Constant rejection. Fierce competition. No guarantee of a major breakthrough or longterm employment.
The odds of becoming a successful actor in Hollywood are incredibly slim. And yet, that never deters the ambitious many, the true believers who feel they have nothing to worry about. They will be discovered and they will become big stars, no matter what.
Most will be inevitably crushed by reality (the business isn’t for everyone, regardless of how gifted you may be) but for the persevering few who do become known to the public through their various on-screen performances, fame & artistic success bring about a new set of challenges. If unlucky or careless, a series of bad decisions can lead to a significant period of decline where audiences, the critics and the business itself question just how much of a future your once shining talent has left.
Many stars come and go, never to be heard from again. (Only the smartest and luckiest have long, consistently fruitful careers.) But then there are the exceptions, the ones who go on to enjoy a resurgence in popularity & creativity after a frustrating lull.
Don’t call it a comeback, call it a second chance, a rare opportunity to climb back to the top after years of failure, absence or personal misfortune. Here are six such stars who made the most of their unlikely returns.
1. Vin Diesel
Eight years after a small, unbilled role in Awakenings, this New York muscleman caught a big break playing a soldier in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In 2000, he found his first signature character, the anti-hero Riddick in Pitch Black. In The Fast & The Furious and XXX, he found two more.
Either not appreciating his good fortune in acquiring these gigs or thinking it would permanently trap him in Franchise City, Diesel didn’t appear in either 2 Fast 2 Furious nor XXX: State Of The Union. (Ice Cube replaced him in the latter.) Although he did return as Riddick in The Chronicles Of Riddick in 2004, it didn’t do so well. Beyond the awful family comedy, The Pacifier, which made almost 200 million worldwide, Diesel couldn’t figure out a viable way out from his most famous roles. All but one of his other films were either ignored by fans, panned by critics or both.
After a quick, unhyped cameo in The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift, he returned as Dominic Toretto in the fourth installment, Fast & Furious. He has stuck with the remarkably lucrative franchise ever since. (Despite the tragic death of co-star Paul Walker, look for him in Fast 7 next year.) After the third Riddick movie’s surprise commercial success in 2013, Diesel is set to return as Xander Cage in the third XXX movie. Perhaps he should’ve never left any of these series in the first place.
2. Mickey Rourke
Unlike Diesel, this New Yorker didn’t have the benefit of returning to a multi-million dollar franchise. In fact, despite respected performances in films like Diner, 9 1/2 Weeks and Barfly, he never really had a breakout hit. (How different his career might have been if he accepted the offer of playing Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop.) He also had a big mouth.
Publicly knocking legends like Warren Beatty & Robert De Niro (his co-star from Angel Heart) probably didn’t endear him to a number of important Hollywood decision makers. (He also had a famous spat with Spike Lee over the 1992 LA Riots.) Also not helpful was all the beatings he took during a brief foray as a professional boxer in the first half of the 1990s. (He was an accomplished amateur boxer in his youth.) Several botched plastic surgeries followed. All the while, he never stopped acting.
But good roles were hard to come by. In between fine efforts in John Grisham’s The Rainmaker and the otherwise underwhelming Get Carter remake were a lot of low profile gigs that few cared about. Then in 2003, he was cast in Once Upon A Time In Mexico. That was followed by Tony Scott’s Man On Fire with Denzel Washington. Suddenly, Rourke’s luck was changing.
By 2005, he had a major part in Frank Miller’s Sin City, one of the best movies released that year. Three years later, he achieved his first ever Oscar nomination for playing Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler. In 2010, he was the villain in Iron Man 2 and part of the ensemble cast of action heroes in The Expendables, both critical & commercial faves.
Far less outspoken now than he was in his cockier early days in the business, look for the more appreciative Rourke next in the upcoming Sin City sequel.
3. David Caruso
After almost two decades in the business, this distinctively voiced redheaded New Yorker was finally able to make a name for himself when he was cast as Detective John Kelly in the influential TV drama, NYPD Blue. But just as soon as he landed the role, there were problems. A perfectionist, Caruso was a bit demanding during shooting which alienated the cast & crew. Just a few episodes into the show’s second season, he was written out. He never returned.
After a couple of high profile film bombs (Kiss Of Death, Jade), he tried another dramatic series, Michael Hayes. It lasted a season. After a supporting role in the Meg Ryan/Russell Crowe stiff, Proof Of Life, Caruso’s career seemed to be in freefall.
