What 30 iconic actors looked like when they were in their 20s

John Travolta rose to TV fame in his early 20s. Tom Wargacki/WireImage via Getty Images; Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic via Getty Images
  • The careers of some of the world’s most acclaimed actors looked wildly different in their 20s.
  • Harrison Ford was a struggling actor who used carpentry to supplement his performing career.
  • Other actors, like Maggie Smith, were already getting cast in life-changing roles by age 22.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Some of today’s most iconic celebrities were once young actors struggling to make a name for themselves on the stage and screen.

Here is a look at 30 of the most prolific actors working in Hollywood today, and what they — and their careers — looked like when they were in their 20s:

Tom Hanks was cast in a slasher film at age 23.

Tom Hanks in 1980 (left) and 2018 (right). ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images/John Lamparski/Getty Images

Now in his 60s, Tom Hanks has had a prolific acting career spanning multiple genres. In his 20s, Hanks moved to New York City from California and got his first film role in the slasher “He Knows You’re Alone” (1980).

In 1981, he met actress Rita Wilson while filming the show “Bosom Buddies.” Then at age 29, Hanks acted alongside Wilson again in the film “Volunteers.” The pair later married in 1988.

Four decades later, Hanks is best known for his work in “Big,” “A League of Their Own,” “Cast Away,” and the “Toy Story” franchise.

At 26 years old, Meryl Streep was a successful Broadway actress.

Meryl Streep in the late 1970s and in 2018. Bachrach/Getty Images/Samir Hussein/Samir Hussein/WireImage

A versatile actress, to say the least, Meryl Streep is one of the most-awarded actresses working today.

Now in her 70s, Streep was born in New Jersey in 1949. After graduating from the Yale School of Drama at age 26, Streep moved to New York City and was soon cast in multiple Broadway shows.

Streep’s first feature role was alongside Jane Fonda in “Julia” (1977), and in 1978 she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in “The Deer Hunter.”

In the years since, Streep has appeared in seemingly countless films including “Sophie’s Choice,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Into the Woods,” and “The Post.”

Forest Whitaker was 21 when he was cast in his first film.

Forest Whitaker in 1988 and 2018. Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images/Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

At nearly 60 years old, Forest Whitaker has had a long and celebrated career in film.

Born in Texas in 1961, Whitaker largely grew up in California and went on to study drama in college.

At age 21, Whitaker was cast in Cameron Crowe’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and received roles in “The Colour of Money,” “Platoon,” and “Good Morning, Vietnam,” soon after.

As he has gotten older, Whitaker has gone on to receive acclaim for his acting abilities in dramas like “Bird,” “The Last King of Scotland,” and “The Butler.”

Recently, Whitaker has played prominent roles in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “Black Panther,” and “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.”

Sigourney Weaver was 29 when she portrayed Ripley in “Alien.”

Sigourney Weaver in 1979 and 2018. Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images/Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Born and raised in New York, Sigourney Weaverattended the Yale School of Drama and even acted alongside Meryl Streep in a theatrical production at Yale.

Although her acting background was theatrical, Weaver was cast in her first film in 1977 as a small character in “Annie Hall” at age 27. Just two years later she was cast as Ellen Ripley in Ridley Scott’s space thriller “Alien,” one of her most iconic roles to date.

In the decades since, Weaver has risen to prominence through her roles in everything from “Galaxy Quest” to “Avatar” and “Finding Dory.”

At 28, Denzel Washington played the lead of “St. Elsewhere.”

Denzel Washington in 1982 and 2018. David Sutton/NBCU Photo Bank/HGL/GC Images

Denzel Washington was born in New York, although he lived in Florida as a teenager and attended graduate school at the American Conservatory Theatre in California.

In 1981, Washington made his first film appearance in the comedy “Carbon Copy,” and was soon cast in the hospital drama “St Elsewhere” as Dr. Philip Chandler at age 28.

From then on his career skyrocketed, and Washington has starred in an array of films that span from biopics like “Malcolm X” to thrillers like “Training Day,” for which he won the Oscar for best actor in a leading role.

Washington continues to act in high-profile films including “Fences,” “The Magnificent Seven,” and “The Equaliser 2.”

Diane Keaton was cast in “The Godfather” at age 26.

Diane Keaton in 1976 and 2018. Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty Images

Diane Keaton was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1946 and would later study acting in New York City.

After being nominated for a Tony for the Broadway play “Play It Again, Sam,”Keaton received her first film role in “Lovers and Other Strangers”(1970) at age 24.

