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Top 5 Movie Actor Salaries

Most theatrical performers become professional actors because they have a talent or a love for what they do. They have a drive to entertain, and they can’t imagine spending their limited time on this planet doing something other than what they love. By the time they’re adults, unless they have seen outstanding success as a child, they have given up any dreams of making a fortune doing what they love, or being a movie superstar. Most just love their jobs, look forward to the hard work, and aspire to meet their next dramatic challenge.

Most successful actors aren’t rich, but the actors who are rich tend to be very wealthy. Have a few Academy Award nominations, a win or two, and you can command salaries a bit higher than union scale.

Forbes analyzed box office success and the contracts of the major movie actors from a recent rolling year (May 2010 through May 2011) and determined which five movie actors likely earned the most. The numbers are a bit staggering. They may not be Warren Buffett’s net worth numbers, but these figures are still sums the vast any typical American will never see in his lifetime.

  • Leonardo DiCaprio, star of Shutter Island, Inception, and Growing Pains, probably walked away with $77 million.
  • Johnny Depp, star of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean as well as 21 Jump Street, added $50 million to his balance sheet.
  • Adam Sandler, who starred in Grown Ups and Saturday Night Live, somehow pocketed $40 million.
  • Will Smith, who will be appearing soon in Men in Black III but is better known to me as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, represents Philadelphia with $36 million.
  • Tom Hanks, who flopped in Larry Crown but is everyone’s bosom buddy, is splashing around in a big (pause) money pit full of 35 million dollar bills.

The top five movie actors earned $238 million in total. It’s no wonder the movie industry is moving away from big names towards ensemble casts and relatively unknown actors. Most films can’t earn enough revenue to justify the large guaranteed payouts that the top movie stars require. To be fair, actors have quite a bit of expenses to pay. Agents and managers take their cuts, tax bills are high, and someone needs to pay to maintain those California mansions. Regardless, after taxes and expenses, there’s a lot of money that could be put to good use rather than just sitting in a bank account or invested in a stock market index fund.

Successful movie stars often put their money, their mouths, and even their hands behind issues that are important to them. Being a star commands the public ear, and with that responsibility, many — not only actors — feel they have an obligation to endorse causes they find important and those they believe are important to the world.

Searching some listings for background actors or extras in New York City, I see there’s a going rate of about $300 a day (for eight hours). As a full-time job, this is not a bad living, though it’s probably not enough to live comfortably in this city. Most actors won’t find this work full-time, however. It’s a long road from being an extra to becoming a top movie star taking home an eight-digit income.

Photo: ctrl z a.k.a rahma

Published or updated August 3, 2011.

About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of shizennougyou. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 shellye

Leo and Johnny are my two favorite male actors, and worth every penny they earn, IMHO. They are two of the finest actors of their generation. I also appreciate Leo’s committment to the environment, and how he uses his money and clout to support those issues important to him without much fanfare.

“Adam Sandler, who starred in Grown Ups and Saturday Night Live, somehow pocketed $40 million.” – too funny! And so true! :-)

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avatar 2 Anonymous

Markets are fickle, and we are worse. From sports heroes to pretend heroes we are willing to pay the price to enjoy the exhibition of their talents. Just remember that those same markets pay the CEO’s and business leaders the big bucks we seemingly deplore. Work hard and take what you can get. If you have the talent to hit the power side of the fickle market – go for it! Growing up in Miami I dreamed of heading out on the likes of the Black Pearl, at first for the treasures and later for the native girls in traditional ……. oh never mind – that was the Bounty!

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avatar 3 wylerassociate

actors like Tom Hanks, Robert Deniro, Denzel Washington, Robert Downey Jr are worth every penny & while I don’t personally like dicaprio he is a terrific actor. I like sandler but lately his movies have just sucked. I’m curious to see going forward what salaries will be like for movie actors because the movie industry is changing. People are more inclined to stay home and watch movies on netflix, On Demand rather than spend money at the theatre surrounded by arrogant, ignorant, obnoxious people.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

“…surrounded by arrogant, ignorant, obnoxious people.” Hey that’s what wife said as she sniffled through one of those chick-flicks – and we were watching it On Demand ;-) You make a valid point about the movie industry changing. But since they are waging an aggressive campaign to get more $$ from all aspects of their industry as theater profits drop, it will probably be awhile before the top actors see much of a decline in income.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Entertainment is the one career that market fores work almost perfectly. If you do not draw an audience, your income will reflect that. If you are popular, you may become unbelievably rich. In the business world, if you produce a product or provide a service that everyone wants, you will become rich too. A good example of that is Apple. I admire the tenacity of people who want to go into entertainment because their career is fill with constant rejection, but hey keep trying.

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avatar 6 lynn

My only thought is, there’s not enough pictures of J Depp!!!

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avatar 7 Cejay

Will Smith, Johnny Depp and Tom Hanks are worth the amount but Adam Sandler and Leo Dicaprio are not. Adam Sandler’s humour is too juvenile for me and I think that Leo has gotten where he is on his looks.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

If the market is changing as you say then their salaries will inevitably go down. Entertainment is kind of a “winner takes all” game – and in that kind of game, salaries for the very best employees can get pretty wild.

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avatar 9 Drew Mangini

I think Johnny Depp is a good actor, do we really need to pay actors this much money when we have starving kids in the US?

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avatar 10 qixx

I guess i’m a part of the paying them too much issue. Last movie i went to was Cowboys and Aliens with Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. Both big names. Plus i’ll go see anything Johnny Depp or Will Smith do. The real winners in hollywood i think are George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and John Williams. Those three get royalties from almost every movie produced with their various companies, endeavors and such.

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