The highest-grossing actors of all time have appeared in movies that have earned billions of dollars at the worldwide box office.
What is remarkable is that nine of the top 10 leading actors who have achieved the most commercial success with their movies have one particular franchise to thank — Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Indeed, the MCU, which boasts some of the biggest box office hits in the world, contributed heavily to the overall standing of most of the world’s most successful actors.
In fact, eight of the nine have Avengers: Endgame (2019), which earned USD 2.7 billion, as their highest-grossing film in their respective careers. This is because the film features a large ensemble of all leading MCU actors till that point in pivotal roles.
But while the MCU may be the most significant in their cinematic repertoire, it isn’t the only accomplishment for the actors. Several of MCU’s top stars, such as Samuel L. Jackson and Bradley Cooper, are acting greats who have gained more critical fame outside of the MCU. Others such as Zoe Saldaña would still be among the most successful actors with or without MCU.
Box office database The Numbers has two lists of highest-grossing actors. One includes overall stars and the other lists leading actors.
What is the overall highest-grossing stars list about?
It is important to note that a general look at the highest-grossing “actors” list would show some names that are either not actors in a purely professional capacity or are voice actors. In other words, they have never been leading actors in their lifetime. In The Numbers database, they are labelled as ‘stars.’
When seen from this point of view, the list is this:
Stan Lee — USD 30,595,754,963
Samuel L. Jackson — USD 27,782,046,869
Frank Welker — USD 17,441,992,785
John Ratzenberger — USD 16,765,394,812
Robert Downey, Jr. — USD 16,286,286,564
Bob Bergen — USD 15,706,007,002
Chris Pratt — USD 15,676,906,050
Zoe Saldana — USD 15,534,047,775
Scarlett Johansson — USD 15,432,480,627
Andy Serkis — USD 15,197,048,343
Stan Lee needs no introduction. He is the creator of Marvel superheroes, and though he made his blink-and-you-miss-it appearances in several MCU movies until his death, Lee was never a traditional actor.
While Welker, Ratzenberger and Bergen are primarily famous for their voice roles, Serkis is known for his voice and motion capture performances in iconic characters such as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) franchise and Caesar in the rebooted Planet of the Apes (2011-2017) franchise.
This is why a focus on the leading actors list gives a more accurate estimation of the highest-grossing actors of all time as it includes only those names who are known for essaying leading characters on the big screen in primarily live-action movies.
The world’s most successful actors and their box office haul
Gross of all movies: USD 14,567,589,120
Johansson started her acting career with the fantasy comedy North (1994). She tasted both critical and commercial success with The Horse Whisperer (1998). Directed by the legendary Robert Redford, who also co-starred in it, the film grossed USD 186 million worldwide. It was the highest-grossing film of Johansson for 12 years until the release of the MCU movie Iron Man 2 (2010), in which she first played the universally famous superhero Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow.
Her character is one of the original Avengers, which makes Johansson one of the main leads in all MCU films she has been part of. Her influence as the character has been so huge that she also got her own headline movie, Black Widow (2021), which grossed USD 379 million at the worldwide box office.
Due to the commercial success of her MCU films, Johansson topped Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-paid actresses twice — first in 2018 and then in 2019, with earnings of USD 46 million and USD 56 million, respectively.
Her two highest-grossing films excluding MCU movies are the adventure drama The Jungle Book (2016), in which she voiced Kaa, and the animated musical Sing (2016), in which she voiced Ash. While the former earned USD 953.5 million worldwide, the latter ended with USD 631 million.
Her highest-grossing live-action film outside of the MCU is Lucy (2014), which has South Korean acting titan Choi Min-sik as the main antagonist.
Robert Downey, Jr.
Gross of all movies: USD 14,387,194,294
It is widely known that the MCU not only revived the career of Robert Downey Jr. but also established him as one of the richest actors in the world. He topped Forbes’ list of the highest-paid actors three times in a row from 2013 to 2015. Of his 10-highest-grossing movies, nine are from the MCU, including Iron Man (2008) — the first MCU movie. This shows the impact the MCU has had on his career.
Before the release of Iron Man, which earned USD 585 million at the worldwide box office, the highest-grossing movie starring Downey Jr. was Gothika (2003), in which he co-starred with Halle Berry. The film earned USD 141 million.
Two of his most commercially successful non-MCU movies are Sherlock Holmes (2009) and its sequel. Downey Jr. played the iconic detective in this Guy Ritchie reinterpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest fictional creation. The first film earned USD 498 million and was followed by the even more successful sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), which earned USD 535 million.
For the next 12 years, A Game of Shadows would remain Downey Jr.’s most successful non-MCU film. Then, in 2023, he played US Atomic Energy Commission chief Lewis Strauss in the Christopher Nolan film Oppenheimer about J. Robert Oppenheimer. It was a juggernaut at the global box office, despite intense competition from Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster Barbie.
