Who you callin’ old? Sure, it’s easy to fill your mind with depressing tales of the Shirley Temples and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. There’s always a new story of someone who hit the ground running while still wearing diapers, and conquered Hollywood, art or finance before his or her braces even came off.
Push those wunderkinds out of your mind, and read on. Here are the stories of 10 legends who took the slow route to success, making it big after 40, or 50, or beyond. See, you’ve still got time.
Age 81: Clara Peller
Clara Peller might have the best late-bloomer story ever. Peller never set out to be an actress or a household name — she was a manicurist. And at age 81, she was hired to use her manicuring skills on the set of a commercial, which led to her being cast as one of three old ladies in a 1984 Wendy’s commercial. Peller stole the spotlight by shouting, “Where’s the beef?” — a commentary on a competing fast-food joint that allegedly serves up a giant bun with very little meat. Her stern face, crabby voice and famous catchphrase made her an icon of the 1980s, and she went on to make numerous other TV appearances. Peller died in 1987, but her beefy role will always be a part of 1980s pop culture.
Age 78: Grandma Moses
Yes, her last name was really Moses. Anna Moses, forever known as “Grandma Moses,” was in her late 70s when arthritis made her beloved embroidery hobby difficult, and a sister suggested she switch to painting. It was a smart idea. The folksy paintings of the rural New England world she remembered from her childhood were a hit, and soon they were selling for thousands of dollars — giant sums in 1938. Grandma Moses soon had numerous art exhibitions of her work, she received an award from President Harry S. Truman in 1949, and a 1950 documentary about her life was nominated for an Oscar.
But perhaps more important than all the honors, she always kept a positive attitude. “I look back on my life like a good day’s work,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It was done and I feel satisfied with it.”
Age 65: Colonel Harland Sanders
Harland Sanders — his “colonel” title was a state honor, not a military rank — was never chicken about taking chances. He began tinkering with a pressure-cooked chicken recipe while running a variety of small businesses in the 1930s and 1940s, franchising the recipe when he was 62. But it didn’t take off. According to the New Yorker, at 66, Sanders was living on his savings and $105 a month from Social Security. Starting over, he hit the road with the recipe, pressure cookers and a bag of seasoning, reportedly begging restaurant owners to let him cook his dish for the customers. In a few years, the finger-lickin’ fame we all know was clucking right along. A very original recipe for success.
Age 65: Laura Ingalls Wilder
Born in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, Laura Ingalls taught in one-room prairie schoolhouses in South Dakota before marrying Almanzo Wilder and eventually moving to Mansfield, Missouri, where they raised their daughter Rose. Rose, of course, became Rose Wilder Lane, a journalist, travel writer and one of the founders of the American Libertarian movement. She used her publishing know-how to help Laura write and edit her warm and detailed memories of growing up with Pa, Ma and sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace on the American frontier — a world that had disappeared so quickly that it already seemed like fiction. Wilder’s first book, “Little House in the Big Woods,” published in 1932, came out when Laura was 65 and eventually led to a nine-book series that’s never been out of print.
Age 52: Ray Kroc
Ray Kroc’s story is as famous to some as the taste of his crispy golden french fries. Kroc was a 52-year-old milkshake-mixer salesman in 1955 when he met Richard and Maurice McDonald, who purchased eight of his mixers. Kroc thought their restaurant business was the best he’d ever seen, and partnered with the brothers, encouraging franchising of the restaurants to middle-class investors. Kroc would eventually buy out the brothers, and the rest is hamburger history.
Age 51: Julia Child
Still not a good cook, even after decades of trying? Don’t give up — Julia Child was 37 before she enrolled in culinary school and 49 when she published her first book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” It was to be the first of 20 books by Child. She gained fame in 1963 at age 51 as the host of “The French Chef,” a show produced and aired by a Boston public television station. While it wasn’t the first cooking show in America, it was perhaps the most charming — live filming meant Child’s on-air mistakes were seen by all, and she handled them with aplomb. There’s even an urban legend claiming Child dropped a turkey on the floor, then picked it back up and informed her audience, “It’s OK, you’re alone in the kitchen.” That wasn’t true, but she did once famously drop a pancake she flipped a bit too enthusiastically (but it hit the table, not the floor). As she said to close each show, “Bon appetit!”
Age 50: Charles Darwin
English naturalist Charles Darwin is now such a household name (Darwin Awards, anyone?) that it’s hard to imagine he came late to fame. But while Darwin first came to the world’s attention in his 20s as the naturalist on the second survey expedition of the HMS Beagle, which circumnavigated the Earth, he didn’t publish his theory of evolution until age 50, when he wrote “On the Origin of Species.” Keep Darwin in mind when you wonder if all the fits and starts of your youth will ever pay off; he drew on his five-year adventure on the Beagle to direct his research once back in England, firming and shaping his theory. You might say that over the years, it even — uh — evolved!
Age 46: Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson’s memorable roles are many. He plays Nick Fury in the Marvel Comics movies, was Jedi Master Mace Windu in “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace,” and delivered a famously profane line in the thriller “Snakes on a Plane.” But he’s perhaps best known for playing fast-talking, Jheri-curled, fake-Bible-quote-spouting Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 hit “Pulp Fiction.” Jackson was 46 when that movie helped make him famous, and although he’d acted in other works (notably “Jungle Fever”) he also had struggled with heroin and cocaine addiction. Hollywood surely favors the young, but Jackson proves that talent can sometimes win out.
Age 44: Sam Walton
Walmart founder Sam Walton was just 26 when he got into retailing, running a Ben Franklin five-and-dime store in the tiny Arkansas town of Newport. But it wasn’t until Walton was 44, in 1962, that he opened his first true Walmart, and he went against accepted retail wisdom by opening his stores in smaller towns, not larger cities. Walton went on to be named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century. When Walton died in 1992, there were 1,735 Walmarts, 212 Sam’s Club membership-only warehouse clubs, and 13 Walmart Supercenters, employing 350,000 people. Of course, the empire he established has only continued to expand.
Age 41: Martha Stewart
Martha Stewart may not have gained fame until she was in her 40s, but she certainly was busy before then, working as a model, stockbroker and caterer, Stewart emerged into the national spotlight when her first book, “Entertaining,” was published in 1982. She went on to publish more books, in 1990 she began her own magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and in 1991 she launched her own TV show, “Martha Stewart Living.” (A five-month prison term for lying about a stock sale in 2004 barely slowed her down.)
Stewart’s name is now American shorthand for creative, home-focused crafts — that bride who did the calligraphy for her own invitations and individually hand-gilded pine cones to serve as place cards for the reception tables? She’s a real “Martha Stewart.”
What is your favorite later-in-life success story? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.