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5 Amazing Hollywood Comebacks

These actors came back stronger than ever.

By Isa NanPublished 4 months ago 12 min read
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Image: Marvel Studios

In the ever changing world of acting and cinema, some actors come and go while others are fortunate enough to stand the test of time. In most cases, those who are unable to hold on to a successful decades-long career often slip past the wayside.

Be it due to age, other commitments, personal issues or a decrease in demand, it is no easy task to return to the pinnacle of the industry once your time has come and gone. However, over the years, a number of iconic actors whose careers were assumed to have been long over were able to climb back up to the top of Tinsel Town.

Let’s take a look at five such actors who were able to rise up from a career slump or extended absence. Not only did they accomplish the Herculean task of returning to the big screen but in some cases, achieved greater success than ever. Without further ado, let’s begin!

#5. Brendan Fraser

After many years away from the limelight due to personal and professional struggles, Brendan Fraser was met with a six-minute standing ovation for his performance in The Whale. Image: Protozoa Pictures

The most recent example in this list, we are very much still in the midst of the “Breneissance” as of this writing. At the height of his career, Brendan Fraser was one of Hollywood’s most in-demand and profitable actors. Known for his chiseled physique and good looks, Fraser became a staple of both the action and comedy genre.

Best known for his portrayal of Rick O’Connell in The Mummy franchise, Fraser would soon suffer all manner of personal and professional setbacks. Firstly, Fraser’s highly physical roles and stunts would begin to take a toll on his body. Suffering all manner of injuries and near-death experiences on set, Fraser found himself in hospital on many occasions. These frequent hospitalisations made it difficult for the actor to find work.

Secondly, Fraser would also find himself caught in a bitter divorce with his ex-wife Afton Smith. Due to his increasing difficulty in finding roles, Fraser soon found himself in financial trouble after being unable to pay alimony. Thirdly, Fraser would also come forward claiming that he was sexually assaulted by the then-President of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Philip Berk.

These numerous set-backs were only further exacerbated by the death of Fraser’s mother in 2013. Spiralling into depression, the actor would come out of this dark period looking radically different. Sporting a portlier build, Fraser barely resembled the heartthrob fans knew him best as. Despite this, he would soon reclaim a deeply loyal fanbase that helped him on his way back to the big screen.

Initially returning in smaller film roles and on TV shows such as Doom Patrol. Word soon began to spread of Fraser’s comeback. Over the last few years, support for Fraser from both fans and fellow actors would grow exponentially. This culminated in Fraser’s leading role in 2022’s The Whale. Marking his first big leading role in years, an emotional Fraser was met with a six-minute standing ovation at the film’s premiere.

Believed by many to be a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination, The Whale seems to be just the first movie in Brendan Fraser’s career resurgence. With his next film, Killers of the Flower Moon being directed by Martin Scorsese and pitting Fraser alongside the likes Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro, it’s clear that more big things continue to be in store for Brandon Fraser. It is truly a well deserved reward for a beloved actor who has overcome so much.

#4. Mickey Rourke

Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler was notable for the parallels it drew between the main character and Rourke himself. The stellar performance opened the doors to numerous other Hollywood success. Image: Protozoa Pictures

Few actors who played “tough-guy” roles could do so as authentically as Mickey Rourke. A former boxer who has had more than his fair share of scraps in the ring, Rourke would soon discover a passion for acting and soon transitioned to a promising and lucrative career on the big screen.

Able to mix elements of comedy and drama to his macho characters, Rourke starred in successful films such as Diner and Rumble Fish. His rugged image also allowed him to become a sex symbol and brought him further success in films such as 9 ½ Weeks. However, by the close of the 80s, Rourke’s career had begun to stall. Bizarre behavior, reckless spending and a reputation for being difficult to work with sent the actor’s stock plummeting as fast as it rose.

