Fortune Magazine and Forbes Magazine have come out with their list of the highest earning celebrities this past year who are deceased. Some celebrities are so ubiquitous that they continue to earn money decades after dying. Royalties from music, sales of books and records, money from television specials and performances, ownership of music catalogues, money from using the celebrity likeness on products and much more add to the ongoing income. Often a celebrities sudden and surprising death will enhance sales of celebrity owned merchandise. The list of highest earning dead celebrities is based on pre-tax earnings between October 15, 2016 and October 15, 2017. The amounts do not include cuts taken by agents, managers and attorneys.
Here are the 20 highest earning dead celebrities.
Michael Jackson has been dead since 2009 but continues to be the highest earning dead celebrity. For the fifth year in a row Jackson has ranked number one. This year Michael Jackson earned $75 million. The musician actually earned over $800 million last year. That was mostly due to the sale of his half share of Sony’s music catalogue, the largest catalogue of music rights in the world. Still, $75 million is pretty good. Jackson died on June 25, 2009 at just 50 years old of an overdose of anesthetic medication. His private doctor was convicted and served time in prison for causing the death. Jackson’s 2017 revenue comes from a variety of sources. A new greatest hits album, “Scream” was released. Jackson also was featured in the CBS special “Michael Jackson’s Halloween”. The special will add to his income for next year’s list. The special aired October 27. A ratings winner, more than 5.6 million viewers watched the special. The animated take on Jackson’s hit song “Thriller” featured the voices of Jim Parsons, Christine Baranski, Alan Cumming and Lucy Lui. It’s clear that the king of pop, Michael Jackson, will continue to earn a substantial amount of money from beyond the grave.
Golf legend Arnold Palmer was the second highest earning dead celebrity of the year. Palmer earned $40 million following his death on September 25, 2016. The golf legend died of heart disease at 87 years old. During his sports career, Palmer won seven major championships and was nicknamed “The King”. Not only was he a great golfer, he also was a great marketer. He owned Bay Hill Golf Club and Lodge in Orlando, Florida, helped found the Golf Channel and contributed to building the first golf club in the People’s Republic of China. He wrote several books. Much of Arnold Palmer’s post death income comes from his line of golf apparel. 500 stores carry the line and it has expanded into markets in Thailand and Vietnam. Of course, Palmer’s famous refreshment has also earned him money. He established The Original Arnold Palmer Tee Beverage. The drink marketed by Arizona combines lemonade and iced tea and is sold in stores all over the world.
Despite having died in 2000, cartoonist Charles Schultz continues to make a fortune. The well known man who created Snoopy continues to have a lucrative career. His estate made $38 million in 2017. Schultz died of colon cancer on February 12, 2000 and his last “Peanuts” strip was published the following day. The comic strip continues to run in syndication today. The comic strip alone earns his family $30 million a year in royalties. He also signed a three decade contract with MetLife Insurance to use the Peanut’s images. The contract does not expire until 2019.
Thirty-eight years after his death, Elvis Presley is still one of the top earning celebrities. This year, his earnings totaled $35 million. Last year, he made $27 million. The iconic Elvis Aaron Presley’s music legacy lives on. Presley died of a heart attack on August 18, 1977 at his Memphis, Tennessee estate Graceland. The “King of Rock and Roll” continues to earn money from a variety of sources. The biggest money earners in 2017 were the opening of the Elvis Presley Entertainment Complex and the opening of The Guest House at Graceland. The Entertainment Complex is located on the Graceland Estate. The state of art museum features exhibits that connect fans to the life of Elvis Presley. The 200,000 acre complex includes themed restaurants, gift shops and live entertainment. The Guest House at Graceland is a hotel that opened this year. Visitors to Graceland can stay overnight at the 430 guest room hotel that features 20 special themed guest suites. With these additions to Graceland, Presley’s heirs will surely continue to make millions in the years to come.
Reggae superstar Bob Marley’s legend lives on. His children have done well to carry on the musician’s legacy. This year Marley’s estate earned $23 million. Much of this income is from the “House of Marley” audio products and the Marley Beverage Company. Bob Marley was a Jamaican born singer who combined reggae, ska and rocksteady styles to create his own unique brand of music during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Marley died on May 11, 1981 at the age of 36 of skin cancer. Fortunately he left an endearing legacy. The “House of Marley” brand continues to earn money for the late singer’s estate. The earnings come mostly from the sale of the brand’s speakers and headphones.
