Downey headlines this week’s Iron Man 3, his fourth outing as the billionaire Robocop. He’s one of the biggest stars in the world and one of our most universally liked celebrities — which is what he seemed like he was destined to become circa Chaplin in 1992, but not so much after nearly killing himself with heroin and wandering into strangers’ homes in 1996, or — even worse — that stint on Ally McBeal. Downey started his remarkable comeback with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; in honor of his latest appearance as Ol’ Shellhead, here some other stars who came back from the brink of obscurity and irrelevance.
Ulee’s Gold (1997), with Peter Fonda
A Boomer icon from writing and starring in Easy Rider, Fonda descended into schlock and ugh in ‘70s B-movies…before coming back in Ulee’s Gold, a movie about bees, but also really horrible family problems. Fonda earned a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars.
Little Children (2006), with Jackie Earle Haley
As a teenager in the ‘70s, Haley played badass Kelly Leak in three Bad News Bears films, as well as a major role in Breaking Away, but found less work in the ‘80s and ‘90s (his last film role for more than a decade: 1993’s Maniac Cop III), eventually moving to San Antonio and making commercials. In 2006, he returned to Hollywood in a big way, co-starring in Sean Penn’s All the King’s Men remake, as well as Little Children, for which he earned an Oscar nomination. Since then, he’s appeared in many major films, including Watchmen, Shutter Island, Dark Shadows, and Lincoln.
Gone Baby Gone (2007), with Ben Affleck
Affleck used up all the capital he earned with Good Will Hunting to make a shitload of shit—Phantoms, Armageddon, Reindeer Games, Bounce, Pearl Harbor, Jersey Girl, Surviving Christmas, Gigli, and the aptly-named Paycheck. Then he realized he was a talented actor with poor judgment and moved back into writing, and also directing with Gone Baby Gone. A critical hit, it was followed by The Town and Argo, and Affleck is basically the king of Hollywood now.
Scream (1996), with Drew Barrymore
Barrymore was once most famous as the adorable Gertie in E.T., then she was most famous as a rehab-bound wild child sent to rehab for drugs and booze. She returned to the A-list (as well as entering the ranks of Hollywood’s top producers) with her cameo during the memorable opening sequence in Scream.
The Wrestler (2008), with Mickey Rourke
In which Rourke plays a washed-up past-his-prime meathead who made a whole hell of a lot of mistakes in his personal life, leading to a sad state of affairs in his professional life. Not technically The Mickey Rourke Story, The Wrestler still earned Rourke an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and then a part in Iron Man 2.
Sunset Boulevard, (1950), with Gloria Swanson
Another meta-casting idea, with Swanson, one of the biggest stars and most beautiful actresses of the early film industry, playing the achingly personal role of a lifetime as faded silent-screen legend Norma Desmond. Swanson earned an Oscar nomination.
Pulp Fiction (1994), with John Travolta
In the ‘80s, Travolta never quite reached the peaks of Grease and Saturday Night Fever, but he had a pretty major comeback in 1989 with the surprise hit Look Who’s Talking. Unfortunately, the comeback was short-lived, as Travolta followed that up with a role in Look Who’s Talking Too and Look Who’s Talking Now. Then along came Tarantino with the part of a greasy, heroin-addicted hitman in his masterpiece Pulp Fiction, and a mission to prove that Travolta could be a marvelous actor.
Boogie Nights (1997), with Burt Reynolds
Reynolds was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Travolta. Playing a powerful ‘70s porn producer in the ‘70s porn-based epic Boogie Nights, Reynolds character was the kind of guy who would have loved one of Reynolds’ silly but incredibly popular ‘70s movies, like Gator or Smokey and the Bandit. In 1998, reality became weird when Reynolds earned an Oscar nomination for his work in Boogie Nights. Shortly thereafter, he promptly returned to schlock, thus righting the balance of the universe.
Trading Places (1983), with Don Ameche
By the time the ‘80s started, Ameche was a guest-star-of-the-week on the cheesy, guest-star-based television of the time, e.g. The Love Boat, Columbo, and Fantasy Island. It was a far cry from his star turns in the ‘40s and ‘50s, but hey, work is work. Work is better, though, when it’s Trading Places, or an Oscar-nominated turn in Cocoon.
Dreamgirls (2006), with Eddie Murphy
After years of fatsuit comedies and cheap family movies, Murphy starred in the big-screen version of this Broadway musical, and was almost a lock to win a comeback Academy Award. Hollywood lore posits that the billboards that went up for Norbit, in which Eddie Murphy played an obese woman, may have convinced Oscar voters to not get all sentimental and give Murphy an Oscar.