- 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.
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.
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.
Now in her 70s, Streep has appeared in seemingly countless films including “Sophie’s Choice,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Into the Woods,” and “The Post.”
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 Color 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.”
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.”
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 Equalizer 2.”
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 HBO’s “The Young Pope.”
After a background in stage plays, 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 moved to New York City and continued acting on the stage until he returned to film with a small role in “Coming to America,” which introduced him to director Spike Lee. Lee cast him in “Jungle Fever,” which earned Jackson attention at The Cannes Film Festival.
When she was 24, Lange moved to New York City and became a model, which later led to her film debut 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 FX’s “American Horror Story.”
He starred as Charlie Chaplin in the biopic “Chaplin” (1992) at age 27.
Downey had a drug addiction which followed him into his 20s and 30s. As he’s gotten older, he’s been open about it and his path to recovery.
Today, Downey is best known for playing billionaire superhero Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
On her 19th birthday, she made her Broadway debut in “The Boy Friend.” Throughout her 20s, she went 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 movie musical “Mary Poppins,” which would go on to become an iconic touchstone in her filmography.
Now in her mid-80s, Andrews has built an incredible acting career that includes beloved films like “The Sound of Music,” “Victor/Victoria,” and “The Princess Diaries.”
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 “American Graffiti,” which opened new doors for him in the entertainment industry and made way for his starring roles in blockbuster franchises like “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars.”
Throughout her late 20s, Smith continued to perform high-profile roles in theatrical plays and numerous films.
Now in her mid-80s, Smith is one of the most established actresses of her generation and has made her mark in countless movies, including the “Harry Potter” films and “A Room With a View.”
She’s also known for starring on the acclaimed ITV drama series “Downton Abbey.”
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 Lange.
Now in his early 70s, Bridges boasts an acting career with an impressive range that includes dramas like “True Grit” and dark comedies like “The Big Lebowski.”
At just 19 years old, Field broke into television with the ABC sitcom “Gidget,” and she was cast on ABC’s “The Flying Nun” two years later.
When she was 29, the actress was cast as the titular character on CBS’ “Sybil,” a performance that earned her an Emmy Award for best dramatic actress.
Now in her mid-70s, Field has earned a place among other high-caliber actors due to her work in films like “Norma Rae,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and “Forrest Gump.”
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 didn’t earn wide appreciation for his work until the action film “Zanjeer” a few years later.
From there, his career blossomed and he became one of the top actors in Bollywood. He’s since starred in over 190 films in Indian cinema.
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.”
When she was 29 years old, the actress 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.”
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 late 60s, Chan has acted in over 150 films and has become one of the most prominent actors in the world.
At 27, Bassett appeared in Second Stage Theater’s production of “Black Girl,” and also made her first television appearance in the TV 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.
Now in her early 60s, 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.”
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,” which earned him an Oscar for best supporting actor.
Now in his late 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.”
White made a short appearance on television after graduating high school, but she 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, the actress starred as a television cohost for the variety show “Hollywood on Television.” It wasn’t until her 30s that White went on to host her own show “The Betty White Show” and appear on a slew of sitcoms.
Now in her late 90s, White’s acting career has spanned eight decades and includes landmark shows like CBS’ “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Life With Elizabeth,” and most notably, NBC’s “Golden Girls.”
Early in her career, Dench starred in the Broadway production of “Twelfth Night,” which opened on her 24th birthday.
In the years since she’s 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.”
Dench has stayed busy acting in films like “Victoria and Abdul,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” and the 2019 remake of “Cats.”
Throughout his 20s, Jones had a few small performing roles on Broadway and on TV shows.
He continued his Broadway career in productions of “The Iceman Cometh,” “Othello,” “Fences,” and “You Can’t Take It With You.”
When he made his way to Hollywood, Jones became well known for voicing Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” franchise and Mufasa in “The Lion King” (both 1994 and 2019) among other notable roles.
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.”
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” and “Xanadu.”
In Hollywood, Goldberg won an Oscar for her role in “Ghost” and advanced her stardom in both “Sister Act” films, on CBS’ “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and in “The Little Rascals.”
Right after graduating high school, he studied acting with John Strasberg in New York City before getting his big break starring in “Parting Glances” at the age of 28.
Now in his early 60s, Buscemi has become a legendary character actor best known for 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.”
At the age of 21, 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’s since found success starring in “Pulp Fiction,” “Face/Off,” “Hairspray,” and on FX’s “American Crime Story.”
Now retired in his mid-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,” which was his last role before he announced his retirement from acting.
