radar for the first 15 years of her onscreen career. For example, you probably didn't realize that Spencer was in big films like "Spider-Man" and major shows like "ER," did you? 

"I think [success] came at the right time," Spencer told omg! in 2022 (via Us Weekly). "I think success happens when it's supposed to and when you can appreciate it. I am grateful that it didn't happen for me at 22 or 23. I would've been foolish enough to think that we're all entitled to it, instead of it being the divine blessing that it is."

Spencer's star continued to shine after "The Help," with roles in acclaimed films like "The Shape of Water" and "Hidden Figures." But despite her ongoing success, it seems she sometimes misses her earlier years of being an up-and-coming actor, admitting to AARP that it was way more fun. She also talked about winning an Academy Award in her 40s and what message it sends. "It just tells people that times have changed," Spencer said. "We can't put a cap on talent. We can't put a cap on ambition and drive, and we certainly can't put a cap on projects that move people."

Kim Cattrall worked a lot before Sex and the City

One could call Kim Cattrall an overnight success, if that person considers overnight to be more than two decades. Although Cattrall has been acting on TV, the big screen, and on stage since at least 1975, she didn't become a household name until landing the role of Samantha Jones in "Sex and the City," which debuted in 1998 when she was 42 years old.

Cattrall would nab five Emmy nominations for this gig, which came to an end in 2004 (not counting the "SATC" movies, of course). Since then, the star has spoken out about ageism in Hollywood, telling BBC News in 2017 that she had a very clear idea of the types of roles she didn't want for herself. "I'm not ready to play someone who is grotesque ... either from being thought of as just a very, very older woman at 60-61 this year — which I'm not, and I don't feel that way," she said, adding (via ET Canada), "I just feel like there are very few roles to begin with, in the category of someone who is wanting to be young in a very desperate way or someone who has given up."

The actor, who infamously turned down a third "SATC" movie and the HBO reboot series "And Just Like That...," explained, "That's why I don't depend on Hollywood for jobs anymore. That's why I became an executive producer." In 2022, Cattrall spoke at Variety's Power of Women dinner about the many ways saying no has empowered her life and career.

Jane Lynch almost quit before making it big

The way it seems, a lot of people didn't know about five-time Emmy winner Jane Lynch until she appeared in Christopher Guest's mockumentary "Best in Show" in 2000 at the age of 40. But with time came more fame and presumably more money, considering she would go on to land the role of Sue Sylvester on "Glee" by the end of the decade, making a 49-year-old Lynch a household name. There was a time, however, when the star was going to walk away from acting altogether, presumably because she'd had yet to make a major name for herself in Hollywood — though she already had dozens of onscreen credits by that point, including guest spots on "Friends," "Frasier," and "Married... with Children."

"It was about the year 2000, and it was before I did 'Best in Show,' which kind of really opened things up," said Lynch on "The Kelly Clarkson Show" in February 2023. "I was hiking up Fryman Canyon. ... And on my way up there, I had this thought for the first time in my life, I said, 'I think I'm done. I think I have to move on.' And there was some peace in it and a little bit of sadness." But Lynch ran into a friend later on during the hike, who encouraged her to still give acting a go. "By the time I got down at the hill, I was back in the game," Lynch added. (That friend should really be rewarded in some way, don't you think?)

Samuel L. Jackson dealt with a personal struggle before fame

If you were to scroll through Samuel L. Jackson's films on his IMDb page, it'd take some time to get to the bottom. That's because he's been a professional actor since 1972. But it could be said that he didn't become well known until Spike Lee's 1991 film "Jungle Fever," where he played Gator Purify when he was in his early 40s — though the actor himself would credit 1994's "Pulp Fiction" for making him recognizable among audiences. Before that, he had smaller parts in films like "Coming to America" and "Goodfellas." 

