With Ryan Reynold’s career-defining role as Deadpool back in a sequel, as he continues to skewer his career low points, we thought it would be fun to look at other actors who survived bad roles and came back stronger. (By the way, our use of the word “actors” applies to all genders here). There’s no doubt it’s tough to stay on top, and there is very little room on the Hollywood actor A-list in a given moment. There are many good actors that never made it big, for whatever reason, but we have a morbid curiosity about the big names that soar, and then crash and burn. But even more than the spectacle of a crash, we love a comeback story, so here are six actors that rose to the top, took a tough tumble, and eventually roared back to stardom.
I’ve never really been one to gush over the celebrity aspect of big-name actors, but I’ve often been fascinated by their career arcs. I remember as a kid, discovering actors that I liked and trying to follow their growth into bigger roles, which was much harder in the days before Wikipedia and IMDB. You had to actually look at the back of VHS sleeves and read the articles in Premiere magazine to learn who was in what films. As a Star Wars geek, I enjoyed following Harrison Ford not only into the Raiders’ series but also into more adult films like Witness and Presumed Innocent. Conversely, I was disappointed that Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill were never able to capitalize on their star-turns.
I first became enamored with Jennifer Connelly in 1986’s Labyrinth, her breakthrough film role at the age of 15. (I was 14 at the time so maybe I had a bit of a crush). I was interested to see what her follow-up films would be, but oddly she only acted in two more films in the 80’s – both of them little-seen and now lost to time. The early 90’s was really where her career looked like it would take off, most notably with The Rocketeer, which was an early bid by Disney at a comic-book film franchise, targeted to fill the void left by the end of the Indiana Jones trilogy. It had all the trappings of a blockbuster but failed to crack $50 million at the box office. Connelly had a prominent co-starring role as the love interest, and might have broken into the A-list had the film performed better and spawned sequels. Later in 1991, she would gain more popularity co-starring with Frank Whaley in the teen rom-com Career Opportunities, which I saw in the past few years and actually isn’t a bad film. Unfortunately, Hollywood seemed overly focused on her looks, especially her cleavage, as demonstrated by the one-sheet for the movie:
As her popularity increased, people soon discovered in the racks of the video rental store that she had done a movie in 1990 called The Hot Spot, in which she had a brief topless scene. I recall reading an article at the time that implied she might have hurt her image doing nudity while also trying to succeed in Disney/PG fare. It’s an old sexist Hollywood trope, that for a “serious” actor (think Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet) nudity is part of the craft, but if you are acting in mainstream films then it tarnishes the image. It’s a shame to think this impacted her career, but her acting credits over the next decade were limited, more misses than hits and she was cast several times as a femme fatale vs. the “nice girl”. Ironically, it was her turn in 2000’s Requiem for a Dream that put her name back on the map. While this role also required nudity, unlike the rather unseemly and mediocre The Hot Spot, Requiem was a true indie-hit, as critics lauded both the film and her acting. Two years later she would win Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind – both a critical and box office smash. It marked her arrival on the A-list after 17 years of acting. She would go on to make a limited but solid string of films that balanced both commercial and independent films including The Hulk, The House of Sand and Fog, Reservation Road and The Day The Earth Stood Still. My personal favorite role of hers was in Blood Diamond (2006), as the jaded journalist covering the civil war in Sierra Leone, but only her co-star Leonardo DiCaprio was recognized at the Oscars.
DJ: For me I am not sure if Connelly ever was big enough to warrant a comeback. It could be more of a finally made it story. I saw Career Opportunities in the theater, great soundtrack and ok movie – her and Whaley had chemistry. I actually thought he would be big. The bigger question is where is she now?
In 1988, Bruce Willis pulled off a feat few actors could accomplish at that time: he transitioned from the TV A-list to the Movie A-list. He first gained stardom as David Addison Jr., the wiseass partner to Cybil Shepherd’s Maddie Hayes in her private detective agency on the show Moonlighting (1985-1989). In 1988 he switched to the big screen in the huge summer blockbuster Die Hard, and his career launched into the stratosphere. He had already formed a Hollywood power couple by marrying Demi Moore in 1987, and he quickly teamed up with fellow A-list action stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone to launch the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain. These days, the power couple is long gone and the restaurant empire nearly extinguished, but in between, he had both a huge fall and a notable rise from the ashes.
