Making the wrong choice on a role. Passing up on a part that can launch you to stardom. Breaking the law, struggling with an addiction, and having your antics caught on camera. These are just some of the many reasons once-famous actors’ careers go down the drain. And not very many of them are able to bounce back from these failures.
There are a select and very lucky few who have, though. And the reasons range from hard work, perseverance, prudent choices, but mostly, just sheer, dumb luck.
Many of these actors can credit certain movies that brought their careers back to life. If not for these films or the people behind them, the actors may very well be classified as Hollywood has-beens.
Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (Neil Patrick Harris)
When the hit teen TV show, Doogie Howser, M.D. wrapped up, people all but forgot about its lead star, Neil Patrick Harris. Many assumed he would be one of the many child actors who would disappear into oblivion. And though Harris was absent from the public eye, at least in terms of big roles, he was finally noticed again when he played a fictionalized version of himself in the Harold and Kumar series of films. Thanks to the film, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and its succeeding sequels, Harris was able to rise back above the radar and eventually land the role of womanizer and suits-obsessed Barney Stinson in the TV sitcom, How I Met Your Mother.
Rocky Balboa and Rambo (Sylvester Stallone)
The roles that made Sly Stallone famous were his playing the titular characters of Rocky Balboa and Rambo in not just one but several sequels. This put him on the map as a true blue action star. Unfortunately, he never experienced the same success in his movies after playing Rocky and Rambo. And so what did he do? He revived his roles in the two franchises twenty years later. Rocky Balboa (2006), the sixth installment in the series, shows an aged Rocky, now retired and widowed. And Rambo (2008) is a reprisal of his role as war veteran, John Rambo.
Scream (Drew Barrymore)
After wowing audiences with her acting prowess at such a tender age, then child star Drew Barrymore’s personal life spun out of control. For years, she couldn’t quite bounce back from her previous successful roles in ET, Firestarter, and Irreconcilable Differences. But Barrymore was able to clean up her act and eventually transition into an adult actress, starting with her short, but very memorable role as Casey in the thriller, Scream. She went on to star in many hit romantic comedies, like The Wedding Singer and Ever After, cementing her status as an A-list actress.
The Master (Joaquin Phoenix)
Once just known as the brother of the late teenage heartthrob River Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix has come a long way since that fatal 911 call he put in when his brother was on the brink of death in 1993. He established himself as a serious actor with his roles as the villainous Commodus in Gladiator and Johnny Cash in Walk The Line. After a series of mediocre films and a peculiar interview with David Letterman, where he stated that he wanted to become a rapper, Phoenix was back in the game when he starred in two successive films that brought him critical acclaim: The Master, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award; and Her, where he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award.
Catch Me If You Can (Leonardo DiCaprio)
Leonardo DiCaprio is one of those rare actors who was successfully able to transition from child actor to teen heartthrob to a serious award-winning actor. After his critically acclaimed performance as a mentally handicapped child in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, DiCaprio became typecast as a swoon-worthy teen actor in films like, Romeo and Juliet, Titanic, and The Beach. It was due to his naturally boyish looks that he seemed to be stuck in teenage roles, but he was determined to become a serious adult actor. The 2002 crime drama, Catch Me If You Can, did just that for DiCaprio—and he hasn’t looked back since.
Pulp Fiction (John Travolta)
In the 70s and 80s, John Travolta’s career was thriving, as he possessed all three skills that made him a great asset in Hollywood: he could act, dance, and sing. But after hits like Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Staying Alive, Travolta’s career stagnated, as he had a series of film flops. When bouncing back seemed near impossible, quirky director Quentin Tarantino decided to cast Travolta as Vincent Vega in the crime film, Pulp Fiction. The low-budget film was a box office success and earned Travolta an Academy Award nomination.
The Godfather (Marlon Brando)
It’s hard to believe that a Hollywood legend who’s considered one of the greatest actors of all time ever had a career slump. But that’s what happened to Marlon Brando. After successful films in the 1950s, such as A Street Car Named Desire, The Wild One, and On The Waterfront, all of which earned him Oscar nominations, Brando had a series of box office bombs in the 1960s. His stock had plummeted so drastically, that when he was considered for the role of mafia boss, Vito Corleone in The Godfather, he was asked to audition for it! It’s a good thing he passed the test because the role put him back on the map and earned him an Academy Award for his brilliant performance.
The Wrestler (Mickey Rourke)
If you looked at Mickey Rourke now, you’d hesitate to believe that he was once a great-looking guy. He received acclaim for his roles in the 1980s movies, Diner and Barfly and was swooned over by many of his female fans. But in 1991, at the height of his promising career, Rourke made the incredulous decision to quit acting and become a professional boxer. This not only changed his image, it also altered his appearance. His face was so badly damaged from his boxing matches and that, coupled with really bad plastic surgery, rendered him unrecognizable. After a long slump, he was finally able to return to Hollywood as an acclaimed actor with his role in The Wrestler.
Argo (Ben Affleck)
His first Academy Award was not as an actor, but as a screenplay writer for the film, Good Will Hunting. After the success of the movie, Ben Affleck went on to become one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood, starring in such hits as Shakespeare In Love and Armageddon. But then there were a series of flops like Daredevil and Gigli, and other films that many don’t really remember. He didn’t appear in anything ground breaking for a while—until Argo, which he starred in, directed, and co-produced. Argo won many major awards, including an Oscar for Best Picture. And this is just the start of Affleck’s career rebirth, as he’s slated to star in two highly-anticipated films in the next couple of years.
Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.)
As far as successful and explosive career revivals go, he’s considered the best example. With his immense talent, Robert Downey, Jr.’s acting career took off and flourished in the 1990s. He was nominated in 1992 for the film Chaplin, but was facing troubles in his personal life. He was battling a drug addiction, which sent him to rehab and jail several times over the course of several years. Though he made a small screen comeback in the TV hit series Ally McBeal only to run into the law due to drugs again, he finally made his big return as a Hollywood superstar in 2008, playing the role of Tony Stark in Marvel’s blockbuster, Iron Man. He’s now one of the most highly-paid actors in tinsel town.