Samuel L. Jackson
He was studying to be a marine biologist at Morehouse College in Atlanta when the acting bug bit, but for the next 20 years Jackson wasn't exactly drowning in offers. Then, at 43, he wowed critics with his powerhouse performance as a raging crack addict in 1991's "Jungle Fever "—and, three years later, he became a huge star when he played Jules, the cold-blooded, Bible-quoting hit man in "Pulp Fiction." Jackson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and, according to the "Guinness Book of Records," is now the world's highest-grossing actor: His films have raked in more than $7.4 billion at the box office.
Spina bifida didn't stop the Louisiana native from pursuing a career as a bluesy country singer-songwriter in Texas, Los Angeles and Nashville. But her big break wouldn't come until age 41, when her song "Passionate Kisses" was covered by Mary Chapin Carpenter and won the Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 1994. Four years later, at 45, Williams scored with her own Grammy-winning album, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road." Named "America's best songwriter" by Time magazine in 2002, she recently released "Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone," her 11th album and the first on her own Highway 20 Records label. Williams will be 62 on January 26.
The Brooklyn-born co-creator of "Seinfeld" and the inspiration for nebbishy George Costanza worked as a store clerk, limo driver and TV repairman while doing stand-up. He was 41 when he and Jerry Seinfeld started collaborating on the pilot for what TV Guide would later call the greatest show of all time. The series wrapped up its ninth and final season in 1998, but the Emmy Award winner continues to benefit from a much-publicized syndication deal that will pay him a total of $1.7 billion—not including the bounty from his subsequent HBO series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm." David also wrote and will star in the Broadway play "Fish in the Dark," which begins previews on February 2. He can definitely afford the big salad.
The Howard University English instructor and single mother of two boys was nearly 40 when her first novel, "The Bluest Eye," was published in 1970. Seven years later, "Song of Solomon" became the first book by a black author since Richard Wright's "Native Son" in 1940 to be chosen as a Main Selection of the Book of the Month Club. But her biggest triumph was still 10 years down the road: In 1987, "Beloved" won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Morrison was 62 when she was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature and 81 when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Her next novel, "God Help the Child," is due in April.
Most people are surprised to learn that Julia Child was an aspiring novelist in college. It turns out fiction wasn't in her future, but, at 49, she finally published her first book—the wildly successful "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." A year later, in 1962, she made her debut as "The French Chef," the pioneering program that launched her empire and proved that TV audiences would devour cooking shows. Child continued working until her death in 2004, two days before her 92nd birthday.
Sir Alexander Fleming was 47 when he discovered penicillin in 1928, a mere pup compared to John O'Keefe, the 75-year-old neuroscientist and college professor who won this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The New York City native, who now teaches at University College London, shared the award with two Norwegian colleagues for discovering "the inner GPS in the brain" that makes it possible for humans and just about every creature to navigate their surroundings. The Scarecrow must be thrilled!
Her mother was a teacher, her father an editor and fisherman, but the native New Yorker always had acting in her blood. Leo was 24 when she made her debut on "All My Children" in 1984. Her Hollywood breakthrough, however, didn't come until, at 43, she appeared in "21 Grams" in 2003. Five years later, Leo hit the big time, earning a Best Actress nomination for "Frozen River." Her star ascended even higher in 2010 when the 50-year-old won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as the mother of Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in "The Fighter." Leo will costar in "Wayward Pines," an eagerly anticipated TV series set to premiere simultaneously in 125 countries on May 14.
After working as a fireman and insurance salesman, 40-year-old Harland David Sanders started selling fried chicken at a makeshift roadside restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky, during the Depression. It took 10 years to perfect his "secret recipe" using a pressure cooker instead of a pan and another decade to sell the concept to others. Sanders was 62 when he franchised the first Kentucky Fried Chicken to a restaurant owner in Salt Lake City in 1952. More than 600 locations nationwide were operating in 1964 when Sanders, approaching 75, sold his corporation to a group of Kentucky businessmen for $2 million.
The humorist was working a string of odd jobs in the early 1990s, when NPR radio host Ira Glass heard him reading a diary entry in a Chicago club. Two days before Christmas in 1992, Sedaris appeared on NPR's Morning Edition to read an essay about his experience as a Christmas elf at Macy's Herald Square in New York. It was, Sedaris would later say, as if Glass had waved "a magic wand." Monthly radio spots led to a book deal and, starting when Sedaris was 41, a string of wildly popular story collections, including "Naked" (1997), "Me Talk Pretty One Day" (2000) and "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim," which topped the New York Times Nonfiction Bestseller List in 2004. Sedaris, who will be 58 the day after Christmas, has a four-month tour scheduled for 2015, starting in Hawaii on February 18.
Nine days after her 64th birthday, in 2013, the writer, motivational speaker and lifelong athlete did something no one had ever done before: She swam from Cuba to Florida without the protection of a shark cage. Nyad, who was expelled from Emory University for parachuting out of a fourth-floor dormitory window, covered the 110 miles from Havana to Key West in 53 hours. It was the fifth time she attempted the dangerous swim since deciding it would be a great way to celebrate her 60th birthday in 2009. Her motivation: "I'd like to prove to the other 60-year-olds that it's never too late to start your dreams."
A teenage stuntman, Farnsworth slowly—very slowly—made the transition to acting. He was 43 when his name appeared onscreen for the first time and 59 when he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1979's "Comes a Horseman." The slow ride culminated 20 years later when he earned a Best Actor nomination for playing a man who rode his lawn mower from Iowa to Wisconsin in David Lynch's "The Straight Story." It was Farnsworth's final role.
Jacob Rodney Cohen didn't get much respect as a singing waiter and aluminum siding salesman. But inspired by a hard-luck cowboy on an old Jack Benny radio program, the Long Island native swiped the name, perfected the lovable loser character and got his big break at age 46, when he killed as a last-minute substitute on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1967. Dangerfield was nearly 60 when he starred in "Caddyshack," the first in a string of movies that made him a very respectable box-office draw throughout the '80s. He was 82 when he died of complications from heart surgery in 2004. The inscription on his headstone: "There goes the neighborhood."
Talk about a late bloomer: Harriet Doerr of Pasadena, Calif., was 74 when her debut novel was published in 1984. The granddaughter of a wealthy railroad magnate and rare book collector was born in 1910 and dropped out of Stanford University after her junior year to get married in 1930. After her husband's death, she went back to Stanford and graduated with a bachelor's degree in European history in 1977. Doerr also started writing and publishing short stories, paving the way for her first novel, "Stones for Ibarra," which won a 1984 National Book Award. In the 1990s, she wrote a second novel and a collection of short stories and essays. Doerr died in 2002 at the age of 92.
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