The Guinness Book of World Records has just declared that Samuel L. Jackson is the highest grossing movie actor of all time. [UPDATE: And now, thanks to Avengers, he’s even more highest-grossingest.] There are literally infinite ways you could argue against that statistic. The bulk of Jackson’s estimated $7.2 billion gross comes from big franchise films where he had, at best, a supporting role. He serenely swanned through the background of the Star Wars prequels. He typed frantically on a computer in Jurassic Park. He’s been in all four Marvel-verse blockbusters —Captain America, Thor, two Iron Men — but his Nick Fury is less a character than a walking commercial for The Avengers. You could point out that Jackson’s carpet-bomb career is filled with more misses than hits. You could say, with some justification, that Jackson is never the primary draw for any of his movies: He’s not a “movie star” in the classic sense, but just a dude who stars in a lot of movies. You could even note that Guinness didn’t adjust for inflation, and the real highest grossing actor of all time is probably Mary Pickford or something.
And you’d be right on all counts. But I think all those arguments miss the point. Jackson has been simply omnipresent for almost two decades now. Yes, there are plenty of horrible films on his IMDB page — The Man, Formula 51, freaking Basic. On one hand, I want to point you to the great Jackson performances: His cerebral villain in Jackie Brown, his fascinating geek-malcontent in Unbreakable, his freaked-out cop in the underrated The Negotiator.
But really, the greatness of Jackson lies within the smorgasbord. His mere presence makes bad movies feel more self-aware than they should — recall his speech in Deep Blue Sea, or the way he single-handedly turned Snakes on a Plane into the first great Hollywood meme. He refined “the cameo” into a kind of beautiful art: His speech in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 practically steals the movie, while his sudden arrival at the end of Out of Sight gives that film one of the great out-of-nowhere happy endings in cinema history.
Jackson has a tireless work ethic. He has a great side-career as a voice actor, lending his voice to The Boondocks. (His box office gross would look even more impressive if Guinness added in his role as Frank Tenpenny, the baddie in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which happens to be the highest-selling game on the PlayStation 2.) So all of today’s multi-hyphenate young stars — the James Francos, the Aziz Ansaris, the Justin Timberlakes — have Jackson hovering their shoulder as a spirit animal. (Jackson is one of the few actors working today who would have probably flourished in the old Hollywood studio system, when actors were paid a weekly wage and made four films a year.)
Really, the role of Nick Fury is perfect for Jackson. Like the mythological Odin One-Eye — or, more to the point, like Caine in Kung Fu — he seems to walk the earth for all Eternity, popping up here and there and everywhere. When all the beautiful young stars of today are competing for roles in the network procedurals of the future, when all the established actor-producers are attempting to kickstart the fourquels and fivequels of their most beloved franchises, I bet Jackson will still be around, making movies safe for the rest of us. Kudos.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich