Modern creative types whose success came late?
January 8, 2014 1:53 PM   Subscribe

What are examples, in the last 20 years, of musicians, artists, dancers, writers, and so on who labored long in obscurity and only achieved success, financial and otherwise, after the age of 40? And for those people, how did their success finally come about?
posted by shivohum to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I don't know that I would say she "labored long in obscurity" since she was definitely a critical darling and fan favorite...but before age 40, singer/songwriter Patty Griffin was playing club tours and had had two albums scrapped by her label—her first one for being overproduced (they released demo sessions instead), and her third one for being uncommercial (it wasn't released until 10 years later). Her first album to chart in the US Top 40 came out when she was about 43 and she went on to win loads of awards including a Grammy.
posted by bcwinters at 2:12 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Eddie Izzard is a great example of this -- he worked hard for a long time before achieving success in the world of comedy. There's a documentary about him (made by his partner at that time) where he talks a lot about his career journey. He initially tried street performing, and later took an act to the Edinburgh Fringe... in the same year that the Cambridge Footlights revue consisted of Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. For a long time he just couldn't catch a break, and his eventual success came mostly through sheer bloody-mindedness and not giving up.

John Mahoney, who played Marty Crane in the TV show Frasier, didn't start his acting career until he was in his late 30s and got his first film role at 40. He had previously spent a decade as editor of a medical journal.

In a similar vein, the British actor Buster Merryfield (1920 - 1999) worked for 40 years as a bank manager before switching to acting. He was cast as Uncle Albert in the BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses, which was phenomenally popular in the 1980s and 90s.

The author Hilary Mantel enjoyed critical success with her literary fiction, but it was her 2009 novel Wolf Hall which became a bestseller and cultural juggernaut.
posted by meronym at 2:14 PM on January 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Nobel Prize winner José Saramago first got literary recognition and success when he was 60.
posted by Marauding Ennui at 2:23 PM on January 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

This might not be quite what you're looking for, but Peter Coyote didn't start acting for film until he was 39. Before then, he had been more of a political mime.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:30 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Regarding Peter Coyote: he wasn't really obscure per se, at least not within the radical left / counterculture / etc. He shared an Obie for a play he had written. Still, as far as general recognition goes, it was nothing like his later popular success.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:31 PM on January 8, 2014

Geoffrey Rush, at 43, in Shine.
posted by cogat at 2:35 PM on January 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wilford Brimley's first role as a non-stuntman actor was when he was 38.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:39 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

susan boyle?
posted by bruce at 2:45 PM on January 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Alasdair Gray worked on Lanark (his first novel) for almost 30 years, until it was published when he was in his late 40s.
posted by scody at 2:46 PM on January 8, 2014

Louise Bourgeois made art all of her life and earned some recognition from her peers, but she didn't see wider acclaim until her first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1982, when she was 70. (And then she kept making new work for the next 28 years.)
posted by lisa g at 2:46 PM on January 8, 2014

Robert Pollard's band Guided by Voices released their major label debut in 1997, the year Pollard turned 40. Pollard was a grade school teacher until 1994.

Looking back, some of their early albums are now considered classics, but I'm willing to bet they didn't see financial success at least until the major label stuff (if ever, who knows).
posted by The Minotaur at 2:51 PM on January 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh, but Louise Bourgeois' late-life success still happened ~32 years ago, and you'd asked for more recent examples. Another art-world story is Saul Leiter, for whom I put together an obituary post in November. He'd been making color street photography since the '40s but only started to get much recognition for it in the mid-'00s, when he was in his 80s. (This was partly due to luck, and the fact that his genre of work has become more popular in recent years — but he also had a supportive gallery even when he wasn't a big moneymaker, and he was persistent in making his photography no matter what sort of attention he got.)
posted by lisa g at 3:05 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Marc Maron just recently went from being a sort of connected but obscure stand-up comic and comedy maven to being someone who has a show on IFC and a very very popular podcast. He's in his mid-40s. His success, such as it is, came from a combination of a few things

- constant feelings of inadequacy that kept him continuing to try harder
- being very plugged in with a great deal of different sort of people and a lot of self-promotion
- single minded idea of what he wanted to do (keep podcasting, not work for someone else, television show)
- plugging away at his podcast and getting sponsors and being very dogged about continuing to do the work in a regular and high quality fashion.
posted by jessamyn at 3:11 PM on January 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

The band Garbage has 3 guys who were playing together for a LONG time with only mild success until they teamed up with Shirley Manson and hit it big. They were in their early 40s when that started (1994).
posted by wildcrdj at 3:20 PM on January 8, 2014

Ang Lee didn't direct a feature until his very late 30s and his career didn't really take off until a couple of years later in his early 40s

After years of education and being a house husband in support of his wife he got his break when screenplays he had written came 1st and 2nd in a competition. His early films were critically acclaimed which brought him to the attention of Hollywood.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:20 PM on January 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Natsuko Kuroda, a Japanese writer who won a prestigious Japanese award last year at the age of 75 with a very experimental work. She said in her acceptance speech, "Thank you for finding me while I'm still alive."
posted by misozaki at 3:25 PM on January 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh, and there's also a Japanese author, Kenta Nishimura, who won the same literary award as Ms. Kuroda in 2010 when he was 40 and became a bestselling author after years of working as a day laborer to make a living. He also began to appear on various TV shows since winning the award. Another author, Shinya Tanaka, also won this award in 2011 at the age of 39 (close enough?) and became famous after years of relative obscurity. Winning this award shoots the author into the limelight whether they like it or not here in Japan.
posted by misozaki at 3:50 PM on January 8, 2014

Frank McCourt became a megaselling, Pulitzer-winning author in his 60s.
posted by ibmcginty at 4:27 PM on January 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Marc Maron just recently went from being a sort of connected but obscure stand-up comic and comedy maven to being someone who has a show on IFC and a very very popular podcast. He's in his mid-40s.