Jackson spoke about his career peaking later in life during a 2018 interview with Vogue, while also talking about his past substance use, explaining that success came at the right time. "I was sober when it happened so that helped a lot," said Jackson, who noted that it was 1995's "Die Hard with a Vengeance" — a massive box office success — that really put him on the map. "If it had happened sooner in my life, I would have found a way to mess it up." 

The actor behind Marvel's own Nick Fury went on to explain, "Being sober and understanding who I was, and what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to shape the trajectory of my career, was a result of me being more mature, but I always attribute it to my sobriety and not listening to everything people say when they tell you how great you are."

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Leslie Jones went from the basketball court to SNL

As of this writing, Leslie Jones is the oldest person to join the cast of "Saturday Night Live" at 47 years old. She seemed to have a ubiquitous pop culture presence after that, being seen in TV commercials, 2016's "Ghostbusters," and other projects like her 2020 Netflix special "Leslie Jones: Time Machine." But the comedian's path to being a household name was anything but straight. Jones first thought she might play professional basketball overseas after being a standout player at Chapman University and Colorado State University. Later, she began doing stand-up before landing a job on "SNL" as a writer.

Thankfully for Jones, Chris Rock helped her secure an audition for the show after becoming a fan of her stand-up act. In fact, she did stand-up for 25 years, and at certain times felt like quitting. "I remember some nights where I was, like, 'All right, this comedy s*** just ain't working out,'" Jones told The New Yorker in 2015. "And not just when I was twenty-five. Like, when I was forty-five."

The native Tennessean didn't join the main "SNL" cast until 2014 after appearing on the show's "Weekend Update" segment on various occasions, and she'd go on to nab three Emmy nods before leaving the sketch comedy show in 2019. If anything, Jones showed that she didn't let difficult times snuff out her dreams, which is a lesson we can all learn from.

Seasick Steve got discovered at retirement age

So, remember how we mentioned that Sheryl Crow didn't find solo success until her late 20s and 2 Chainz not until 35? Well, how's the age of 65 before the world knows you're a talented musician? That's what happened to Steven Gene Wold, who's also known as Seasick Steve. He told the Independent in 2013 that he'd pretty much quit on the idea of having a professional music career 35 years before sitting down for that interview, though he'd continue playing and working as a recording engineer during this time. However, everything changed for him after a 2006 appearance on "Jools Holland's Annual Hootenanny," because he blew the audience away.

Before that appearance, Wold released just one solo album — 2006's "Dog House Music" — and the blue musician would deliver a string of LPs afterward. "Yeah, Jools made me," he told the Independent. "... It's a snap of the fingers for me, this dreamland, gravy-land period. I've got 50-60 years of playing before that. Every day I want to pinch myself, and the day I don't is the day I've turned into an idiot."

Not only did the fans start rolling in after that Jools Holland performance, but so did the gigs and money. "It was just like night and day," Wold explained to MusicRadar in 2020. "The next day and all of the week they were calling from festivals."

Joy Behar swapped teaching for comedy

So picture this: You're a comedian just starting out, and you're doing your best trying to secure gigs and adjust to tour life — all while hoping to make enough money to keep the lights on. But the thing is, you're not in your 20s when the sheer excitement of it all might be worth it regardless of the pay. You're 40 years old with an 11-year-old daughter.

That's how Joy Behar could describe her start in entertainment, as she began her comedy career at 40, after first being a school teacher and later a "Good Morning America" receptionist. Her habit of expressing her personal views about the Vietnam War to students got her fired two times from the former gig, while latter also didn't last long, as she admittedly wasn't receptionist material. She was divorced at the time, as well. "I was a single mother with no money and no job prospects," Behar later told People. "I didn't know what else to do, so I tried stand-up comedy. I had nothing to lose." She added, "I picked the most difficult thing to do, but I knew I had to go for it."

As Behar expressed to Parade in 2010, "I'm a role model for any woman who wants to change careers in mid-life." Indeed, especially considering that wasn't the last time Behar would redefine herself and her career: In 1997, at 55 years old, she became a co-host of "The View" and a bona fide TV star.