Tom Petty just passed away last month on October 2, 2017 from a heart attack. The musician’s earning during the last year contribute to his posthumous income. Petty’s sudden death at the age of 66 inspired fans to purchase his music adding to the income. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were a popular rock band during the 1970’s 1980’s. He continued to perform as a solo artist and, along with other rock legends, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison in The Travelling Wilburys. Petty never stopped touring. During 2017 The Heartbreakers earned $1 million a night for performances.
Singer, songwriter and producer Prince died following a prescription drug overdose on April 21, 2016. He earned $18 million in 2017. Apparently the “purple one” died without a Will. It’s most likely his earnings are underrated. Prince Rogers Nelson rose to fame during the 1980’s with his eclectic music and lyrics, his wide vocal range and his flamboyant stage performances. He is one of the best selling artists of all time and won many music awards during his career. He also made and starred in movies including “Purple Rain” which he won an Academy Award for. Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. Prince performed at the Super Bowl and helped produce music for many other artists. Most of Prince’s postmortem earnings come from royalties and a major publishing deal.
Theodor Geisel is best known as his pen name “Dr. Seuss” which he used for many classic children’s books that he wrote and illustrated. By the time of his death on September 24, 1991 at the age of 87, Geisel had sold over 600 copies of his book and the books were translated into more than 20 languages. Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s books include his first “If I Ran the Zoo” in 1950, “Horton Hears a Who”, “If I Ran the Circus”, “The Cat in the Hat”, “Green Eggs and Ham” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”. With his poetic style, dramatic illustrations and moral lessons, Dr. Seuss’ books have helped many children learn to love reading. March 2, Geisel’s birthday, is National Read Across America Day. This year, Theodor Geisel’s estate earned $16 million. “The Cat in the Hat” alone sold 5 million copies between October 2016 and October 2017.
Perhaps no other celebrity’s image is more iconic than that of Marilyn Monroe. The model and actress gained stardom during the 1950’s for her film roles as the stereotypical “dumb blonde” in comedies, but, in actuality, Monroe was a savvy businesswoman. Norma Jean Mortenson quickly rose to fame for her beauty and personality. She was a top billed actress and her films earned $200 million before her death at 36 years old. Monroe has continued to earn income from royalties and her image since her death fifty-five years ago. Her current net worth is $27 million, and her estate continues to receive annual income. Monroe’s estate earned an income of $15 million in 2017.
Singer, songwriter and political activist John Lennon was shot and killed outside his home in New York City on December 8, 1980 by a deranged fan. The former Beatle and music legend earned $12 million posthumously in 2017. Lennon helped lead his fellow English bandmates to fame and fortune during the 1960’s when they hit the world with rock and roll songs like “A Hard Days Night”, “Yellow Submarine” and “Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band”. Lennon would leave the band and continue with a successful solo career. Lennon’s estate continues to make money annually from the Beatle’s Catalogue and his solo Catalogue. His estate also earns royalties for the Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show “Love” which is based on the Beatles’ music.
German born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein continues to earn money sixty-two years after his death. Einstein helped develop scientific theories and wrote important scientific papers that changed the world of the science of physics. He was recognized as one of the world’s leading scientists at the start of the twentieth century. Einstein emigrated to the United States of America in 1933. The scientific genius died of an aneurysm on April 18, 1955 at the age of 76. In 2017, Einstein’s estate earned $10 million. Much of this income is from the iconic scientist’s likeness which appears on posters, tablets, an artificial intelligence service and other images.
Paul Walker is an actor that was killed tragically when the Porsche he was riding in crashed at a high speed in Los Angeles, California. Walker was just 40 years old upon his death on November 30, 2013. Walker was a good looking and talented actor who got his career started in the soap opera “The Young and the Restless” and ended up a good movie star. Films like “She’s All That” and “Varsity Blues” led to Walker’s role as Brian O’Conner in the popular film franchise “The Fast and Furious”. Paul Walker left a legacy in film that continues to make $10 million per year. His surviving heir, daughter Meadow Rain Walker” recently settled the estate and will continue to earn annual royalties for her father’s work.
