The Top 10 Actors Back from the Dead

October 28, 2009

The great thing about being a celebrity is that there’s always another chance to right past wrongs. Defying expectations, sometimes actors can revive their careers with just one well-played part. And watching them rise from the grave of their stone-cold careers is like bumping into a friend at a high school reunion: sure, they’re fatter, balder, and several cosmetic surgeries down the road, but hell if they aren’t also new and improved.

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10. Kiefer Sutherland

It’s not that Kiefer ever stopped working, it’s just that the work he did after the ‘80s was by and large negligible. After Young Guns in 1988 he pretty much disappeared until 2001 when, of course, 24 began.

Has it been all a bed of roses since then? Not really. He’s had a few unimpressive movies – Mirrors is the only one that comes to mind – but he knows what side his bread is buttered on and has been loyal to 24. He’s not one of those actors who, as soon as they realize a TV show has energized their career, bails to do movies only to find the water is very, very cold. (Rob Lowe, David Caruso, and Jimmy Smits, I’m looking at you.)

Unfortunately, 24 has kind of run its course. We’re ready for Jack Bauer to stop saving the world from saving terrorists. Looks like Sutherland’s going to need a second stimulus package.

9. Neil Patrick Harris


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Most of us have happy memories about boy wonder doctor Doogie Howser. He was the precocious, big-headed teen who had to make life choices about growing up and about other peoples’ lives, and we loved him for it.

And then he disappeared from the face of the planet.

He popped up briefly for air in 1997 to play Carl Jenkins in Starship Troopers, then disappeared again. Like a lot of actors who have their careers revived after a protracted period of spotlight deprivation, NPH used the weapon he knew best: television. How I Met Your Mother reminded us of why we liked him in the first place – and his hilarious cameos in the Harold & Kumar movies certainly didn’t hurt, either.

8. Charlie Sheen


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For a guy who was Oliver Stone’s thespian muse in the ‘80s, Charlie Sheen’s career went into a particularly disgraceful tailspin in the ‘90s. You know things aren’t going well when you’ve gone from Platoon to Hot Shots! Part Deux, especially when the latter movie is the highlight of your career for that decade (his cameo in Being John Malkovich was another exception to an unexceptional 10 years).

While it’s true that Sheen never managed to reclaim his cinematic throne, he’s since become the highest paid actor on television, raking in a cool $825,000 an episode. That’s not quite as much as Jerry Seinfeld made during his heyday – he was pocketing $1,000,000 an episode for at least three seasons and was offered $5,000,000 an episode if he’d continued for one more season instead of wrapping in 1998 – but it’s probably enough to keep Sheen in shampoo and conditioner until the end of the millennium.

Not bad for a guy who spent the better part of the ‘90s as yet another poor excuse for a Sheen.

7. Sylvester Stallone


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After Cop Land things were not looking good for Sly. I mean, Cop Land was actually a pretty decent little movie, but you take a guy who’s been out of the limelight for a long time and stick him in an indie with Michael Rapaport (a man whose career defies more logic than Sarah Palin’s brain) and you get sub-optimal results.

But things have been looking up for Sly this decade. Not only has he resurrected the franchises that first made him famous – Rambo and Rocky – but he’s started up a new one, to boot: The Expendables. The man has found his second wind and he’s not slowing down.

6. John Travolta


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No one knows about the comeback more than John Travolta. His career was DOA by 1993. Here are the most recent films he’d made before Pulp Fiction: Look Who’s Talking, Look Who’s Talking Too, Eyes of an Angel, and, of course, the unforgettable Look Who’s Talking Now. The man had gone from ‘70s heartthrob to ‘90s clown, sharing the screen with talking babies and Kirstie Alley – it’s hard to say which is worse. At least he wasn’t in danger of being eaten by the babies.

Pulp Fiction pulled Travolta out of cinematic purgatory and gave him one of the best comebacks in the history of comebacks. He has Tarantino to thank for this, and if he was really smart he’d get on Tarantino to make a prequel of Pulp Fiction. His career could use it. Again.

5. Burt Reynolds


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Burt Reynolds had been festering in no man’s land for a long time when Paul Thomas Anderson plucked him out of obscurity to play porn patriarch Jack Horner in 1997’s Boogie Nights. Reynolds went from a washed up has-been from the ‘70s to the golden nugget of goodness in the hippest new movie in town by the hippest new director.