Betty White became more famous with age

When the late Betty White was 51 years old, she landed the part of Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and became a TV fixture. As she got older, her fame increased, thanks to landing the part of Rose Nylund on "The Golden Girls" at age 63. She also starred in the sitcom "Hot in Cleveland" at 88.

In an interview with "Archive of American Television," Mary Tyler Moore explained how White joined her show to fill the absence of Valerie Harper. "They felt they needed another woman on the show, and they wrote a character who was described as being as sweet as Betty White but as vicious as a barracuda," Moore said, noting that after casting agents couldn't find the right person, she convinced them to ask her pal White. 

As for "The Golden Girls," folks in casting were initially thinking of White for the part of Blanche Devereaux, the southern seductress played by the late Rue McClanahan. But because White already played a man-chasing character on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," they gave her the part of Rose, which proved to be a nice change of pace in terms of acting. When White talked about playing the character with CBS News, she explained, "Rose isn't ... dumb, she's just slow on the uptake. She just is very naïve and there's an innocence about her. ... But she also has a sense of decency and morality that surfaces every once and a while." Throughout her seven-decades-long career, White would win five Emmys.

Sheryl Lee Ralph proved that you should never give up

Sheryl Lee Ralph is one-for-one when it comes to winning an Emmy Award. In 2022, after getting her first Emmy nod, she won best supporting actress in a comedy for her portrayal of Barbara Howard on "Abbott Elementary." Ralph, who's been acting since she was a youngster, was 66 years old when she secured this trophy. Her first major film was 1977's "A Piece of the Action," she'd nab a Tony nomination for originating the role of Deena Jones in "Dreamgirls" by 1981, and she'd rack up over 100 onscreen credits before landing the ABC sitcom.

But on Emmy night, Ralph sat in her chair for a moment in shock when her name was called. Some of her castmates had to help her up before she walked to the stage to a standing ovation. The veteran actor first belted out the lyrics to Dianne Reeves' "Endangered Species" in her acceptance speech, which the audience and social media users alike seemed to love. "I am an endangered species / But I sing no victim's song / I am a woman I am an artist / And I know where my voice belongs," Ralph sang. 

Ralph then delivered some empowering words that should probably be hung on our refrigerator door: "To anyone who has ever, ever had a dream and thought your dream wasn't, wouldn't, couldn't come true, I am here to tell you that this is what believing looks like. This is what striving looks like. And don't you ever, ever give up on you."

Sixto Rodriguez had no idea he was a big star

One of the wonderful things about making music is that once a song is recorded, it's out there forever — and the artist never knows when people will discover it. It's something that singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez experienced in the '90s when two fans from South Africa wanted to know his whereabouts. This was long after he released his albums "Cold Fact" and "Coming from Reality" in the early '70s, which did achieve some success in places like Australia, but not stateside. What makes the story even more amazing is that Rodriguez had no idea he even had a massive fan base in South Africa. 

The fans' efforts were turned into the 2012 Oscar-winning documentary "Searching for Sugar Man," which reintroduced Rodriguez's music to the world, thanks to its accompanying soundtrack. "[He] described this fan base I had," Rodriguez recalled of his 1996 meeting with fan Stephen "Sugar" Segerman to The Hollywood Reporter. By 1998, the Detroit-based musician — whose lyrics have been described as Bob Dylan-esque — would retire from his day job in construction to play shows overseas. He'd grow his audience over the next decade. However, "Searching for Sugar Man" changed the game in terms of sparking a global interest in the musical wordsmith at age 70.

"I have a lot of commitments, and the list keeps growing," Rodriguez told Rolling Stone in 2013. "We have to strike while the iron is hot. ... The money, I must say, is obscene." As of this writing, the world is still eagerly awaiting album No. 3.