I also came in to say Marc Maron, and, not to nit-pick but he's actually 50 (not mid-40s)! He said on a recent podcast that this past year has been his busiest ever.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 5:00 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

bcwinters: "Well, I don't know that I would say she "labored long in obscurity" since she was definitely a critical darling and fan favorite..."

Same can be said for Lucinda Williams. She was well-known around Austin in the early 90s, and had some songwriting success, but only became really "famous" in her 40s.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:01 PM on January 8, 2014

Glen Hansard was nearly 38 when he won an Oscar. Not quite there, but close. Samuel Jackson was over 40 when he became successful. It misses your date cutoff, but Morgan Freeman was over 50 when he started to become successful. Steve Carrell was over 40 when The Office started.
posted by cnc at 5:12 PM on January 8, 2014

Leslie Nielsen was a B-movie actor until he did his first comedy (Airplane!) at 53.

Also not sure if it fits exactly, but this brought to mind the documentary Searching for Sugarman.
posted by mannequito at 5:16 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does Michael Gira count?

He is currently experiencing his biggest commercial and critical success, and is 59 years old.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:57 PM on January 8, 2014

Has Louis C.K. been mentioned yet? He is kind of found fame by of being overweight, aging, bald and honest about it.
posted by mermily at 6:08 PM on January 8, 2014

Would Tim Gunn count?
posted by SisterHavana at 6:31 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

International fame, maybe actor Christoph Waltz? (If acting is creative art?)
posted by lundman at 6:34 PM on January 8, 2014

Ivor Cutler started writing when he was in his 30s, and was past 40 when he became a household name as that weird Scottish guy with the odd poems.

Not sure Glenn Hansard is a good choice — he was 21 when he had a major label album release with The Frames, and was in the movie The Commitments the same year.
posted by scruss at 6:41 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Kathryn Bigelow was 59 in 2010, when she became became the first woman in Oscar history to win the Best Director award.
posted by invisible ink at 6:41 PM on January 8, 2014

John Hodgman's success seems to have showed up mid-30s rather than after 40, but what he had to say about it on This American Life (transcript,audio) seems like it might be relevant here:
"When you are in your 20s, it seems inevitable, somehow, that you will be on television, or an astronaut, or the president. It is hard-wired into every gland, this ambition to be known and renowned. And then, of course, you grow older, pudgier, stouter, more portly.

Then, just when you've discarded the last shred of a shred of a shred of the fantasy of, say, being an astronaut, to then have someone knock at your door one day and say, it's time. Suit up. It's time to go into outer space. It's exciting, but also unsettling. You think, why now? And your idea of yourself never really catches up."
Leonard Cohen may be also be a little earlier than you're looking, but he was a disappointed writer up until his early 30s, when he decided to try the music thing on, and it arguably wasn't until the time that he turned 40 that he started to find wide acclaim.

Alan Rickman did theater for a long time, was in his early 40s when Die Hard made him famous.
posted by weston at 7:05 PM on January 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

George Saunders was well into his thirties before he had any real success as an author.
posted by town of cats at 8:23 PM on January 8, 2014

Grandma Moses started painting in her seventies.
posted by shiggins at 9:17 PM on January 8, 2014

And singer Sharon Jones has gained fame in her 50s; for much of her life she worked as a prison guard and armored car guard for Wells Fargo but also sang with wedding bands on weekends before meeting her younger future bandmates in the Dap-Kings.
posted by lisa g at 9:57 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Although he was successful in his own field (ie he won the British championship) Len Goodman became famous (and presumably wealthy) after being appointed head judge on Strictly Come Dancing
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:13 AM on January 9, 2014

I wouldn't necessarily say that they laboured in obscurity — they've had a dedicated fan base for years — but Manchester band elbow started in 1997 and only really hit the big time after winning the Mercury prize for their 2008 album "The Seldom Seen Kid."
posted by gmb at 3:59 AM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's probably worth browsing through this wikipedia article on late bloomers. There are some examples that are fairly recent.
posted by hought20 at 4:24 AM on January 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Leonard Cohen had a book of his poetry published the year after graduating from university, and another five years later. Beautiful Losers and The Favourite Game were both published before he turned 35. I would not say he was ever a "disappointed writer".
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:10 AM on January 9, 2014

William Burroughs didn't start writing in any serious way until he was in his early-mid-30s; Naked Lunch was published nearly 10 years later, and even then it took maybe another decade for him to really be recognized.. and he only continued to grow into his role as a writer over the decades after that.
posted by Drexen at 8:58 AM on January 9, 2014

The literary website The Millions has a whole series on this: Post-40 Bloomers.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 11:04 AM on January 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the link to The Millions. Not only do we run the Bloomers series at the site, but it has spawned a whole new site called Bloom created by Millions staff writer and author Sonya Chung.
posted by cmaxmagee at 3:04 AM on January 13, 2014

While he has had quite a career and has even been in many things people recognize after the fact, I would say most of Bryan Cranston's success came much later in his life.
posted by mysterpigg at 11:42 AM on January 16, 2014

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