The Sony-Columbia Pictures release dominated the weekend box office, surpassing some expectations for the film. Washington plays a former commando living a quiet life in Boston when the disappearance of a prostitute acquaintance (Chloe Grace Moretz) lures him into a battle with the Russian mafia.
The strong opening marks the third-best debut in Washington's career, trailing only 2012's "Safe House" ($40.1 million) and 2007's "American Gangster" ($43.6 million). Washington, who will turn 60 in December, has been one of Hollywood's most reliable draws without the benefit of anything like a superhero franchise.
He's the very model of box-office consistency," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak. "I can't think of another star that's this consistent, that remains this rock solid over the course of three decades."
"The Equalizer" reteams Washington with director Antoine Fuqua," who helmed 2001's "Training Day," which earned Washington an Oscar for best actor. A sequel to "The Equalizer," which is loosely based on the '80s CBS series, is already in development.
"We feel like we have a real opportunity with a sequel and a possible franchise with this film," said Rory Bruer, head of distribution for Sony.
Last weekend's top performer, the young-adult novel adaptation "The Maze Runner," starring Dylan O'Brien, slid to second with $17.5 million in its second week. The 20th Century Fox release also has a sequel in the works, due out next September
The stop-motion animated release "The Boxtrolls" opened in third place with $17.3 million. It's the best opening yet for Laika, the Oregon-based animation studio whose previous films are the Oscar-nominated "Coraline" and "ParaNorman."
Critics have been less enthusiastic about "The Boxtrolls," about a boy who's raised by nocturnal, box-wearing critters beneath the British village of Cheesebridge. But the Focus Features release capitalized on the relative dearth of family-friendly options in theaters over recent months.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Rentrak. Where available, the latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.
1. "The Equalizer," $35 million.
2. "The Maze Runner," $17.5 million.
3. "The Boxtrolls," $17.2 million.
4. "This Is Where I Leave You," $7 million.
5. "Dolphin Tale 2," $4.8 million.
6. "No Good Deed," $4.6 million.
7. "A Walk Among the Tombstones," $4.2 million.
8. "Guardians of the Galaxy," $3.8 million.
9. "Let's Be Cops," $1.5 million.
10. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," $1.5 million.