Now that we’re into the 2020s, it’s a sad fact that many of the stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age are no longer with us. When we sit down to enjoy a classic piece of cinema on a Sunday afternoon, we tend to assume that most of the actors we’re watching are already at the big wrap party in the sky, but that’s not always the case. While Hollywood history is littered with tragic tales of actors who left us too soon, there’s an ever-shrinking group of veterans that were alive back when the "talkies" were still a new thing in theaters. Some of these stars are quietly enjoying their retirement after a busy life in Tinseltown, though a surprisingly large number of them remain active in the industry today.
From former screen sirens that still look glamorous well into their 90s, to the actor with the one hundred year career, we’ve put together a rundown of the oldest living Hollywood stars.
James Earl Jones has voiced two iconic movie dads
He’s best known for voicing two very different fathers, but 90-year-old actor James Earl Jones has done way more than that with his career. He first provided the terrifying tones of Darth Vader in 1977’s Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope), though he wasn’t even credited. His voice became such a hit, however, that he ended up coming back for multiple movies and other media projects in the years that followed, most recently 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker. He reprised his other famous voice role that same year, returning to play Mufasa in Disney’s live action remake of 1994’s The Lion King.
His voice is what ultimately made him famous, which is why people are often surprised to learn that Jones started to stutter when he was a kid. As The Guardian wrote, "the turmoil [of his childhood] was so traumatic he developed a stutter that lasted into his teens." As Variety wrote, he was "nearly speechless for years" until "a teacher helped him discover his powerful bass through reading poetry." He eventually pursued an acting career, and clearly, it worked out quite well for him. Jones’s most memorable onscreen performances include Admiral Greer in The Hunt for Red October and King Jaffe Joffer in Coming to America.
The real reason Gene Hackman retired
Despite having been born in California, 91-year-old Oscar winner Gene Hackman took the long road to Hollywood. In a 1989 interview with The New York Times Magazine, Hackman recalled that his family had to move in with grandparents in Illinois. His dad split on them soon after. "I was playing down the street at a friend’s house,” Hackman said. ”It was a Saturday, and my dad and I would do things on a Saturday, if he could. That day, he drove by and waved at me, and I knew from that wave that he wasn’t coming back." At 16, Hackman left too, joining the Marines.
After his time in the military, he went to New York before heading back to Cali to study acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. (As he and fellow alum Dustin Hoffman told The New York Times, they apparently weren’t model students.) Hackman made his first onscreen appearance in a 1959 episode of The United States Steel Hour and would go on to notch over 100 credits (most notably The French Connection and Unforgiven, for which he won his two Academy Awards) before his retirement. He didn’t fall out of love with acting; he was simply following medical advice. "The straw that broke the camel’s back was actually a stress test that I took in New York," Hackman told Empire in 2009. "The doctor advised me that my heart wasn’t in the kind of shape that I should be putting it under any stress."
Tippi Hedren’s career was sabotaged by a director
Alfred Hitchcock made her career, but according to Tippi Hedren, the five-time Oscar nominee also ruined it. Hitchcock offered her a contract after spotting her in a commercial and they made two films (The Birds and Marnie) together, but things quickly went south when the director tried to make the relationship personal. According to Hedren, things came to a head when the jealous filmmaker attempted to kiss her against her will. "When he told me that he would ruin me, I just told him to do what he had to do," Hedren told Variety. "I went out of the door and slammed it so hard that I looked back to see if it was still on its hinges."
Hitchcock stuck to his word, keeping Hedren locked into her contract while refusing to give her any good roles. She was out of the game for three years, and when she returned, it was in a smaller, supporting role in A Countess From Hong Kong, a Charlie Chaplin-directed rom-com starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. She recurred on TV shows like The Bold and the Beautiful, Dream On, Providence and Fashion House, and she would carry on appearing in the odd film, but Hedren never reached those early heights again. She did, however, oversee a Hollywood dynasty — the 91-year-old icon is the mother of Oscar nominee Melanie Griffith and the grandmother of Fifty Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson.
Sidney Poitier charmed America amid rising racial tensions
Born in Florida to two Bahamian farmers who were visiting the States to sell their tomatoes, Hollywood legend Sidney Poitier charmed his way into American hearts at a time of great unrest. After spending the first several years of his life in the Bahamas, "his aging parents sent him to live with an older brother in Florida," according to Vanity Fair. The outlet also writes that was where "he met institutional racism, which baffled him." He eventually found his way to New York City, where he used the advice his mother had once given him ("Charm them, son, into neutral," she said, per Vanity Fair) to become a film star. He went from washing dishes in Manhattan to the biggest name in Hollywood, and all at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. "By the late 1950s, he was the Martin Luther King of the movies, an emblem of middle-class values, Christian sacrifice, and racial integration," biographer Aram Goudsouzian wrote in Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon.
