The 10 Best Acting Career Comebacks

People love comeback stories and Hollywood is the setting of some of the highest profile stories around. While many actors and actresses will end up failing to maintain a sustainable acting career, there are some that have refused to go quietly and instead have fought to stay in the game, sometimes even surpassing their former glories. The following 10 actors and actresses have all been in the dumps at some point in their respective careers but have found ways to claw themselves out of obscurity. These are the 10 Best Acting Career Comebacks.

10. Mickey Rourke

It may come as a surprise to learn that grizzled actor Mickey Rourke was considered somewhat of an 80s heartthrob before his amateur boxing career disfigured his face. Rourke had great success as an actor during the 80s and early 90s, but a series of poor career decisions and a messy divorce led to destitution and relative obscurity. His career received a much-needed jolt in the mid-2000s when director Robert Rodriguez gave him a leading role in the popular Sin City. However, it wasn’t until 2008 that Rourke truly reignited his acting career, earning a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing a washed-up wrestler in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. With additional high profile appearances in films such as Iron Man 2 and The Expendables, Mickey Rourke has truly recaptured his former glory.

9. Betty White

Betty White has never truly gone away, working consistently in television and film for almost 70 years. That being said, her career has had a resurgence as of late due to increased exposure – unusual for a 92 year old. Best known for her role as the ditzy but sweet Rose Nylund in the classic 80s sitcom Golden Girls, White has always been a respected actress with excellent comedic chops.

After Golden Girls ended in 1992, White had numerous roles in various series but her exposure was not as high as it once was. That all changed in the last 5 years or so, as renewed public interest in the actress was spurred by a standout appearance as a Saturday Night Live host, becoming the oldest person to do so and earning her a Primetime Emmy in the process. White can currently be seen on the popular sitcom Hot in Cleveland.

Photo by Rob Latour / Rex Features

Photo by Rob Latour / Rex Features

8. Rob Lowe

An actor known for his boyish good looks and a member of the famous “Brat Pack”, Rob Lowe has certainly had a career of ups and downs. Lowe gained attention for his roles in iconic 80s films like The Outsiders and St. Elmo’s Fire. After building a steady but somewhat lackluster body of work in the 90s, Lowe gained a significant role in Aaron Sorkin’s political drama The West Wing. Unfortunately, Lowe would eventually leave the show over disagreements and pay issues, going on to flounder in failed TV ventures for much of the early 2000s.

Lowe moved past these setbacks and other personal issues to carve out new successes in series like Brothers and Sisters and Parks and Recreation. Rowe recently gave a well-received performance as John F. Kennedy in the miniseries Killing Kennedy and is due to appear in 2015’s highly anticipated Star Wars: Episode VII.

7. Drew Barrymore

Beginning her career at the young age of 5 in Steven Spielberg’s E.T., Drew Barrymore overcame addiction during her teens to become an accomplished actress in adulthood. A member of the famous Barrymore acting family, Drew fell victim to the excesses of Hollywood and stardom at a young age, taking hard drugs like cocaine by the time she was 14. She released a memoir of her experiences in 1990 at the age of 15 and subsequently got clean.

Barrymore began regaining her life and career in the mid-90s with films such as Boys on the Side and The Wedding Singer. Equally adept with comedic and dramatic material, Barrymore has also found work as a director, making her debut with 2009’s Whip It. Drew has had such consistent success as an adult that it’s hard to believe she had such serious problems as a young actress.

6. Joaquin Phoenix

A well-regarded actor and brother of the late River Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix almost committed career suicide in 2010 with the ill-advised mockumentary I’m Still Here. Phoenix spent 2 years prepping for the film, in which he publicly took on the persona of a rapper and retired actor. Leading up to the film’s release, many were convinced that Phoenix had lost his mind, unaware that it was all a ruse. Needless to say, the film was poorly received and an embarrassment in an otherwise illustrious career.

