How Mickey Rourke Went From Hot Young Star To Hollywood Joke
The life of any Hollywood star is inevitably going to have its ups and downs, but there aren’t too many stories with such dizzying highs and crushing lows as that of Mickey Rourke. When he first broke through in the early 80s, Rourke was a fresh-faced, charismatic and confident young man who many were calling the greatest actor of his generation.
However, within 20 years he would be an almost unrecognisable shadow of his former self, struggling to land roles worthy of his early stature, and written off by many as a joke. Then in the mid-2000s, with a number of scene-stealing performances in acclaimed hit movies, Rourke seemed to be getting back on top at last – only to promptly sink back into the shadows once again.
His story could be considered a cautionary tale, but it’s a fascinating one nonetheless, and for all his missteps there’s no denying Mickey Rourke has made some remarkable contributions to the last 40 years of cinema. Read on to learn more about this great yet deeply troubled actor.
He was born Philip Andre Rourke Jr.
The man we know as Mickey Rourke was born Philip Andre Rourke Jr. in Schenectady, New York on 16th September 1952. His father Philip Andre Rourke was an amateur body builder of Irish descent, whilst his mother Annette was of Scottish descent. Mickey was their first child.
Philip and Annette had two more children – Mickey’s younger brother Joey, and their younger sister Patty – before the couple split and Philip walked out on his wife and kids, while Mickey was still young. The children were raised Catholic, a faith Rourke has continued to practice throughout his life.
He was raised in Florida after his mother re-married
Following her divorce from Philip Rourke, Mickey’s mother Annette went on to get married a second time, to Miami Beach police officer Eugene Addis. After the wedding, Annette, Mickey, Joey and Patty all relocated from Schenectady to Miami Beach, where the children would grow up.
It was a busy household, as Addis already had five sons of his own. It’s also thought that Annette and Eugene had a daughter together, although reports vary on this. However, it is known that this was not a happy home, and this had a major impact on young Mickey and the man he became.
He started learning to fight after being abused by his stepfather
Rourke has said that his stepfather Eugene had no love for him or his brother Joey, and that he was in fact physically abusive to both his young stepsons and their mother. This pushed the young Mickey to learn how to fight, in order to defend himself.
Reportedly, Rourke started attending the Boys Club of Miami, and it was here that he first took classes in self-defence. This paved the way for the youngster to take up boxing, a sport to which he would end up devoting a good portion of his life.
He had his first boxing match aged 12
Rourke had his first boxing match at the tender age of 12. Fighting in the flyweight division under the name Phil Rourke, he emerged victorious from his first venture into the ring, which encouraged him to pursue the sport further.
As he advanced into his teenage years, Rourke grew physically, until he was fighting in the welterweight division at a reported 140 pounds. To take his training further, Rourke started boxing out of Miami Beach’s historic Fifth Street Gym, famed for producing many successful fighters.
At 17, he sparred with a former World Welterweight Champion
It was whilst training at the Miami Beach Fifth Street Gym that a 17-year-old Rourke had one of his biggest moments as a young boxer. He served as a sparring partner for Luis Rodríguez, the former World Welterweight champion who was at the time the highest-rated middleweight boxer in the world.
Rourke became his sparring partner when Rodríguez was in training for a championship match. In the process, Rourke suffered what would be the first of several concussions, a problem which would significantly impact his boxing career and his overall physical and mental well-being.
He notched up 27 boxing wins before health concerns forced him to stop
Fighting variously under the names Phil Rourke and Andre Rourke, Mickey’s young amateur boxing career was a very successful one. He was undefeated, with an eye-opening 27 wins to his name, 12 of which were knockout victories – and all this before he was even 21 years old.
Unfortunately, Rourke suffered another concussion in the ring, and was advised by doctors to take at least a year off boxing to allow himself to fully recover. During this boxing hiatus, Rourke revisited an interest he had briefly pursued in high school, which would come to have an even greater impact on his life: acting.
After putting his boxing career on hold, Rourke took to the stage
Rourke had first acted in 1971, in a production of a play called The Serpent, whilst he was at Miami Beach Senior High School. While he was widely praised for his performance, Rourke did not pursue acting further at the time due to his focus on his boxing career.
However, after being forced to step back from the ring, Rourke decided to gave the stage another shot. He landed a part in a University of Miami production of a play called Deathwatch, and was promptly swept up in a newfound passion for acting, which he was determined to pursue further.
His audition for New York’s Actors Studio was declared “the best in 30 years”
Deciding acting was his future, Rourke borrowed $400 from his sister and moved to New York to study at the Actors Studio, the illustrious ‘method’ school whose alumni includes such screen legends as Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
Rourke’s audition for the Actors Studio was seen by none other than Elia Kazan, director of the classic Marlon Brando movie On the Waterfront. An awestruck Kazan declared Rourke’s audition to be the best the Actors Studio had seen in 30 years.
Acting teacher Sandra Seacat had a major impact on Rourke’s approach to the craft
Rourke has said that “everything started to click” while he was studying at the Actors Studio under the tutelage of Sandra Seacat. Famed for blending method acting with Jungian psychology and yoga, Seacat’s other students included Christopher Reeve, Jessica Lange and Melanie Griffith.
On top of helping Rourke get to grips with the craft of acting, Seacat also made a significant impact on his personal life. She encouraged Rourke to re-establish a relationship with his father, still based in New York; Rourke and his father had not seen one another in more than 20 years at the time.
He would enlist strangers off the street to help him rehearse
On moving to New York, Rourke was a stranger in a strange land without much in the way of friends or connections. This posed a significant problem when the actor was rehearsing his scenes, as he had no partner to practice with.
