Life

The Most Influential 80-Plus-Year-Olds in America

Here are the top 20.

Illustrations of Fauci, Maxine Waters, Clint Eastwood, Dolores Huerta, and Rita Moreno
Illustration by Slate, Alyssa Markowski, Ginny Munson, Ashley Chen, Aquina Supaat, and Jenny Li

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.

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. (All ages are as of Dec. 31, 2020. ) 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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Logo by Morgan Saavedra-Friedman

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

20
Jane Fonda, 83

Actor and activist

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The Academy Award–winning actress and fitness guru has been a serious and effective activist since 1970, for which she remains a bugaboo of the right to this very day, but she just keeps on keeping on. Having unretired from acting in her late 60s, she co-stars in Grace & Frankie and makes the occasional TikTok when she’s not getting arrested for protesting climate change inaction. In a video that went viral this year, she said, “What am I here for, if not to be used by the good people, for good things?” The clip was from the late 1970s, but four decades later, she’s still at it. —Willa Paskin

Listen to the story of how Jane Fonda’s workout tape became the bestselling home video of all time.

19
Pat Buchanan, 82

Political commentator

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It was easy to take Pat Buchanan for a loser—the Nixon lackey, the serially failed presidential candidate, the blowhard whose “culture war” convention speech embarrassed George H.W. Bush, the cable TV commentator who gradually pushed himself to the margins with white nationalist and anti-Semitic remarks. And then, all of a sudden, his nasty crackpot arguments, or something indistinguishable from them, were the official cultural and immigration positions of the White House, and white nationalists were marching in the streets. Establishment media outlets fanned out to Rust Belt diners to try to figure out where it all came from, when the truth was they’d been inviting it into their greenrooms for decades. —Tom Scocca

18
Russell Marion Nelson, 96

Seventeenth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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There’s disagreement over whether the church’s new, energetic president is a man for change or tradition. His church has made some mildly progressive changes during his tenure (including reversing its policy labeling gay couples “apostates” and banning their children from baptism), but he is no reformer (he was the man who defended the “apostate” policy in the first place). One thing is certainly new: More than any recent predecessor, Nelson, whom the church considers a prophet, explains his decisions as direct divine revelations. With 16 million adherents around the world following his word, the man has the kind of authority secular leaders can only dream of. —Molly Olmstead

17
Willie Nelson, 87

Country singer and activist

Unfortunately, the title of Willie Nelson’s 2018 album, Last Man Standing, turned out to be more or less true. The singer—iconic for writing “Crazy,” for recording Red Headed Stranger, for co-founding Farm Aid, for the braids, for the weed—is carrying the flame for outlaw country after most of its other legends have passed on. There’s at least one new album every year and—despite some health problems that canceled shows a few years ago—a heavy touring schedule. It isn’t a nostalgia act. His songwriting is still sharp and witty, with an extra tinge of existential clarity. His habits and businesses have evolved too: He writes lyrics over text message and has a full line of hemp-based coffee and tea. —Jonathan L. Fischer

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“I didn’t ever think I’d get this old.” Read Slate’s interview with Nelson.

Rita Moreno
Illustration by Ashley Chen

16
Rita Moreno, 89

Dancer, singer, and star

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EGOT winner Rita Moreno triumphed in Hollywood despite a dearth of roles suited to her extraordinary talents. Moreno has been a trailblazer in the cultural conversation about diversity and representation, speaking frankly about how alienated she felt at first in a film industry that, despite her vision and ability, persisted in offering her marginal and stereotypical Latina roles. Tired of being used as a “resident utility ethnic,” as she put it in 2011—even after winning an Oscar—she left Hollywood for the better part of seven years. Luckily, she came back and won dozens more awards. The worst thing about the 2019 cancellation of One Day at a Time, which made terrific use of Moreno’s comic timing, her sensuality, her dancing, and the exquisitely high drama with which she played mother and grandmother Lydia, was thinking we might not see her again. (“Diva Retired for now…” she tweeted after the show’s cancellation.) But she’ll be in the West Side Story remake in 2021 playing Valentina, a reworked version of Doc made specially for her. —Lili Loofbourow

15
Sister Helen Prejean, 81

Activist for the abolishment of the death penalty

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Prejean, who was depicted in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, has been fighting a one-woman crusade against capital punishment since the ’80s. So when the federal government resumed executions this July after a 17-year hiatus, Prejean recommitted herself to her cause, rallying Catholics and secular Americans alike. When the coronavirus pandemic swept prisons, Prejean spoke out against dangerous conditions and in favor of the dignity of all people. And while powerful American bishops dwelt on the abortion wars, Prejean channeled her faith to a true life-or-death matter, doling out compassion for criminals and scathing criticism for a country that would kill its own citizens. —MO

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As you get fame, people say, ‘Oh, look at your great life that you’ve had.’ And you know deep down you’re human just like everybody else.” Read Slate’s interview with Prejean.

