Mickey Rourke, The Comeback Kid

Mickey Rourke made a name for himself years ago in movies such as "Diner," and then he threw it all away. Now, with a new film he's hoping to become a comeback kid. Serena Altschul has a Sunday Profile:

"After ten years went by and I wasn't working, I thought I'm never comin' back. The only thing I had going was hope."

Ask Mickey Rourke and he will tell you: His best work is decades behind him. Years before, his bad-boy behavior derailed a promising career.

That is, until this year, and this film "The Wrestler," and what could be a re-defining moment for the 56-year old actor.

"Look, his time has come and gone," Rourke said, describing his character. "He's in his late 40s and it's, like, the party's over. But he still wants that one more shot at the Garden. And it's like, it's a pipe dream."

Rourke portrays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a professional wrestler past his prime, holding on to what remains of a once-famous career.

"Once you've been somebody, really, you have a career and you're a nobody anymore, and you're getting older, you're living what's called a state of shame. I went through that in the movie business, you know? You are alone."

Mickey Rourke was a rebellious kid who grew up in Miami wanting most of all to be a boxer, but a series of concussions in the ring ended those dreams. Instead he found his way to New York … and acting.

His career took off in the 1980s, with a combination of vulnerability and menace that caught Hollywood's attention, such as when he played an arsonist, opposite William Hurt, in the 1981 film noir "Body Heat."

"It was like a legacy of a certain type of acting that excited me, that I wanted to be able to be the best at, or the best I could be."

The roles got bigger: "Diner," "Rumble Fish," "The Pope of Greenwich Village," "9½ Weeks," and the boozing poet in the 1987 movie "Barfly."

To critics, Rourke invited comparisons to James Dean, Brando and DeNiro.

Altschul referred to the critics' reviews at the time: "You had them in the palm of your hand, they loved you."

"Yeah, I wasn't even at the top of the mountain and I jumped off head first."

"At a certain point, acting lost its luster for you."

"It did," Rourke said. "By the time I was doing 'Angel Heart,' just the whole thing with authority figures or what a producer had to say, or what a director or first AD said to me, or the material itself, it was like I was looking for an excuse to get angry and to blow up."

He ran with a rough crowd, brawled, partied and began a volatile headline-grabbing courtship with model Carrie Otis. They married in 1992. Later came his arrest for spousal assault.

While the charges were eventually dropped, the marriage ended soon after. Rourke was all but washed up.

"It took me to lose my wife, my house, my career, my respectability," Rourke said. "I had to fall all the way down."

"How out-of-control did it get in those days?" Altschul asked.

"It's cliché," he said. "People go, 'Oh, he has a drug problem, a drinking problem.' It was never my issue."

Rourke blames himself for his freefall, and says it's taken years of therapy to control his anger … an anger he attributes to an abusive and turbulent childhood.

"Smack in the head and all that," he said. "It's like if it happened once or twice that would be okay, but when it goes on for a decade it does something to you. I didn't realize that I had to fix those problems. You could only do it with professional help."

In 1991 Rourke made the decision to put his acting on hold and return to boxing, this time as a professional, at an age when most boxers retire.

We talked with Rourke at the Los Angeles gym owned by his former trainer Freddy Roach.

"I came back at 33 and I was only gonna have one fight," he said. "It turned into five years. I fell back in love with it, you know?"

And while boxing gave Rourke the focus and discipline he says he needed, it took its toll on his matinee looks. He not only had his wrist broken …

"My nose was broken about four times," he said. "I had actually five nose operations. It was shattered when I had head gear on."

When Rourke decided to return to acting in the mid-nineties, Hollywood had moved on. It would take years for him to re-emerge on-screen.

"It didn't happen overnight," he said. "I thought when I went to seek help I could change in a year, or two, or three, or four. And then five and six and seven and eight and nine and ten years went by."

"Because you were volatile?"

"I was, yeah, volatile, unpredictable, un-responsible , unaccountable, irrational, you know, unforgiving."

"There's no one like Mickey Rourke on the planet," said "Wrestler" director Darren Aronofsky. "He's an original. He's his own creature. That's what's exciting about him, and I think that's why people want to watch him."

Rourke describes their first meeting

"He introduces himself, sits down, we don't even know each other five minutes and he goes into, like, 'Well, you've ruined your career for 15 to 20 years. And why did you do it? What happened? Why did you short-circuit?'"

"Did he really say that to you?" Altschul asked.

"Yeah! I said, 'Yeah, I know.' And I thought, 'Oh, God, I've heard this before.'

"Then he says, 'Listen to me,' and he puts his little finger in my face, he goes 'If I can get this movie made with you, you're gonna listen to everything I say. You're gonna do everything I tell you. You're not gonna be out running around all night long. And I can't pay you.'

"He's smart. I went, 'This is my kind of guy!'"

(Fox Searchlight)
Rourke pushed himself for the role. He gained 35 pounds of muscle for the role, trained for three months, and performed almost all his own stunts.

His work has paid off … Rourke is a Golden Globe Best Actor nominee.

And he's back in the place he once abandoned, a mistake he says he won't make again.

Would he do anything different?

"Man, I'd do it all different. I have many regrets. If I knew it was going to take me 15 years to get back in the saddle, I would have changed and done everything differently.

"Now I'm not going to take another back step. I'm not going to trip over the same rock twice, you know? I don't wanna go back to that dark space for a decade and not know how to get out."