Because of this, Rourke says he took to asking random strangers to run lines with him. In a 2011 magazine interview, Rourke said that in his early days he would “grab whoever I could to go rehearse lines with me – I’d pay a drunk off the street to come in and read.”
His first two movies were notorious flops
After working on the New York stage, Rourke headed west to Hollywood to break into the movies. Happily, his very first role was in the latest film from arguably the biggest name in the business at the time: director Steven Spielberg, fresh from his landmark blockbusters Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Unfortunately for Rourke, the film in question was 1941, a now largely-forgotten musical comedy widely considered Spielberg’s first real flop. Rourke’s second screen appearance would, alas, be another high-profile misfire: Heaven’s Gate, the notoriously troubled third film of The Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino.
His star began to rise with Body Heat, Diner and Rumble Fish
In 1981, Rourke was cast as Teddy Lewis in erotic noir thriller Body Heat. Though this was only a bit part, Rourke made a major impact, and many in the film business were soon abuzz about this hot new up-and-comer.
Next, Rourke was one among an ensemble of promising new stars (others including Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Bacon and Daniel Stern) in low-key drama Diner. After that, Rourke landed a key supporting role in Rumble Fish, directed by the legendary Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), which won him further plaudits.
He married first wife Debra Feuer in 1981
Just as he was breaking through in the film industry, Rourke also tied the knot for the first time. He wed Debra Feuer, a fellow actor and dancer. The couple first met on the set of a 1981 TV movie entitled Hardcase.
Rourke said years later, “I married the first good-looking girl I thought I’d ever have a chance with. I made it clear that I didn’t want to marry an actress, so as soon as her manager started pushing her that way, I was out of the door.” He was divorced from Feuer by 1989.
He missed out on a few big roles early on – including Beverly Hills Cop
Like any new actor, Rourke inevitably lost out on some big parts. He was passed over for the young male lead of comedy Caddyshack, being deemed too cool for the role; and he also missed out on parts in The Outsiders and The Big Chill, with some reports claiming he turned both films down.
However, Rourke’s biggest early misstep came when producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer offered him the lead in their new action comedy Beverly Hills Cop. Though initially interested, Rourke decided to turn the part down – and it wound up being the biggest box office hit of 1984 with Eddie Murphy in the lead.
The Pope of Greenwich Village was a commercial flop, but a critical smash
When he dropped out of Beverly Hills Cop, Rourke teamed up with actor Eric Roberts for the more grounded crime comedy The Pope of Greenwich Village. Rourke and Roberts took roles which had initially been earmarked for no less a partnership than Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Their co-stars in the film included Daryl Hannah.
The Pope of Greenwich Village proved to be something of a good-news/bad-news scenario for Rourke. The bad news was it flopped hard at the box office, earning under $7 million; but the good news was the reviews were terrific, with Rourke earning more enthusiastic notices for his performance.
Rourke says The Pope of Greenwich Village was his happiest professional experience
Even though the film itself didn’t wind up making that big of an impact, Rourke has said that working on The Pope of Greenwich Village was one of his best experiences. The actor said in 2003, “it was the most fun I’ve ever had on a movie. It was one of the happiest times in my life. I was living in New York, and I really enjoyed acting at the time.”
Rourke also speaks highly of his co-star Eric Roberts, who (not unlike Rourke) rapidly fell from the limelight. On accepting his Best Actor trophy for The Wrestler at the 2009 Independent Spirit Awards, Rourke declared on stage “Eric Roberts is the f***ing man,” and urged all the filmmakers present to give him work.
He threatened his wife’s co-star and director on the set of To Live and Die in LA
As mentioned earlier, Rourke was not comfortable with his wife Debra Feuer pursuing an acting career of her own. Feuer did so anyway, and was cast in thriller To Live and Die in L.A., directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist). Rourke wasn’t in the movie, but made his presence felt on set.
According to Feuer, her then-husband “threatened my co-star Willem Dafoe and the director. It was crazy. He was so insecure.” Feuer says that “fame inevitably changed him. The bigger he got, the more he started to self-destruct. He was incredibly jealous and controlling.”
9½ Weeks made him a major sex symbol
Rourke starred in two more under-performing movies (Eureka and Year of the Dragon) before landing the role that would really cement him in the popular consciousness: the seductive yet sinister John Gray of 9½ Weeks, an erotic drama which caused controversy for its explicit and at times troubling depiction of an intense sexual relationship.
Like Rourke’s other movies, 9½ Weeks initially under-performed at the US box office – but success overseas and word of mouth soon made the film a popular sensation, affording Rourke serious sex symbol status.
He got rough with Kim Basinger whilst shooting 9½ Weeks
Rourke had studied method acting at the Actors Studio, so when 9½ Weeks director Adrian Lyne decided to utilise a method approach to get the most out of his actors, Rourke happily complied. However, it doesn’t seem that Rourke’s co-star Kim Basinger was given much say in the matter.
Under the instruction of his director, Rourke got physical with Basinger when she was struggling to nail one particularly intense scene. Rourke is said to have squeezed Basinger painfully by the arm until she was in tears, then slapped her across the face before the cameras rolled.
Basinger described him as a “human ashtray”
9½ Weeks was widely praised for the on-screen chemistry between Rourke and Kim Basinger – but by all accounts this chemistry was limited to the screen. Under director Adrian Lyne’s orders, the actors did not socialise off set, and Rourke would avoid speaking to Basinger or even look in her direction between takes.