In 1967, three years after becoming the first Black actor to win an Oscar, Sidney Poitier dominated cinema screens. That year, To Sir, with Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner made Poitier the biggest box office draw in Hollywood and cemented his status as an icon of the silver screen. Now 94, his last credit was 2001’s The Last Brickmaker in America, in which he starred as a lonely widower.
Mel Brooks is a 94-year-old EGOT winner
According to The New York Times, comedy legend Mel Brooks was born "on his mother’s kitchen table in Brooklyn in 1926," just two years before his father died. As History notes, at age 17 he joined the U.S. Army and served in Europe during World War II, clearing landmines ahead of the Allied advance. He was already writing his own comedy sketches at this point, and, according to the outlet, "Brooks once used a bullhorn to serenade nearby enemy troops along the German-French border with the Al Jolson song ‘Toot, Toot, Tootsie’—and received a round of applause in return." He came under the stewardship of Your Show of Shows creator Sid Caesar after returning to the States and would go on to become an EGOT; people who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony.
Brooks has long been known as both an actor and a filmmaker, but he’s perhaps best known for his directorial endeavors, helming farcical classics like The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It. He’s still active today (he recently worked with Whoopi Goldberg and Jane Lynch on upcoming animated musical anthology Fairy Tale Forest), and he has the love of his life, late wife Anne Bancroft, to thank for that. "She believed in me right from the beginning, as a songwriter as well as a screenplay writer or whatever I wanted to do," Brooks told CBS News.
Dick Van Dyke is as nimble as ever
As 95-year-old actor Dick Van Dyke wrote in 2011’s My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business, as a kid in Illinois, he "spent Saturdays in the movie theater" and "was particularly taken with Stan Laurel" of comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. As his bio on the Masterworks Broadway site recounts, he dabbled in theater before joining the U.S. Army Air Corps, where the future movie star stayed busy "announcing, singing, and dancing in variety entertainments for his fellow soldiers." Jobs in local radio and TV followed his time in the military, but it was a stage show that eventually put him on the map, the multi-Tony Award winning Bye Bye Birdie. He reprised the role of unsuccessful songwriter Albert Peterson when the show was adapted for the screen three years later.
Van Dyke cemented his stardom playing variety show writer Rob Petrie on beloved ’60s sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, based on writer Carl Reiner’s real life experiences. He went on to star in musical fantasy classics Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins, in which he adopted a widely-mocked cockney accent to play jack-of-all-trades Bert. He returned to play the surprisingly nimble Mr. Dawes, Jr. in 2019 sequel Mary Poppins Returns, despite being well into his 90s. Other notable recent credits include Trollz, in which he voiced the character Yusop, and the Night at the Museum series, in which he went against type as the villainous security guard Cecil.
95-year-old Angela Lansbury doesn’t know how to retire
The daughter of British politician Edgar Lansbury and Irish actor Moyna MacGill, Angela Lansbury was born in London but moved to the States when the Germans started bombing England’s capital during World War II. She found a job in Bullocks department store, and that’s where, as Variety noted, she caught the attention of screenwriter John Van Druten. She was signed to MGM within days and she made an immediate impression in Hollywood. Lansbury was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her very first movie, 1944’s Gaslight, and, remarkably, she was up for the same Oscar the very next year, this time for her turn as Sibyl Vane in fantasy horror The Picture of Dorian Gray.
It would be the early 1960s by the time Lansbury received her third Oscar nomination for The Manchurian Candidate, by which point she’d been typecast as the middle-aged mother type, despite being only a few years younger than some of her onscreen sons at times. She’s also known for her 12-year stint playing belated style icon Jessica Fletcher in the TV series Murder, She Wrote, and for her work with Disney; she gave a memorable turn as Miss Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, voiced Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast, and, more recently, showed up as the balloon lady in Mary Poppins Returns. "Don’t ever be ready to, quote, retire," she told ABC. "Perhaps one should retire, I don’t know. But I’ve never had the chance!"
Eva Marie Saint holds an impressive Oscar record
When Olivia de Havilland died in 2020 at the age of 104, Eva Marie Saint became the oldest living recipient of an Academy Award for acting. She landed the Best Supporting Actress statuette for her turn as Edie Doyle in crime thriller On The Waterfront, which took home a total of eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor for Marlon Brando. The girl from New Jersey had learned her craft at the world famous Actors Studio in New York City, which is where she got her start on the radio. She flitted between the stage and the small screen as she found her feet in the early ’50s, but when On The Waterfront — her first ever feature film, would you believe — dropped in 1954, she became an overnight sensation.
