Life

80 Over 80

Slate’s list of the most influential Americans in their ninth decade (and beyond).

Illustrations of some of the people from the list.
Illustration by Slate, Liv Garber, Caitlynn Ra, Liv Porter, Reilly Metz, and Adrianna Helfrich

When Slate debuted a feature called “80 Over 80” more than a decade ago, we had two goals in mind: to poke fun at America’s obsession with early achievers (and the 30 Under 30 industrial complex) and point to the lasting influence of octogenarians on American society. In 2008, John Paul Stevens topped the inaugural list.

80 Over 80.
Logo by Morgan Saavedra-Friedman
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We brought the feature out of retirement this year because the power of the geriatric set—in politics, in Hollywood, in culture writ large—has never been clearer. America just elected its oldest president ever. Joe Biden, who bested one septuagenarian to win the primary and another to win the general election, will turn 80 before the midpoint of his term. The speaker of the House turned 80 this year. She’s joined by 11 other octogenarians in the House and seven in the Senate. Old money, in every sense, continues to have a disproportionate impact on the electoral process. But today’s most powerful 80-year-olds are everywhere—in the arts, business, academia, law, science, sports.

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To pick our 80 octogenarians (and nonagenarians and centenarians), we tried to measure influence broadly. We especially weighed significant achievements after 80 and current relevance, though lasting impact is important too. The list is limited to Americans (sorry, Pope Francis), but we used some editorial discretion for people who weren’t born here but have lived in the states for much of their lives. For illustrations, we partnered with students from the New School’s Parsons School of Design. It’s also important to note that this list inevitably skews toward white men, which is a reflection of the barriers that were in place while this generation was rising to power—barriers that in some cases still exist or are just beginning to be dismantled. “Influence” isn’t necessarily a positive thing, either; the list includes plenty of figures with complicated legacies. Some make movies. Some make laws. Some sing. Some tweet. One broke a record for the 100-meter dash at 99 years old.

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Below, you’ll find the first 60 names on Slate’s list, in alphabetical order. For our ranking of the top 20, click here. To read the whole 80 Over 80 package, including interviews with several members of the list, click here.

Hank Aaron, 86

Hall of Fame baseball player and Atlanta Braves senior vice president

When Aaron dethroned Babe Ruth as baseball’s home run champion in 1974, he did so in the face of racist hate mail and death threats so intense that he feared assassination. By the time Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s record in 2007, Aaron had become the stoic, humble Black hero of many baseball fans’ imaginations in comparison to the new champion, a contemptuous suspected cheater. But “the Hammer” defied the simple stereotypes of racist fans. He’s worked for the Atlanta Braves since his retirement, becoming an ambassador for a game that never fully appreciated his greatness on its own terms. —Joel Anderson

Cindy Adams, 90

Gossip columnist

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Adams dwells in two places at once: her luxurious penthouse apartment, formerly property of Doris Duke, with its office covered in her own screaming New York Post headlines, and deep inside Donald Trump’s brain, which is also wallpapered with Cindy Adams headlines. Adams is the high priestess of Trump’s only religion, grantor of the tawdry yet glamorous approval without which he fears he would not exist. He called her up on her birthday, and they shared a laugh about how he used to go snuffling around after Miss Universe contestants. And she got a column opener out of it. —Tom Scocca

Sheldon Adelson, 87

Casino billionaire and right-wing donor

The case for Adelson’s relevance could be made at length, or it could be made just by linking to the record of political donations he and his wife, Miriam, made in September alone, which totaled $84 million. A substantial portion of that money went to PACs that bought huge volumes of ads attacking Democrats like Cal Cunningham and Sri Kulkarni, whose losses ultimately proved crucial to preventing the Republican Party from getting blown out. It’s nice to have someone on your side whose business is the closest thing to a money-printing machine that exists in real life! —Ben Mathis-Lilley

Madeleine Albright, 83

Former secretary of state

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Albright, who continues to teach at Georgetown, chair an eponymous consulting firm, and act as a major player in Democratic politics, is also a disturbingly credible prophet of doom. The word fascist gets thrown around a lot these days as a political epithet. But when Albright—who fled the Nazi-occupation of Czechoslovakia with her family as a child and later became America’s first female secretary of state—warns we may be on the road to fascism’s return, as she did in her 2018 book, Fascism: A Warning, it hits a little harder. She followed it up in 2020 with a memoir, Hell and Other Destinations, reflecting on her career since leaving government. —Joshua Keating

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Buzz Aldrin.
Illustration by Liv Porter

Buzz Aldrin, 90

Former astronaut and science ambassador

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In his 80s, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin wrote a bestselling memoir and yelled at the moon in a bit on 30 Rock. Having been to the moon, he’s now keen on exploring other far-flung places. He founded the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute, the goal of which is to get people living on Mars, and even authored a kids book on the topic. At 86, he became the oldest person to ever visit the South Pole, though due to altitude sickness, he had to evacuate early and spend a week in a hospital. In an interview with the Today show, he declared it was “worth it!—Shannon Palus