It’s easy to forget how quickly that huge fall came, at the hands of notorious critical and commercial flop Hudson Hawk. It was released in 1991, a mere 3 years after his Die Hard success. He had already stumbled with the equally notorious Brian De Palma fiasco Bonfire of the Vanities in 1990, but Hanks seemed to get most of the burn from that one, as Willis was able to walk away mostly unscathed. But the wolves came out for Hudson Hawk, savaging the film in reviews, with one critic writing “to say this mega-million Bruce Willis vehicle doesn’t fly is an understatement in the extreme” and “..it’s a fiasco sealed with a smirk”. It seemed to validate the rumors of Willis being difficult and arrogant, and despite a few forgettable films, Hollywood mostly turned it’s back on him. While most people would credit 1999’s The Sixth Sense as Willis’ return to stardom, it was Quentin Tarantino casting him in 1994’s Pulp Fiction that gave him the career reset he needed. It showed he was willing to take a supporting role in a small budget film, and in a role where he was much less the hero and more the damaged goods. It was a smart turn, as Pulp Fiction would have commercial success and even bigger critical success, garnering 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Sure, Willis continued to repeat his role as John McLane three more times, but Fiction opened up new acting opportunities for him, leading to more dramatic roles and less bombastic action films (1998’s Armageddon notwithstanding). Willis has had sold run of good roles where he’s not the sole big star, in such films as: 12 Monkeys (1995), The Siege (1998), Hart’s War (2002), Tears of The Sun (2003), Sin City (2005), RED (2010), and one of my favorite films of the past decade, Looper (2012). He may have sunk himself again with the god-awful A Good Day To Die Hard in 2013 (I couldn’t get past the first half hour) and has not hit on anything decent since then, so maybe it’s time for another Bruce Willis comeback.
DJ: So I never really thought Willis went away, he just worked a ton and made a ton of bad films mixed in with some hits. He makes a ton of crap now. He needs an Oscar bait role to get that second comeback started.
MG: Hudson Hawk is right up there with Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate in the Hall of Shame. He took a huge hit from it.
Keanu Reeves’ acting career could best be described as the (very) reluctant action hero. Each time he broke through in an action role, he would quickly run away from it, and seek out indie picks and generally more “actorly” roles. When his career started to take off, it didn’t seem like he was going in the direction of action hero at all. He was first noticed in the 1986 indie drama River’s Edge, then broke big as a southern California valley dude in the 1989 comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. When he hit on his first action role, as undercover FBI surfer dude Johnny Utah in 1991’s Point Break, followed by the Bill & Ted sequel, the spotlight seemed too much for him, choosing subsequent indie films like My Own Private Idaho, Little Buddha, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. In 1992 he also made the unfortunate choice of joining the cast of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was undoubtedly a bid for more acting cred, but his SoCal laid-back demeanor and uneven British accent clashed with the intense scenery-chewing of Brit veteran actors like Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins, earning Reeves some serious critical scorn. Perhaps that’s what made him go back to straight-up action in Speed (1994). The “Die Hard on a bus” unexpected summer blockbuster put him back on the map, but once again he bucked the action-hero label, famously refusing to join his co-star, Sandra Bullock in Speed 2: Cruise Control in 1997 (which in retrospect was probably the right choice as it ground Bullock’s action-film career to a 5-year halt).
Still, while Reeves may have dodged a bad film in Speed 2, he didn’t have much critical or commercial success in any other films. In fact, during the five years after Speed, which should have been his prime acting/earning years, he had only six roles, none of which lit up the box office. In 1998 he didn’t act at all, and by this point, he was being largely forgotten by audiences. Once again, as his career seemed on the brink, he went back to action, and this time it hit big – really big. In 1999, The Matrix came out of nowhere and launched Reeves back to the top of the A-list. This time he would cash in nicely on the two sequels, but in a familiar pattern, he couldn’t parlay his resurgent stardom into other successful roles. It would be 11 years of little-seen roles between the 3rd Matrix in 2003 to 2014 when yet another surprise action film would revive his career: John Wick. The role was a perfect match for actor and character – both more than a little world-weary and reluctant to use their skills in the action arena, but when pushed to do so, could put on an impressive performance. I’m sure Reeves will do at least one more Wick film, but it will be interesting to see in his later years if he can get the recognition and success at the more serious acting he’s always craved.