Her big break came a couple of years later in Francis Ford Coppola’s film classic “The Godfather.” In her late 20s, she was cast in a slew of films that included “The Godfather Part II,” “Sleeper,” and “Love and Death.”

In 1978, Keaton won the Oscar for best actress in a leading role for her work in “Annie Hall” and has since earned great acclaim for work in “Because I Said So,” “And So It Goes,” and “The Young Pope.”

Samuel L. Jackson had a background in stage in his early 20s.

Samuel L. Jackson in 1993 and 2019. Mike Marsland/ Mike Marsland/WireImage/Ron Galella/WireImage

Samuel L. Jackson was born in 1948 and eventually studied drama at Morehouse College in Georgia.

After a background in stage plays, Samuel L. Jackson appeared in a few films made for television in his early 20s and made his film debut with “Together for Days” at age 24.

He then moved to New York City and continued acting on the stage until he returned to film with a small role in “Coming to America,” and was then introduced to director Spike Lee. Lee cast him in “Jungle Fever,” which got Jackson said got him attention at The Cannes Film Festival.

Since then, Jackson has gained fame for his work in “Goodfellas,” “Jurassic Park,” “Pulp Fiction,” and his portrayal of Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Jessica Lange’s first film role was in the 1976 remake of “King Kong” at 27.

Jessica Lange in 1977 and 2017. Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty Images/Steve Granitz/WireImage

Jessica Lange was born in Minnesota in 1949 and, as a young adult,she moved to Paris to study mime theatre and dancing.

When she was 24, Lange moved to New York City and became a model, which later lead to her film debut role as the leading lady in 1976’s “King Kong.”

At 27 Lange won the Golden Globe Award for new star of the year for her role in the film.

From then on, Lange’s career quickly accelerated and she now lays claim to award-winning roles in “Tootsie,” “Frances,” “Grey Gardens,” and “American Horror Story.”

Robert Downey Jr. portrayed Charlie Chaplin when he was 27.

Robert Downey Jr. in 1986 and 2918. Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage/Greg Doherty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Robert Downey Jr. was born in New York City in 1965 and had his first film role at age 5 in Robert Downey Sr.’s film “Pound” (1970).

He starred as Charlie Chaplin in the biopic “Chaplin” (1992) at age 27.

Downey had a very public battle with drug addiction which followed him into his 20s and 30s. As he has gotten older,Downey has been open about his problems with drug addiction and his path to recovery.

Today, Downey is best known for his role as billionaire superhero Tony Stark in the Marvel movies.

Julie Andrews filmed “Mary Poppins” as she turned 28.

Julie Andrews in 1950 and 2018. Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images/Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Hamptons International Film Festival

The famed actress Dame Julie Andrews was born in Surrey, England, in 1935 and grew up singing and performing even as a young child.

On her 19th birthday, Andrews made her Broadway debut in “The Boy Friend.”Throughout her 20s, she would go on to star in huge Broadway shows including “My Fair Lady,” and movies made for television like “Cinderella.”

At age 28, Andrews started filming the Disney musical “Mary Poppins,” which would go on to become an iconic touchstone in her filmography.

Now in her 80s, Andrews has built an incredible acting career that includes beloved films like “The Sound of Music,” “Victor/Victoria,” and “The Princess Diaries.”

Harrison Ford took up carpentry in his 20s to support his film career.

Harrison Ford in 1977 and 2018. Laurent MAOUS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images/Steve Granitz/WireImage

Harrison Ford was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1942.

At age 22 Ford moved to California to pursue a career in acting and was cast in a few minor film roles in his early 20s. When he was 25 years old he got his first credited role in the Western “A Time for Killing.”

In his late 20s, his career stalled and Ford took up carpentry full time to support his wife and two children.

It wasn’t until 1973 that Ford was cast in “AmericanGraffiti,” which would open new doors for him in the entertainment industry and make way for starring roles in blockbuster franchises like “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars.”

Maggie Smith made her Broadway debut when she was 22.

Maggie Smith in 1963 and 2017. Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images/ Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

Dame Maggie Smith was born in Essex, England, in 1934 and began studying acting at age 16. Smith made her film debut and Broadway debut at age 22.

By 1958 she received her first BAFTA nomination for her role in the film “Nowhere to Go.” At age 26 she performed opposite Laurence Olivier in the Royal National Theatre’s production of “Othello.” Throughout her late 20s, Smith continued to perform high-profile roles in theatrical plays and numerous films.

Six decades later, in her 80s, Smith is one of the most established actresses of her generation and has made her mark in countless movies that include the “Harry Potter” films and “A Room With a View.”

She’s also known for starring on the acclaimed drama series “Downton Abbey.”

Jeff Bridges was nominated for an Oscar at 22.

Jeff Bridges in 1970 and 2019. Art Zelin/Getty Images/Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage

Jeff Bridges was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1949 to parents who were both working actors.

Although he made minor appearances on his father’s projects as a child, his first major acting role was in the 1971 movie “The Last Picture Show,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor at age 22.

From then on, he began an impressive career in film and even performed alongside Clint Eastwood in 1974 in the film “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.” By 27, Bridges was cast in the 1976 remake of “King Kong,” alongside Jessica Lange.

Now in his 70s, Bridges boasts an acting career with an impressive range that includes dramas like “True Grit” and dark comedies like “The Big Lebowski.”

Sally Field had roles in film and TV, including a breakout role at 29.

Sally Field in 1976 and 2018. NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images/Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images

Sally Field was born in Pasadena, California, in 1946 and was the daughter of actress Margaret Field.

At just 19 years old, Field broke into television with the sitcom “Gidget,” and was cast in the show “The Flying Nun” two years later.

When she was 29, Field was cast as the titular character in “Sybil,” a performance that rendered an Emmy Award for best dramatic actress one year later.

In the time since, Field has earned a place among other high calibre actors due to her work in films that include “Norma Rae,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and “Forrest Gump.”

Amitabh Bachchan began getting prominent film roles at age 29.

Amitabh Bachchan in 1988 and 2017. Dinodia Photos/Getty Images/SUJIT JAISWAL/AFP/Getty Images

A prominent Bollywood actor, Amitabh Bachchan was born in Allahabad, India in 1942.

Bachchan made his film debut in 1969 at age 27 as a voice narrator in “Bhuvan Shome” and landed his first on-screen role the same year in “Saat Hindustani.”

At 29 years old, Bachchan earned the Filmfare best supporting actor award for his performance in “Anand” and starred in two more films: “Parwana” and “Reshma Aur Shera.”

Outside of “Anand” Bachchan did not earn wide appreciation for his work until the action film “Zanjeer” (1973) a few years later.

From there his career blossomed and he became one of the go-to actors in Bollywood and has since starred in over 190 films in Indian cinema.

Rita Moreno’s smaller roles throughout her 20s helped her get cast in “West Side Story.”

Rita Moreno in 1950 and 2019. GAB Archive/Redferns/Denise Truscello/WireImage

Rita Moreno was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico in 1931 and has seven decades of acting talent under her belt.

Although she had her first Broadway role at 13, Moreno largely acted in minor film roles until she played a star in “Singin’ in the Rain” at 21.

Four years later, Moreno’s career gained a huge boost from her supporting role in “The King and I” (1956).

When she was 29 years old Moreno was cast as Anita in “West Side Story” and went on to win the Oscar for best supporting actress for her performance.

In the years since, Moreno has stayed active in film and television and is set to appear in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of “West Side Story.”

Jackie Chan used his martial arts training to break into acting at age 20.

Jackie Chan in 1981 and 2019. Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images/Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Born in Hong Kong in 1954, Jackie Chan gravitated towards martial arts at a young age.

Outside of a few small roles in films as a child and young teen, Chan had his first starring role in the movie “Little Tiger of Canton” right before he turned 20.

Throughout the next decade, Chan starred in numerous films that featured his martial arts abilities like “New Fist of Fury,” “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow,” and “Drunken Master.”

At age 26, Chan began acting in Hollywood movies that included “The Big Brawl” and “The Cannonball Run.”

Now in his 60s, Chan has acted in over 150 films and has become one of the most prominent actors in the world.

Angela Bassett began her acting career on the stage before moving to LA in her late 20s.

Angela Bassett in 1990 and 2019. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images/Michael Bezjian/WireImage

Angela Bassett was born in New York City in 1958 and she would later earn her masters in theatre at the Yale School of Drama.

At 27, Bassett appeared in Second Stage Theatre’s production of “Black Girl,” and also made her first television appearance in the television movie “Doubletake.” A year later she played a news reporter in the film “F/X” and soon moved to Los Angeles to pursue film acting full time.

In the years since, Bassett has become a sought-after actress in Hollywood due to her work in multiple films like “Malcolm X,” “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” “Notorious,” and “Black Panther.”

Robert De Niro began acting at 20 but was not credited until age 26.