Rourke’s performance in the film may have made him an object of desire in the eyes of many, but his co-star didn’t give the impression she’d had a great time working with him. Notoriously, Basinger referred to Rourke as a “human ashtray”, suggesting she didn’t enjoy kissing the heavy smoker.
He turned down lead roles in Highlander, The Untouchables and Platoon
As Rourke’s star continued to rise, the job offers kept coming in. Unfortunately, Rourke continued to have a bad habit of saying no to movies which turned out to be huge hits; he passed on the roles that went to Christopher Lambert in Highlander, and Kevin Costner in The Untouchables. It’s also said he turned down a part in Top Gun, although it’s unknown which role Rourke was offered in that film.
Perhaps most regrettably, Rourke was offered the role of Sgt Barnes in writer-director Oliver Stone’s Vietnam war drama Platoon. Again, Rourke said no – and with Tom Berenger as Barnes, Platoon became a big box office success, and that year’s Best Picture Oscar winner.
He was irresponsible with his newfound wealth
Along with fame came fortune. By the mid-80s, Rourke found himself with more money than he’d ever had before. Unfortunately, he didn’t prove to be the most fiscally responsible of people.
He told the Daily Mail, “I bought six Cadillacs with cash and gave them away. In 1986 I paid $97,000 for a car that had belonged to the Shah of Iran… Then one day the hydraulic windows stopped working, so I sold it for $20,000. I owned it for two months and drove it five times. That’s about $20,000 a drive.”
Angel Heart sparked controversy for Rourke’s love scene with Lisa Bonet
The first role Rourke accepted after 9½ Weeks was that of private investigator Harry Angel in director Alan Parker’s occult-tinged detective thriller Angel Heart. This, again, was a good-news/bad-news scenario for Rourke, for whilst the film is regarded a cult classic today, it was yet another flop at the time.
On release in 1987, Angel Heart was most widely noted for featuring Rourke in an intense sex scene with Lisa Bonet, then a 19-year-old actress best known for TV’s The Cosby Show. The scene sparked controversy and fell foul of the censors, who demanded cuts before passing Angel Heart with an R-rating.
Angel Heart kick-started a long-running feud between Rourke and Robert De Niro
Angel Heart has also gained notoriety as the birthplace of a feud between Rourke and his illustrious co-star Robert De Niro. As both men were widely regarded the best actors of their respective generations, many were excited to see them share the screen – but reportedly it wasn’t a harmonious experience on set.
De Niro, also a graduate of the Actors Studio where Rourke studied, felt it would help their performances if the two men did not speak off-camera. Rourke took this personally (regardless of the fact he’d taken much the same approach with Kim Basinger on 9½ Weeks), and wasted no time in publicly badmouthing De Niro afterwards. This bad blood between them is said to linger to this day, as we’ll touch on again later.
He met with members of the IRA as research for A Prayer for the Dying
Rourke’s next 1987 movie, A Prayer for the Dying, drew on the actor’s Irish heritage. Rourke was cast as a former member of the Irish Republican Army who finds himself drawn into the criminal underworld in London. Given the prevalence of the IRA’s reign of terror in the 80s, it was a touchy subject matter.
Ever the committed method actor, Rourke temporarily relocated to the UK, met with real-life members of the IRA and spent months working on his Irish accent. Unfortunately A Prayer for the Dying was a troubled production, and the resulting film did not satisfy Rourke, his co-stars Alan Bates and Bob Hoskins, or director Mike Hodges – and, once again, it flopped at the box office.
He performed a rap on a David Bowie record
Rourke’s celebrity status meant he often rubbed shoulders with a lot of other superstars. He counts Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and the members of The Clash as personal friends. Rourke was also close to the late, great British singer-songwriter David Bowie.
Rourke and Bowie met while the actor was shooting A Prayer for the Dying in London. At the rock legend’s request, Rourke was a guest vocalist on Shining Star, a track on Bowie’s 1987 album Never Let Me Down. The actor performs the rap section in the middle of the song, which Bowie sardonically referred to as “method rapping.”
He wrote his 1988 movie Homeboy under a pen name
In 1988, Rourke made what might have been his most personal movie up to that point in Homeboy. The movie cast Rourke as a struggling boxer, with his real-life wife of the time, Debra Feuer, playing his love interest. What made Homeboy especially personal was that it marked Rourke’s debut as a screenwriter, although he chose to be credited under pen name Eddie Cook.
Homeboy co-stars Christopher Walken as the corrupt manager of Rourke’s boxer, and Walken has revealed that Rourke first pitched the film to him back when the two of them were co-starring in Heaven’s Gate. Sadly, Homeboy proved to be yet another Rourke movie that came and went at the box office to very little aplomb.
He missed out on Rain Man because he forgot to return Dustin Hoffman’s phone call
Rourke’s skittish ways saw him miss out on some major career opportunities. At one point in the mid-80s, Dustin Hoffman reached out to Rourke to ask him to play the role of his brother in Rain Man – but Rourke missed the phone call, and simply forgot to call Hoffman back.
The rest is history: Tom Cruise was cast instead, and Rain Man was a huge hit, earning almost $355 million at the box office and winning a slew of awards, including the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor for Hoffman.
He opened a New York-style candy store in LA to help beat his homesickness
Rourke may not have been a lifelong New Yorker, but he had a lot of history there – and by the late 80s, Rourke was tiring of life in sunny Hollywood, and pining for the old days in the Big Apple. To this end, he and his brother Joey took on a surprising business venture.