Steve McQueen, cinema’s “King of Cool” died in 1980 but his acting roles as the anti-hero in 1960’s cinema continues to earn him money through royalties and the actor’s image. McQueen was the box office draw during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The actor from classic films of the period including “The Cincinnati Kid”, “The Magnificent Seven”, “The Great Escape” and “The Towering Inferno” defined the era with his machismo acting style. McQueen’s image and royalties continue to earn his estate income of $9.5 million per year.
David Jones was a successful English musician and performer who was a leading figure in pop music for decades. David “Bowie” rose to fame during the 1960’s and 1970’s. His groundbreaking style of music and flamboyant stage presence helped create a successful career. He continued to gain young fans during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Bowie died on January 10, 2016 of cancer at the age of 69. Few people knew Bowie was even suffering from cancer. His death sparked the sale of his music. This past year, David Bowie’s estate earned $9.5 million. The award winning musician continues to earn money from the music he made throughout his career.
James Dean continues to earn income for his estate after his death. In 2017 James Dean earned $8.5 million. Dean rose to fame during the 1950’s as a teen idol and actor who exhibited social estrangement in film. James Dean died tragically in an automobile accident on September 30, 1965 at the young age of 24. Dean was at the height of his acting career coming off films including “Rebel Without a Cause”, “East of Eden” and “Giant”. James Dean is still considered one of the best actors in American history. His short career continues to earn his estate millions per year in royalties from his films and his image.
Betty Paige was a model made famous during the 1950’s for her “pin-up” poster photographs. Called the “Queen of Pinups” the beauty was made famous by her jet black hair and blue eyes that has continued to inspire artists. The Nashville born Paige moved to New York City to begin an acting career and ended up modeling during the 1950’s. She posed for bondage photographs, but was named Playboy Magazine’s “Miss January 1955”. The iconic images of Betty Paige live on as an inspiration to artists and fashion designers. Her images were especially revived by artists during the 1970’s. Betty Paige abandoned her modeling career during the 1960’s and turned to evangelical Christianity. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic in the 1980’s. She died on December 11, 2008 after suffering a heart attack. Her iconic image remains an inspiration to artists around the world and her image earned her $7.5 million this year.
Elizabeth Taylor is the iconic British-American actress, entrepreneur and humanitarian. Despite her death of heart failure on March 23, 2011 at the age of 79, Liz Taylor’s estate continues to earn money from her endeavors. She began her career as a child actress during the 1940’s and rose to fame quickly during the 1950’s. Elizabeth Taylor remains one of the most iconic Hollywood actresses of all time as well as a philanthropist and businesswoman. In 2017, Liz Tayler’s estate earned $7 million. Much of her current posthumous income comes from Ms. Taylor’s business endeavors including beauty products.
Frank Sinatra is one of the most renown and influential actors and singers in American history. The icon continues to earn money for his estate even after his death in 1998. The New Jersey native made a name for himself as during the swing era of the 1940’s. His role in the 1953 film “From Here to Eternity solidified him as an actor. He would go on to have a successful film and recording career and was a mainstay in Las Vegas during its years. Sinatra died of a heart attack at the age of 82 on May 14, 1998. His family continues to earn annual income off of Sinatra’s royalties and image, earning about $5 million annually.
Actor Bruce Lee is one of the top 20 celebrities who continue to earn a substantial income after death. The San Francisco born and Hong Kong raised actor is most famous for his films where he appears as a martial arts hero. Lee collapsed on the set of the film “Enter the Dragon” on May 10, 1973 but his legacy has not died. Lee’s estate continues to earn royalties from his films and his image. His estate earns about $5 million per year.
Joan Rivers is one of the most famous actresses, comedians, writers and producers in American history, and she continues to earn money since her death during surgery on September 4, 2014. Rivers rose to fame during the 1960’s and is best known for her acerbic with most often aimed at celebrities and politicians. The iconic Joan Rivers is a continuing presence due to her career as an iconic comedian, author, television host and self-effacing personality. Since her death, Rivers continues to earn income for her estate which includes her daughter Melissa and her grandson. Joan Rivers continues to earn money from royalties as well as her lines of jewelry, clothing and beauty products and the recent sale of items from her estate. Rivers continues to earn money posthumously in the amount of millions per year just three years after her untimely death.