Woody Allen, 85

Director

Once the leading light for a generation of nebbishy male intellectuals, Woody Allen’s legacy took a dark turn when his daughter Dylan Farrow accused him in 2013 of having sexually abused her as a child. (He denies the allegation.) This wasn’t the first time Farrow had made the claim, but it stuck in a way it hadn’t before—and when the accusation met up with the #MeToo movement several years later, the speed with which Allen’s reputation collapsed was a stark indication of how the terrain had shifted. Now the cloud hanging over him has made him a kind of ideological bellwether in terms of which Hollywood types will still work with him and which disavow him. Yet through it all, he remains a hugely influential filmmaker. The fact that he continues to make movies in Europe is an indication of how far the consequences of sexual misconduct allegations do and don’t stretch. And then there’s the way his movies continue to do big numbers in the international box office—his 2019 film A Rainy Day in New York has already reeled in $22 million abroad.—Sam Adams

Roger Angell, 100

Writer

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Angell is the only person inducted into both the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Letters—feats he achieved at ages 93 and 94, respectively. A New Yorker contributor since World War II, Angell has been one of our foremost chroniclers of aging; he wrote a magisterial piece for the magazine in 2014 about life as a ninetysomething. He’s published dozens of stories since, most of them on baseball, a sport his prose has helped define. —Josh Levin

Hubie Brown.
Illustration by Divyakshi Kedia

Hubie Brown, 87

ABC/ESPN basketball analyst

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Many older sports broadcasters have trouble balancing an appreciation for their subject’s past with an enthusiasm for its present, turning games into extended whines about how young people lack the mental and physical toughness to play properly. Not so for Brown. He matches his endearing old-school convictions about unselfishness and fundamental soundness with an understanding that those qualities are found in as much abundance in 2020 as they were in 1975, the year he coached the Kentucky Colonels to an American Basketball Association championship. —BML

Warren Buffett.
Illustration by Reilly Metz

Warren Buffett, 90

Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

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Buffett is widely viewed as the kindly grandpa of America’s plutocrat class—the folksy, philanthropy-minded “seer of Omaha” who still lives in a modest house while subsisting on a diet of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, despite having once been the world’s richest man (he’s currently No. 7 on the list, according to Forbes). He’s the quotable king of value investing, hunting down underappreciated businesses and buying into them for the long haul, which seems like a wholesome counterpoint to the strip-mining tactics of modern private equity shops (Who doesn’t like a bargain hunter?). He’s also warmed liberal hearts by calling for higher taxes on rich guys like himself. Of course, Buffett isn’t all soda pop and homespun, middle-American wisdom. There are black marks on his business record, like the mobile home company he owns that was accused of predatory lending to minorities. But as far as billionaires with a cultish public following go, well, there are far more obnoxious ones out there. —Jordan Weissmann

Jimmy Carter, 96

Former U.S. president

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Nobody’s had a greater second act than Jimmy Carter. In 1980, after four mediocre years in the White House, he got trounced by Ronald Reagan. Instead of retreating to corporate boards, he decided to focus the rest of his life on peace and human rights. He’s worked to resolve conflicts in Haiti, North Korea, and the Middle East. And he joined Habitat for Humanity to build free houses, with his own hands, for people who needed them. —Will Saletan

Noam Chomsky.
Illustration by Alexia Papavasilakis

Noam Chomsky, 92

Linguist, philosopher, and activist

For decades, Chomsky has been writing books, making speeches, and protesting American involvement in wars abroad. In 2020, he’s still appearing on podcasts, doing interviews, and posting his work to Twitter. He’s influenced academic fields from linguistics to cognitive science, but his furthest reach may be in left-leaning social thought. Chomsky is probably the only nonagenarian you’ll find getting into tiffs with millennial socialist podcasters over the left’s relationship to electoral politics—one remarkable achievement, among many. —Rebecca Onion

Jim Clyburn, 80

U.S. representative

In 1993, Clyburn became the first Black person to represent South Carolina in Congress since Reconstruction—and he hit the halls running. He’s now House majority whip, the highest-ranking Black legislator in Congress. Perhaps his greatest political flex came when he endorsed Joe Biden ahead of the South Carolina Democratic primary in February. His decision to publicly support Biden played a pivotal role in lifting a flailing campaign to the Democratic nomination—and, ultimately, the White House. —Julia Craven