The Rourke brothers teamed up with hairdresser Giuseppe Franco to open Mickey & Joey’s, a store that specialised in selling New York-style sweets and drinks. Situated near a Beverly Hills shopping mall, the sweet shop proved popular, particularly with local bikers; as a motorcycle enthusiast himself, Rourke had the place decorated with Harley Davidson memorabilia.
He met second wife Carré Otis on the set of Wild Orchid
In 1989, Rourke was lured back to the erotic drama genre by Zalman King, co-writer and producer of 9½ Weeks. King cast Rourke as the male lead of his directorial debut Wild Orchid; once again, the actor played a wealthy but enigmatic businessman who enters into a passionate affair with a stranger, this time opposite actress Carré Otis.
Model-turned-actress Otis made her film debut on Wild Orchid, and she and Rourke soon became an item: the actor filed for divorce from Debra Feuer that same year. Such was the intensity of Rourke and Otis’ love scenes in the movie, rumours soon spread that the passionate sequences were unsimulated, although both actors have denied this.
Wild Orchid earned Rourke his first Razzie nomination
Rourke may have hoped that returning to 9½ Weeks-esque material would give him a career boost, but he was gravely mistaken. Wild Orchid took only $11 million at the US box office (although again it did better internationally), and it earned the actor the most scathing reviews of his career up to that point.
Most damningly of all, Rourke’s performance in Wild Orchid saw him nominated in the Worst Actor category at the Golden Raspberry Awards, the notorious anti-Oscars. Considering that barely a decade earlier many were calling him the best actor of his generation, that had to hurt.
As the 90s began, he fell out of love with acting
Rourke followed Wild Orchid with another critically reviled movie, Desperate Hours, then teamed up with Don Johnson on action buddy movie Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. Despite getting on well with Johnson, the actor called this film one of his lowest points.
Rourke said that he felt like a “sell-out” working on the movie, which once again proved to be a damp squib both critically and commercially. This sent the troubled man into a downward spiral of anger and self-loathing, deepening his resentment of Hollywood and souring his passion for acting.
In 1991, he stepped back from acting to return to boxing
In 1991, at the age of 38, Rourke decided he needed to get away from the film industry and get back to what he knew growing up: boxing. Years later, Rourke explained he made this move as he felt he was “self-destructing” and “had no respect for [himself as] an actor.”
The move may have surprised many, but Rourke quickly proved the move wasn’t some crazy publicity stunt. In eight professional fights, Rourke won six, four of which were by knockout; the two other fights were ruled a draw. He ended this undefeated run in 1994.
Boxing took a serious toll on Rourke’s health and looks
By the mid-90s, it was widely noted that Rourke’s signature good looks were no longer what they had been. Unsurprisingly, his boxing career had a lot to do with this; amongst the many injuries Rourke incurred through the sport, he suffered a broken nose more than once, plus a split tongue and a compressed cheekbone. He also broke ribs, a toe, and even suffered short-term memory loss.
Rourke (who may have already had some cosmetic surgery beforehand) had to undergo extensive reconstructive surgery, and ended up with a face that was very different from the one that made him famous. Years of heavy smoking also significantly deepened his voice, rendering him almost unrecognisable from his younger self.
He turned down the role that went to Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction
In the early 90s, Rourke may have been largely done with Hollywood, but that didn’t mean Hollywood was done with him. The actor still had his admirers, one of whom was young hotshot writer-director Quentin Tarantino, who had recently made a big name for himself with his debut film Reservoir Dogs.
Tarantino reached out to Rourke, offering him a role that one might think would be close to the actor’s heart: Butch, the down-and-out boxer of Pulp Fiction. Alas, Rourke once again demonstrated his uncanny knack for turning down a hit. Bruce Willis took the role instead, and the movie became an acclaimed box office smash and a major awards magnet.
He was arrested on suspicion of spousal abuse in 1994
Rourke may have hoped returning to boxing was a path to redemption, but the events of 1994 would not suggest this. He was arrested twice that year; first in January on a minor misdemeanour outside a nightclub, and more seriously in the summer when he was charged with spousal abuse.
Rourke is reported to have slapped, knocked down and kicked Carré Otis after the couple argued in the office of their publicist. The actor denied the charges. He was released from custody on $5,000 bail, and the charges were ultimately dropped.
He liked talking trash about his peers in Hollywood
A recurring problem in Rourke’s career has been the lack of filter between his brain and his mouth. In an industry that prefers its figureheads to display a certain modesty and respectfulness (in public, at least), Rourke has never been one to play ball.
He demonstrated this in a 1994 interview in which he blasted many of his most esteemed contemporaries: “Alec Baldwin, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kevin Costner – you put me in a room with any of these actors, I’ll eat their a**hole.” In the same interview he called Warren Beatty “a creepy puke a**.”
His acting career slowly re-started in the mid-90s
Whilst concentrating on his boxing career, Rourke made only one movie a year between 1991 and 1995. By then in his early 40s, with the sport taking its toll on him, Rourke retired from boxing and slowly began to get his acting career back off the ground.
However, the films he made at the time didn’t make much of an impact. He co-wrote and played the lead in 1996 crime thriller Bullet alongside rapper Tupac Shakur; the film had a limited theatrical release. Rourke’s other 1996 release, Exit to Red, went straight to the home video market.
Rourke and Tupac were sued by Donald Trump for trashing a hotel room
Rourke and his Bullet co-star Tupac Shakur enjoyed a close friendship, and even shared a room in the New York Plaza Hotel whilst they were shooting the movie. During their stay, the pair of natural born hellraisers got a little carried away, doing a reported $7,000 worth of damage to the room.
