How Chris Tucker Made a Fortune in Films Without Making Movies

A lot has happened since Chris Tucker last made a movie. People learned who Gary Condit was, then stopped caring. The Taliban left power. Dogs were let out and some guys named the Baha Men sought out those responsible. John Travolta starred in six movies, and no one liked any of them. A disheveled, unknown genre director named Peter Jackson brought The Lord of the Rings to the big screen and became a household name.

And through it all, Chris Tucker sat and waited. Waited for the right role, waited for the right deal, and waited for exactly what he got this November: A fat contract, a near-guaranteed hit, and a validation of what will soon be a five-year hiatus from the silver screen.

A couple of weeks ago, reports emerged that Tucker had inked a deal for $20 million against 20 percent of the gross to star in Rush Hour 3. It would be a follow-up to the second installment of the franchise, which marked Tucker’s last onscreen outing in 2001. Despite Tucker’s time on the bench, the deal marked a raise from his reported previous flat fee of $20 million. Details of Tucker’s salaries are a bit sketchy, since “$20 million and 20 percent of the gross” seem highly unlikely. But no matter what, Tucker’s new contract is big, and represents more than just a substantial deal for a well-rested actor. The contract represents an interesting model in career management, and one based on principles that can be pretty hard to find in Hollywood: patience, selectivity, self-awareness, and realistically modest ambitions.

What Tucker has done so wisely is stick to the path of a movie star, screen personality, and moneymaker who is not pretending to be a master thespian or versatile talent. He doesn’t need to make art, broaden his horizons, or satisfy some high-minded vision. He just needs to manage the Chris Tucker brand as well as he can. And unlike other stars who peddle established personae, Tucker understands that sometimes effectively following the “more of the same” game plan means interpreting the phrase very strictly. Not making any movies over the last five years was the smartest career move Chris Tucker ever made.

Tucker managed his rise to the top with savvy. Coming out of standup comedy, he first gained big-screen fame when he helped propel Friday to a strong $27-plus million domestic gross despite the film’s modest $3.5 million budget. He bounced around a bit after that, from the black-cast crime drama Dead Presidents to the Tarantino-directed Jackie Brown to a shrieking, cartoonish performance in the shrieking cartoonish The Fifth Element. But none of these roles provided him with juicy lead parts or mainstream success.

His big turn came in Money Talks with Charlie Sheen and future Rush Hour director Brett Ratner. While the movie grossed only $40 million with a budget far larger than Friday‘s, it was Tucker’s first stab at the mismatched buddy comedy genre that has launched so many other comedians into movie stardom (e.g., Eddie Murphy). It also began his working relationship with Ratner. With 1998 came Rush Hour, another mismatched buddy comedy with Ratner and Jackie Chan that brought in $141 million domestically and another $100 million abroad. By the time Tucker turned down Next Friday, he was already safe in knowing that Rush Hour‘s gross had eclipsed Friday‘s several times over. Tucker sat tight and waited until 2001’s Rush Hour 2, which brought in a whopping $347 million worldwide. And then he waited again. Until now.

It may seem odd for Tucker to sit out of movies for years after such monstrous hits. He didn’t even cut a high-profile standup special like his contemporaries Chris Rock, Eddie Griffin, and Martin Lawrence. But while some might say he blew a chance to capitalize on or further his stardom, what he really did was incubate and protect his celebrity. With his gross points, if Rush Hour 3 is a success of nearly the same magnitude as its predecessor, Tucker could walk away with a $50 million payday. For an admittedly career-conscious movie star, why not take the safest possible step possible if it’s also a wildly lucrative one?

Granted, Tucker was supposed to star in a White House comedy, which was cancelled in light of Chris Rock’s Head of State. But most stars would have found another project. What Tucker did was hold out to maintain his leverage instead of risking his big prize for a series of lesser opportunities. If Tucker had made two or three movies and they hadn’t performed well, then the producers of the Rush Hour franchise could have offered him significantly less money, knowing that he needed a surefire hit as much as the hit needed him. But by keeping his résumé unblemished, he left them with no leverage in dealing with him.

Building a career outside big franchises is tricky. Mike Myers built his celebrity around three franchises: Wayne’s World, Shrek, and Austin Powers. He’s never had a real hit outside those series, but pretty much knows he can go back to the bank on Austin any time. The movies have been so successful, and they are so entirely dependent on Myers’ work from every angle, that Myers can make another Powers movie whenever he wants and be handsomely rewarded for it. It’s a nice safeguard, since dreck like View From the Top and The Cat in the Hat has so ruined his ability to do anything other than voicing a CGI ogre (which pays him an eight-figure salary without him having to comb his hair).

But Myers is the exception, able to coast on his franchises like no star since the heyday of Schwarzenegger and Stallone — and he holds all the creative cards in one of them. A better comparison for Tucker is Pierce Brosnan. Now 52 and out of the James Bond job, Brosnan is past his prime for big roles and big chances. But unlike Tucker, he sought to capitalize on his franchise-given stardom between sequels. And while he found a touch of early success with Dante’s Peak and The Thomas Crown Affair, non-Bond efforts this decade have been little-seen fare like Laws of Attraction, After the Sunset, and The Tailor of Panama. Not that Brosnan would be overloaded with offers now if he had been pickier before, but if he hadn’t made so many non-Bond flops, his high Bond salary demands wouldn’t have been such an obstacle to making further 007 movies. Like Tucker, he could have held greater leverage with better planning.

There are only a select few bankable comedic movie stars in Hollywood: Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, and Adam Sandler. And even those guys have had their share of flops. What Tucker has done is what heavy hitters from Hollywood to Wall Street to professional football would trade their left legs to do: remove chance from the picture. By narrowing his focus to the point of hardly working at all, Tucker has found a sure thing, which pays him more than all but a small cluster of stars. And in doing so, he’s crafted the most uniquely brilliant career strategy in Hollywood . . . even if it means we have to sit through another six lousy Travolta movies before we hear from him, again.

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