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Famous Midlife Career Changers

Published: February 20, 2014

Changing careers in your 30s, 40s, 50s, or even 60s can seem daunting or downright foolish to some. But for a Nobel Prize winner, a legendary female comic, and more, risky—and often multiple—midlife job swaps led to their success.

Toni-Morrison

Toni Morrison

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved and the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Morrison started her professional career as an English professor in Texas, and then taught in Washington, D.C. In her 30s, she moved to New York to become an editor at Random House (first working on textbooks and then moving on to a senior editor position). She published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, at age 40.

Author John Grisham attends the Broadway opening night of 'A Time To Kill' at The Golden Theatre on October 20, 2013 in New York City.

John Grisham

Though he’s spent most of his adult life writing best-selling legal thrillers such as Sycamore Row and The Pelican Brief, Grisham spent the first part of his life as a lawyer and political figure. He published his first book, A Time To Kill, at 33, but the 5,000 copies printed received little-to-no recognition. His big break came four years later when he sold the film rights to his second novel The Firm to Paramount Pictures, before it was even published.

Actor Jim Carrey (right) with comedian Rodney Dangerfield at the world premiere of Carrey's movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in Beverly Hills, California. March 9, 2004

Rodney Dangerfield

Salesman Jacob Cohen had been moonlighting as a standup comic since his early 20s. He finally “got some respect” after his debut performance—under stage name Rodney Dangerfield (left)—on The Ed Sullivan Show at age 46. After long-awaited success, he began acting in his 50s and opened Dangerfield’s Comedy Club, whose stage welcomed little-known comics such as Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne Barr, and Jim Carrey (right).

Kathryn Joosten at Bridgetta's Cause Just 4 Paws Celebrity Charity Event, Sportie LA, Los Angeles, CA. 08-06-11

Kathryn Joosten

The two-time Emmy Award-winning actress decided to take acting classes at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in her 40s while she was working full-time as a psychiatric nurse. Joosten moved all the way to Buena Vista, Florida, for her first acting gig as a Walt Disney World performer.

Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant Sign on June 27, 2011 in Bucharest, Romania. It is a fast food restaurant chain headquartered in United States specialized in chicken.

Harland Sanders

Before he convinced the world that 11 is the prime number for a “finger lickin’ good” spice blend, the honorary Kentucky colonel was the ultimate career changer. Army mule-tender, railroad worker, and gas station operator were just a few jobs he held before buying a restaurant in his 40s. There he perfected his Kentucky Fried Chicken, but Sanders really got cooking at age 65 when he was put out of business and turned his recipe into a franchise.

Martha Stewart at The 33rd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards at Kodak Theatre on April 28, 2006 in Hollywood, CA.

Martha Stewart

Although the homemaking mogul has experienced some legal trouble, Martha Stewart’s career-changing power is inspiring: The former model turned stockbroker in her 20s, and then homemaker to caterer in her 30s. After her catering company was established, she wrote her first book (on entertaining) and began selling her first line of home-goods in her 40s. Nearing and into her 50s, the famous merchandiser became a TV show host, an editor-in-chief, and the billionaire CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.

George Foreman at the Academy Awards.

George Foreman

The boxer-turned-minister made a heavyweight comeback winning the world championship at 45—after a 10-year hiatus. Following his win, Foreman was asked to endorse several products including the Lean Mean Grilling Machine (which he helped develop) and Meineke Car Care Centers. Since his midlife victory, Foreman has become an entrepreneur launching a line of cleaning products, shoes for diabetics, a restaurant franchise, and more, and he continues to preach at the church he founded in 1980.

Minnesota Senatorial candidate Al Franken speaks at a rally at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota.

Al Franken

After the former Saturday Night Live producer, writer, and cast member left the sketch comedy show, Al Franken went on to write three books of political satire that hit No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list. And he moved to radio, hosting a progressive talk show on Air America. In 2007, Franken (in his late 50s) chose to leave talk radio to pursue (and later win) a U.S. Senate seat. Franken is up for re-election this year.

Official Portrait of President Ronald Reagan, 1981

Ronald Reagan

Another actor turned to politics, Ronald Reagan, is the oldest of our mid-life career changers, having been inaugurated at the age of 69. However, the 40th president of the United States took his first step from Hollywood limelight into the political spotlight in his early 50s when he became governor of California.

Ken Jeong at "The Way Way Back" Premiere as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival, Regal Cinemas, Los Angeles, CA 06-23-13

Ken Jeong

For comedic actor (and doctor) Ken Jeong, laughter won out over medicine. Jeong was a practicing physician performing medical checkups by day and standup routines by night in the early half of his life. He became a full-time actor in his late 30s when, oddly enough, he landed a role playing a doctor in the Judd Apatow film Knocked Up.

Phyllis Diller arriving at the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Memorabilia Collection Auction & Auction Preview at Paley Center For Media on June 7, 2011, in Beverly Hills, CA

Phyllis Diller

Legendary comedian, actor, and author Phyllis Diller quit her day job at age 37 to pursue standup before she had even performed her first comedy routine on stage. Two years after she handed in her notice, Diller appeared on The Tonight Show and became America’s first female comedienne on tour.

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