Celebrities really aren’t that much different than the rest of us, which is to say that they mess up a lot. Of course, when you screw up, nobody really knows about it other than your close friends and family. Meanwhile, when they make mistakes it’s on the cover of every tabloid on six continents and even your elderly grandmother who can’t even remember your name knows about it. But somehow this list of celebrities managed to overcome their embarrassing failures and social faux pas to earn back the public’s adoration. That’s why these 11 famous celebrity comebacks are so impressive.
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11 Jason Bateman
Initially Famous For: Roles in several ‘80s TV shows, including Silver Spoons and Valerie. He was the fresh-faced All-American kid with tons of promise. It also didn’t hurt that he was the younger brother of Justine Bateman, also a top television star back then.
What Happened? Well, like most child actors, Jason Bateman grew up and found out nobody wanted to cast him as an adult. Of course, this is what happens when you star in shit like Teen Wolf Too. Bateman went on to spend most of the ‘90s starring in TV movies and several failed TV series until finally he became the quintessential “Hey, whatever happened to that guy?” guy.
The Comeback: Bateman started popping up in small but memorable roles in comedies like Dodgeball, and then a little show called Arrested Development hit and suddenly, after a decade or so of wandering in the wilderness, Bateman found his niche as a comedy straight-man, the fulcrum around which a bunch of absurd shit generally happens.
How’s the Comeback Going? Good. Bateman is part of a stable of actors who are called upon now whenever Hollywood wants to put out a blockbuster comedy and it seems like he’s safely in the same league as a dude like Steve Carell. That’s not bad for someone who prior to Arrested Development had been reduced to petty appearances in The Twilight Zone.
10 Ed O’Neill
Initially Famous For: His iconic role as Al Bundy in Married… With Children.
What Happened? O’Neill was so iconic as Al Bundy that no one could take him seriously in any other role.
The Comeback: Eventually, O’Neill reemerged in the hit show Modern Family, reminding everyone that when it comes to that politically incorrect curmudgeon role, no one can touch him.
How’s the Comeback Going? I’m going to be honest with you – Al Bundy practically raised me. That might explain a lot of things. As a kid, I lived to watch Married… With Children and I was a devoted acolyte of the man who once scored four touchdowns in a single game at Polk High and so, naturally, I have always had a fierce love for Ed O’Neill, the man who brought him to life. If I’m being honest, that’s why he’s on this list even though some of the others’ career resurgences may have been more dramatic and impressive. But you also can’t argue that the man deserves some recognition and with his new star-turn on Modern Family, he’s finally getting it. He’ll always be Al Bundy, but more than that, he’s Ed O’Neill and that’s enough to make people cheer simply when he shows up onscreen. I’ve seen it happen.
9 Rob Lowe
Initially Famous For: Being a member of the infamous Brat Pack, appearing in a slew of movies that have come to define the ‘80s and for being ridiculously good looking. What? Don’t look at me like that. He was. Screw you.
What Happened? In 1988, a sex-tape was released of Lowe having a threesome with two chicks at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Well, not during the actual convention because that would have been fucking wild and probably would have gotten him nominated instead of Michael Dukakis, but in a hotel room during the convention. The only problem? One of them turned out to be sixteen years old. Whoops!
The Comeback: Lowe’s comeback was long and painful, happening in fits and starts rather than all at once, with small but memorable roles as a dickhead in Wayne’s World and Tommy Boy before he finally came all the way back with his role as Sam Seaborn in The West Wing.
How’s the Comeback Going? Lowe is never going to be the A-list leading man he was prior to his sex scandal but he’s carved out a prominent niche for himself as a TV actor in the last decade and is instantly recognizable. He’s not uber-famous like he might have been, but he’s a household name, so I’d say it’s going well, especially given the nuclear wasteland that was his career following his, uh, stump speech at the ’88 DNC.
8 Johnny Cash
Initially Famous For: Being an iconic figure in both country music and the birth of rock and roll. His name was mentioned alongside Elvis, Buddy Holly and the like.
What Happened? Like most things that rose to fame in the 1950s he became decidedly uncool to a new generation of Americans. Eventually, he was dismissed – unfairly – and lumped in with dudes like Pat Boone as relics of a cheesier time. Of course, it didn’t help that Johnny famously descended into his own personal hell of drug addiction.
The Comeback: Eventually Johnny got clean and started churning out new material, eventually breaking through to a whole new audience who had spent years dismissing him as a Hee-Haw relic. His work with Rick Rubin gave him a whole new cache of cool and inspired a whole new generation to take a look at that whole renegade, outlaw country genre, which eventually culminated with the biopic Walk the Line.
