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These Are 5 Actors Who Made Late-Career Comebacks

F. Scott Fitzgerald may have opined that “there are no second acts in American lives,” but the comeback story remains beloved in popular culture, and people relate to them greatly, both on-screen or off. Betty White is a prime example– the adored actor, who recently passed, was 88 when she rediscovered massive success, hosting Saturday Night Live and starring in the series Hot in Cleveland.

For many actors, success comes relatively early in their careers, but sometimes situations arise in which they either burn out or fade away. There are, as in the case of these five celebrities, rare performers who’ve made late comebacks that boosted their careers further than they’d ever been before. These performers have all experienced great success and acclaim, which they’re still enjoying to this day, after long periods without work or popularity. Let’s take a look at five notable comebacks from some of Hollywood’s most recognizable talent.

5 Matthew McConaughey Did ‘Alright Alright Alright’ With Comeback Roles

Matthew McConaughey wears a suit and sits at a desk like a real live lawyer in The Lincoln Lawyer

Back in the mid-90s to early 2000s, Matthew McConaughey was an in-demand romantic comedy lead who shared the screen with actresses such as Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson, and Jennifer Garner. However, McConaughey’s choice of roles earned lackluster critical and commercial success which worsened over time, prompting him at one point to take a two year hiatus from acting. When McConaughey returned to the screen, he began exploring dramatic roles that showcased his range and finally garnered him some positive attention. Memorable performances in films such as Killer Joe, The Lincoln Lawyer, Wolf of Wall Street, and Mud proved McConaughey had true dramatic skills and established him as a genuine performer.

In 2013, after a string of well-received roles, McConaughey won several acting awards including the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Ron Woodruff in the well-received drama Dallas Buyer’s Club, thus ushering in ‘The McConaissance.’ Since then, McConaughey has enjoyed continued success and held critically acclaimed roles in films and series like True Detective and Interstellar, along with recent box office hits such as The Gentlemen. It’s safe to say that, thanks to McConaughey’s choice of comeback roles, he’s been doing alright (et cetera).

Related: 10 Best Matthew McConaughey Movies, Ranked

4 Mickey Rourke Got Back Into the Acting Ring Thanks to The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke ride a motorcycle in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
The Weinstein Company

For those who are familiar with films from the 1980s and 90s, Mickey Rourke was one of the period’s most notable talents. He had roles in classics such as Rumble Fish, Barfly, and Diner, and shared the screen with legendary actor Robert DeNiro in the controversial thriller Angel Heart.

He was notorious for his poor on-set behavior, with director Alan Parker commenting on how at one point in his career, Rourke simply lost it–

I think this was the last film Mickey did where he behaved… well… and I think he went a bit off the rails after that. Well, he did go off the rails (laughs) and became a different person, he even looks like a different person.

For a period of time, Rourke left the world of acting behind to explore a professional boxing career and thus stepped away from the limelight. However, in 2005, Rourke made a career comeback with a celebrated role in the live-action adaptation of Sin City, and from there began a career resurgence. Eventually Rourke’s profile skyrocketed with his role in Darren Aronofsky’s drama The Wrestler, which earned him critical acclaim and multiple awards nominations, securing Rourke as a bankable talent once more. Based on this success, Mickey Rourke went on to further high-profile roles in blockbusters such as Iron Man 2, The Expendables, and Immortals. Thanks to his mid-career comeback, Rourke has re-established himself as a Hollywood contender and his success continues to this day with the anticipated release of Warhunt.

3 Marlon Brando Got a Career Offer He Couldn’t Refuse With The Godfather

The Godfather
Image via Paramount Pictures

Much has been said about the legacy and influence of Marlon Brando’s career, including the many iconic roles he’s starred in over the years. At the start of his career, Brando was one of Hollywood’s most prominent stars with bad-boy performances in On The Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire fundamentally changing the cultural expectation of what a movie star is. However, Brando’s career took a turn after some unsuccessful roles and reports of eccentric off-screen behavior.