Luckily, Phoenix returned to acting in top form, earning himself an Academy Award nomination for his role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in 2012, and delivering a very well-received performance in last year’s Best Picture nominee Her. Hopefully, Joaquin continues this upward streak and forgets about his I’m Still Here experiment and sticks to serious acting where his true artistry lies.

5. John Travolta

Once a hunky actor known for his role in 70s classics like Saturday Night Fever and Grease, John Travolta wound up floundering with poor career decisions during the 1980s. It wasn’t until his redefining turn as hitman Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s seminal 1994 hit Pulp Fiction that Travolta again achieved career success. Riding this wave of popularity and goodwill, Travolta went on to star in films such as Broken Arrow and Face/Off.

Famous for his belief in scientology, Travolta sunk a hefty amount of his own money into the ill-advised pet project Battlefield Earth (2000), widely regarded as one of the worst films of all time. While Travolta’s star has waned in recent years, he still remains a fixture in Hollywood and has never tumbled to the same degree that he did earlier in his career.

4. Neil Patrick Harris

Neil Patrick Harris is a rare example of a child star who continues to have success in adulthood (much like Drew Barrymore) – but it didn’t always look that way. Harris first rose to prominence when he starred as the title character in Doogie Howser, M.D. when he was 16. After the show ended in 1993, Harris spent most of the next decade primarily working as a stage actor, out of the public spotlight.

That all changed in 2004 when Harris played a sex-crazed, drug-addled version of himself in the hit comedy Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. Since then, Neil Patrick Harris has been a fixture in pop culture, from his role as ladies-man Barney Stinson in the aforementioned HIMYM, to his frequent hosting duties at the Emmy and Tony awards.

3. Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey is (un)officially the coolest actor alive right now, but it hasn’t always been that way for the recent Oscar winner. McConaughey spent most of the 2000s starring in romantic comedies and it’s only recently that he has taken steps to reinvent himself as a dramatic actor.

Cleverly dubbed “the McConaissance” by many in the media, McConaughey has spent the last few years becoming one of Hollywood’s best leading men. 2014 has been particularly kind to the actor – he not only won an Oscar for his performance in last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club, but starred in one of the most acclaimed new TV series of the year, HBO’s True Detective. He is also starring in what will likely be one of the biggest films of the year, Interstellar. Add a Lincoln ad campaign that relies solely on McConaughey’s laidback charm and you have one of the best comeback stories in Hollywood history.

2. Ben Affleck

There came a point in Ben Affleck’s career when he became Hollywood’s whipping boy. Criticized for poor performances in movies such as Reindeer Games and Gigli, and earning the public’s scorn for his heavily publicized relationship with Jennifer Lopez, Affleck was a face that many quickly grew tired of seeing in the early 2000s. Ben’s solution: take a shot going behind the lens.

Affleck made his directorial debut in 2007 with the thriller Gone Baby Gone, a film that earned him various accolades and respect from his peers. Not content to rest on his laurels, Affleck has directed 2 more films since then, culminating in a Best Picture Oscar for 2012’s Argo. Thanks to his career reset as a talented director and coveted roles in films like Gone Girl and Batman, Affleck has undoubtedly had the kind of comeback many dream of.

1. Robert Downey Jr.

The poster boy for Hollywood reinvention, Robert Downey Jr.’s career has had the highest highs and the lowest lows. Downey initially had a very promising acting career, with a standout role as silent era legend Charlie Chaplin in the biopic Chaplin earning him a Best Actor nomination in 1992. Unfortunately, during the late 90s, Downey had a well-publicized substance abuse problem that jeopardized his work and life.

After spending a year in prison on possession charges in 2000, Downey sought help and became clean. A memorable role in the 2005 black comedy Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang signaled a possible return to form, but things really went big for Downey in 2008 when he starred as Marvel superhero Iron Man. That role would be the start of a path that would lead to Downey becoming the highest paid actor in the world in 2012 and 2013. Now that’s a comeback story.

X