The 96-year-old actor appeared in dozens of flicks over the decades, but her best known film is probably Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, in which she plays a spy who falls for Cary Grant. The way Saint tells it, Grant was as charming in real life as he was on the screen. The actress once informed Vanity Fair that one of their kissing scenes was so steamy that it made a nearby photographer fall off his ladder. "He didn’t hurt himself so we can laugh about it," she said. "So then we had to do it again, which wasn’t bad." Her most recent credit is the 2019 drama Mariette in Ecstasy.
Leslie Phillips voiced an iconic Harry Potter character
You may not know 96-year-old actor Leslie Phillips by face, but if you’re a fan of the Harry Potter film franchise, you’ll most definitely recognize his voice: The World War II veteran played the Sorting Hat in the movies. Now in his 90s, he’s had an incredible if somewhat under-the-radar career that began not out of a love for acting, but a need to put food on the table. "I started as an actor at such an early age, 11 or 12," he told The Chap. "It was purely a means to earn some extra money for the family, as my dad had died." His mother, who had been left with next to nothing, recognized his natural talent and was able to arrange a meeting with someone from the prestigious Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts.
"I went there three days a week, attending drama, dance and elocution, but reverted straight back to my usual heavy cockney when I went home," Phillips recalled to the outlet. His cockney twang slowly vanished over the years, and he became known for playing the quintessential, well-spoken British type, showing a so-called stiff upper lip in dozens of TV shows over the years. Notable feature film credits in Dead Poets Society and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, in which he played Wilson.
99-year-old Betty White remains ‘blessed with good health’
In January 2021, Hollywood legend Betty White celebrated her 99th birthday in quarantine amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. "I am blessed with good health, so turning 99 is no different than turning 98," the ever-cheery actor said in an interview with People. She told the magazine that she was looking forward to "visiting with close friends" once things returned to normal, but would continue to rely on her "sense of humor" for sanity in the meantime. It was her sense of humor (and the support of her parents, who were behind her career choice "right from the start," she told Variety) that got her to where she is today.
Born in Illinois, White was actually working on her first small screen project before NBC made its first television broadcast in 1939, so when we say she’s seen it all in the world of TV, she really has. She became a household name playing the sickly sweet Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s, and was later known for her turn as Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls the following decade. She fronted three different iterations of The Betty White Show as well as multiple game shows over the years, and she’s still working steadily today — White starred in TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland from 2010 to 2015 and, more recently, voiced the character Bitey White in Toy Story 4.
Marsha Hunt is now over a hundred years old
Golden Age star Marsha Hunt, whose career in Hollywood was derailed and almost ruined when her name appeared in infamous anti-Communist document Red Channels, turned 103 in 2020. The fact that she was still working in her 90s is a testament to the resilience she showed during a period of political paranoia in Hollywood. "That whole thing was such a bafflement to me," Hunt told the AP. "I never understood why I was included in it, fully." She came to Los Angeles a few decades prior as a model looking for a career onscreen, aged just 17. Paramount was the first studio to table an offer, and execs threw Hunt in at the deep end. Luckily, she was up for the challenge.
She debuted as a leading lady in 1935’s The Virginia Judge, but she quickly realized that supporting roles were actually more interesting. "I didn’t want to always play the sweet young things," she explained to the AP. "Being a lead and winning the leading man, that was not the point." She was putting out several movies a year for well over a decade when she was blacklisted, which "certainly lost a lot of jobs" for her, she told the BBC. She continued to appear sporadically in the decades that followed, with her last onscreen credit being 2008 TV movie Empire State Building Murders.
Norman Lloyd is the oldest living Hollywood actor right now
Norman Lloyd, a true veteran of the industry who has enjoyed a "nearly-100-year career" according to Variety, turned 106 in November 2020. Born a few months after the breakout of the First World War in 1914, the outlet recalls that the New Jersey native "took singing and dancing lessons and was a paid professional by the age of 9." About a decade after that, he hit Broadway for the first time and would go on to feature in one of the most talked-about productions of the day, playing Cinna the Poet in Orson Welles’ Julius Caesar. The oldest living Hollywood actor made his big screen debut a few years later, as Variety writes, "in the 1942 Saboteur, a Hitchcock suspense movie in which newcomer Lloyd received third billing."
Speaking of Hitchcock, Variety also notes that the thriller king was on hand to help again when Lloyd fell out of fashion during the McCarthy era (he was an activist as well as an actor), offering his pal and former colleague a producing job on his show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. According to Forbes, he was "scheduled to appear for only four episodes" of ’80s series St. Elsewhere, but he wound up "a regular for the remainder of the six-season quirky medical drama." After that, he would appear in films like Dead Poets Society and Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, as well as a 2010 episode of Modern Family.