Life-Saving Roles That Kept Actors’ Careers Alive

The life of a professional actor can be filled with ups and downs. As fast as you can become a superstar overnight, you can also become a Hollywood afterthought. Not every actor fades away forever, though. John Travolta was given a second chance at his career when Quentin Tarantino cast him in Pulp Fiction. Mark Ruffalo was ready to call it quits before he earned an Oscar nomination for The Kids Are Alright. These are the actors whose careers were on the brink of sinking and the roles that kept them afloat!

Paul Bettany Joined The Avengers

paul bettany as vision
Disney/Marvel
Disney/Marvel

Paul Bettany’s career had sunk so low that even despite being the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an unnamed producer told him his career was over. Bettany didn’t have much time to be distraught, however, because Joss Whedon called him moments later.

Bettany recalled the moment during an interview on BBC radio. “I stepped out into Hollywood and I sat on the sidewalk with my feet in the gutter and I thought [expletive] me… My phone rang and it was [‘Age of Ultron’ director] Joss Whedon and he said, ‘Do you want to play the Vision in the next ‘Avengers’ movie?'”

Marlon Brando Was Untouchable Until The Godfather Came Along

marlon brando the godfather
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Before being cast in the iconic role of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, iconic actor Marlon Brando starred in a string of box office bombs that nearly ended his career. He was so disrespected by Hollywood at the time that when director Francis Ford Coppola pushed for his casting, Paramount Pictures pushed back.

The studio told Coppola, “Marlon Brando will never appear in this motion picture.” Coppola refused to give up, though, and eventually got his way. Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor and his career was saved.

Michael Keaton Became Birdman

birdman michael keaton
Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox

The story of Michael Keaton’s career is not that far off from the story of the character he plays in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Keaton had broken in big as Batman in 1989 before roles slowly began drying up.

In Birdman, he plays an actor who was once a megastar for his role as the superhero Birdman. Hitting hard times, he decides to write, direct, and star in a play to regain respect. Keaton was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in the critically acclaimed film. Big roles followed his revival, including his turn as the villain Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Mickey Rourke Was Perfect In Sin City

mickey rourke as marv
Miramax Films
Miramax Films

Unlike other actors you’ll see on this list, Mickey Rourke purposely turned his back on Hollywood before his big comeback. After being labeled as the “next big thing” in the ’80s, Rourke became a professional boxer.

The punishment Rourke took in the ring destroyed his pretty-boy good looks, and when he tried to make a comeback he nearly failed. Then the role of Marv in Sin City came along. The actor was praised for bringing the character to life in the stylish graphic novel adaptation. Rourke followed Sin City with The Wrestler, a role he was nominated for an Oscar for.

Tom Cruise Showed His Lighter Side In Tropic Thunder

tropic-thunder les grossman
Dreamworks Pictures In Association With Paramount Pictures
Dreamworks Pictures In Association With Paramount Pictures

Two years after having his 14-year relationship with Paramount Pictures end, Tom Cruise signed up for a surprising role — as obnoxious agent Les Grossman in the Ben Stiller directed comedy Tropic Thunder.

Cruise went all-in on the character, skewering not only his own stardom in the process but the entire Hollywood star culture. His hilarious antics quickly made people forget about his recent personal issues like jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch on national television. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol followed three years later, proving Cruise was a bankable superstar again.

Sylvester Stallone Dug Up His Past To Save His Future

rocky-balboa stallone
MGM
MGM

After a string of disappointing and low-budget action films, Sylvester Stallone reached into his past to take back control of his career. In 2006 he wrote, directed, and starred in Rocky Balboa, returning to the role that originally made him famous.

The movie was a hit with critics and audiences, and Stallone was once again a box office draw. In 2015 he reprised the role yet again in Creed, this time earning an Oscar nomination for his weathered take on the world’s ultimate underdog.

Mark Ruffalo Went For Broke With The Kids Are Alright

the-kids-are-all-right mark ruffalo
Focus Features
Focus Features

It’s hard to imagine a world today where Mark Ruffalo isn’t a movie star. There was a time, however, when the outlook for his career wasn’t so good. Ruffalo was known best for years for small supporting roles but never found major success until 2010.

That year, Ruffalo co-starred in the independent film The Kids are Alright. He was praised for his performance and earned his first of three Academy Award Nominations. Two years after the movie came out, he was cast as Bruce Banner in The Avengers.

Drew Barrymore Proved She Was More Than Just A Child Star In The Wedding Singer

the-wedding-singer drew barrymore
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

Although she came from Hollywood royalty, Drew Barrymore almost never had the chance to find success as an actor. At a young age, she became the breakout star of E.T., and the label of ‘childhood star’ followed her until she made The Wedding Singer in 1998.

The Wedding Singer put Barrymore alongside Adam Sandler for the first time and turned her entire career around. These days, Barrymore is just as popular as ever and even hosts her own daytime talk show.

Robert Downey Jr. Was Perfect As Iron Man

iron-man robert downey jr
Disney/Marvel
Disney/Marvel

When Disney and Marvel began looking for actors to play Tony Stark in Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. was not high on their list. The talented actor had a history of substance abuse and was considered a huge risk.

The troubled actor got his act together just in time and the risk proved to be worth the reward. Iron Man was released in 2008 to critical acclaim and launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as the career revival of Robert Downey Jr.

