Movie buffs consider the 1970s to be a golden age of American movies, with an abundance of classics like The Godfather, Annie Hall and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
But starting with Jaws in 1975, the '70s also ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster — movies released on thousands of screens all over the country simultaneously.
Since then, the general public and not just Hollywood players have become increasingly fixated on box office grosses — a phenomenon that continues to this day.
As the summer movie season kicks into high gear, we tracked the top stars of the generation. We divided the post-Jaws era into five five-year periods and ranked the stars by the total gross of their top three movies. To be eligible for our list, an actor had to have starred in at least two hit movies (box-office gross of at least $60 million) in that period.
(Han) Solo Encore
How do you become the biggest movie star of all time?
Easy, just hitch your wagon to an even brighter star — as in Star Wars. This was the technique followed by Harrison Ford, who was unknown before he played Han Solo in what became the second-most popular movie of all time, after Gone With The Wind.
Ford played Solo again in The Empire Strikes Back. Those two movies alone grossed a total of $751.5 million, a five-year total that has not been surpassed to this day, even without adjusting the earlier-year grosses for inflation. (We did not rank Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher, who also starred in Star Wars, on the ground that neither has starred in a hit picture since then).
Ford was trailed distantly by another then-new face, John Travolta, and by Burt Reynolds, who was at the end of his time as top player. The 1976-to-1980 period was particularly testosterone-intensive — as not a single actress appeared in more than one hit movie. Here are the top stars for that period and the total gross of their top three films (in current dollars).
When Comedy Ruled
Ford continued to lead the pack in the early 1980s by expanding to another franchise character, Indiana Jones. Eddie Murphy burned onto the scene with a role that was uniquely him — the fish-out-of-water Detroit detective, Axel Foley, in the Beverly Hills Cop flicks.
Comedy ruled the box office during the first Reagan administration, and Murphy was joined in the top five by fellow Saturday Night Live alumni Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. The only woman to qualify as a box-office drawer in this era was Debra Winger, who starred in An Officer and a Gentleman but faded soon after.
In the late 1980s, Murphy took the top spot from Ford, who ran out of Star Wars movies but still did well with Presumed Innocent, Working Girl and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Tom Cruise made his first appearance among the top five by appearing in Top Gun.
Rare for a box-office star, Cruise was nominated for an Academy Award in Born on the Fourth of July, as was Kevin Costner the next year in Dances with Wolves. Neither man won the award, however, though Costner won an Oscar for directing Dances.
Julia Roberts, by far the most popular actress of the generation, started her run with Steel Magnolias and her signature role in Pretty Woman.
Hanks, Gibson and Smith Emerge
In the early 1990s, Tom Hanks led the box-office race and in a unique way. None of his movies were sequels or serials — and he won two Academy Awards to boot.
Robin Williams and Mel Gibson joined the top five after coming close in the late '80s. Demi Moore, who played opposite Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, was tops among women.
The end of the era (including 2001 for good measure) saw Will Smith shoot to the top of the pack, combining action and laughs in Independence Day and Men in Black, and topping it off with his Oscar-nominated performance in Ali.
Bruce Willis grabbed second place — not for playing Die Hard cop Lt. John McClane, but rather for The Sixth Sense, a sleeper, and Armageddon, a prototype for a blockbuster by design.
Hanks and Cruise continued to put the fannies in the seats. Brendan Fraser joined the top ranks via The Mummy series. Roberts cemented her claim to being the leading lady of her generation — and won an Oscar also — for Erin Brockovich.
For more, go to Forbes.com..