It’s not a terrible stretch to call Saturday Night Live unique in show business. While there’s been some approximation of a “minor leagues” in comedy for some time, SNL was the first established stepping stone that more or less assured its featured players a shot at stardom (of which SNL gets their cut, usually in the form of a piece of the action of the departing member’s first few movies.)
Getting on SNL is certainly not a guarantee of success, to be sure. But while there’s been no shortage of cast members who fell short of achieving the pinnacle, in its 39 year run the show has produced some of the biggest names in entertainment, some of whom have racked up billions in box office dollars.
That's why getting on the show’s cast is, for aspiring actors, so cutthroat. The selection process that determines who gets the call and who doesn’t is one of the most scrutinized in the biz, and not just on the part of critics.
On Sept. 27 current cast member Jay Pharaoh, who is black, lambasted SNL for not casting enough minorities.
With this year’s turnover, he has a point – the six new hires this season consisted of one woman, who is part Latina, and five white men. It’s no question that SNL is seeking to develop movie stars out of its cast members. But is SNL shooting themselves in the foot with its lack of diversity, not just from the perspective of "political correctness", but also from the perspective of making money? We thought it might be interesting to find the SNL alums that have gone on to enjoy the most success as a result of getting their first big break on the show.
We really only wanted to look at actors who can truly credit their success to SNL. For instance, we excluded Robert Downey Jr. from consideration. Yes, we all love RDJ, but he was only on SNL for one uneventful season in the mid 80s, by which point his fame had already been established. In case anyone is curious, he would have been second on this list with a haul of $3,001,749,042 tallied over 49 movies.
RDJ aside, here are the six highest-grossing stars whose careers were broken by SNL. All numbers unadjusted for inflation, and courtesy of Box Office Mojo:
6. Bill Murray
Total Gross: $1,481,313,474 (38 movies)
Ole' Bill has had more staying power than almost anybody in show business, scoring mega hits in five different decades. Beginning with his breakout in Meatballs, Murray has been a reliable box office draw since he left SNL after its fifth season in 1980.
5. Will Ferrell
Total Gross: $1,512,171,813 (26 movies)
The ‘Frat Pack’ member is the newest to make this list, and with several franchises under his belt is poised to continue ratcheting up big box office numbers. The new Anchorman movie slated for later this year has a chance to net a serious haul.
4. Chris Rock
Total Gross: $1,576,024,227 (22 movies)
And now we touch on the minority question. It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but Rock is one of the biggest stars of all time to come out of SNL. He was also quite vocal after his tenure about the lack of good roles for minorities while he was on the show. His work in the Madagascar franchise is responsible for most of his box office take.
3. Mike Meyers
Total Gross: $2,211,357,524 (15 movies)
Meyers has found his biggest success as of late off-screen as the voice of Shrek (a role he got when original choice, fellow SNL alum Chris Farley, died unexpectedly). Before that he was the catchphrase-spouting cultural sensation in Austin Powers, as well as the catchphrase-spouting cultural sensation as Wayne in Wayne's World.
2. Adam Sandler
Total Gross: $2,363,819,114 (28 movies)
Sandler has found his niche in broad, slapstick-y comedies that almost invariably star a man-child triumphing over the squares. Though SNL has a history of putting actors, improvisers, and writers on its show, Sandler was discovered as a stand-up, same as Chris Rock, and much the same as the number one SNL box office draw on the list.
1. Eddie Murphy
Total Gross $3,810,422,028 (38 movies)
The biggest star SNL ever produced was unusual in several ways: he was hired during the disastrous 1980-81 season, he was a stand-up, he was 20 at the time of his hiring, and he was black. Like his successors Chris Rock, and Jay Pharaoh, he openly chafed at the treatment of blacks on the show. In fact, since finding mega-success in the Beverly Hills franchise, and continuing on to major success in family comedy and voice-over work, Murphy has not once returned to host SNL, and has not even deigned to make an appearance at any of its anniversary functions.