Robert De Niro in 1973 and 2018. Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images/Stephane Cardinale – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Robert De Niro was born in New York City in 1943. He got his first acting role when he was only 20 years old, but the film “The Wedding Party” was not released until six years later in 1969.

After its eventual release, De Niro was cast in “Bloody Mama” at age 27 and then “Bang the Drum Slowly” and “Mean Streets” right before he turned 30.

His breakthrough role wouldn’t come until 1974 when he portrayed Vito Corleone in “The Godfather II” and earned an Oscar for best supporting actor.

Now in his 70s, De Niro is an accomplished actor as well as director, and is best known for his performances in “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Goodfellas.”

Betty White began her acting career by voicing ads on the radio.

Betty White 1957 and 2015. Bettman/ Contributor/ Getty Images/ Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

Betty White was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1922 and was raised in Los Angeles, California, during the Great Depression.

White made a short appearance on television after graduating high school but put her dreams of acting on hold during World War II to serve the troops. In her 20s White made money reading radio commercials and voicing bit parts in radio shows.

At 27, White starred as a television co-host for the variety show “Hollywood on Television.” It wasn’t until her 30s that White would go on to host her own show “The Betty White Show” and appear in a slew of sitcoms.

Now in her late 90s, White’s career on film and television has spanned eight decades and includes landmark shows like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Life With Elizabeth,” and most notably, “Golden Girls.”

Dame Judi Dench became a Broadway star on her 24th birthday.

Judi Dench in 1960 and 2019. Jones/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; zz/KGC-03/STAR MAX/IPx/AP

Famed English actress Judi Dench was born in York, England, in 1934. She is now in her 80s, and her acting career hasn’t slowed down.

Early in her career, Dench starred in the Broadway production of “Twelfth Night” – which opened on her 24th birthday.

In the years since, Dench has been nominated for her performances in films like “Mrs. Brown,” “Chocolat,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” and “Philomena.” She also took home an Oscar for her performance in “Shakespeare in Love.”

Recently, Dench has been busy acting in films like “Victoria and Abdul,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” and the 2019 remake of “Cats.”

James Earl Jones didn’t find major success until his 30s, but his career really started in his 20s.

James Earl Jones in 1965 and 2017. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images; CARLO ALLEGRI/Reuters

The Mississippi-born/Michigan-raised actor was born in 1931. He’s now nearly 90 years old, and his film, stage, and voice-acting work have made him incredibly successful over the years.

Throughout his 20s, James Earl Jones had a few small performing roles on Broadway and on TV shows.

At the age of 37, he got his big break starring in the play “The Great White Hope,” which earned him a Tony Award in 1969.

He continued his Broadway career in productions of “The Iceman Cometh” (1973 to 1974), “Othello” (1982), “Fences” (1987 to 1988), and “You Can’t Take It With You” (2014 to 2015).

When he made his way to Hollywood, Jones became well known for voicing Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” franchise as well as Mufasa in “The Lion King” (both 1994 and 2019) among other notable roles.

Shirley MacLaine was 22 years old when she starred in “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956).

Shirley MacLaine in 1955 and 2019. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Phil McCarten/Invision/AP

The famous actress was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1934. Now in her 80s, Shirley MacLaine has found abundant success on Broadway and in Hollywood.

She moved to New York City right after high school and landed a role in the 1954 musical “The Pajama Game” when she was 20 before switching her focus to Hollywood.

MacLaine found early success in films like “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Some Come Running.”

She later became known for “Sweet Charity,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Bewitched,” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

Whoopi Goldberg was gearing up for her leading role in “The Colour Purple” at the tail end of her 20s.

Whoopi Goldberg in ‘The Colour Purple’ in 1985 and on the red carpet in 2020. Warner Home Video; Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters

Whoopi Goldberg was born in New York City in 1955. She is now in her 60s, but she’s still well-known for one of her first film roles as Celie Johnson in “The Colour Purple” (1985).

The film premiered right after her 30th birthday, but earlier that same year, Goldberg started performing her stand-up comedy show.

She went on to perform in Broadway productions including “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1996 to 1998) and “Xanadu” (2007 to 2008).

In Hollywood, Goldberg won an Oscar for her role in “Ghost” (1990) and advanced her stardom in both “Sister Act” films, on CBS’ “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and in “The Little Rascals.”

Steve Buscemi starred in the film “Parting Glances” (1986) when he was 28.

Steve Buscemi in ‘Parting Glances’ in 1986 and on the red carpet in 2019. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment; STEVE MARCUS/Reuters

Steve Buscemi was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957.