DJ: Two comebacks for Keanu. He should stick to what works, he is not a good enough actor to do smart serious roles, there is nothing wrong with that, just know where your bread is buttered. Jim Carrey take note.
My definition of a Hollywood comeback is someone that for whatever the reason falls out of the spotlight, personal reasons, bad choices, health reasons and then makes a triumphant return. I think of what John Travolta did, late 70’s he had Grease, Saturday Night Fever, and Urban Cowboy then his career dropped. With Pulp Fiction he was pulled from the depths and hit the A-list again and for a more sustained time. My three picks were big, gone and big again. The irony is not lost on me that they have all appeared in superhero films with Keaton both being a hero and a villain. There have also been some actors who dropped out and made a comeback using TV instead, I did not include these but I was thinking Christian Slater, James Spader, Charlie Sheen, and Kiefer Sutherland.
Michael Keaton started out in the early 80’s as a comedy superstar, his peers were Tom Hanks and Bill Murray and like both of them he started to do more serious roles before dropping off the radar. I loved Michael Keaton, his comedic persona was the kind I would be if I was funny. He is more manic than Hanks and more sarcastic than Murray. Night Shift was his big film break. Directed by Ron Howard, it takes place in a morgue, and he is the free spirit to Henry Winkler’s timid morgue employee. It’s a great performance that sets the tone for his next few films. Mr. Mom, Johnny Dangerously and one of my favorites, another Ron Howard film, Gung Ho are all funny films. I even liked The Squeeze. Beetlejuice followed and pushed him to superstardom. They still talk about a sequel and if Keaton isn’t part of it, they shouldn’t do it. These hits allowed him to move into more serious roles, Clean and Sober, Pacific Heights, and One Good Cop. Then every fan boy’s nightmare happened and he got the role of Batman in two Tim Burton films. Personally I think he did a great job, I really enjoyed the first one, not so much the second, but to no fault of his. He did some other less successful films, before going back to comedy with Multiplicity and then a few smaller films before hitting a low with Herbie: Fully Loaded appearing with Lindsey Lohan. In the early 2000’s he had limited success outside of some voice work. He really seemed out of sight, I remember wondering what happened to him. I can’t really find a good reason why he couldn’t keep his success going. I have heard that he is notoriously difficult or that he was being picky, no clue. Then he took the lead role in Birdman about a faded actor who once played a costumed super hero, a perfect fit. The film won an Oscar and he received his first nomination. He followed this up with another Oscar-winning film Spotlight and then The Founder. He is great in both these films. The Founder had some of that 80’s Michael Keaton salesman type spark. He then starred in Spiderman: Homecoming and now seems to be fully back. I want to see him in more films. There are a lot of great actors in the world but Keaton has that charisma that few possess and he still has it in him.
MG: I was a huge Keaton fan, with Johnny Dangerously and Gung Ho being my favorites of his early career. Even thought I liked the first Batman, in some ways I wish he hadn’t taken the role. It feels like the super stardom of that role kind of took him away from comedies and he couldn’t get back to them. Birdman was an overrated film, but he was good in it, as he was in Spotlight and Spiderman. I think he has more to offer and hope he continues to pick good roles.
Drew Barrymore is Hollywood royalty. Most of us would probably recognize her great-uncle Lionel Barrymore the most, he was in many Frank Capra films including the villain Mr. Potts in It’s a Wonderful Life. She is the granddaughter of John Barrymore who was the premier actor of his time, I loved his silent portrayal of Jekyll and Hyde. John struggled with alcohol and died way before Drew ever came into existence. Drew had her big breakthrough in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) as the lovable sister, Gertie. She became a huge child star after that. She rattled off Firestarter (1984), Irreconcilable Differences (1984) and Cat’s Eye (1985) in no time. Then the wheels started to come off. She didn’t do a film for four years. She was drinking, smoking and doing drugs before becoming a teenager. She was partying and was emancipated from her parents at 14. Even though she completed rehab, she couldn’t get her career back on track. She did some terrible films including the notorious Poison Ivy (1992) or had very small parts such as Batman Forever (1995). She even tried to jump-start her career with a Playboy spread. The chances of her coming back appeared slim. A brief cameo in Scream (1996) seemed to ignite some interest in Drew and being cast as Adam Sandler’s love interest in The Wedding Singer (1998) pushed her back onto the A-list. This is a funny, sweet, and nostalgic film. Drew plays great against Sandler’s craziness, probably why they would pair up again later in the not-so-good, Fifty First Dates (2004) and the horrific Blended (2014). Bankable again, Drew made Never Been Kissed (1999), Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Fever Pitch (2005) to name a few. Drew’s story is great, coming back from the brink, a suicide attempt, addiction, and rehab to regain a career in a very toxic industry is difficult. The reason I like Drew so much is that she has a genuineness that you don’t always see in other actors. She hasn’t made much lately as far as films go and I hope she does. I know she is currently starring in the Netflix series The Santa Clarita Diet to rave reviews.