Bruce Dern, 84

Actor

Dern hasn’t had anything to prove as an actor since 1978’s Coming Home, but he’s never stopped showing up and being excellent. He was a relatively youthful 77 when he earned his second Academy Award for Nebraska, the 2013 Alexander Payne film that reminded audiences how much he could do with his face alone, and he gave his deep, rattly voice a workout in The Hateful Eight just under the wire at age 79. Since turning 80 in 2016, he’s appeared in 20 feature films, including an extraordinary performance as George Spahn in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. That film, from the summer of 2019, was always a nostalgic love letter to Hollywood; given subsequent events, it now feels like the Last Movie. It’s fitting that Bruce Dern is right at the center of it. —Matthew Dessem

Alan Dershowitz, 82

Law professor and Trump defender

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Dershowitz, the former Harvard Law professor and self-described liberal Democrat, rose to new heights of notoriety when he defended Donald Trump at the president’s impeachment trial. His theory? A president may lawfully seek foreign help for reelection if he believes his reelection is in the best interest of the country. Ever since, Dershowitz has become an omnipresent commentator who specializes in trolling liberals with meretricious pro-Trump arguments. Even as his reputation plummets in the legal world, he remains a fixture of right-wing media, a self-styled gadfly eager to put a legal sheen on Trump’s most unhinged ideas. Dershowitz has also been accused of sex crimes facilitated by his former client, Jeffrey Epstein; he denies the allegations, which haven’t dimmed his star on the right. —Mark Joseph Stern

Joan Didion, 86

Writer

The glamorous Sacramento, California, native who documented hippies, Hollywood, and the world with a gimlet eye and a gamine air remains a cult figure—and an icon of the disaffected WASP literary aesthetic—to many American writers. Her late-career turn toward memoirs of loss—following the deaths of her husband and daughter—has given way to retrospectives like South and West: From a Notebook, her 2017 book based on 1970s notes about the South that includes, almost as a parenthetical, the time she tried to kill a lover with a kitchen knife. —Lili Loofbourow

Frank Drake, 90

Pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

In the early 1960s, Frank Drake brought alien hunting into the mainstream, applying academic and intellectual rigor to a field that could be seen as fringe-y. He conducted “the first modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence” and debuted the Drake equation, which attempts to estimate the number of ET societies that might be broadcasting information in the Milky Way. Yet his decades of not locating aliens haven’t dissuaded him. In 2016, he told Science Friday’s Chau Tu (now an editor at Slate), “I just want to find ’em! If we could find one, that would be terrific.” —Torie Bosch

Daniel Ellsberg, 89

Whistleblower and activist

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In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret history of the Vietnam War, revealing that top officials knew they couldn’t win but kept sending more troops for “credibility.” A former Pentagon official himself, he became an antiwar spokesman whose activism still energizes protesters and whistleblowers. His 2018 book, The Doomsday Machine, is the best memoir by an insider who plunged into nuclear war’s mad logic and came out the other side. —Fred Kaplan

Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston, 81

Physician and medical researcher

Gaston, who witnessed firsthand the damage poverty and bigotry can inflict on Black women growing up, has made a career of fighting racial health disparities. In the ’80s, her study of cell anemia (a life-shortening genetic condition that mostly affects Black Americans) led to a nationwide screening program. She went on to direct the Bureau of Primary Health Care, becoming the first Black woman to lead such a bureau. In her later years, she co-wrote a book, gave speeches, and ran a nonprofit dedicated to the health of Black women. In a field often unwelcome to Black people, and especially Black women, Gaston rose to the top, driven to lessen the suffering inflicted on the vulnerable by an unjust world. —Molly Olmstead

Frank Gehry, 91

Architect

No architect is as instantly identifiable by his work as Gehry. A late bloomer, Gehry changed the course of big-ticket design in 1997, when his bright and writhing Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao, Spain. The museum’s popularity made Gehry an overnight celebrity—and spawned the “Bilbao effect,” as politicians and philanthropists raced to spend millions on “starchitects” and their flashy designs. But it’s not Gehry’s fault that architects want to be him and donors want to be with him. With buildings that are always fascinating to look at (his showstopping Manhattan tower) and fun to visit (the Fisher Center at Bard College), Gehry helped Americans love modern architecture again. —Henry Grabar

Buddy Guy, 84

Singer-songwriter and guitarist

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Before Muddy Waters, the father of the Chicago blues, died in 1983, he made his protégé Buddy Guy promise to keep the blues alive. Guy has kept his word, performing hundreds of shows a year, operating an esteemed Chicago blues club, and adding more recordings to his vast discography. It’s a lonely crusade, as he’s now the last man standing of the midcentury blues bandleaders who indelibly shaped American popular music. But, as evidenced by his millions of adoring fans worldwide, it’s a crusade he’s successfully keeping up. —Nitish Pahwa

