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.
6 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.
5 Woody Harrelson
8. James Spader
7. Rob Lowe
6. Johnny Depp
4 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.
3 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.
2 Alec Baldwin
2. Jason Bateman
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.