The Plaza was owned by Donald Trump, who sued Rourke and Shakur for $28,000, something which Rourke considered a “personal attack.” Bullet wound up opening in cinemas following Shakur’s murder; Rourke mourned his friend, telling reporters that Shakur “was there for me during some very hard times.”
He blew an audition for Con Air by pulling out a real knife
Rourke’s name still carried enough weight for him to be considered for some major roles. In 1995 he landed an audition for the role of Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom, the chief villain in action movie Con Air, which wound up starring Nicolas Cage and John Cusack. Rourke being Rourke, the audition got intense.
The actor terrified the filmmakers by pulling out a real Bowie knife whilst reading his scene, and waving it in a threatening manner. Doubtless this did little to quell fears that Rourke might have been genuinely unhinged at the time, and the part went instead to John Malkovich.
He ended the 90s as a divorcee stuck in direct-to-video hell
The 90s in general weren’t too kind to Rourke, but the decade definitely ended on a sour note for the former star. As an actor, he was stuck in subpar straight-to-video material, playing the villain in Jean-Claude Van Damme/Dennis Rodman action movie Double Team, and reprising the role of John Gray in Another 9½ Weeks (for which Kim Basinger refused to return).
Worse yet, Rourke’s marriage to Carré Otis also ended in divorce in 1998. Rourke said years later that the relationship, and in particular the abuse allegations, “hurt my soul and it hurt my pride. It was a secret kind of hurt. A humiliation. We were both damaged goods.”
After Rourke’s second divorce, his relationship with his dogs became more important to him
To date, Mickey Rourke has never remarried. However, he has spoken openly over the years about how he enjoyed a deeper relationship with his pet dogs following the collapse of his marriage to Carré Otis. His first dog was a gift from his second wife.
Rourke has owned many dogs over the years, reportedly as many as seven at one time around 2005. His love for the animals did go a bit far, though: he wound up losing a role in 2000 over an argument with the director, who refused to let Rourke’s dog be in the movie as well.
He wouldn’t reveal for many years how desperate things got
Rourke has since admitted that he didn’t cope well in the fallout of his split from Carré Otis, and his personal issues were only exacerbated by his financial woes, and his struggle to find any kind of work. It wouldn’t be until the release of The Wrestler that Rourke revealed how bad things got.
He told The Guardian in 2009, “Nobody really knew how broke I was. A friend used to give me a couple of hundred of dollars a month to buy something to eat. And I’d be calling up my ex-wife and crying like a baby and trying to get her back. I was desperate. And I was all alone. And this went on for years.”
He played the bad guy in the music video for Enrique Iglesias’ Hero
While Rourke may have struggled to land movie roles of any great significance around this time, he did play a key role in the music video for the one of the biggest hit songs of the early 21st century. Rourke played the bad guy role in the music video for Enrique Iglesias’ Hero, which also featured Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Hero was released in the US barely a week before the earth-shattering attacks of September 11th, 2001. The song was embraced as an uplifting anthem in those troubled times, and sold upwards of eight million copies internationally, making it one of the best-selling singles ever. The video, meanwhile, has almost 395 million views on Youtube.
He gradually built a resurgence through indie film roles
Slowly but surely, Rourke began to rebuild his reputation via small roles in art house/independent films, alongside respected collaborators. He appeared in 2000’s Animal Factory, directed by Steve Buscemi, acted alongside Sylvester Stallone in the remake of Get Carter, and took a small part in The Pledge, directed by Sean Penn.
Another significant turn for Rourke was in outlandish 2002 indie movie Spun. Rourke has admitted “I didn’t like the material and I didn’t really like the character,” but for once he put his faith in his agent who told him it would be a good career move – which proved correct.
Nicole Kidman blocked him from playing In the Cut’s male lead
In early 2003, Rourke was reported to have been director Jane Campion’s first choice for the male lead alongside Meg Ryan in the psychological thriller In the Cut. However, Campion was barred from casting Rourke by the film’s producer, Nicole Kidman.
Kidman apparently felt Rourke was too unpredictable to be trusted with the role, which instead went to Mark Ruffalo. True to form, Rourke badmouthed both Kidman and Ruffalo at the time, although he later admitted, “if I was Nicole Kidman, I wouldn’t want to work with me, either.”
He really got back on track thanks to directors Tony Scott and Robert Rodriguez
In 2003, Rourke was one among a slew of big names to appear alongside music legend Bob Dylan in Masked and Anonymous, an outlandish drama co-written by Dylan himself. However, it was Rourke’s next two roles that really saw him return to the spotlight.
Rourke took key supporting roles in Robert Rodriguez’ Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, both of which were well-reviewed box office hits. Rourke would continue to work with both Rodriguez and Scott, and these associations helped get him back in the game in Hollywood.
Rourke was with his brother Joey as he died from cancer
Just as things were looking up for Rourke, 2004 dealt him a terrible loss as his younger brother Joey (who Rourke credited for talking him out of taking his own life some years earlier) passed away from lung cancer. The actor revealed he was with his brother at the end.
“I was shaking. I went back in the bedroom and I put my arms around him… I told him how much I loved him and everything. And I said, ‘If you gotta go somewhere right now,’ I said, ‘you go ahead and go there and I’ll meet you there later on sometime’ … And he took these weird kind of breaths and died in my arms.”
Sin City earned Rourke his best reviews in decades
In 2005, Rourke took on one of his boldest roles yet: Marv, hideously disfigured hard man with a heart of gold, in Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s big screen adaptation of Miller’s comic book Sin City. The outlandish neo-noir startled viewers with its unique aesthetics – but it was Rourke’s performance that really got people talking.