Marion Hammer, 81

NRA lobbyist

Many of the most extreme pro-gun laws in America—“stand your ground” and concealed carry laws among them—began in Florida, quietly shepherded through the legislative process there by the NRA’s most powerful lobbyist. Hammer, an NRA board member and formerly the organization’s first female president, is often described as a tiny, pistol-packing grandmother, but that cutesy depiction fails to reflect the legacy of her 40 years’ work: Her trend-setting bills repeatedly shifted norms around firearms, enshrining unregulated gun use as a sacred individual right. —MO

LaDonna Harris, 89

Comanche leader and activist

When Harris wedded her high school sweetheart, a white man and future U.S. senator, her marriage was still considered illegal in some states. But when that marriage took her to Washington, she quickly became a political force. Despite working without a college degree and in a hostile system, she has educated those in power about Native issues, championed a number of landmark laws for Native rights, helped return sacred land to the Taos Pueblo, and pressed individual government departments to create their own “Indian desks.” Today she trains new generations of Native American leaders and continues to advocate for the rights of Indigenous peoples around the country. —MO

Carmen Herrera, 105

Abstract artist

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Herrera has been producing art since the 1940s, but she did not sell her first painting until 2004, when she was 89. She then exploded onto the high-art scene, with displays at some of the world’s top galleries, including solo exhibitions at the Whitney and at the Lisson Gallery in Chelsea. She honed her signature style with bold, minimalist geometric abstractions, often featuring paired colors and strong lines. The New York Times in 2016 called her “a key player in any history of postwar art.” Her ascent has been astonishing, and while she now has to rely on an assistant to carry out her vision, she remains in the prime of her career. —MO

Joyce Hunter, 81

Professor and activist

We often think of “pride” as a parade in June, but for Hunter, instilling it in LGBTQ youth is a vocation. The professor and activist is now a researcher at Columbia specializing in adolescent HIV prevention, but her pioneering efforts began well before she became a licensed professional. In 1979, after helping to organize the first gay March on Washington, Hunter co-founded the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a direct services organization in New York focused on, as she put it, helping LGBTQ youth “grow up with a better sense of themselves.” A few years later, Hunter co-founded the Harvey Milk School, an alternative high school for at-risk queer teens. Being “at-risk” is still a reality for far too many LGBTQ kids—which is why Hunter’s ongoing work remains as essential today as ever. —J. Bryan Lowder

Carl Icahn, 84

Activist investor

Icahn is a dyspeptic Wall Street brute from Queens who talks like a Martin Scorsese character and has made billions terrorizing CEOs for fun and profit. He rose to fame as one of the original corporate raiders of the 1980s, a period during which he notoriously took over TWA and stripped it of key assets, helping to set the stage for the storied airline’s eventual collapse. Today, he’s known as a fearsome activist investor, buying large stakes in companies and using his position to make demands on management, such as the time he badgered Apple into handing back more of its giant cash pile to shareholders. Icahn may also have given us the greatest moment in the history of financial television, when he called into CNBC in 2013 and told rival activist investor Bill Ackman that he was “like one of these little Jewish boys crying” about getting beaten up in the schoolyard. Say what you will about the man, he’s entertaining. —JW

Jasper Johns, 90

Artist

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Without Jasper Johns, what would contemporary American art look like now? Would we even think of an American flag the same way? Two years before Warhol’s soup cans, Johns sculpted two Ballantine Ale cans (Painted Bronze, 1960), allegedly in response to Willem de Kooning saying of Johns’ dealer, Leo Castelli, “You could give that son of a bitch two beer cans and he could sell them.” His influence is everywhere. Next fall, the Whitney and the Philadelphia Museum of Art will mount the pandemic-delayed Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror, his largest retrospective to date. That mind is famously elusive but still churning. Even this late in a very long career, Johns “is the rare artist whose work has never become stale.” —Jared Hohlt

James Earl Jones, 89

Actor

People will come, Ray.” “Everything the light touches is our kingdom.” “No, I am your father.” A young boy with a stutter grew into one of the most celebrated actors across film, stage, and television—and one of the most recognizable voices in the world. Over a 60-year career, Jones has lent his booming bass to characters as varied as a Jim Crow–era boxer in The Great White Hope and King Jaffe Joffer, ruler of Zamunda in Coming to America, a role he’ll soon reprise. —Marissa Martinelli

Quincy Jones.
Illustration by Liv Garber

Quincy Jones, 87

Music producer and former media magnate

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There may be no living figure who’s had more of a wide-ranging impact on American culture than Quincy Jones. Today he’s no longer producing pop megahits, scoring blockbuster films, or running magazines like Vibe, but he’s still out there, telling new, eye-popping stories about his past encounters with major celebrities, helping down-and-out artists through the Jazz Foundation of America, and appearing in movies and music videos by modern artists. He also happens to have the most Grammys of any living person. Jones may not be behind the boards anymore, but he’s still an ever-present part of the creative movements he crucially shaped. —NP