Chris Pratt Came Out Of Nowhere As Star-Lord

guardians-of-the-galaxy chris pratt
Disney/Marvel
Disney/Marvel

Before starring in Guardians of the Galaxy as Star-Lord/Peter Quill, Chris Pratt was mostly known for his work on television. Pratt got his big break on Everwood as a young actor, and then rose to more prominent attention as Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation.

For years, it looked like Pratt would never be more than comedic relief. Then James Gunn cast him in Guardians of the Galaxy and an A-list star was born. Pratt followed up his role as Star-Lord by taking over the Jurassic Park franchise in Jurassic World. With his face on the marquee, both franchises are alive and kicking today.

Al Pacino Came Back From A Four-Year Banishment With Sea Of Love

sea-of-love al pacino
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

In 1985, Al Pacino starred in Revolution. The film was such a huge failure that the iconic actor left Hollywood altogether. For four years, Pacino lived a life on the stage, unable to find work on the big screen.

In 1989, Pacino finally returned to the big screen in Sea of Love, playing a detective tracking down a serial killer. The movie opened up number one at the box office and saved Pacino’s career in the process.

Ryan Reynolds Found Redemption With Deadpool

deadpool ryan reynolds
Marvel
Marvel

Ryan Reynolds was first cast as the character of Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. His performance in the movie was panned by critics. Following up that with Green Lantern was a double whammy that would have ended most actors’ careers.

Instead of giving up, Reynolds returned to the character of Deadpool and fought to get a new film made. Deadpool became a critical and commercial hit in 2016 and became one of the highest-grossing R-rated films of all-time.

John Travolta’s Career Turned Around With Pulp Fiction

pulp-fiction john travolta
Miramax Films
Miramax Films

John Travolta went from massive movie star in the ’70s thanks to Grease, to a lost thought by the time Pulp Fiction came out in the ’90s. The movie seemingly came out of nowhere, assisted by a blazing performance from Travolta.

For his work, Travolta was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role at the Oscars. For the next decade, he was cast in high profile movies including Face/Off, Broken Arrow, Get Shorty, and Michael.

Natalie Portman Will Always Remember The 5th Of November

v-for-vendetta portman
Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers

Natalie Portman started out in Hollywood with a bang, starring in Leon: The Professional and then being cast as Padme Amidala in the Star Wars franchise. Unfortunately, the Star Wars prequels were so unliked they almost ended her career.

Portman went back to the basics, proving her acting skills with roles in Cold Mountain and Closer. It was her lead role in V for Vendetta that really launched her back into stardom. Five years after V for Vendetta, she starred in Black Swan and won an Oscar.

Christoph Waltz Was Terrifying In Inglorious Basterds

inglourious-basterds christoph waltz
The Weinstein Company
The Weinstein Company

American audiences were unfamiliar with Christoph Waltz before he terrified them with his turn as the villain in Inglorious Basterds. Before his breakout role in America, he was a mildly successful actor in Europe but nearing what looked like the end of a 30-year career.

Suddenly Waltz went from cinematic nobody to late-stage superstar. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Hans Landa. More major roles followed in movies, including Django Unchained, Spectre, and Alita: Battle Angel.

Reese Witherspoon Created Her Own Redemption Story

wild movie reese witherspoon
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar in 2005 for her performance in Walk the Line but was still facing a career collapse as she “aged out” of traditional female roles in movies. Unhappy with the downward turn of her career, the actress started her own production company.

One of the first movies she produced and starred in was Wild in 2014. She was Oscar-nominated for Lead Actress in the movie and has since produced even more critically acclaimed movies and television shows.

Ben Affleck Rode Argo To Critical Acclaim

argo ben affleck
Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers

After a string of flops including Gigli and Surviving Christmas, Ben Affleck was considered a joke. No one seemed to take him seriously. To solve the problem, Affleck went back to his roots behind the camera. He directed and starred in Argo, a film that became a huge hit, won the Oscar for Best Picture, and reshaped the entire trajectory of Affleck’s career.

Since then, Affleck has been cast as Batman in the DC Extended Universe. He also continues to direct and has several intriguing projects in the works.

Keanu Reeves Transformed Into John Wick

john-wick keanu reeves
Summit Entertainment
Summit Entertainment

In 2014, a trailer for a movie starring Keanu Reeves called John Wick came out. In the trailer, Reeves yells, “I’m thinking I’m back.” At the time no one could know just how prophetic this line would be.

Coming off several bombs including the high profile The Day the Earth Stood Still, Reeves was in need of a Hollywood lifeline. John Wick proved to be just that. Since then, Reeves has played the character two more times while maintaining steady work.

Matthew McConaughey Went To Extremes To Win His First Oscar

dallas-buyers-club mcconaughey
Focus Features
Focus Features

Matthew McConaughey spent years in Hollywood as the romantic lead. He briefly tried a turn as an action star in Reign of Fire, but instead found himself struggling for work. Then, in 2013, he starred in the independent film Dallas Buyer’s Club.

The movie, based on real events, saw the actor stretch his body to physical extremes. His stunning performance showed a range no one knew he possessed and he won the Oscar for Best Actor. One year later he starred in True Detective on HBO, further cementing his comeback.

Neil Patrick Harris Played Himself In Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle

harold-kumar-go-to-white-castle neil patrick harris
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

Sometimes it’s not the size of a role that saves an actor’s career, it’s the impact. That’s exactly what happened to Neil Patrick Harris when he played himself in Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.

In the comedy, Harris is only featured briefly but his comic timing and ability to make fun of himself were pitch-perfect. He followed up the career-saving turn with a nine-year run on How I Met Your Mother.