Even under heavy make-up, Rourke’s soul shone through in the role, and the actor was widely hailed as Sin City’s greatest strength. Marv became Rourke’s most celebrated performance in decades, earning him Best Supporting Actor Awards from the Chicago Film Critics Association, the Saturn Awards and others.
He badmouthed Tom Cruise big-time over the superstar’s comments on therapy
In 2005, Tom Cruise sparked widespread controversy in a Today Show interview, criticising actress Brooke Shields over her use of psychiatric medication. Many criticised the Mission: Impossible superstar for these remarks, but few were quite so blunt and unforgiving as Mickey Rourke.
Rourke flatly declared that undergoing therapy “saved my f***ing life and my career. I don’t care what Tom Cruise says about therapy. F*** him. C***.” While some may have shared the overall sentiment, Rourke’s choice of words didn’t thrill his publicist.
He was given Kurt Russell’s role in Death Proof, but dropped out
After the success of Sin City, Rourke was initially poised to continue that winning streak by taking the lead in the next Quentin Tarantino movie, Death Proof. However, for reasons that have never been publicly disclosed, Rourke dropped out of the role, which instead went to Kurt Russell.
In the short term this didn’t seem too big a deal, as the film flopped hard. However, Death Proof proved a good career move for Russell: he’s enjoyed a career resurgence since, and worked with Tarantino again on The Hateful Eight and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
He was arrested again in 2007 for DUI
By 2007, Rourke seemed to have his career back on track, but he clearly hadn’t put all his bad behaviour behind him just yet. That November, shortly after he turned 55, Rourke found himself under arrest once again, this time on charges of driving under the influence.
Miami Beach Police picked up Rourke at 4am on a Thursday morning, finding him driving intoxicated at the controls of a green Vespa scooter. According to the arresting officer, “He blew a .081 [on a breathalyser], which was over the limit, and was locked up for 24 hours at the Miami Dade County jail.”
He only said yes to The Wrestler to work with Darren Aronofsky
2008 saw the release of what proved to be one of Rourke’s definitive roles: The Wrestler. The film cast Rourke as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, a former wrestling superstar struggling to keep his life on track with his glory years far behind him. The parallels with Rourke’s own life were unavoidable.
Even so, Rourke admits that when first offered the role he “didn’t really care for the script,” but agreed to make the movie as he saw the potential, and wanted to work with Darren Aronofsky, acclaimed director of such provocative dramas as Pi and Requiem for a Dream. Aronofsky has since directed the controversial Black Swan and mother!
He was allowed to re-write most of his part on The Wrestler
Officially, The Wrestler is the work of screenwriter Robert Siegel. However, Rourke says that he was given director Darren Aronofsky’s blessing to largely rewrite his role, which might explain why the film so closely echoes the actor’s own experiences.
Rourke explains that he felt the screenwriter “hadn’t spent as much time as I had around these kinds of people and [his character] wouldn’t have spoken the way the dude was speaking in the screenplay.”
Making the movie changed his opinion of professional wrestling
Part of why Rourke was initially unsure about signing on for The Wrestler was that he’d never had a high opinion of wrestling as a sport: he considered it “fake and theatrical… I had a terrible disdain for it.” Making the movie gave him a whole new perspective.
After experiencing first-hand the real physical strain wrestlers put themselves through, Rourke said, “I have a lot of respect for a sport I was ignorant about. I take my hat off to those guys, I really do.”
Rourke says training for The Wrestler hurt him more than from all his years of boxing
Even for a man with such an athletic background as Rourke, The Wrestler was a very physically demanding role. The actor hired a former Israeli Army trainer to help him bulk up, ultimately gaining 35 pounds in bodyweight, whilst learning how to wrestle under former WWF star Afa Anoa’i.
Perhaps surprisingly, Rourke has claimed he “got hurt more in the three months of wrestling than I did in 16 years of boxing.” The actor says, “I think I had three MRIs in two months because I wasn’t landing right.”
The film’s soundtrack was helped by Rourke’s friendship with Bruce Springsteen and Axl Rose
The Wrestler features a song of the same name by Bruce Springsteen, which plays over the end credits. The iconic singer-songwriter wrote the song specifically for the movie, after Rourke – a personal friend of Springsteen – wrote to him with a copy of the script.
Rourke is also a close friend of Guns N’Roses frontman Axl Rose, who allowed the filmmakers to use the Guns N’Roses song Sweet Child o’ Mine for free. This had an extra personal resonance for Rourke, as he had regularly used Sweet Child o’ Mine as his walk-on song in his boxing days.
The Wrestler was hailed as the greatest performance of Rourke’s career
The Wrestler premiered in September 2008 at the Venice International Film Festival, where it caused a sensation. The film was awarded the festival’s highest honour, the coveted Golden Lion Award, and Rourke’s performance was widely hailed as the greatest of his career.
When The Wrestler went on general release that December, the reviews were almost unanimously positive. (The film holds an unusually high 98% Rotten Tomatoes score.) Rourke was showered with awards, including Best Actor wins at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs – and Oscar glory seemed inevitable.
Rourke couldn’t keep his foot out of his mouth on the Oscar campaign trail
With his first Best Actor Oscar nomination secured, all eyes were on Mickey Rourke once again – but old habits die hard, and Rourke just couldn’t help saying the wrong thing in public, at a time when he needed to be on his best behaviour.