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.
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.”
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.
He grew up acting in school plays before graduating from Cambridge in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts and pursuing a career on the stage.
By 1964, McKellen was making his first appearances on TV and in films. In 1966, at the age of 26, he landed the titular role on BBC One’s “David Copperfield.”
The English actor went on to star in famous franchises like “X-Men,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and “The Hobbit.” He also appeared in Disney’s 2017 live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” and the movie adaptation of “Cats.”
At 20 years old, the actress was working as a waitress at Second City Toronto (a famous improv theater) when she replaced Gilda Radner in the cast. She met longtime acting partner Eugene Levy at the theater, and they both went on to roles on Global’s “SCTV” — Second City Canada’s sketch-comedy TV show.
O’Hara went on to appear in films like “Beetlejuice,” “Home Alone,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Waiting for Guffman,” and “Best in Show.”
Today, the comedic actress is well known for playing Moira Rose on Pop’s “Schitt’s Creek” alongside Levy.
When she was 14 years old, the actress got her start playing Brenda Jenkins on NBC’s “227,” and she landed a role in “Boyz n the Hood” when she was 20.
Throughout her 20s, the actress appeared in a number of movies, including “Jerry Maguire” and “Enemy of the State.”
King went on to play iconic roles in “Legally Blonde 2,” “A Cinderella Story,” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” She also appeared on shows like ABC’s “American Crime,” CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” and HBO’s “Watchmen.”
She broke into directing in 2013, and most recently led the award-nominated movie “One Night in Miami.”
In his late teens, the actor got his start in the TV movie “The Best of Times” and in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and he found continued success in films like “Valley Girl,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Moonstruck,” and “Time to Kill,” all before turning 30.
Today, the actor is well known for his roles in movies like “Con-Air,” “Face/Off,” “National Treasure,” “Ghost Rider,” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
After a one-episode appearance on “New York Undercover” at the age of 26, Hall went on to appear in films like “Love and Basketball” and “Scary Movie” before turning 30.
The actress is still well known for her roles in the “Scary Movie” franchise — she appeared in the second, third, and fourth sequels — and she also starred in “Death at a Funeral,” “Think Like a Man,” “Girls Trip,” and “The Hate U Give.”
Outside of film, Hall acted on Fox’s “Ally McBeal,” ABC’s “Black-ish,” and HBO’s “Insecure.”
Now in her early 50s, she’s still acting, recently in “Breaking News in Yuba County” and on Showtime’s “Black Mondays.”
In high school, Latifah picked up her moniker and started her rap career with the album “All Hail the Queen,” and by the age of 21, she was made her film debut in “Jungle Fever.”
At 29, the celebrity added yet another medium to her career when she started hosting “The Queen Latifah Show.”
She also went on to release seven studio albums and work on hit films and TV shows like Fox’s “Living Single,” “Chicago,” “Last Holiday,” “Hairspray,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” and Fox’s “Star.”
In her late teens, she got her start appearing on TV shows like Fox’s “True Colors.” Right after she turned 20, she landed a recurring role on NBC’s “A Different World.”
The actress went on to well-known films like “The Nutty Professor,” “Ali,” “The Matrix Reloaded,” and “Girls Trip.” She also appeared on TNT’s “Hawthorne” and Fox’s “Gotham.”
In 2018, Smith, her daughter, Willow, and her mother started the successful web talk show “Red Table Talk” where they discuss social and cultural issues.
She got her start in a few small film and TV roles before getting cast on CBS’ “As the World Turns” at 20.
Today, Ryan is well known for her roles in “Top Gun,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Anastasia,” and “You’ve Got Mail.”
In the late 1980s, he gained some attention under the rap name The Fresh Prince, and he was catapulted to mainstream fame just before his 22nd birthday when he starred playing Will Smith on NBC’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
He went on to star in films like the “Men in Black” series, the “Bad Boys” series, “Ali,” “Hitch,” “The Pursuit of Happyness,” and “I Am Legend.”
More recently, the actor appeared in “Suicide Squad,” “Aladdin,” and “Gemini Man.”
Like his wife, Jada, Smith has also had a hand in the production side of the industry since his “Fresh Prince” days.
When he was 22 years old, he got his start on ABC’s “What’s Happening Now,” and soon after, the actor went on to star on his own hit sitcom, Fox’s “Martin.”
Today, Lawrence is well known for his roles in the “Bad Boys” series, the “Big Mamma’s House” series, and “Death at a Funeral.” He also went on to CBS’ “Panthers.”