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The 15 Most Surprising Career Comebacks In Hollywood

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The 15 Most Surprising Career Comebacks In Hollywood


Michael Keaton surprised a lot of people with his career-reviving turn in this year’s Birdman. Some feel his somewhat autobiographical role as a down-on-his-luck actor – famous for a superhero role in his past – is  the current frontrunner for a best actor Oscar. Keaton’s probably just happy to be in a movie where he doesn’t play a talking snowman or straight man to Herbie The Love Bug.

Keaton’s comeback is hardly big news in Hollywood. The movie-going public loves a good redemption story and there have been many of them. Of course, there’s no real formula for returning to public and critical favour. Often it’s just a matter of picking a good script, something different or challenging which will lead to a reinvention. Some actors and actresses make a comeback without ever going away, finding themselves hot again thanks to clever marketing, a good agent or even an intriguing personal story.

The following are just a few of Hollywood’s notable comebacks and comebacks-in-the-making. But these actors should be aware; a comeback sets high expectations.

15. Mickey Rourke

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He was the handsome star of Diner, Rumble Fish, and The Pope of Greenwich Village. But then he started working on a boxing career and a bad reputation. And then there was the ill-advised plastic surgery. Still, Rourke engineered his unlikely career revival with a nice turn as a brute in Sin City, and a surprisingly moving role as the title character in The Wrestler.

He won a Golden Globe for the latter role but was a surprise loser come Oscar night. It’s still questionable just how interested Rourke is in acting; he seemed happy to pick up a check for forgettable roles in Iron Man II and The Expendables.

14. Jack Palance

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

He was never an unemployed actor. Heck, he even got a couple of Oscar noms in the early 1950s. But his leading man days were well behind him when he stole the show as a tough ol’ cowpoke who causes Billy Crystal all sorts of problems in City Slickers (1991). He stole the show yet again at that year’s Oscars, delighting the crowd with some spontaneous push-ups.

13. David Caruso

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Caruso was the poster boy for bad career moves when he left NYPD Blue in 1993 after barely one season to pursue a movie career. Those movies (Remember Jade and Kiss of Death? Probably not) did nothing for his career, and he spent nearly a decade not working a whole heck of a lot. But then CSI:Miami came along in 2002, and Caruso suddenly found himself one of the highest paid actors on TV for ten seasons.

12. Marlon Brando

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

He was the greatest actor in the world in the 1950s thanks to acclaimed performances in On The Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. But the 1960s were a different story as Brando endured flop after flop, both big budget (Mutiny On The Bounty/One-Eyed Jacks) and obscure (Nightcomers/Bedtime Story/Candy).

Frankly, Brando seemed less interested in acting than political causes and hanging out on his private island. Yet, almost accidentally, Brando returned to movie stardom with riveting turns in Last Tango In Paris and The Godfather. Then there was Apocalypse Now, for which  Brando did very little yet managed to steal every scene. After that, Brando pretty much rode out his life and career taking big money for small roles that were nonetheless memorable.

11. Sylvester Stallone

via BigStockPhoto

via BigStockPhoto

Stallone’s formula for a career comeback in his sixties was the simple plan of ‘Give The People What They Want’. So he made Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008), reprising the roles that made him a box office heavyweight. They weren’t critical hits but they made a lot of money, and kick-started the second phase of Stallone’s career. With The Expendables series, Stallone paid it forward by assembling a Who’s Who of old action stars in need of a job.

10. Ben Affleck

via BigStockPhoto

via BigStockPhoto

Affleck won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting, but is sometimes better remembered for 2003’s Gigli, the flop of all flops he made with his then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez. Another badly-received turn in Daredevil didn’t help. After ‘Bennifer’ broke up, Affleck took some time off, but returned strong with 2006’s Hollywoodland.

He then changed gears and began writing and directing, earning a lot of renewed respect for films like Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo, which won a Best Picture Oscar. Now, he’s set to be Hollywood’s next big superhero in the next installment of the Batman series.

9. John Travolta

via BigStockPhoto

via BigStockPhoto

The young star of Grease and Saturday Night Fever had watched his career decline to the point where he was starring opposite talking babies (Look Who’s Talking).

Thankfully, Quentin Tarantino came along with Pulp Fiction in 1993, allowing Travolta to rescue himself from obscurity with a great performance as a drug-addicted killer. A string of hits followed (Michael/Get Shorty/Face/Off) though it didn’t last. Many believe Travolta might be ready for yet another comeback.

8. Kiefer Sutherland

via BigStockPhoto

via BigStockPhoto

The son of Donald had carved out a pretty decent career as a supporting actor (Stand By Me/The Lost Boys/Young Guns) and a sometime leading man (The Vanishing). But he’d also earned a reputation as a difficult actor and habitual partier, and his career began to slow down.