Spending the 90s back in the boxing ring, Rourke entered the new millennium beaten and battered in every sense of the word. Rourke’s good looks had been permanently affected by numerous injuries and failed plastic surgeries while his difficult reputation continued to plague him. While his well-received performance in 2005’s Sin City seemed to point towards a comeback, it took another four years for Rourke to properly re-establish himself in Hollywood.

In 2008, Rourke starred in The Wrestler. Directed by Darren Aronofsky (the same person who directed The Whale), Rourke played a once successful wrestler who was mounting one last comeback after a long career slump. Universally praised by both fans and critics, Rourke’s performance would net him a Golden Globe and BAFTA award for best actor as well as an Academy Award nomination in the same category. Many also pointed out the clear parallels between Rourke’s character and the actor himself.

Riding off this success, Rourke would spend the early 2010s back at the forefront of Hollywood in a number of successful movies. Among them, he would portray the main villain in Iron Man 2 alongside Robert Downey Jr. (more on him later!) and would receive continued praise for his roles in Immortals and the star-studded The Expendables.

While Mickey Rourke may appear to have once again faded from the very top of the Hollywood pecking order, it is safe to say that his second outing on the big screen did just as well, if not better than the first. Ever the unpredictable figure, we can’t yet rule out a third act to the legendary saga of Mickey Rourke.

#3. John Travolta

Playing against type, John Travolta’s role as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction has been credited for reviving his career. It also allowed the actor to branch out into more versatile roles. Image: Miramax Pictures

In the 70s, John Travolta had it all. With his good looks, infectious charisma and a talent for singing and dancing, Travolta was the man in Hollywood. After a star-making role on the TV show Welcome Back Kotter, Travolta would transition to the big screen.

With roles in Saturday Night Fever and Grease, Travolta could showcase all his talents for the world to see. He had made a name for himself as a charming leading man and excelled in more light-hearted and music heavy films. Travolta’s films were both well-received critically and were profitable financially. However, come the 80s, Travolta’s stellar run seemingly began to run out of steam.

Having rode the romantic-comedy and musical wave as far as he could, Travolta continued earning strongly at the box office. However, while his films were still profitable, they became noticeably less renowned. On top of that, the actor had made some poor decisions in terms of movie choices as he declined potentially career saving roles in hit films such as American Gigolo and Splash.

Come the 90s, it was clear that the appetite for the sort of films that made Travolta famous was beginning to lessen. Luckily, the talented actor knew just how to change with the times. Portraying hitman Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, Travolta played against type and accepted a reduced pay-check for the part. Despite this, Travolta portrayed the character so well that it earned him an Academy Award nomination and was credited with revitalising his once stalling career.

In the years to follow, Travolta would continue to play more versatile roles and has fully broken free of the romantic-musical type characters that defined his early career. Showing his ability to act in dramas, action, thrillers, sci-fi and even animated films, Travolta remains an active part of the movie scene to this day.

#2. Marlon Brando

Having already been dismissed as an unreliable has-been, Marlon Brando would bounce back with his iconic performance as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, Brando emphatically revived his career and remains a staple of pop-culture. Image: Paramount Pictures

Hailed today as one of the greatest actors in history, younger movie fans tend to forget that the legendary Marlon Brando was once written off as a has-been. Having achieved fame in the 1950s as film’s pre-eminent bad-boy, films like A Streetcar Named Desire and The Wild Ones cemented Brando’s legacy.

Come the 60s however, Brando’s career had begun to take a rapid downturn. Having seemingly lost his passion for acting, Brando became less selective of his roles and accepted whatever promised him a good payday. This resulted in a decade of hit and miss films which were either profitable but poorly-received or critically lauded but financially unsuccessful.

Brando’s turbulent personal life, outspoken nature and difficult reputation on-set began to turn directors away from the once acclaimed actor. By the 70s, Brando was regarded as a has-been who had failed to achieve any significant success in over a decade. However, director Francis Ford Coppola sought to cast Brando in the lead role of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Paramount, which was the studio producing the film, expressed heavy resistance to this and imposed strict conditions on both Brando. He was to accept a reduced fee and accept financial responsibility for any production delays that he may cause.