For instance, when asked about reports that he was dating Evan Rachel Wood (who played his daughter in The Wrestler), Rourke replied, “tell that f***ot who wrote all that s*** in the paper I’d like to break his f***ing legs.”
He briefly became a WWE star whilst promoting The Wrestler
In what might not have been the wisest piece of movie/wrestling cross-promotion in history, Rourke ventured into pro-wrestling for real while he was an Oscar hopeful. The actor made several appearances on WWE TV shows in early 2009, building a rivalry with wrestler Chris Jericho.
This culminated in Rourke facing off against Jericho at WrestleMania 25 that April. The PR stunt probably did little to further endear Rourke to Academy voters, nor did it do much for The Wrestler at the box office; despite the acclaim, the film only took $44.7 million worldwide.
His beloved dog Loki died in his arms during awards season
Sadly, just when things had never looked better for Rourke professionally, he suffered one of his worst personal losses with the death of his most beloved dog, Loki. The chihuahua died in Rourke’s arms in February 2009, at the age of 18.
Rourke had thanked Loki and his other dogs whilst accepting his many awards for The Wrestler, declaring Loki to be “the love of my life” at the Venice Film Festival, and saying his pets “[have] meant the world to me” at the Golden Globes.
He credited his dogs with saving his life
In a frank interview given on the day of the Golden Globes, Rourke admitted having suicidal thoughts in the past, but being brought back around by the love of his dogs. The actor admitted, “I was in a bad place, and I just remember I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, if I do this.'”
Rourke continued, “Then I looked at my dog, Beau Jack, and he made a sound, like a little almost human sound. I don’t have kids, the dogs became everything to me. The dog was looking at me going, ‘Who’s going to take care of me?'”
He missed out on the Oscar to Sean Penn
When the night of the 81st Academy Awards arrived on 22nd February 2009, Rourke went home empty-handed. The Best Actor Oscar went instead to Sean Penn for Milk; Penn (also notorious for a chequered past) paid his respects to Rourke in his acceptance speech.
There was widespread surprise over Rourke’s Oscar loss. The actor later remarked, “It’s bittersweet. I said to myself I’d rather have Loki another two years than an Oscar.” He also praised Penn’s winning performance in Milk, saying the actor “did a hell of a job.”
He started seeing Anastassija Makarenko in 2009, and they’re still together
2009 was definitely a year of tremendous highs and lows for Mickey Rourke, but one good thing that happened to the actor that year was meeting Anastassija Makarenko. Not long after his Oscar loss, he started seeing the Russian-born model and actress (best known for A Good Day to Die Hard).
Makarenko may be 34 years Rourke’s junior, but their relationship has proven to have legs. As of January 2021 they’re still an item, and although they haven’t tied the knot Rourke has insisted that, in contrast to his previous relationships, he has remained monogamous to her.
He went method again for his villain role in Iron Man 2
While he was still red-hot from The Wrestler, Rourke landed a major blockbuster role: Ivan ‘Whiplash’ Vanko, the villain in Iron Man 2. Some actors might have been content to go by the numbers for such a role, but as Rourke stresses, “I’m never going to mail it in.”
As his character had been incarcerated in Russia, the actor visited real Russian prisons as research. Rourke also bought the ($20,000!) gold teeth he wears in the movie, and obtained a cockatoo similar to the one kept by his character. Rourke remarked that Vanko’s bond with the bird helped him connect to the character, as it echoed his own bond with his dogs.
He hated working with Marvel and wasted no time telling everyone
Iron Man 2 was only the third Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and it’s known that it was one of the studio’s more troubled productions. Tensions between Rourke and the film’s producers were a part of that trouble – and, true to form, Rourke didn’t hold back when discussing the matter.
While Rourke praised director Jon Favreau, he laments “Marvel just wanted a one-dimensional bad guy, so most of [my] performance ended up the floor… it’s their loss. If they want to make mindless comic book movies, then I don’t want to be a part of that.”
He wasn’t bursting with praise for Robert Downey Jr, either
Rourke’s casting in Iron Man 2 made sense, given the movie was headlined by Robert Downey Jr – who, before being cast as hero Tony Stark, was every bit as much a persona non grata in Hollywood as Rourke, following many years of bad behaviour. One might think, then, that the actors would relate to one another.
However, Rourke didn’t have much nice to say about his co-star afterwards: “that little p***k Robert Downey? He’s gotten like a million chances… He needs to humble himself like I’ve had to do. He needs to make a film [for] less than 10 million [dollars] and show them he can do that.”
He made The Expendables as a thank you to Sylvester Stallone
Another perpetual comeback kid whom Rourke has much nicer things to say about is Sylvester Stallone. Rourke was one among the many big names to appear in Stallone’s ambitious action team-up movie The Expendables in 2010, and he did it mainly to return a favour.
The Rocky/Rambo icon cast Rourke in his 1999 remake of Get Carter at a time when Rourke was struggling: “Stallone, when I was flat broke and I could hardly pay for a bowl of spaghetti in a restaurant, gave me a couple of weeks on Get Carter, and that paid my f***in’ rent for eight months.”
He called Megan Fox “the best young actress I’ve ever worked with”
As we’ve seen, Rourke can be harsh when talking about people he dislikes, but he can also be effusive when discussing those he admires. For one, he was a vocal defender of Megan Fox, the frequently derided Transformers star with whom he worked on 2010’s Passion Play.
Rourke called Fox “the best young actress I’ve ever worked with. I don’t know if a lot of her films have showcased her acting ability… At 23, I couldn’t do half of what she’s doing.”
