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Edward Norton is a renowned actor and has been for decades. But he’s not the only person in his family with a legacy of culturally relevant work. Norton’s grandfather, James Rouse, was a real estate mogul who redesigned how American cities look in a way that is still recognizable today. That success gave Rouse’s descendants a privileged upbringing that is rare for most people, but more common among Hollywood circles. 

Edward Norton smiling
Edward Norton | Elisabetta A. Villa/Getty Images

James Rouse is an unsung pioneer of American architecture 

Actually, referring to James Rouse as merely a real estate tycoon minimizes his legacy. He had a specific vision of how American cities should be designed and how they can best serve the communities that live there. 

He founded the Rouse company as a mortgage banking firm in the 1930s and co-founded the Citizens Planning and Housing Association to redevelop Baltimore after World War II. This led to Rouse becoming involved in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s National Housing Task Force, where he coined the term “urban renewal” to describe the task force’s recommendations.

After the Rouse Company began large commercial properties, Rouse decided to create his own version of a shopping center, Harundale Mall in Glen Burnie, Maryland in 1958. According to Smithsonian Magazine, it wasn’t the first enclosed shopping mall in the US, but it did set an example for the rest of the world. Rouse wanted his malls to be pillars of the community, incorporating fountains, libraries, post offices, and even churches into his malls.

He went a step further by building the city of Columbia, Maryland before inventing “festival marketplaces” to revitalize downtown areas across the country, and founding the Enterprise Community Partners to provide affordable housing to the poor. 

In 1995, Rouse was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died a year later due to Lou Gehrig’s Disease at the age of 81, according to the LA Times.

Norton grew up with a level of privilege common in Hollywood circles


Edward Norton Can’t Stay in His Lane on a Film

Rouse’s daughter, Lydia Robinson Rouse, married Edward Norton, Jr., and they had their first son, the eventually famous Edward Norton in 1969. The generational wealth left behind by his maternal grandfather gave Norton and his two younger siblings the opportunity to dream big.

After graduating from Wilde Lake High School in 1987, Norton attended Yale, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history, learned Japanese, joined Yale’s rowing team, and acted in university plays. Norton’s first job post-college was as a representative for his grandfather’s Enterprise Community Partners in Osaka, Japan (he is now a trustee of the company) before moving to New York to pursue acting full time. 

“Go to an Ivy League school and then work at my famous grandfather’s company in Japan” is not an accessible plan to the vast majority of aspirant creatives. That’s not to say that Norton didn’t put the work into his craft or that he only made it as an actor because of his resources. His performances throughout his career make that exceedingly clear.

His talent is undeniable, but Norton’s attitude holds him back at times

There are few actors who have started their careers as brilliantly as Norton did. His first role was in 1996’s Primal Fear as Aaron Stampler, an altar boy accused of murdering an archbishop. Norton’s performance was praised to the point that he earned the first of his three Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor. 

Norton soon followed that up with the cult poker movie Rounders, American History X (which earned him another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor), and Fight Club. A run that good is rare for actors at any stage of their life, but to have it so early made it clear that Norton was a special performer. He’s gone on to show his range by appearing in movies like 25th Hour, Birdman, and in four separate Wes Anderson movies. 

Norton’s ability has never been questioned, but his ability to work with others is a constant concern. He’s developed a reputation for being a controlling perfectionist who can’t help but butt heads with anyone who gets in the way of his artistic vision. While he might have a questionable reputation, it hasn’t stopped Norton from continuing an impressive career.