Oppenheimer earned USD 946 million trumping all other non-MCU movies starring Downey Jr. by many miles. Moreover, his performance was so incredible that cinema pundits widely agreed that he would get his third Academy Award nomination after Tropic Thunder (2008) and Chaplin (1992).
Samuel L. Jackson
Gross of all movies: USD 14,371,290,876
Jackson has been acting for around six decades. Though he is perhaps universally known for playing Nick Fury in MCU movies and TV shows, Jackson has been part of some of the finest films in cinema and has been directed by icons such as Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg.
He earned early fame with Lee’s films School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990) and Jungle Fever (1991), before becoming globally popular for his performance as Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino’s crime drama Pulp Fiction (1994), which earned USD 212 million at the box office and Jackson’s only Oscar nomination for acting.
Following Pulp Fiction, Jackson teamed up with Tarantino for Jackie Brown (1997), Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004), Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015) — each of which was critically and commercially acclaimed.
According to The Numbers, Jackson, who has acted in more than 100 films, has played leading roles in 54 of them and supporting roles in 52. Irrespective of the type of his roles, 35 of his films have earned at least USD 200 million worldwide and all top 10 of his highest-grossing movies, including six MCU titles, have earned at least USD 1 billion.
Among his other four USD 1-billion movies are the superhero animated film Incredibles 2 (2018), Jurassic Park (1993), Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), in which Jackson does a cameo as the voice of his character Mace Windu.
Gross of all movies: USD 14,297,316,199
Saldaña has appeared in four of the six movies that have earned at least USD 2 billion at the global box office in their lifetime. She is the only actor with such a distinction. The four movies are James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) and the MCU movies Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).
Avatar, its sequel, and Avengers: Endgame are the top three highest-grossing films of all time, earning USD 2.9 billion, USD 2.3 billion and USD 2.7 billion, respectively. As such, Saldaña is the only leading MCU actor whose highest-grossing film isn’t an MCU film.
Saldaña played leading roles in all four, appearing as the heroic Neytiri in Avatar films and as the Guardians of the Galaxy member Gamora in the other two. Besides the four films and other MCU appearances, Saldaña’s biggest grossers include Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), which earned USD 654 million, and the new Star Trek trilogy (2009-2016), whose cumulative gross stands at around USD 1.1 billion.
Gross of all movies: USD 13,944,001,391
According to The Numbers, Pratt has played the leading role in 12 movies, whose total worldwide gross comes to USD 5.6 billion. Three of these comprise the Jurassic World trilogy (2015-2022), each of which has grossed over USD 1 billion.
Pratt also voiced the lead character of Mario in The Super Mario Bros. Movie, whose global box office gross of USD 1.3 billion makes it one of the highest-grossing films of 2023. It is also one of the only two films which have earned over USD 1 billion in 2023, the other being Barbie.
Pratt, who generally played supporting roles till 2013, shot to international stardom by playing Peter Quill/Star-Lord in the MCU film Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). He has since been one of the leading cast members in several MCU movies.
He reprised the role in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, whose box office total of USD 845 million made Pratt the actor with two movies in the top 10 biggest earners of 2023.
Gross of all movies: USD 12,098,707,341
Cruise is the highest-grossing of all actors of all time if only those who have not appeared in any MCU film are taken into consideration.
One of the last bona fide movie stars (given that the superhero films with massive ensemble casts have almost killed the concept), it is not a surprise that an overwhelmingly high number of Cruise’s biggest box office successes is the long-running Mission: Impossible film series. He has topped Forbes’ list of the highest-paid actors three times, once in every decade since the 1990s.
Cruise first portrayed the iconic agent Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible (1996). The film earned USD 457 million and established the franchise that has since been raking in dollars at ticket counters all around the world.
The 61-year-old Cruise, who is known for doing his own stunts, returned as Hunt in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One in 2023. It earned USD 566 million and is set to be followed by an eighth Mission: Impossible film in 2025.
But Cruise’s biggest ever box office success in his career was achieved only in 2022 with Top Gun: Maverick, which earned USD 1.4 billion worldwide and is his only billion-dollar movie.
Gross of all movies: USD 12,091,663,353
Diesel is known primarily for being part of two mega franchises — the MCU and Fast & Furious. He voices the character Groot in the former and plays the role of the main protagonist Dominic Toretto in the latter. In fact, the top 11 of his highest-grossing movies are from either franchise.
His best-known (and highest-grossing) film in which he neither plays Groot nor Dominic is Steven Spielberg’s 1998 World War II epic Saving Private Ryan.
