Humbled Mickey Rourke makes gutsy return to Hollywood

Rourke gets back in the ring with The Wrestler

Rourke's "edge," as Kael (and others) termed it, was a welcome trait in a decade that gave us lots of clean-cut, boy-next-door movie stars like Tom Cruise and Matthew Broderick. Even among the talented ensemble of Francis Ford Coppola's Brechtian Rumble Fish, which included the young Matt Dillon and Nicolas Cage, Rourke carried the greatest gravitas. And while he went on to be perfectly convincing in white-collar roles like the Wall Street power player who cooks three square meals for (and on) Kim Basinger in Nine 1/2 Weeks (1986), he was never better than as a certain breed of sensitive, soft-spoken hustler-vagabond-dreamer—the guy more likely to be roughed up in some back alley than to be the one doing the roughing.

Already, though, there were stories that Rourke could be difficult to work with (Basinger famously, if somewhat enigmatically, dubbed him "the human ashtray") and hostile to those in authority.

"I look at these guys like Matt Damon, George Clooney, Sean Penn—they're all very bright, educated guys who understand that it's a business and there's politics involved," Rourke says. "I wasn't educated or aware enough. I thought I was so good I didn't have to play the game. And I was terribly wrong."

So, in 1991, Rourke effectively turned his back on the industry, returned to his childhood home of Miami, and resurrected his adolescent dream of becoming a professional boxer.

By the time Rourke retired from boxing in 1994—the same year in which Otis filed, and later dropped, spousal-abuse charges against him—it was difficult to determine what had taken the bigger beating: his career or his once smooth, beautiful, boyish face.

In person, Rourke now seems more pussycat than mad dog, and he looks better than he has in years: the cheeks less puffy, the tan less bottled. Not bad for a guy supposedly nearing 60 (the actor declines to comment on his variously reported age). But every once in a while you can catch a flicker of the deep-set anger and rage, particularly when the subject turns to his childhood.

Rourke, who was born in Schenectady, moved at an early age with his mother, brother, and sister to the mostly black inner city of Miami, following his parents' divorce. He doesn't reveal much about those years (though he has alluded in past interviews to abuse at the hands of a violent stepfather), but what he does say paints a vivid portrait. "It was horrific. It was shameful," he says. "Let's put it this way: I would have preferred never to have been born. When you have things like that happen, you either go to prison for your whole life or you act out and self-destruct."

The self-destruction would eventually come, but at the time Rourke threw himself into sports. He was good in the ring, and a professional career seemed in the offing, until a couple of bad concussions set him back. It was then that Rourke, who had never given any thought to acting, auditioned for a role in a University of Miami production and got the part. By the time the play closed, he had resolved to go to acting school "and learn how to do this shit. So I got on a plane and went to the Village."

Eventually Rourke found his way to the Actors Studio, where he learned the Method and dedicated himself to his newfound trade with signature obsessiveness. "I wanted to be like Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Chris Walken, and Harvey Keitel," he says. "I wanted to be a really great actor. And if I worked really, really fucking hard, maybe one day I could do that. And I worked really, really hard. For weeks on end I slept on the couch at the Actors Studio, working on scenes nonstop."

Yet at the height of his fame he was never satisfied. "I was waiting for the great picture, and it didn't happen," says Rourke, who was offered—and turned down—roles in Beverly Hills Cop, Platoon, and Rain Man, among others. "And I was living way above my means. I bought a big house, and because I was always turning shit down—formula stuff, Hollywood stuff—I got in a jam, so I had to do a movie called Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man [1991]. They paid me a lot of money, and I went fuckin' bonkers because I sold out, and I hated myself for it. Some kind of anger kicked off, about the fact that I'd put myself in a position to have to do that movie. The demons took over."

And they reigned for most of the next decade, until the actor slowly began to re-emerge from his personal and professional inferno. Vincent Gallo took a chance on Rourke, giving him a role as a bookie in the offbeat Buffalo '66 (1998). Another actor-director, Steve Buscemi, followed suit, casting Rourke way against type as a transvestite inmate in the underseen prison drama Animal Factory (2000). Then Rourke's friend Sean Penn put him opposite Jack Nicholson in a three-minute scene in The Pledge (2000), and he was brilliant. As word got around about his new professionalism, bigger roles in bigger movies came Rourke's way, until there he was, handily stealing the show as the disfigured, partly CGI vigilante, Marv, in Sin City.

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