Daniel Kahneman, 86

Economist, psychologist, Nobel Prize winner

A survivor of the Holocaust, Daniel Kahneman made his name—primarily alongside his longtime collaborator Amos Tversky—showing that humans are far more irrational than we think we are, inclined to all sorts of biases and psychological shortcuts. It was no small irony that soon after publishing his bestseller, Thinking Fast and Slow, the field of psychology was roiled by the replication crisis, the results of which are still not resolved. Many of Kahneman’s own findings have held up, but as Daniel Engber wrote of the famous academic in Slate in 2016, “as usual, when it came to being wrong, Kahneman was right.” —Susan Matthews

Ida Keeling, 105

Athlete

Ida Keeling is tougher than you. She didn’t start running until she was 67, but she’s spent the past decade breaking world records. At 95, she set the age-group record in the 60-meter dash. At 99, she broke the age-group record for the 100-meter dash, finishing in under a minute. She set the mark again for 100-and-up—and celebrated by doing pushups on the track. When asked why she’s still going, she said, “I’m running from old age.” —Aymann Ismail

Henry Kissinger, 97

Former Secretary of State

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As Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, he bombed civilians in Vietnam and Cambodia, coordinated a fascist coup in Chile, and greenlit Pakistan’s slaughter of Bengalis. But he also opened up China and crafted détente with Russia. In recognition of his triumphs and disregard of his horrors, Kissinger continues to win plaudits and honors. Newspapers and magazines publish his essays; world leaders seek his advice. His books on diplomatic history are renowned, justly so. —FK

Ralph Lauren, 81

Fashion mogul

If you’ve ever worn a polo shirt—or judged someone wearing one—you’ve got Ralph Lauren, avatar of the American-yet-somehow-English preppy look, to thank. The billionaire designer’s brand celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018 (as Lauren celebrated his own knighthood). And, despite recent brushes with the bargain bin and the COVID retail slowdown, he is considered one of the industry’s strongest players. This dominance is widely attributed to Lauren’s “world-building” vision and his (perhaps overly) firm hand. Indeed, even after handing off the role of CEO in 2015, Lauren continued on as executive chairman and chief creative officer. Because he owns the majority of Ralph Lauren Corp. stock, his influence on the company, and on our collective fantasy of ruddy, manure-scented wealth, won’t be waning anytime soon. —JBL

Dr. Frank Lawlis, 80

Daytime TV pseudoscience guru

Lawlis, a doctor with a decadeslong career in pseudoscientific enterprises, is one of the driving forces behind the daytime TV juggernaut Dr. Phil. Phil McGraw’s mentor and a frequent on-air “expert” whom the Hollywood Reporter has called the “guru’s guru,” Lawlis runs a medically dubious psychological treatment center in Texas. He also screens guests and advises McGraw on nearly every episode, promoting quack science to the show’s millions of viewers. —MO

The Rev. James Lawson, 92

Civil rights activist

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It was on a ministry mission to India in the ’50s that Lawson learned about Satyagraha, the method of resistance through nonviolence, developed by Mahatma Gandhi. When he returned, he shared everything he had learned with other Black activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. Half a century later, Lawson hasn’t stopped teaching protest techniques. And at Rep. John Lewis’ funeral earlier this year, Lawson continued his fight for change, decrying the “plantation capitalism that continues to cause domination and control rather than access and liberty and equality for all.” —AI

Cloris Leachman, 94

Actress and comedian

Since her breakout role as the nosy Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Leachman has been making audiences laugh. Over seven decades, she’s won more Emmys than any other performer (except Julia Louis-Dreyfus, with whom she’s tied), as well as an Academy Award, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe Award, and a Daytime Emmy Award. You’ve almost definitely seen or heard her in something in the past several years, whether it’s her guest appearances on The Office or American Gods, any of the 83 episodes of the Fox sitcom Raising Hope, or her voice performances in Adventure Time, Bob’s Burgers, or Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo. In each role, she’s as sharp as a knife, and her eccentric sense of humor shows no signs of fading. —Karen Han

Norman Lear, 98

Television writer and producer

Norman Lear, the creator of groundbreaking television shows like All in the Family and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, hasn’t slowed down as he approaches 100. He’s stayed active in both politics and television, running a young voter registration drive, executive producing a reboot of One Day at a Time, and boycotting a reception for the Kennedy Center Honors at the Trump White House. He also produced live broadcasts of classic episodes of his shows—an effort that led to a record-breaking Emmy win at age 97, followed by a second record-breaking win the next year, at age 98. He even has a podcast. —MD