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Pat Robertson
Illustration by Madds Ellis

14
Pat Robertson, 90

Televangelist and Christian media mogul

It’s a misconception that the religious right has always existed in America, and few have played a bigger role in creating it than Robertson. A man as ambitious as he is ideological, Robertson accumulated significant power as a broker between the Republican Party and conservative Christians through his Christian Broadcasting Network and daily appearance on Christian talk show The 700 Club, not to mention his position as chancellor of the evangelical Regent University. Robertson has for decades prodded white evangelical Christians toward a politically unified bloc, preaching, with alarming and continued success, his vision of a fundamentalist Christian America. —MO

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Clint Eastwood
Illustration by Jenny Li

13
Clint Eastwood, 90

Actor and director

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Over his nine decades, Clint Eastwood has gone from being one of Hollywood’s most iconic movie stars to one of its most celebrated auteurs to the living embodiment of the phrase “Get off my lawn!” But even in this, his grumpiest and most gravel-voiced phase, he has remained remarkably influential. Though he’s played everyone from the Man With No Name to Dirty Harry to, most recently, the Mule, arguably his most iconic role was across from an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention. (He did save face a bit earlier this year when he distanced himself from Trump.) Still, his most relevant work has been behind the camera, where he has proved himself to be not only the most powerful conservative filmmaker in Hollywood but a blockbuster presence at the box office: American Sniper, whether despite its lies or because of them, was one of the highest-grossing nonfranchise movies of the past decade. Whether you love him or hate him, it’s hard to think of any other artist who’s still such a force at age 90. —Aymann Ismail

12
Chuck Grassley, 87

U.S. Senate president pro tempore

Few senators have built enough cachet to get away with leaving a Supreme Court confirmation hearing they’re chairing to meet their strict 9 p.m. bedtime. A senator since 1981, Grassley has spent the last two decades hopscotching between chairmanships of the powerful Finance and Judiciary committees while still finding time to jog several miles each morning and become a prominent voice on Weird Twitter. At 87, he just beat COVID-19, and he hasn’t ruled out running for an eighth term in 2022. —Jim Newell

Dolores Huerta
Illustration by Aquina Supaat

11
Dolores Huerta, 90

Activist

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There would be no “Yes, We Can” without Dolores Huerta, who coined the rallying cry “Sí, se puede” and co-founded the National Farmworkers Association—now United Farm Workers—with Cesar Chavez. An advocate for the unprotected farmworkers she saw growing up in Stockton, California, Huerta organized strikes, worked to eliminate the use of harmful pesticides, and negotiated better working conditions. She’s been arrested, she’s been beaten, and in 2017, at 86, she was the honorary co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington. —LL

Harry Belafonte is enveloped by a musical staff featuring a treble clef.
Illustration by Lily Qian

10
Harry Belafonte, 93

Musician, actor, and activist

Ninety-three years don’t even seem enough to encompass everything Belafonte has accomplished. After breaking through in the 1950s as a singer of deceptively lightweight calypso music, he wasted no time putting his stardom to work, backing the civil rights movement and refusing to play segregated venues. He sought out movie roles that addressed the realities of racism, while turning down the lead in Porgy and Bess because he found it “demeaning,” and remained an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy for decades. (He backed Bernie Sanders in 2016.) When he cameoed as an elderly activist in BlacKkKlansman, it was with the authority of a person who’s been fighting the fight for the better part of a century and has shown no signs of giving up. —Sam Adams

9
George Soros, 90

Philanthropist and progressive donor

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Soros is the consummate right-wing boogeyman, the shadowy “puppet master” behind seemingly every anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. In reality a philanthropist who donates heavily to humanitarian causes around the world, Soros has poured enough money into progressive campaigns to wield real power in American politics, even as he stays out of the spotlight. —MO

Dionne Warwick
Illustration by Gina Beneduci

8
Dionne Warwick, 80

Singer

Even if Dionne Warwick weren’t one of the most-charted woman artists of all time, with more than 50 singles in the Hot 100, her recent Twitter renaissance might have earned her a spot on this list. Rarely does a celebrity’s online presence burnish their image rather than diminish it, but since she began singing at the tender age of 14, Warwick has always been one of a kind. Nowhere is that clearer than in her ability to effortlessly evolve for a new generation. Name another star who can playfully call out Chance the Rapper for his redundant stage name, hold her own in Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight’s Verzuz battle, and spend her 80th birthday raising money for Hunger Not Impossible. You can’t. —Rachelle Hampton

7
Charles Koch, 85

Industrialist

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“Boy, did we screw up!” the toxic-industry tycoon Charles Koch wrote in a book this year, lamenting the fact that—after the decadeslong covert war he and his late brother David fought to protect their profits by making sure Republicans would stop at nothing to destroy environmental regulations, among others—American politics had ended up sunk in dysfunctional partisanship. Can he pivot to constructive bipartisanship? Sure, the current political mess seems impassably frozen. But so did the Arctic sea ice, when Charles Koch was born. And if he lives to 100, thanks to his work, he might see it melt away in summer altogether. —TS

