In the early days of Hollywood, actors were not paid enormous sums like they are today. In the 1920s, the biggest stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford might earn up to $10,000 a week, which was still a lot of money at the time. The first actor to break the $1 million paycheck mark was a major milestone in film history. Let’s explore who reached that benchmark and how much actors get paid today.
The $1 Million Dollar Man
The first actor to be paid a salary of $1 million for a single film was William Holden for The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957. Adjusted for inflation, that is equivalent to around $9 million in 2023 dollars.
William Holden was already an established leading man when he was cast in the film, having risen to fame with movies like Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17. The Bridge on the River Kwai was a high-profile production based on the best-selling novel by Pierre Boulle. It was produced and directed by the acclaimed David Lean and co-starred acting heavyweights Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins.
With Holden’s box office appeal, combined with a critically acclaimed, star-studded cast and famous source material, The Bridge on the River Kwai was destined to be a hit. The producers knew Holden’s name would draw audiences and felt he was worth the unprecedented $1 million paycheck.
The gamble paid off – The Bridge on the River Kwai became the second highest grossing film of 1957. It won 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor for Alec Guinness, and Best Director for David Lean. It is now considered one of the greatest war films ever made.
Actors’ Salaries Through the Decades
To give some context on how much actors’ salaries have increased over time, here is a look at what the top stars earned in different eras:
- Charlie Chaplin – $10,000 per week
- Mary Pickford – $10,000 per week
- Clark Gable – $7,000 per week
- Carole Lombard – $8,000 per week
- Betty Grable – $300,000 per year
- Humphrey Bogart – $200,000 per year
- Marilyn Monroe – $100,000 per film
- Elizabeth Taylor – $1 million per film
- Julie Andrews – $1 million for Mary Poppins
- Marlon Brando – $1 million for Mutiny on the Bounty
- Robert Redford – $2 million for The Sting
- Barbra Streisand – $2 million for A Star Is Born
- Tom Cruise – $5 million for Top Gun
- Dustin Hoffman – $5 million for Rain Man
You can see how quickly salaries escalated, especially when you consider that The Bridge on the River Kwai was only made 30 years before Top Gun and Rain Man. Adjusted for inflation, Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman were making over $12 million per film in today’s money.
Highest Paid Actors Today
In present times, it’s not uncommon for the biggest actors to make $20 million or more per movie, plus a cut of the profits. Here are some of the highest paid stars today and how much they typically earn per film:
|Actor||Typical Salary Per Film|
|Robert Downey Jr.||$20 million|
|Leonardo DiCaprio||$20 million|
|Dwayne Johnson||$20-25 million|
|Jennifer Lawrence||$15-20 million|
|Chris Hemsworth||$15 million|
As you can see, stars like Robert Downey Jr., Leonardo DiCaprio, and Dwayne Johnson now make more for one film than William Holden did as the first $1 million man. It is not unusual for A-listers to join the $20 Million Club for big budget movies where they know their star power will drive box office sales.
Jennifer Lawrence was one of the highest paid actresses in the world after The Hunger Games franchise and hits like Silver Linings Playbook. Chris Hemsworth shot up in salary after his success in Thor and The Avengers. Stars need to keep proving their box office draw to continue commanding the really huge paychecks.
Highest Single Movie Salaries Ever
While these massive 8-figure salaries are common, some actors have negotiated even bigger one-time deals. Here are some of the record holders for single film payouts:
Keanu Reeves – $156 million for The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions
After the huge success of 1999’s The Matrix, Keanu Reeves was able to secure an enormous deal for the two Matrix sequels. His paycheck included:
- $10 million salary per film
- 15% of gross box office receipts
- Vast % of home entertainment sales
The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions ended up earning over $1.2 billion combined. Reeves walked away with an estimated $156 million total for the back-to-back films.
Bruce Willis – $100 million for The Sixth Sense
Instead of taking a large upfront salary for The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis opted for a percentage of the film’s gross earnings. This turned out to be incredibly lucrative as the film became a sleeper hit that grossed over $670 million worldwide. Willis earned around $100 million for starring in this single film.
Robert Downey Jr. – $75 million for Avengers: Endgame
Marvel has some of the highest paid actors thanks to box office hits like Avengers: Endgame becoming such massive phenomenons. For just this one Avengers film, Robert Downey Jr. earned an astonishing $75 million.
Leonardo DiCaprio – $50 million for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Leonardo DiCaprio has his $20 million standard fee, but his paycheck for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was boosted by deferring his upfront salary for points on the back-end. With the film grossing nearly $375 million, DiCaprio ultimately earned about $50 million total.
Sandra Bullock – $70 million for Gravity
Sandra Bullock banked a massive payday of $70 million for starring in the sci-fi thriller Gravity. Like some other stars on this list, she took a reduced salary ($20 million) in exchange for 15% of box office receipts. Gravity went on to earn over $723 million globally.
Tom Cruise – $100 million for Top Gun: Maverick
Bringing his career full circle, Tom Cruise returned to his breakout role in Top Gun: Maverick. With Cruise still a major box office draw 30+ years later, the studio gave him a deal guaranteeing around $100 million if the sequel was a hit. It went on to become Cruise’s biggest film ever earning over $1.4 billion worldwide.
Harrison Ford – $65 million for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Harrison Ford earned $65 million for returning as adventurer Indiana Jones in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, including a back-end deal entitling him to a slice of the profits. The film brought in nearly $800 million globally.
From William Holden breaking the $1 million mark in 1957 to today’s stars like Robert Downey Jr. and Leonardo DiCaprio routinely making over $20 million per film, Hollywood salaries have certainly come a long way. While the very top stars can command 8 figure paydays, it is still extremely rare and difficult to reach those levels. An actor needs to consistently deliver major box office hits over many years before they gain enough leverage to demand those super-sized paychecks. Very few ever join the $50+ million single movie club or surpass the $100 million mark. From Charlie Chaplin to Tom Cruise, the size of film salaries may have drastically changed over the decades, but it’s still only the cream of the crop actors who can take home the really mammoth payouts.