For a period of time Brando was considered unbankable, until Francis Ford Coppola championed him for the role of Vito Corleone in the now classic film The Godfather. While it took much convincing and efforts from Coppola and the producers to get Brando the role, the efforts thankfully paid off and Brando made a career comeback that resulted in rave reviews, awards nominations and wins, and arguably his most memorable character in a career filled with many. The success of The Godfather allowed Brando to be marketable once more and led to equally celebrated roles in films such as the graphic romantic drama Last Tango In Paris and Coppola’s surreal Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. While Brando’s comeback after The Godfather was admittedly rather short-lived, it proved that Brando was a world-class talent whose impact on the acting world remains tremendous decades later; it also proves just how important that one, great part can be.

2 John Travolta Got His Groove Back With Pulp Fiction:

John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson drink their morning coffee but are covered in blood in Pulp Fiction
Miramax Films

John Travolta was one of many fresh-faced talents who were poised for stardom at the start of the 70s. Early roles in critical and commercial smash hits such as Saturday Night Fever and Grease established a strong start for his career, but in the mid-80s Travolta’s performances were plagued by some unfortunate box office bombs and poor role choices which sadly failed to showcase his talent properly.

However, the trajectory of his career changed when Quentin Tarantino eyed him for the role of Vincent Vega in the cultural classic Pulp Fiction. While Travolta wasn’t the initial first choice, Tarantino managed to convince the studios, resulting in Travolta’s most hilarious and perhaps stylish performance to date. Travolta re-established his star status here, and the critical and commercial success of Pulp Fiction led to a career resurgence in the 90s, landing him roles in films such as Face/Off, Get Shorty, and Broken Arrow, among others. While his career comeback has taken some strange turns the last few years, he still appears in some high-profile TV series and films, even earning an Emmy nomination for his role as Robert Shapiro in the acclaimed miniseries The People Vs. O.J. Simpson. It appears that John Travolta’s career is still stayin’ alive.

Related: Mr. Saturday Night Trailer Charts John Travolta’s Meteoric Rise During Disco Fever

1 The Marvelously Massive MCU Comeback of Robert Downey Jr.

Captain America 3 Starts Marvel's Civil War, Robert Downey Jr. Joins Cast
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Robert Downey Jr.’s comeback story is legendary at this point, but well worth re-examining. In the mid-80’s, Downey was a part of the infamous ‘brat pack,’ which included fellow actors Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, among others. The actor had quirky, memorable roles in films such as Less Than Zero and Weird Science, and had a lot of star power and potential greatness, but a slew of scandals undermined his career and sidelined him from the spotlight. His father was a brilliant filmmaker but also struggled with substance use, and Downey Jr. picked up some self-destructive habits. He spent years in the ’90s in and out of jails and rehab facilities, telling one judge that he had been using drugs since the age of eight, when his father would do them with him.

Apparently, completion bonding companies wouldn’t get films produced with Downey in them, as it was so expensive to get him any insurance. Slowly, through recovery, people like Mel Gibson, Joel Silver, and Richard Linklater were able to pay his insurance and get him back into Hollywood. In 2008, Downey Jr. had a chance at redemption when he was cast as Playboy billionaire Tony Stark in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. While studios and audiences may have initially had their doubts, the film proved to be a box office smash and Downey’s take on the character was widely celebrated.

He had incredibly conquered many of his demons and owned up to his past, some of the most important parts of a comeback. From there, Robert Downey Jr. became a box office draw and household name once again, reprising his Tony Stark role in several MCU installments and also appearing in other franchises such as Sherlock Holmes. Currently, Downey Jr is one of the most bankable movie stars and is a living testament to the power of what a great comeback can truly do for one’s career. Hope is possible.

Jean-Louis Trintignant holds Emmanuelle Riva's face in Amour
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