These days, $1 million doesn’t seem like much.
Boxer Floyd Mayweather – the highest-earning athlete on Earth last year – earned $1 million for every 41 seconds of work in 2013. The three stars of smash U.S. sitcom The Big Bang Theory pull in $1 million per 23-minute episode. America’s national debt will go up $1 million in about the next 90 seconds.
But there was a time when $1 million meant something. A time when earning that kind of paycheck, particularly in the world of entertainment, made you almost a god among men.
That time was 1962.
In this installment of our 60 at 60 series, we head to the year of Bob Dylan’s debut album, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and director Lewis Milestone’s Mutiny on the Bounty.
We bring up Mutiny for one very specific reason. For his services in the lead role of Fletcher Christian in the film, American actor Marlon Brando commanded the first-ever $1 million salary for a movie role.
Adjusted for inflation, that equates to roughly $7.9 million today.
Of course, with the way the entertainment industry has boomed in the 52 years since Brando’s historic payday, even $7.9 million doesn’t seem like much. Stars like Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp have commanded upwards of $30 million for a film in recent years.
But at the time, this marked a watershed moment for actors. Salaries would only increase and the talent in front of the camera would continue to grow stronger in its power consolidation. Unlike the studio system age of movies that dominated the first half of the century, where directors and major studio heads wielded all the influence, the talent in front of the camera has grown increasingly prominent in decision-making.
The stars of modern times can more easily command higher salaries, offer creative instruction, and even secure film credits as executive producers on the very movies in which they’re starring.
And it all started with Brando.
Ironically, for having cashed in such a milestone payday, Brando ended up unable to deliver a hit. Impressively, Mutiny on the Bounty was the sixth-highest grossing film of 1962, but that tells a happy story out of context.
In reality, the movie cost $19 million to produce and only brought in $13.68 million at the box office – a money loser that would be panned endlessly on sites across the blogosphere if it were released today.
But Brando could cash his pioneering check regardless. And it wouldn’t be the last time the leading man made history with his deposit slip. For just 10 minutes of screen time as Jor-El in 1978’s Superman, Brando also became the first actor to cross the $3 million mark for a film salary.
As the multiplex stars of today sleep on their mattresses made of $100 bills, they should all look back at 1962, and thank the trailblazing Brando - to borrow from one of his more iconic roles - for making Hollywood an offer it couldn’t refuse.