Right after graduating high school, Buscemi moved to New York City to study acting with John Strasberg before getting his big break starring in “Parting Glances” at the age of 28.

Now in his 60s, Buscemi has become a legendary character actor.

He is best known for his roles in films like “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Fargo,” and “The Big Lebowski.”

He’s also worked on a number of family-friendly movie series like “Monsters Inc.,” “Spy Kids,” “Grown Ups,” and “Hotel Transylvania.”

Outside of film, Buscemi made it big starring on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”

John Travolta starred in “Carrie,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Grease,” and “Urban Cowboy” all by the time he was 26.

John Travolta in 1978 and 2020. Tom Wargacki/WireImage via Getty Images; Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic via Getty Images

The triple threat (actor, singer, dancer) was born in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1954. He’s now in his 60s, but his successful career really took off in his early 20s.

At the age of 21, John Travolta started his four-year career as Vinnie Barbarino on ABC’s “Welcome Back, Kotter,” which launched him into mainstream fame.

Over the next five years, he starred in hit movies like “Carrie,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Grease,” and “Urban Cowboy.”

Decades later, Travolta is still well known for those early roles, and he has since found success starring in “Pulp Fiction,” “Face/Off,” “Hairspray,” and on FX’s “American Crime Story.”

Daniel Day-Lewis was in the Oscar-winning film “A Room With a View” when he was in his late 20s.

Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘Gandhi’ in 1982 and on the red carpet in 2017. Columbia Pictures;Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Daniel Day-Lewis was born in Kensington, England, in 1957.

Though he’s now retired and in his 60s, the English actor had a successful career that won him three Oscars and two Golden Globes.

Day-Lewis studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School before landing his first credited film role in 1982’s “Gandhi” at the age of 25.

Throughout the rest of his 20s, he appeared in notable films including “The Bounty.” “My Beautiful Laundrette,” and “A Room With a View.”

Day-Lewis has been selective with his roles throughout his career, but his in-depth character work won him Oscars for his performances in “My Left Foot,” “There Will Be Blood,” and “Lincoln.”

He also received an Oscar nomination for his role in “Phantom Thread” (2017), which was his last role before he announced his retirement from acting.

Barbra Streisand starred in both “Funny Girl” and “Hello, Dolly!” before she turned 28.

Barbra Streisand in 1965 and 2017. AP Photo; John Salangsang/Invision/AP

Barbra Streisand was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1942. She is currently in her late 70s, and she has found decades of success as an actress, singer, and performer.

Streisand started acting in off-Broadway productions in her late teens, and she landed her first Broadway role in 1962’s “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” just before her 20th birthday.

Two years later, the actress originated the role of Fanny Brice in the musical “Funny Girl.”

In her late 20s, the actress starred in the film adaptations of the musicals “Funny Girl” and “Hello, Dolly!” – which launched her film career.

In the years since, she’s starred in “A Star Is Born,” “Yentl,” “Meet the Fockers,” and “The Guilt Trip” while also releasing albums.

Jane Fonda won her first Golden Globe when she was 24.

Jane Fonda in 1965 and 2020. AP; Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Jane Fonda was born in New York City in 1937. Now in her 80s, she has found continued success throughout her decades-long acting career.

When she was in her mid-20s, she landed her breakout role in “Tall Story,” which earned her a Golden Globe for most promising newcomer in 1962.

The actress went on to memorable roles in “Period of Adjustment,” “Fun With Dick and Jane,” “9 to 5,” “Monster-in-Law,” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

Today, Fonda is also well known for her work as a feminist and environmental activist and for her starring role on Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie.”

Halle Berry was the runner-up at the Miss USA pageant when she was 20 years old.

Halle Berry in 1989 and 2019. Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images; MARIO ANZUONI/Reuters

Halle Berry was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1966. She is now in her 50s, and she continues to have a successful career as an actress.

But before working on TV and in films, Berry competed in the Miss USA pageants.

In 1985, she won Miss Teen All American, and in 1986 she won Miss Ohio USA. She went on to compete in the Miss USA pageant and came in second place. Later in 1986, she was the first Black woman to represent the US at the Miss World pageant, according to Essence.

Soon after retiring from pageants, Berry made her acting debut on ABC’s “Living Dolls” in 1989. In 2002, Berry won an Oscar for her role in “Monster’s Ball.”

In the years since, the actress has become well known for appearing in the “X-Men” and “James Bond” series.

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