MG: I liked Barrymore in E.T. and Firestarter, and it was unfortunate she fell into the classic self-abuse path of many a childhood star. It’s great she was able to rise up again from it, as many never do. My favorite film of her post-child acting career was definitely The Wedding Singer. The first Charlie’s Angels film was decent, but I can’t say there are many other of her recent films that I liked, although I did like her supporting role in Donnie Darko, which I believe she produced. She’s well-cast in Santa Clarita Diet and I think she has some good acting ahead of her.
Robert Downey Jr
My first recollection of Robert Downey Jr. was from the Rodney Dangerfield classic Back to School (1986). He played Derek Lutz the wise-ass friend of Rodney’s son and his fellow classmate. Downey Jr.’s scenes are always funny. His next film The Pick-Up Artist (1987) with Molly Ringwald also showed off his comedy chops. But it was the 1987 film Less Than Zero that showed he could do more than comedy. It also hinted at what was to come. He stayed hot through the 80’s and through the early 90’s. I was personally a big fan of Chances Are (1989). A different take on the body switch movies of the late 80’s. In 1992 he made one of my favorite films and probably his best ever performance in the biopic, Chaplin. This movie single-handedly got me interested in Charlie Chaplin which I previously had zero interest in. I saw all his feature films and currently own them all. He was awesome in it and lost Best Actor to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. I consider it a theft. At this point, Downey Jr.’s drug addiction started to get him into trouble and for a lot of years he was in and out of rehabs and had various bouts of trouble with the law. He would seem on the verge of coming back and then fall back into his old habits. He was still acting but it was more infrequent, less starring roles. Chaplin should have pushed him into the limelight and yet it didn’t due to his troubles. He hit a low when after seemingly bouncing back and raising the ratings of the TV series Ally McBeal he was fired for bad behavior. Part of his issue was he didn’t want to be clean or at least he didn’t think he did. I remember at the time thinking this guy is done, he will be dead soon, most of these guys end up that way. He finally got clean for real in 2001 and started his career comeback. He started to get some roles again as no one ever questioned his talent. It started with the Singing Detective (2003), Gothika (2003), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and then David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). In 2008 he made two films that put him supremely back on the A-list. In Tropic Thunder a comedy that garnered him a Best Supporting Actor nomination, he played an actor that would go all in for a role. He was a riot in it and showed his comedic side which had been missing for a while. The other film Iron Man kicked off the Marvel cinematic universe and blew up his career. Since then most of the movies he has done have been either films or cameos as Tony Stark and two Sherlock Holmes films. There is no doubt without his charisma as Tony Stark I am not sure we would have all the films we have. I would like to see him do something else at this point and not just an arrogant smart ass. I noticed a third Sherlock Holmes movies is in the works and Marvel is not stopping but I can still hope there is another offer out there.
MG: Downey is definitely the poster child for comebacks. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and Zodiac are two of my favorite lesser-seen films of the 2000’s. Downey was definitely close to going out – I even put him on my celebrity deadpool list years ago. He deserves a lot of credit for launching the Marvel franchise, although you also have to credit the Marvel producers for taking the risk of casting him. It’s rather ironic that Disney bought Marvel in the wake of Iron Man’s success, but had they owned Marvel first they never would have agreed to cast Downey. I can’t even imagine the cash he is raking in playing Tony Stark, but I agree it would be nice to see him try something else (except for that road trip movie with Zach Galifinakis).