August 2, 2011 -- Hollywood careers are built on smart (and not always obvious) choices. The two men who top our list of Hollywood's highest-earning actors are living proof of that. While Johnny Depp topped our list last year with $75 million, Leonardo DiCaprio jumps from fifth to first place to beat Depp for the first time. Over the past year Depp earned $50 million to DiCaprio's $77 million. Both actors have achieved wealth and fame by making some unusual choices with their careers.
After starring in the megahit Titanic in 1997, Leonardo DiCaprio had his pick of roles. The young actor easily could have become a romantic-comedy heartthrob or an action hero. Instead, he waited for offers from great, serious directors. In 2000, he starred in Danny Boyle's The Beach. Two years later he paired with Martin Scorsese for the first time with Gangs of New York. That same year Steven Spielberg directed the young actor in Catch Me If You Can.
Few of his films were blockbusters, but they established DiCaprio's reputation as someone who could work with the best directors on the planet.
In 2010, that reputation helped DiCaprio become the highest-earning actor in Hollywood. His two big movies, Shutter Island and Inception, earned a combined $1.2 billion. Shutter Island was DiCaprio's fourth collaboration with Scorsese and Inception was directed by Christopher Nolan.
DiCaprio always gets a healthy upfront fee to appear in movies, but with these two films, he also got a solid chunk of the profits. We estimate that between May 2010 and May 2011, DiCaprio earned $77 million.
Johnny Depp is another actor who gained fame at a young age and refused to take the obvious path. After the success of the TV show 21 Jump Street, Depp easily could have become an action star but he preferred to work with offbeat directors like Tim Burton and John Waters. Like DiCaprio, Depp's early choices weren't always hits. But his insistence on making each role his own paid off with 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean. Based on the popular Disney ride the movie easily could have been just another summer blockbuster but Depp's bizarre turn as Captain Jack Sparrow created a character that has become as important to Disney as Peter Pan. The four Pirates movie have so far earned $3.7 billion at the global box office. Jack Sparrow was added to the Pirates ride and Depp can now demand a huge sum for each new movie.
The actor earn an estimated $50 million between May 2010 and May 2011.
To compile our earnings numbers we talked to agents, lawyers, producers and other industry insiders to come up with an estimate for what each actor earned between May 1, 2010 and May 1, 2011. Earnings consist of pretax gross income. Management, agent and attorney fees are not deducted.
Taking the path less traveled isn't always the key to making it big in Hollywood. Just look at Adam Sandler, who ranks third on our list with an estimated $40 million.
During his years on Saturday Night Live Sandler made us laugh while consistently playing a kind of man-child. He carried that persona over to the movies with films like Billy Madison and The Waterboy. As long as Sandler sticks to playing a stunted adult his films are huge hits. His recent film, Grown Ups, was his highest-grossing of all time with $271 million.
But when Sandler strays his films tend to flop. In Funny People, from director Judd Apatow, Sandler played an aging, lonely comedian dealing with a life-threatening illness. The film was a bust, earning only $71 million.
Our No. 4 earner, Will Smith, took a similar path of establishing a persona and sticking with it. The actor has yet to play a bad guy–he's almost always the hero who swoops in to save the day. Thanks in part to his hefty upfront paycheck for the upcoming sci-fi comedy Men in Black III, Smith earned $36 million.
In fifth place: Tom Hanks with $35 million. The actor's most recent film, Larry Crowne, was a bona fide flop, earning only $51 million at the global box office, but that's unlikely to hurt Hanks' earning power. His next film is an adaptation of the best-seller Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, co-starring Sandra Bullock.
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