Enter CSI. Three seasons into the blockbuster TV crime series, a spin-off, CSI: Miami, was ordered. Caruso was cast as Lieutenant Horatio Caine. The gig would last a decade. He learned his lesson.
4. Dennis Hopper
He was in Rebel Without A Cause, Giant, Cool Hand Luke, the original True Grit and Easy Rider. But after 1971’s The Last Movie, this notorious Kansas native disappeared from the American mainstream for almost a decade. Blame all the hardcore drugs he was viciously abusing.
In 1979, he made a triumphant return as a stoner photog in Francis Ford Coppola’s memorably gut wrenching Vietnam masterstroke Apocalypse Now. In the 1980s, he would continue to deliver acclaimed performances in features like No Looking Back, Rumble Fish, Blue Velvet and Hoosiers, the latter of which generated his only Oscar nomination for acting.
In the 90s, he had memorable heel turns in Speed and Waterworld. And in the Aughts, he appeared on several episodes of 24 during its first season. Five years after appearing in George A. Romero’s zombie sequel, Land Of The Dead, he tragically died of prostate cancer. The former hippie turned latter-day conservative was 74.
5. John Travolta
After the disappointing Saturday Night Fever sequel, Staying Alive, this one-time sweathog floundered for almost the remainder of the 80s. That is, until he played the cabbie love interest of Kirstie Alley in the surprise hit romantic comedy, Look Who’s Talking. Too terrible sequels kept his name out there in the next decade. Thankfully, all it took to erase their unbearable stench was a memorable appearance in Pulp Fiction. Cast as a chatty hitman who can do a mean twist, it earned him his second Best Actor nomination.
The following year he played Chili Palmer, another chatty hitman (this one an ambitious movie fan) in Get Shorty. In 1998, he portrayed a thinly-disguised Bill Clinton in Primary Colours and a redemptive lawyer in A Civil Action, two very strong features. Throughout the rest of the decade, he would have more commercial hits than misses.
Despite some missteps (most notably, the incredibly silly sci-fi debacle Battlefield Earth), Travolta continues to be an audience favourite thanks to financial successes like Wild Hogs, and critical hits like Bolt and the musical version of Hairspray where he took a rare turn in drag. His opening speech was the best thing about the ultimately undercooked Swordfish and his lead work in A Love Song For Bobby Long (which costars Scarlett Johanssen) remains underappreciated.
After the tragic death of his only son, look for him to make up for lost time with a succession of features in the coming years.
6. Al Pacino
One of the most respected actors in the history of cinema, he achieved no less than five Oscar nominations between 1973 and 1981. But after appearing in 1985’s Revolution (it made less than $400000), he retreated to the stage for several years.
When he returned in 1989 to appear in Sea Of Love with Ellen Barkin and John Goodman, it was as if he had never left. The 1990s were a particularly fertile period: Dick Tracy, Frankie & Johnny, Scent Of A Woman (his only Best Actor Oscar), Carlito’s Way, Heat, Glengarry Glen Ross, the documentary Looking For Richard, The Insider and Any Given Sunday, not a stinker among them.
In the Aughts, he was the guilt-ridden sleep deprived cop in the terrific Insomnia remake, Colin Farrell’s CIA boss in The Recruit and a casino owner in Ocean’s Thirteen. He found even greater success on Television playing closeted anti-gay lawyer Roy Cohn in Angels In America, controversial assisted suicide advocate Dr. Kevorkian in You Don’t Know Jack and the eccentric rock producer turned convicted murderer Phil Spector, all Emmy-nominated performances. (He won for the first two.) It’s a testament to his incredible talent that he didn’t embarrass himself in the otherwise egregious Adam Sandler misfire, Jack & Jill. He’s often very funny, particularly in the scene where he interrupts his own theatrical performance on stage to take a call from Sandler.
Now approaching 75, it’s hard to imagine he has anything left to prove. But a lifelong passion is not so easy to extinguish.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 6, 2014
CORRECTION: An astute commenter over on The Huffington Post (where this piece can also be seen in slightly revised form) has correctly noted that John Travolta didn’t make a film called Old Hogs, it was called Wild Hogs. (I must’ve got this confused with Old Dogs.) Anyway, the right title is now in the piece. (I’ve asked HuffPo to correct their version.) My thanks to Andrew J. Coutinho for pointing out the error. It’s now been corrected.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, July 10, 2014