Unfortunately Reynolds didn’t make as much of his comeback as we might have hoped, but his performance in Boogie Nights is more than many washed up actors ever manage to achieve. Boogie Nights was the movie that P.T. Anderson on the map, and it’s due in no small part to the phenomenal cast. If nothing else Reynolds will always be remembered for his portrayal of a visionary pornographer, which seems somehow fitting.

4. Jackie Earle Haley


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Now here’s a guy who knows how to restart his own career. Jackie Earle Haley went from a child actor, starring in movies like The Bad News Bears and Damnation Alley, to low-budget, weird ass sci-fi flicks like the awesomely ghetto Dollman, to just disappearing altogether. After 1993 the man just stopped acting and took a break from Hollywood. He didn’t show up again until 2006 when he played Ronnie J. McGorvey in Little Children, and ever since then it seems like he’s been everywhere.

Last year he was in Semi-Pro, this year he was the scene-stealing Rorschach in Watchmen, and next year he’s taking over the role of Freddy Krueger in the rebooting of the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Haley doesn’t do half-assed..when he comes back, he comes back.

3. Robert Downey, Jr.


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Robert Downey, Jr. never really saw his career go to pieces and he never stopped getting work. It’s just that there was always the feeling that he wasn’t fulfilling his potential due to his propensity for debauchery. Between the women and the drugs and the alcohol and the rehab there wasn’t a lot of time left in his schedule for work, but he fit it in where he could.

And then came Iron Man. It was like his life finally made sense: he’d spent the last 43 years studying for the role of Tony Stark, a kind of inadvertent lifetime of method acting. It was so worth it. If Downey was a respected actor before, he’s a rock star now. Now he has to beat the parts away with a stick, and we haven’t even seen a trailer for Iron Man 2 yet. But it doesn’t really matter, because we know, unlike so many other flashes in the pan, Downey earned his stardom. Few people work their way to the top in Hollywood, but RDJ has lived by a kind of Fight Club ethic of self-destruction that made him the great man he is today.

You can’t fake a lifetime of depravity.

2. Mickey Rourke


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You have to give him credit: when Mickey Rourke falls, he falls hard. And despite the fact that it took him over a decade to pull himself off the mat (literally – he spent from 1991 to 1995 as a professional boxer) he did so with gusto. There have been few come backs like Rourke’s: he went from a failed acting career to a painful(and ultimately aimless) boxing career to a 10 year period of obscurity.

And then he made his way out of the fog with The Wrestler and no one saw it coming. He bodyslammed us with his awesomeness and everything’s been easy sailing since. He’s appearing as Whiplash in Iron Man 2 and getting more movie offers than he can shake a deeply-tanned fist at.

Rourke’s comeback has been nothing if not unpredictable, and the only question at this point is really whether or not it’s going to last. The man tends to be his own worst enemy, so as long as he manages to keep his own demons in check there’s nothing keeping that frightening face of his from gracing the big screen till he hits retirement – whenever that is. Who knows, if the acting thing doesn’t pan out (again) he can always become a professional cause célèbre against cosmetic surgery.

1. Jason Bateman


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The great thing about Jason Bateman’s comeback is that none of us saw it coming. He went from being a mildly popular child actor in the ‘80s, appearing in all the shows we grew up on and loved: Little House on the Prairie, Silver Spoons, Knight Rider, Mr. Belvedere and, of course, his long running role of David Hogan on Valerie (which later became The Hogan Family when the woman playing Valerie stupidly asked for way more money than any of the producers on the show thought was reasonable for how mediocre the show was).

And then, after 1987’s Teen Wolf Too, after The Hogan Family lasted longer than anyone could reasonably have expected it to and finally expired in 1991, Bateman went silent. For a long, long, long ass time.

Sure, he appeared in crappy little made-for-tv films that popped up here and there, but no one even remembered who the hell he was until Arrested Development hit the tube in 2003. Despite the fact that pretty much no one watched this show during the three years it aired, it was and is one of the funniest TV shows ever made since the dawn of time (and TV). What it lacked in ratings it more than made up for in hilarity, and fans are still hoping against hope that the idiots at FOX come to their right minds and greenlight an Arrested Development movie before Michael Cera finally hits puberty.

But it was almost a good thing for Bateman that the show ended when it did, because once the movies started coming they didn’t stop. First it was bit parts, with Bateman stealing scenes in otherwise unfunny movies – Starsky & Hutch, Dodgeball, The Break-Up – and then he began stealing scenes in bigger parts in bigger movies – Juno, Hancock, Extract – to the point that the sky’s pretty much the limit for his career now.

It just goes to show that you don’t have to wind up being a crack-addicted burnout just ‘cause you were a child star on a sitcom in the ‘80s.