Elaine May, 88

Writer, director, actress, and comedian

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May’s sophisticated, surreal improvisations in the ’50s and ’60s reimagined the pacing and pitch of American comedy. She also became just the third woman admitted to the Directors Guild—only to see her career behind the camera unjustly derailed when some fishy negative press led her 1987 film Ishtar to bomb. Last year, May won a Tony for her devastating portrayal of a woman experiencing the early stages of  Alzheimer’s in The Waverly Gallery. And rumor has it that she may finally, blessedly sit in the director’s chair once again soon. —Evan Chung

Ralph Nader, 86

Activist

Ralph Nader was the original “consumer advocate.” His 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed spurred many safety regulations in the car industry. In the 1970s, he formed “Nader’s Raiders,” squads of law students who investigated federal agencies, fomenting major reforms. He inspired breakthrough laws on the environment, consumer safety, and whistleblower protection. Then, in 2000, as the Green Party’s candidate for president, he splintered enough votes from Al Gore to give George W. Bush the win—alienating many liberals. These days, he makes speeches attacking “Trump’s fascist state” and Democrats’ allegiance to corporations. —FK

Yoko Ono.
Illustration by Charlotte Damson

Yoko Ono, 87

Fluxus artist and avant-garde musician

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Once known primarily as the woman who broke up the Beatles, Ono has taken her rightful place over the past several decades as a pioneering conceptual artist and avant-garde musician, embraced by a crowd that, if not bigger than her late husband’s, is at least cooler. Musical boxed sets, museum retrospectives, and a steady stream of new work—alongside a growing understanding of the racism and misogyny animating those who blame Ono for John Lennon’s actions—have established her as a legend in her own right. —SA

Colin Powell, 83

Former secretary of state

When Powell took the virtual stage in a prominent slot at the Democratic National Convention this year to endorse Joe Biden, he was described in many media outlets as a Republican, which is a little misleading: He hasn’t supported a Republican for president since 2004. Years before the “never Trumpers” or the Lincoln Project, Powell saw the direction his party was headed and jumped ship. Today he occupies a unique place in American politics—a party elder of a party that doesn’t officially exist, but he represents the view of an increasing number of national security professionals.  —JK

Dan Rather, 89

Journalist

Dan Rather spent two and a half decades as a CBS Evening News anchor, where he became an archetype of the sober, authoritative, old-school American newsman. He was even portrayed by Robert Redford in a biopic. But unlike many TV anchors of his generation, he’s managed to evolve with the journalistic times: He’s gained new influence later in life for his social media prowess. Rather, who has been dubbed “the only sane man writing about politics” on Facebook, has drawn a large following on the platform with his lengthy, even-keeled analyses of current events, Mister Rogers–like appreciations of essential workers, and occasional hot takes. For instance: “My favorite pie, hands down, is cherry.” —Rachael Allen

Robert Redford, 84

Movie star and film festival founder

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At the height of his mid-’70s movie stardom, it would have been hard to imagine that Redford’s biggest mark on American movies would have nothing to do with acting. Named for one of his iconic characters, the Sundance Film Festival which emerged from the Sundance Film Institute, founded by Redford in 1980launched the careers of directors from Quentin Tarantino to Ava DuVernay, and its year-round programs incubate a range of talents. He’s retired from both professions now, but Sundance’s plans for a nationwide virtual festival in 2021 show that his spirit of reinvention is still very much alive. —SA

Ishmael Reed, 82

Author, journalist, playwright, academic, musician

Throughout Ishmael Reed’s decadeslong career as a writer, he’s relentlessly taken on the majority-white establishments in literature, journalism, academia, and music, challenging the prevailing consensuses. Yet his most outrageous statements have also attracted harsh criticism—including, for instance, from the many feminists angered by his claims of O.J. Simpson’s innocence. He’s sparred with other intellectuals and critics of color whom he has accused of “selling out” to make themselves more palatable to white audiences. The always-controversial Reed remains as prolific as ever, killing America’s darlings (the reputations of Hamilton and jazz critic Stanley Crouch being among his latest victims); writing essays, poetry, and fiction at a tireless pace; publishing and awarding authors from marginalized communities through his foundations; and teaching at the California College of the Arts . —NP

Jerry Reinsdorf, 84

Owner, Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox

A powerful behind-the-scenes operator in both the NBA and Major League Baseball, Reinsdorf is known for his anti-labor and pro–revenue sharing views. In 2020, he tried and failed to block the New York Mets’ sale to billionaire Steve Cohen. Reinsdorf also turned up in ESPN’s documentary The Last Dance, wherein he garnered credit for helping build the Chicago Bulls’ 1990s dynasty and also got dinged for his part in tearing the whole thing down. —JL

Judith Rogers, 81

Federal appeals court judge

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When Trump stonewalled the House of Representatives’ oversight efforts, Rogers emerged as a staunch defender of Congress’ right to investigate the executive branch. She refused to shield the president and his allies from congressional scrutiny—even when her Trump-appointed colleagues tried to place their benefactor above the law. And she swatted down the Justice Department’s efforts to conceal the full Mueller report from the House. Under Trump, Rogers has become the judiciary’s champion of accountability and transparency. —MJS