Moving to television is usually seen as a career downturn, but not for Sutherland. As Jack Bauer on 24, he earned multiple Emmys, becoming the highest paid actor in television. He stills seems a little self-destructive – with four DUIs to his name – but it hasn’t stopped him from working.

7. Matthew McConaughey

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via BigStockPhoto

The Oscar winner for The Dallas Buyers Club has been on quite a role in recent years. It’s hard to believe that not long ago he was something of an industry joke – known better for his hippie antics, lame romantic comedies (Failure To Launch/Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) and his disdain for wearing a shirt.

But that started to turn around in 2010, with showy, acclaimed roles in dramas like Magic Mike, The Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyers Club, and the recent Interstellar. He also got the best reviews of his career as a troubled cop in the TV miniseries True Detective. It has, without a doubt, been the Hollywood career turnaround of the 21st century so far.

6. Jackie Earle Haley

via BigStockPhoto

via BigStockPhoto

A star at a young age, Haley earned great reviews in 1970s classics like The Bad News Bears and Breaking Away. Never a tall, leading man type, Haley saw his career take a downturn in the 1980s and 1990s. He retired for a time, becoming a director of commercials in Texas.

His comeback came with a recommendation from Sean Penn. He earned almost immediate attention (and an Oscar nom) for 2006’s Little Children. He followed it up by working with names like Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island), and Tim Burton (Dark Shadows).  He also stood out as the masked superhero Rorschach in Zack Snyder’s cult hit Watchmen.

5. Reese Witherspoon

via BigStockPhoto

via BigStockPhoto

Witherspoon became a star for both her comedic (The Legally Blonde series) and serious roles, eventually winning an Oscar for playing June Carter in 2005’s Walk The Line. But after that, in a case of the Oscar jinx, not much happened.

She had notable flops in both comedy (Four Christmases) and drama (Water For Elephants/Mud).  As she entered her late 30s, it didn’t look all that promising for Witherspoon. Yet, in the last year, she’s earned kudos both for her acting, as Oscar buzz surrounds her decidedly unglamorous role in Wild, and as a producer on Gone Girl.

4. Martin Short

via BigStockPhoto

via BigStockPhoto

It’s hard to peg when the Short comeback began.  One is inclined to say it was his hosting gig on Saturday Night Live in 2012, which reminded audiences just how talented the SCTV alum was. A recurring role as a troubled environmental lawyer on How I Met Your Mother didn’t hurt either.

In the last few years, he’s been very busy, with a supporting role in the new series Mulaney, an autobiography (‘I Must Say: My Life As A Humble Comedy Legend’) and a showy role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice opposite an all-star cast that includes Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin.

3. Sandra Bullock

via BigStockPhoto

via BigStockPhoto

At 50, Bullock is on an unlikely career high. At an age when other actresses have been relegated to supporting mom roles, Bullock is bigger than ever, earning the title of highest paid actress.

Though known for her earlier roles in Speed and Miss Congeniality, the actress has  in the last four years earned an Oscar (for The Blind Side) and another nomination (last year’s Gravity). She also had the top comedy of last year with The Heat.

2. Woody Harrelson

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via BigStockPhoto

Unlike his pal and frequent co-star Matthew McConaughey, Harrelson never got much respect beyond the lovable bartender Woody he played on Cheers. Until five years ago, he was probably better known for his pot-loving lifestyle than acting.

He had been nominated for two Oscars (The Messenger and The People Versus Larry Flynt) but there were also a lot of flops (The Big White/Scorched/Surfer, Dude). The hard-hitting 2009 military drama The Messenger seemed to turn the trend of flops around.

Zombieland, 2012, and the Hunger Games series cemented Harrelson’s position as a leader in Hollywood. His biggest critical acclaim , however, came alongside McConaughey this year in TV’s True Detective.

1. Colin Farrell

via BigStockPhoto

via BigStockPhoto

A career comeback or mere improvement? The strange thing about Farrell is that he’s a movie star with very little in the way of big or critical hits. While he always gets a lot of tabloid attention for his antics and good looks, box office success has always eluded him.

The list of mediocre works is lengthy (Phone Booth/S.W.A.T./Fright Night/Total Recall) while his acclaimed works are few and far between (In Bruges). That may have turned around recently with a showy role as an alcoholic father in Saving Mr. Banks and his memorably obnoxious comedy turn in Horrible Bosses (2011). Next up for Farrell is the second season of True Detective with Vince Vaughn, another actor in serious need of a career boost.

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