Impressing Coppola with his improvised use of make-up and cotton balls to create Vito Corleone’s signature look and voice, Brando was able to portray a man much older than himself with ease and established the character archetype of the noble gangster. Brando’s role was so well-received that it netted him an Oscar for best actor and shot him straight back up to the top of Hollywood.

Further proving that he was back to stay, Brando starred in the controversial Last Tango in Paris which earned him another Academy Award nomination. By the end of the 70s, Marlon Brando had gone from a washed up flop to one of Hollywood’s most profitable and in-demand actors once more.

In his later years, Brando would capitalise off his newfound popularity and enjoyed an extremely lucrative career. He was able to secure large paydays for smaller roles or shorter schedules and did not have to memorise his scripts. Despite that, many of his films continued to perform well and his performances were met with favourable reviews.

Marlon Brando’s Hollywood comeback serves as a telling example of how one should never be written off while he still has something left to give. Brando had risen to the very top of Hollywood before unceremoniously falling down the ladder, only to rise to even greater heights following an unprecedented career revival.

#1.Robert Downey jr.

Having overcome his personal demons, the already talented Robert Downey jr immortalised his legacy as a megastar thanks to his role as Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Image: Marvel Studios

One of the most memorable comeback stories in recent memory, Robert Downey jr. had gone from a promising Hollywood career, to the lowest of lows in prison and back again as an invaluable part of cinematic history.

Born into an artistic family, RDJ was the son of actor Robert Downey sr. and had inherited his father’s talent. Making his acting debut as a child, he would also demonstrate a talent for acting on both the smaller screen and the stage. However, RDJ’s personal life was tumultuous from the offset. While his relationship with his father was good, it was certainly not healthy. By the age of eight, he would experiment with alcohol and drugs, often ingesting these substances alongside his father.

In spite of his bad habits, Downey jr. began to pursue a career on the big screen. Having learnt from his father and rubbing shoulders with the actors of the time, RDJ had all the talent and experience to go far. True enough he did with a string of successful films in the 80s and 90s culminating with an Oscar nomination for his role in 1992’s Chaplin.

Unfortunately, RDJ’s success only served to further fuel his addictions. Now addicted to heroin and cocaine, he would have numerous run-ins with the law and spent six unsuccessful stints in rehab. In 1999, the once prominent actor was now making headlines for all the wrong reasons as he sat in court clad in an orange jumpsuit listening to a judge sentencing him to three years in prison.

Although he would eventually be released early, directors began to avoid working with the struggling actor as he was deemed erratic and unreliable. RDJ would continue spiralling further until another arrest in 2001 prompted him to make a serious effort to get his life back on track. After coming out of rehab once more, RDJ took on a number of smaller roles as he eased his way back into mainstream films and leading parts.

While he was praised for conquering his demons and putting himself back together, Downey jr. wanted to take the next step and achieve Blockbuster success. Enter Iron Man. An ambitious project meant to launch an expanded film continuity, director Jon Favreau saw RDJ as the perfect candidate for the role. Iron Man was not only a roaring success but helped set the groundwork of what was to become the Marvel Cinematic Universe. RDJ’s portrayal of Tony Stark would also catapult him to become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand leading men.

Aside from his multiple appearances in the MCU, RDJ has found further success in films such as Tropic Thunder, The Soloist, Due Date and the Sherlock Holmes franchise. RDJ remains to this day, one of Hollywood’s most profitable and popular actors. Having left a legacy that can never be understated, it is clear that Robert Downey jr. has bounced back strong from all manner of issues to claim the spot that an actor of his talent was always more than deserving of having.

That does it for this list! If you made it this far, let me thank you for taking the time to read this. It is certainly inspiring to see how many actors have been able to return from all kinds of struggles to renewed success and revitalised support. It goes to show that we should never write anyone off too early.

If you know of any other similar comeback stories, do let me know. I love hearing your thoughts too!. Until then, take care!

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About the Creator

Isa Nan

Written accounts of life, death and everything in between

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