Sonny Rollins, 90

Musician

Sonny Rollins, the “saxophone colossus,” is the greatest living jazz improviser. At his best, he blows sinuous solos for dozens of choruses, no two alike, exploring every chord or theme a song seems to offer, then tapping some uncharted crevice and digging deeper, soaring on. Pulmonary fibrosis stopped him playing in public in 2014, but he’s stayed active, counseling younger musicians and making revelatory albums (Road Shows, four volumes so far) from a six-decades stash of live concert tapes. —FK

Ilana Rovner, 82

Federal appeals court judge

Rovner was nominated to the bench by Ronald Reagan, but she has emerged as the conscience of her increasingly conservative court under Trump. Born in Nazi-occupied Latvia to Jewish parents, she and her mother fled to the United States to escape the Holocaust. Her rulings reflect profound empathy for the vulnerable, like immigrants facing deportation and young women barred from terminating a pregnancy. Rovner is also a superb writer: Her dissent from a 2020 decision that threatened mass disenfranchisement is one of the best voting rights opinions ever put to paper. —MJS

Thelma Schoonmaker, 80

Film editor

Schoonmaker and Scorsese is one of the great partnerships in film history. She’s edited all of the director’s films since Raging Bull, and her genius for rhythm is behind everything from the hard-charging pace of Goodfellas to the meditative soundscapes of Silence. A three-time Oscar winner in her own right, Schoonmaker also works to restore and revive the films of Michael Powell, her late husband and—alongside screenwriter Emeric Pressburger—one of the most influential British directors of the 20th century. “Every second I have that is not working for Marty,” she told the Guardian in 2017, she spends on “anything I can do to promote the work of Powell and Pressburger.” —Vicky Gan

Stephen Sondheim, 90

Composer

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The great father of the contemporary American musical, Sondheim has seen his canonical work infiltrate broad popular culture over the past decade. (Witness the subway bros in the Joker movie singing “Send In the Clowns.”) Sondheim’s next musical, an adaptation of two Luis Buñuel films co-written with David Ives, is close enough to being done that it briefly appeared on the Public Theater’s 2019–20 schedule. Even his misfires are being reevaluated: Legendary disaster Merrily We Roll Along is being filmed by Richard Linklater—though it will take 20 years to shoot. —Dan Kois

Gloria Steinem.
Illustration by Adrianna Helfrich

Gloria Steinem, 86

Feminist writer and activist

The co-founder of Ms. magazine was one of the most influential activists of the second-wave feminist movement. Decades into the third (or maybe fourth?) wave, her presence and perspective are still sought by politicians, who enlist her as a surrogate, and movement leaders, who’ve brought her to speak at events like the Women’s March. The well-received 2020 FX miniseries Mrs. America depicted her part in a failed effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s; the ratification campaign continues today, and Steinem hasn’t stopped talking about it. —Christina Cauterucci

George Takei, 83

Actor and activist

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Takei broke barriers in the role of helmsman Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek, but his influence today is rooted in an unlikely sphere for an octogenarian: social media. He has amassed millions of followers on Facebook and Twitter, where he balances a steady stream of witty posts with social justice commentary. A team helps him maintain an astonishing pace on his accounts; he posts on Facebook almost hourly. Takei has a canny understanding of what his followers want, and he has been rewarded with an exceptionally engaged fan base compared with other celebrities. Takei is especially adept at translating his lived experiences—he was imprisoned as a child in Japanese internment camps, and he is openly gay—into calls for equality. —Sofie Werthan

Nan Talese, 87

Editor

Raised as a nice, white-gloved Catholic girl, Nan Talese became one of the first female editors of top-drawer fiction, the head of a prestigious imprint bearing her name, and legendary for her tough but unerring editing. Her devoted authors have included Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Pat Conroy, and Jennifer Egan, even if her marriage to the notoriously narcissistic journalist Gay Talese sometimes inspired more gossip than her work. Retiring in 2020 after 60 years at the top of her profession, Nan has laughed last. —Laura Miller

Atsushi Wallace Tashima, 86

Federal appeals court judge

Tashima, who was forced into an internment camp as a child, was the first Japanese American appointed to a federal appeals court. A Bill Clinton nominee, he has fought relentlessly for the rights of immigrants, ruled against several of Trump’s cruelest attacks on asylum-seekers, and invalidated Arizona’s ban on a Mexican American studies program. Tashima provides a crucial counterbalance to the hard-right jurisprudence ascendent in the federal judiciary today. He speaks for a generation of judges who believed that the law must treat all people with dignity—an unfashionable view on today’s Supreme Court. —MJS

