When actors find success at a young age, it’s difficult to hold on to the momentum for decades, especially when they mature into more grown up roles. All of the actors on this list started out with a pivotal role early in their career, either on a TV show or in films, then saw their careers stall and wane a bit, only to be resurrected to much more acclaim than in their early 2000s. Whether it was by choice not to act, or they picked less than stellar roles, these actors have found their mojo again and are doing great work, earning major award nominations, big paydays and receiving praise from critics and fans alike. Hollywood loves young actors, but there’s something to be said when many celebrated actors now hit their prime in their 40s, 50s and later.
10. Paul Rudd
More ubiquitous in the 90’s than 80’s, Rudd had his first big role on the NBC show, Sisters playing the husband of then unknown, Ashley Judd. He transitioned from film to TV and became a star in 1995, when he played Alicia Silverstone’s boyfriend/stepbrother in the beloved teen comedy Clueless. After the success of Clueless, he struggled to find the same kind of juicy roles and acted in mainly forgettable films, until he started a recurring role as Phoebe Buffay’s boyfriend on Friends in 2002. It was Judd Apatow who saw Rudd’s comedic potential when he cast him in Anchorman and then again in the smash hit, 40-Year-Old Virgin. From then on, Rudd became the go-to comedy guy, appearing in many other Apatow films, including last year’s sequel to Anchorman. Rudd’s star power shines so bright today that he was recently cast in Marvel’s new superhero franchise, Ant-Man.
9. Woody Harrelson
Harrelson joined the cast of Cheers in the mid-80’s and parlayed it into fame and fortune. When the series ended in 1993, he starred in blockbuster films like, White Man Can’t Jump and Indecent Proposal, but then took a film break from the late 90’s to early aughts. When he returned to the celluloid, he took on more serious roles in smaller films like, No Country For Old Men and The Messenger, which got him nominated for an Oscar. In the past couple of years he’s had a coveted role in The Hunger Games franchise and just finished a critically acclaimed run on True Detective, one of this year’s most talked about shows. Gauging by the buzz he’s received for the role, he’ll more than likely receive an Emmy nomination—23 years after his Cheers Emmy win.
8. James Spader
Spader got his start in the 80’s. Angst-ridden movies like Pretty in Pink and Less Than Zero put him on the map, and so did Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which won him acclaim in 1989. For the next decade or so, he mainly acted in indie films and cameos on some TV shows but it was the law show The Practice, in 2003, that won him his first of three Emmys. He joined Boston Legal, a spin-off of The Practice, in 2004 and stayed on the show until 2008. He won two more Emmys portraying attorney Alan Shore. Those wins enabled him to move into The Office in 2011, and then finally secure the lead in last year’s The Blacklist. The hit NBC show has done well in the ratings and has already acquired Spader a Golden Globe nomination—just one season in. He’ll return to film next year when he’ll play, Ultron in the Avengers sequel.
7. Rob Lowe
Lowe became a teen heartthrob in the early 80’s, when he starred in The Outsiders, then evolved into Brat Pack movies, St. Elmo’s Fire and About Last Night. After those lovable roles wore off, he headed into choppier waters in the 90’s and occasionally appeared in a successful TV mini-series’ like, The Stand but he mainly wasn’t as sought after, especially for high profile film roles. When Aaron Sorkin came calling in 1999, he was cast as Sam Seborn for a few seasons on the hit show, The West Wing. He left the show in 2003 and acted in two canceled shows, then landed on Brothers and Sisters. It wasn’t until he was cast as Chris Traeger in the comedy ensemble, Parks and Recreation in 2010, that his career jump started. That led to more TV roles, including playing JFK in Killing Kennedy and a Golden Globe-nominated performance in the Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra. Besides his busy acting career, Lowe has published two best-selling memoirs in the past couple of years.