Diesel plays the compassionate soldier Adrian Caparzo, who is assigned to a team led by John H. Miller, played by Tom Hanks, to rescue Private James Francis Ryan from behind German enemy lines.
Diesel’s role in the movie was short but impactful. The acclaimed film won several Oscars, including Best Director for Spielberg, and ended its box office run with USD 485 million.
Gross of all movies: USD 11,954,043,000
The mention of Chris Hemsworth brings to mind Thor. Such has been the contribution of MCU to his box office journey.
Hemsworth has played the Asgardian god of thunder in eight MCU movies. All eight are his highest-grossing movies to date. Of course, as is the case with all MCU actors on this list, his highest-grossing appearance is in Avengers: Endgame. Among the Thor-centric MCU movies, his biggest box office success was Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which earned USD 850 million.
Besides his roles as Thor, his biggest box office grossing movies include Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) which earned USD 401 million, Star Trek (2009) which earned USD 386 million, and Men in Black: International (2019) which made USD 254 million.
Gross of all movies: USD 11,275,635,644
Cooper is the voice of Guardians of the Galaxy member Rocket Raccoon, one of the most famous characters in MCU. He has done six movies as Rocket, including the critically well-received Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3 (2023) which revolved around his character.
Besides MCU, Cooper has delivered several box office hits, including three films of The Hangover trilogy — The Hangover (2009) at USD 465 million, The Hangover Part II (2011) at USD 586 million, and The Hangover Part III (2013) at USD 362 million.
Cooper is more famous for his roles outside of superhero or comedy franchises. He has received nine Oscar nominations, including four for acting, four for best picture as a producer, and one for best-adapted screenplay. The nominations include Todd Phillips’ box office smasher Joker (2019), which earned USD 1 billion. The film was produced by Cooper, but he didn’t act in it.
Barring one, Nightmare Alley (2021), the rest of the films that earned him the nominations have been critical and commercial successes. These are Silver Linings Playbook (2012), American Hustle (2013), American Sniper (2014) and A Star Is Born (2018). The films earned USD 236 million, USD 257 million, USD 547 million and USD 431 million, respectively.
Gross of all movies: USD 11,272,071,519
Chris Evans has the rare distinction of appearing as two different Marvel comic book characters — Johnny Storm/Human Torch and Steve Rogers/Captain America.
The first was in Fantastic Four (2005) and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). Both movies are not part of the MCU and were made under the banner of 20th Century Fox. The first earned USD 333 million and the second grossed USD 289 million at the worldwide box office.
Evans continued playing supporting characters for the following four years until Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). The movie earned USD 370.5 million and made Evans the A-lister he is today. All of his nine MCU movies are his nine highest-grossing films.
He has two more films in the USD 300-million bracket: Knives Out (2019) and Free Guy (2021).
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Highest-grossing leading actors who have never been (or are yet to be) part of the MCU
It is pertinent to note that some of the biggest acting talents have either not appeared in the MCU or are yet to make their debut. Yet cumulatively, their movies or franchises have earned billions of dollars at the box office.
These names include the likes of acting legends Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks and Harrison Ford.
DiCaprio has delivered some of the greatest Oscar-worthy performances of all time. Hanks has 16 films that have earned more than USD 250 million globally. Ford is known for long-running iconic franchises Indiana Jones (1981-2023) and Star Wars (1977-1983, 2015). He will be part of the MCU as Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross in Captain America: Brave New World in 2024.
There is also Johnny Depp, who is best known for the Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2017) franchise, and action icon Dwayne Johnson, who has 17 films above the USD 300-million mark.
Tom Cruise — USD 12,098,707,341
Tom Hanks — USD 10,857,651,728
Johnny Depp — USD 10,354,800,906
Dwayne Johnson — USD 9,240,799,560
Emma Watson — USD 8,616,374,154
Will Smith — USD 8,616,374,154
Daniel Radcliffe — USD 8,356,618,145
Harrison Ford — USD 8,170,511,675
Rupert Grint — USD 7,657,397,861
Leonardo DiCaprio — USD 7,332,603,764
(All box office revenue figures as per The Numbers as of 8 November 2023.)
(Hero image: Image: Courtesy of Marvel Studios/Courtesy of Marvel Studios – © Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved./IMDb; Featured image: IMDb)
This story first appeared in Lifestyle Asia India
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
– Who is the number 1 highest-grossing actor?
The number 1 highest-grossing actor of all time is Scarlett Johansson.
– Who are the 10 highest-grossing actors of all time?
The 10 highest-grossing actors of all time include Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Zoe Saldaña, Chris Pratt, Tom Cruise, Vin Diesel, Chris Hemsworth, Bradley Cooper, and Chris Evans.
– Who is the highest-paid actor in India?
Screen legend Rajinikanth is the highest-paid actor in India.