6
John Williams, 88

Composer

Star Wars. Jaws. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jurassic Park. Superman. Close Encounters. E.T. Out of the most memorable movie themes in the whole history of the movies, John Williams must have written at least half of them. With 52 (!) Oscar nominations, he has the most of any living person, and the second most of any person ever living or dead, behind only Walt Disney. But perhaps most impressively, he’s earned those nominations across a record-breaking seven (!) decades, including a well-earned nod this year for almost making The Rise of Skywalker watchable. Though it appears he may finally be hanging up his baton (that is, unless Harrison Ford once again picks up his fedora), I have a feeling it’s going to be a long time before my answer to the question “When is the last time you really remembered a movie theme?” won’t be “The last time I saw a movie scored by John Williams.” —Forrest Wickman

Stephen Breyer
Illustration by Lia Bido

5
Stephen Breyer, 82

Supreme Court justice

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A pragmatist and technocrat at heart, Breyer has long promoted a vision of the Constitution that allows lawmakers to address modern challenges with flexibility—even if they deviate from James Madison’s master plan. His theories provide a counterpoint to the conservative majority’s rigid formalism and fetishistic obsession with originalism. Breyer believes in a government that works for the people it represents. He has carried the torch of judicial modesty as his conservative colleagues embrace increasingly radical theories of judicial activism. —Mark Joseph Stern

Read Slate’s interview with Justice Breyer about aging, living with his grandkids during the pandemic, and whether judges get more liberal as they get older.

4
Rupert Murdoch, 89

Media billionaire

Still the executive chairman of News Corp (which owns, among other things, the New York Post and Wall Street Journal) and co-chairman of the Fox Corporation (which owns, among other things, the Fox News channel). Still using those properties to manipulate the right-wing conspiracy machine by, for example, publishing possibly fabricated charges against Hunter Biden as a would-be October surprise and broadcasting Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson’s COVID skepticism on a nightly basis. Still balancing all of that with just enough concessions to reality in “straight” news coverage to keep society in the perennially precarious but not quite apocalyptic condition in which Rupert Murdoch retains the maximum amount of wealth and influence. —Ben Mathis-Lilley

Maxine Waters
Illustration by Ginny Munson

3
Maxine Waters, 82

U.S. representative

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Waters, the longest-serving Black female member of Congress, became affectionately known as Auntie Maxine during the early days of the Trump administration. Many of those in office were preoccupied with seeming couth, afraid of calling Trump and his policies what they were—but not Auntie Maxine. Dressed to the nines, and bluntly expressive, Waters is as relatable as your actual auntie and equally effective. She helped craft Dodd-Frank, reeling in the big banks, and led the calls for Trump’s impeachment. And she keeps her finger on the pulse. In a recent letter to rapper Megan Thee Stallion, Waters wrote: “I hope that during these trying times you take comfort in knowing that I am fighting for you, and all Black women, every single day.” —Julia Craven

“I’ve been adopted basically by millennials who refer to me as aunt.” Read Slate’s interview with Waters.

Nancy Pelosi raises a ringer in front of a U.S. flag
Illustration by Philippa Gaughan

2
Nancy Pelosi, 80

Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives

To the far right, she’s the sinister face of the radical Democratic Party. To some on the left, she’s an overly cautious corporate Democrat too concerned with defending the center. Everyone can agree that she’s a horrible communicator. Beneath the surface, though, Pelosi is an appropriator who knows where the money is, and a vote counter raised in Baltimore machine politics. Those skills, and the trust she’s earned among those she leads, have kept her atop House Democratic politics for 18 years. If this is her final term, it’ll be hard to think about a Congress without one of its foremost institutions. —JN

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Anthony Fauci is drawn, a face mask dangling from his right ear.
Illustration by Alyssa Markowski

1
Dr. Anthony Fauci, 80

America’s top immunologist

When a confused and anxious country had no real leader to look to, there was Fauci. His no-nonsense competence stood in stark contrast to the bumbling obsequiousness surrounding President Donald Trump. When so many other experts around the president (including his personal doctors and White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx) seemed susceptible to the pressures of politics, Fauci remained a trusted figure to a majority of Americans—and a hero to some, landing him on the covers of magazines (including InStyle) and on T-shirts and Christmas ornaments and prayer candles and bobbleheads. He maintains a singularly punishing schedule (he still sees patients every day), and while other COVID heroes rose and fell, Fauci remained to guide an anxious public with family-doctor affability and unflappable, inexhaustible expertise. As a pandemic disproportionately killed members of his own age group—and a debate broke out over the worth of our most senior citizens’ lives—he proved the value of experienced leadership. —MO

Read Slate’s interview with Dr. Fauci about turning 80 and what he’s looking forward to about post-vaccine life.

This is part of Slate’s 80 Over 80 series. To see the first 60 names on Slate’s list, click here.