6. Johnny Depp
Depp went from doing quirky films like Edward Scissorhands, 21 Jump Street, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Ed Wood to becoming the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Of course, this happened over the course of several years. Depp’s big break came in 2003, when he played Jack Sparrow in the hugely successful first Pirates of the Caribbean film. The movie grossed $600 million worldwide and also obtained Depp his first Oscar nomination. Combining all four Caribbean films with movies like, Alice in Wonderland Depp’s movies have grossed over $3.1 billion in the U.S. and over $7.6 billion worldwide.
5. Elizabeth McGovern
At 19 years old, McGovern starred in the 1980 Oscar-winning film, Ordinary People; she followed that with an Oscar-nominated part in Ragtime. For the next few years, she was in demand as Hollywood’s latest “it girl” and was even briefly engaged to Sean Penn. But in the early 90’s, she exchanged all of that glamour and fame and moved to England with her husband. She still acted in various roles, including British films, theater and British TV shows but she remained out of the spotlight until she was offered the role of Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey, in 2010. The show’s been a runaway success both in England and the U.S., averaging 9 million viewers per episode. The current generation mainly associates McGovern with Downton, not with her younger Hollywood roles.
4. Patrick Dempsey
Until Grey’s Anatomy hit in 2005, Dempsey was mostly known for playing a nerd in the 1987 high school rom-com, Can’t Buy Me Love. He did a few more rom-coms then segued into dramatic roles in movies like, Mobsters and With Honors. His film career tapered off, so he tried TV in the 90’s but the two pilots he filmed weren’t picked up. He stayed active, though, and had acclaimed appearances on Will and Grace and Once and Again but when he got cast as neurosurgeon Dr. Derek Shepherd on Grey’s, he became an overnight sensation. The character, dubbed McDreamy, not only got him nominated for a plethora of acting awards, but it landed him on People’s Sexiest Man Alive lists. From now and forever, Dempsey will never be able to shake the McDreamy label.
3. Alec Baldwin
Baldwin’s career commenced with roles on a couple of soap operas, then he graduated to films. He found his most success when he headed back to TV From 2006-2013. He starred as Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock and won two Emmys, three Golden Globe and 7 SAG Awards; he’s also hosted SNL 16 times. Comedy is something that seems to come natural to him, despite making a reputation in action films like The Getaway, The Hunt for Red October and The Departed. Since being on 30 Rock, he hasn’t acted in as many films, with the exception of comedy hits like, It’s Complicated and Blue Jasmine. Earlier this year, Baldwin announced he was retiring from public life, but that remains to be seen.
2. Jason Bateman
Bateman started acting as a tween on shows like, Little House on the Prairie and Silver Spoons in the early 80’s. He became a series regular on Hogan’s Family/Valerie from 1986-1991, which helped him get the titular role in Teen Wolf Too, the sequel to the successful Michael J. Fox film. Unfortunately, the sequel bombed and he mainly stuck with TV. Once his Hogan’s show fizzled, so did his career. He was cast in four different sitcoms in the 90’s but all of them got canceled fairly fast. Once Arrested Development came around in 2003, he’d cleaned up his act and his career, winning a Golden Globe for his performance of Michael Bluth. Cancellation came again but this time, Bateman took on small roles in highly successful comedies like, Dodgeball, Couples Retreat and Horrible Bosses, which grossed over $200 million worldwide in 2011. The hits kept on coming for Bateman: Arrested Development was resurrected last year and he was nominated for his second Emmy.
1. Robert Downey Jr.
Hollywood is full of comeback stories, but none like the one Downey Jr. has mastered. Like Spader, Downey started out in teen flicks like Less Than Zero, Weird Science and Back to School. For a season in the mid-80’s, Downey was even a cast member on SNL. He garnered critical acclaim when he was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin. But, drugs took a toll on him and his career suffered. He made a slight comeback in 2000 on the show, Ally McBeal but was fired when he relapsed. Because of his drug and arrest charges, his insurance was sky high and no one could afford him until he became sober. In 2008, he was in two huge movies that salvaged his career: Tropic Thunder and Iron Man. The former got him his second Oscar nomination; the latter and its two sequels have made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, as he rakes in $50 million per film. Not only are the films lucrative for Downey, he’s also doing quality work in them.