Tina Turner, 81

Singer

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While the real elusive chanteuse relaxes at her chateau in Switzerland—“I don’t sing, I don’t dance, I don’t dress up,” she recently told the New York Times in an inspirational profile—her music is as dynamic and ubiquitous as ever. Kygo’s summer remix of “What’s Love Got to Do With It” made her the first artist with Top 40 hits on the U.K. charts in seven different decades, and she consulted closely on the Broadway bio-musical Tina, just nominated for 12 Tony Awards. —DK

Cecily Tyson.
Illustration by Caitlynn Ra

Cicely Tyson, 95

Actress

It’s a testament to Cicely Tyson’s eminence that I only learned while researching her for this list that she was married to Miles Davis for eight years. Lesser stars might have been subsumed into Davis’ legacy (not least because the marriage was reportedly far from tranquil). But Tyson’s gravitas exists in a universe all its own. From starring in Sounder to How to Get Away With Murder to Tyler Perry movies that frankly don’t deserve her, she brings a warm dignity to her roles that makes her impossible to look away from. When she received the 2019 Honorary Academy Award at the grand age of 94 the only questions I had were: How did it take this long, and how do I look like her when I’m 94? —Rachelle Hampton

Barbara Walters, 91

Broadcaster

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In her post-80 years, Walters, who has been retired since 2015, was probably best known for her on-air chit-chat—as well as off-air squabbling—on The View, which is now in its 24th season. Conceiving and co-hosting such a long-running show is nothing to sniff at, but that period also shouldn’t eclipse the decade-spanning career in journalism that preceded it, one that saw Walters become the first female co-anchor of a network nightly news show, pioneer a certain kind of attention-grabbing, juicy-meets-respectable sit-down with a controversial newsmaker, and interview every president from Nixon onward. —Heather Schwedel

Steven Weinberg, 87

Physicist

“I plan to retire shortly after I die,” Weinberg, winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics, has said. Weinberg won that Nobel Prize for showing how two fundamental forces—electromagnetism, and the weak nuclear force—are related, work that predicted the Higgs boson. He still teaches quantum mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin and publishes papers on the likes of quarks and gravitational waves, winning the $3 million Breakthrough Prize this year for his ongoing contributions. He’s graced the stage at the World Science Festival and spent the pandemic giving guest talks over Zoom. His impact stretches to the history of science (the subject of his most recent book) and even social issues; a Texas Tribune article from 2016 identifies Weinberg as a “reluctant anti-gun leader,” for banning weapons from his classroom in the face of campus carry laws. —SP

Ruth Westheimer, 92

Sex therapist

“Dr. Ruth” has been America’s most legendary sex guru for decades now. It’s easy to focus on the contrast between her wizened, diminutive appearance and her orgasm real talk, but Dr. Ruth is much more than a caricature. She’s a bona fide revolutionary. When she rose to fame in the ’80s, nobody was addressing mass audiences about female sexual desire with that kind of frankness. And at the height of the AIDS crisis, she was outspoken in support of the LGBTQ community. She’s lived through unimaginable trauma—her parents died in the Holocaust—and emerged with a mischievous sense of humor and deep empathy. She was one of the earliest voices educating the public on the meaning of consent, and she helped make sex positivity the cultural default. Dr. Ruth has been crazily productive in her older years: as a columnist, an author, the subject of a recent documentary, a tweeter, a professor. I happened to take a course taught by Dr. Ruth in college, and she was mesmerizing; at the end of every class, she delightedly answered anonymous sex questions from students. Last year, the Guardian asked her if she thought she’d ever slow down. “No,” she said. “Write that down.” —Laura Bennett

E.O. Wilson, 91

Naturalist, socio-biologist, and author

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Initially a studier of ants—an interest that resulted from a childhood fishing accident that blinded his right eye—E.O. Wilson is not just a prolific scientist but a two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning writer. He’s had some of his most productive years later in his life, writing 13 books in a span of 13 years from the comfort of a nursing home where his wife could receive the care she needed and there was “no household maintenance to worry about.” Perhaps the book he’ll eventually be best remembered for is 2016’s Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, which made the controversial suggestion that we put half of the world aside for nonhuman life. —SM

Frederick Wiseman, 90

Documentary filmmaker

The past decade was a slow time, by Frederick Wiseman’s standards—he put out ”only” eight documentaries, down from a height of 11 per decade in the ’70s and ’80s. But his thoughtful films about places like the New York Public Library and the Queens neighborhood Jackson Heights continue to win plaudits from critics. Could a younger filmmaker get away with making four-hour movies about beloved American institutions that don’t identify their interviewees on screen, in order to flatten social hierarchies? Maybe not! But we’re glad Wiseman can. —RO

See Slate’s top 20 most influential Americans over 80.