This easy question has a complicated answer. Until the mid–1940s most Hollywood actors were under contract to a studio and paid an annual salary, rather than per film. After that, it became more common for actors to receive a per-film salary plus a percentage of the film’s profits, which could lead to higher incomes from a single motion picture.
The first actor to sign a contract for a minimum salary of $1 million for appearing in a single film was Elizabeth Taylor for her 1963 starring role in “Cleopatra”. Her complicated contract gave her, among other things, 10% of the gross profits in addition to a one million dollar salary which increased if she was required to work more than a certain number of weeks. She would ultimately receive $7 million for being in the movie.
Now that you have your simple answer, let’s muddy the water…
Salaries of Silent Film Actors
Annual salaries, especially during the silent–film era, were often astronomical.
For instance, in 1914 Mary Pickford renewed her lucrative contract with Famous Players and received:
- Half the profits from her films
- A $10,000 per week minimum
- $300,000 single payment bonus
- $150,000 per year to her mother for “goodwill”
- $40,000 for examining scenarios prior to signing
(And remember, in 1914 the top Income Tax rate was only 7%, and the average annual income for a worker in the United States was between $2,000–$5,000!)
What Actor Made the First $1 Million Annual Salary
In 1919 Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle became the first star to receive a guaranteed minimum of $1 million per year.
No other star of the silent–film era matched Arbuckle’s annual salary, although stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin earned much more overall because they controlled, and received profits from both their films (they owned their own studios) and from the distribution of their films through their company United Artists.
Film Actors Owned the Production Companies
To complicate matters, by the 1940s some stars began making pictures for production companies they founded and controlled, thereby allowing them to earn much more than their salaries would indicate.
Salary Plus Percentage of Profits
As early as 1911 there seemed to always be some top star who was paid (often secretly) both a salary and a percentage of the profits from their films.
Although these percentage deals became quite rare during the Studio Era of the 1930s and 1940s, by the 1950s a number of stars began receiving a percentage of a movie’s profits in addition to their salary.
Quite a few respected references have noted that Tyrone Power’s percentage deal with Universal Pictures eventually earned him $1 million for the 1953 movie “The Mississippi Gambler”.
Early Actors Paid More Than $1 Million
Other sources indicate that William Holden was the first actor to earn $1 million for playing a role in a single picture. But, like Tyrone Power, he wasn’t just handed a seven–figure check.
Holden was paid $300,000 up front plus 10% of the profits for appearing in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957).
His percentage of the profits was to be paid at the rate of $50,000 per year, but when the movie became a major hit and the interest from his unpaid profits grew larger than his payments, Holden finally settled for a lump sum payment that increased his total paycheck to over $1 million.
When the 1946 British film “Caesar and Cleopatra” was released the production company’s publicity department loudly proclaimed that the film’s star, Claude Rains, had received $1 million for appearing in the movie.
While this ballyhoo was not precisely true, the facts relating to his salary were complicated.
Rains signed on for a flat $50,000 for 12 weeks, with up to an additional $50,000 payable if the production were extended for any length of time, for any reason.
As an American citizen on a British work permit, Rains was subject to incredibly high income taxes should he still be working in England even a day beyond the allotted six months. The delays and frustrations associated with the war; the vagaries of the English climate during the fall, winter, and spring; and the subsequent move of the company to Egypt kept him under contract — and thus liable for those taxes — for nine months.
Fortunately for Rains, his contractual terms obligated the J. Arthur Rank organization to pay his taxes (around $1.3 million), but his taxes were paid directly to the British government. Only the $100,000 in stipulated fees was ever paid to Rains. So while ‘on paper’ Claude Rains was paid over $1 million for being in the movie, in reality he was paid only the $100,000 specified in his contract.