Is “The Outsiders” the greatest collection of box-office talent in history?

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The Outsiders” is one of those movies that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Now, that doesn’t make it rare – lots of movies, put in the hands of a fine director or editor, can achieve greatness that wouldn’t be present at first blush. What makes “The Outsiders” incredibly special is that it has vast resources of talent: Based on S.E. Hinton’s classic novel; directed by Francis Ford Coppola; and starring, amongst others, C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane, Ralph Macchio and, in a small role, Tom Cruise. For those of you who haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to watch it in its entirety.

Beyond how great the movie is (YMMV), one thing that struck me the other day while re-watching it is how successful each of the main actors has gone on to be. Now, box office earnings is not a perfect metric: for instance, someone like Elijah Wood (full disclosure: I can’t stand him) looks like a box-office titan because he was in the three “Lord of the Rings” movies, even though he hasn’t had any major hits outside of that (and also had the lead part in the worst movie ever made). See also: Nicolas Cage. (Actually, please see “National Treasure.” That movie is incredible.)

Having said that, it seems pretty clear that those actors with large box-office totals are the biggest stars. For instance, wikipedia lists the actors with highest lifetime box office in the following order: Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy, Harrison Ford, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Cruise (more on him in a moment), Robin Williams, Johnny Depp. Morgan Freeman, Cameron Diaz, Bruce Willis and Will Smith. Obviously inflation and the rising cost of movie tickets means that modern movie stars are going to dominate the list – Robert De Niro sits at number 12 on the list, Michael Caine at 20, John Travolta at 22, and Jack Nicholson at 50 (right below Alec Baldwin – really?). So, while imperfect, we can look at overall box-office earnings to gauge star power, and by this measure, “The Outsiders” measures up.

Tom Cruise is of course the most successful of the “Outsiders” actors listed above: His lifetime box office take sits at $3,196,624,579.* Next up is Matt Dillon with $809,581,526. Not far behind him is Diane Lane, with $798,029,360. The next-highest earner was Patrick Swayze with $572,792,351. Very close behind him was Rob Lowe with $568,916,724. Box Office Mojo did not have statistics for C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio or Emilio Estevez. However, for Emilio Estevez, giving him credit only for the three “Mighty Ducks” films would give him over $100 million; for Ralph Macchio, the three “Karate Kid” movies almost $240 million; and for C. Thomas Howell, the greatest volleyball movie co-starring Peter Horton ever made, “Side Out,” is basically priceless**. Combined box-office total of all actors involved? Over 6.6 billion dollars.

*Note: all stats are per BoxOfficeMojo.com

**I mean, how did this movie not win the Oscar for Best Movie Ever?

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Now, other movies have featured co-stars with serious box-office clout. “The Departed” stars multiple members of the top 50: Jack Nicholson (lifetime take: $1.79 billion), Alec Baldwin ($1.82 billion), Leonardo DiCaprio ($1.91 billion), and Matt Damon ($2.54 billion). Add in someone who should soon crack the top 50, Mark Wahlberg, and his $1.77 billion lifetime haul. Combined box-office of the stars: $9.83 billion.

Or take “The Expendables.” Sylvester Stallone’s $1.34 billion overall box-office take, Jason Statham’s $721 million, Jet Li’s $782 million, Ah-nuld’s $1.71 billion, and Bruce Willis’s $2.9 billion (!) add up to a whoping $7.45 billion.

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So, yes, “The Outsiders” isn’t the champion. But for a 1983 film starring a cast of young, mostly untested actors, it certainly ended up with quite the assemblage of box-office stalwarts. When “The Departed” or “The Outsiders” (or, for that matter, films featuring star-ensemble casts such as “Ocean’s 11”) were cast, the stars were already box-office powerhouses. The beauty of “The Outsiders” is that it cast a number of actors in key roles, and they all went on to be moderate to great box-office successes. (Note: maybe they were doing it for Johnny?)

One final note: it’s amazing that, out of all of the people who ended up having great careers in the film, the actor who dominates the movie, who is in every scene, C. Thomas Howell, probably ended up having the weakest career. It seems incredible that, at the time, movie executives could say, “Well, we have Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, and C. Thomas Howell. Obviously, C. Thomas Howell is the star of this movie.” That’s not a dig at Howell; if anything, I’m one of his biggest fans, and loved that he has recently popped up in things like “24” and “The Amazing Spider-Man.” But if he had half the career that some of his co-stars had, I wonder if “The Outsiders” would have achieved legendary status.

No matter. Stay gold, Ponyboy.

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