He planned to star in a biopic of rugby player Gareth Thomas, but realised he was miscast
In 2011, Rourke announced he was set to make a movie entitled The Beautiful Game, a biopic of Gareth Thomas, the first openly gay rugby union player. As well as writing the script, Rourke also intended to play Thomas himself, and began training for the role.
However, Rourke himself eventually realised that as he was 22 years Thomas’ senior (and, unlike Thomas, not Welsh), he wasn’t a good fit for the role. As such, Rourke dropped out, and ultimately the film was never made.
As the Oscar buzz cooled off, so did the job offers
Within a few years of The Wrestler, Rourke’s stature in Hollywood was slowly sinking once more. Iron Man 2 and The Expendables were hits, but didn’t do much for the supporting actor; nor did the modestly successful fantasy adventure Immortals.
Rourke reprised the role of Marv in 2014 sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For – and to date, that was his last film to get a wide theatrical release. Rourke made five movies in 2015 and 2016, all of which went direct to DVD.
He stepped back in the boxing ring once more at 62
In 2014, not long after turning 62, Rourke ventured back into the ring for the first time in 20 years to fight in an exhibition match against 29-year-old Elliot Seymour, a one-time California Golden Gloves champion. Rourke was declared the winner in the second round.
The fight took place in Moscow, and at the time it was reported that Rourke planned to participate in a further four fights in Russia. However, this did not come to pass – largely due to the controversy that ensued after this first fight.
Rourke’s opponent later claimed the comeback fight was fixed
Not long after Rourke’s victory over Elliot Seymour, it came to light that Seymour had been homeless in California for 18 months, and was paid $15,000 by representatives of Rourke to throw the fight in the second round.
However, Seymour stressed that, to his knowledge, Rourke himself had nothing to do with this: “Mickey’s a stand-up guy, I think he’s a nice man…he didn’t have anything to do with a fix being in. That was all his people.”
He’s a martial arts enthusiast
Rourke’s interests in hand-to-hand combat don’t stop at boxing and wrestling. He’s also a student of martial arts, and has trained to a high level in the lesser-known Korean martial art of Hwa Rang Do. Rourke spent six years training with the son and nephew of Hwa Rang Do’s creators.
He’s also a big fan of the comparatively new combat sport mixed martial arts, and has friends in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. One such friend is Frank Shamrock, one of the early pioneers of MMA, for whose autobiography Rourke provided the foreword in 2016.
Further work on his face has left him even more unrecognisable
By 2017, the natural good looks of Mickey Rourke’s youth were nothing more than a memory – but even so, fans were still shocked when new pictures of the actor emerged showing the aftermath of yet more work on his face.
Rourke, pictured below with his friend and sometime business partner Giuseppe Franco, is reported to have had no less than five procedures done on his nose, as well as cheek implants and other work. It’s unclear whether this surgery was reconstructive or simply cosmetic.
He declared plans to return to boxing at 64, but it never happened
Despite the controversy over the allegedly fixed fight with Elliot Seymour, Rourke made it known in 2017 – at the age of 64 – that he wanted to get back in the ring twice more before hanging up his gloves for good.
Rourke explained, “I want to retire at 10-0-2. I’m 8-0-2, I want the zero… I’m like a cold piece of steel.” (The Seymour fight isn’t counted as it was an exhibition match.) To date, however, Rourke has not boxed again – and as he creeps closer to 70, we’d have to imagine it won’t happen now.
He credited a New York priest with saving his life
In 2018, Rourke bid a sad farewell to another lost loved one whom he credits with saving his life: Rev. Peter Colapietro, a New York-based Catholic priest. Rourke first met ‘Father Pete’ in 1994 when he was at a low point personally, and this sparked an enduring friendship.
A well-loved figure in the community, Colapietro’s funeral was attended by hundreds, and while Rourke was not there in person he sent a large floral display reading ‘Love You Pete – Mickey.’
He was shooting a movie in Latvia when the Covid-19 lockdown began
Rourke may not have been in many widely-seen movies in recent years, but he’s kept working, frequently in low-budget films produced in Eastern Europe. Such a film is the upcoming action-horror WarHunt, which Rourke was shooting when the Covid-19 lockdown began in spring 2020.
Rourke said at the time, “I came to Riga [the Latvian capital city] to work and this thing was so out of control, but everyone was so great.” The WarHunt shoot went ahead as planned with social distancing measures taken, and the film is currently in post-production.
He accused Robert De Niro of blocking him from a role in The Irishman
2019’s The Irishman was one of the most talked-about films of the year, as it united legendary director Martin Scorsese with a similarly legendary cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. However, Mickey Rourke claims he too could have been part of the film, but was blocked from doing so by De Niro.
Rourke has stated that Scorsese wanted to meet with him to discuss a role in The Irishman, but De Niro “refused to work with me.” Rourke blames this on their feud dating back to Angel Heart, and has since called De Niro a “big f***ing cry-baby.” However, De Niro’s representatives refute the story.
In 2020, he revealed himself as a participant on The Masked Singer
After all the unlikely ups-and-downs of Mickey Rourke’s career, the idea of him appearing on a reality TV singing contest dressed as a furry purple gremlin doesn’t really seem all that far-fetched. Even so, viewers were surprised when Rourke’s true identity was revealed on The Masked Singer in October 2020.
The reveal came as particular shock as, in contravention of the show’s usual set-up, Rourke chose to unmask himself without being told to by the judges. On the show, Rourke claimed he took off the mask as he was “too damn hot” in the suit after singing a rendition of Ben E. King’s Stand by Me.