How’s the Comeback Going? Well, Johnny Cash died so, uh, it’s not really going, you know? But, his legacy was cemented with his late-career rebirth, and with it an unfairly maligned generation of artists – everyone from Waylon Jennings to Willie Nelson – suddenly found themselves cool again. Johnny Cash helped drag his outlaw country image back to the American mainstream – or rather, he dragged the American mainstream back to him.
7 Tina Turner
Initially Famous For: Her partnership with Ike Turner, which produced a number of hits – in more ways than one.
What Happened? Tina got tired of Ike beating the shit out of her – naturally – and left him, and in doing so essentially also left her successful career, eventually fading out of the spotlight, seemingly destined to be remembered on the same level as The Captain and Tennille.
The Comeback: Turner returned with an emphatic “fuck you” to everyone who forget how awesome she was with an absolute smash hit in her 1984 comeback album Private Dancer, which launched her into icon status. She then parlayed that into roles in movies like Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Last Action Hero. And finally, she was completely vindicated both as an artist and as a human being when the biopic about her life, What’s Love Got to Do with It came out in 1993, cementing her status as both a musical icon and as an avatar for women everywhere who overcame abusive relationships.
How’s the Comeback Going? Well, Turner is basically semi-retired at this point, but she’s earned it. In the last decade, she’s received a host of lifetime achievement award type honors – including being lauded at the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors – and is widely considered to be one of the greatest female recording artists of all time. So, yeah, I’d say it went well.
6 John Travolta
Initially Famous For: Being an icon of the disco era, maybe the icon.
What Happened? It turned out that once disco died, so did Travolta’s career. Of course, it didn’t help that he apparently had a blind, retarded monkey picking his movie roles for him. I mean, when your career highlight for an entire decade and a half is as the male lead in Look Who’s Talking, I Think It’s Safe to Say That You Fucked Up.
The Comeback: Travolta was cast in a little movie called Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino and suddenly found himself as an icon for a whole new era and style. The movie propelled him back onto the A-list where, despite consistently making an ass of himself both onscreen and off, Travolta has remained comfortably entrenched ever since.
How’s the Comeback Going? Meh. It’s pretty clear that whatever success Travolta has had throughout his career is more the result of the hard work of others and sheer serendipity than it is his own keen eye for quality work. Since Pulp Fiction Travolta has had some hits and he’s had some misses but if it wasn’t for the fact that Pulp Fiction basically made him bulletproof, he’d probably be back to starring in Look Who’s Talking 11: Oh God, Would Somebody Shut These Fucking Babies Up Already. Then there’s also the fact that he’s widely seen as the bumbling sidekick to Tom Cruise’s Scientology Emperor and today spends most of his time trying to hide his baldness from the paparazzi and fending off allegations of man-rape by a slew of male masseuses. So, uh, honestly? It ain’t goin’ so hot. But still, his comeback after Pulp Fiction was pretty damn huge.
5 Brian Wilson
Initially Famous For: Being the genius hit-maker behind – and the founder of – the Beach Boys.
What Happened? Suffering from a combination of pressure, drugs and his own native insanity, Wilson suffered a series of nervous breakdowns, destroying his career and personal life and leaving him as a dark symbol of tragedy and as an avatar for the fall of the American dream in the 1960’s.
The Comeback: After literally decades of insanity, drugs, too many hamburgers and utter degradation, Wilson finally started to fight back, getting clean and remarrying, along the way discovering the support system that he had always desperately needed. Surrounded by people who loved him unconditionally and who fostered his creative genius instead of trying to shape it and harness it for their own commercial ambitions, Wilson made a series of triumphant comeback concerts and then released the infamous Smile album, perhaps the most legendary of all uncompleted rock albums, to critical acclaim.
How’s the Comeback Going? Wilson continues to record and perform music, new and old, and has developed a legion of devoted fans who love him just for being him. He’s won a Grammy and of all the Beach Boys, he’s miraculously the only one who’s both survived and thrived, and thanks to his renaissance he’s been able to take his place as one of the most talented and accomplished figures in the history of not only rock music, but of American music period.
4 Jackie Earle Haley
Initially Famous For: His role as Kelly Leak in the Bad News Bears series of films.
What Happened? He grew up and discovered no one wanted to give him an acting job.
The Comeback: Haley made a stunning comeback after thirteen years of complete inactivity – no, seriously, the dude didn’t make so much as a TV movie from 1993 to 2006 – in an Academy Award nominated role in Little Children, garnering critical acclaim and inspiring a whole slew of “Where the hell did that come from?” articles. Now that’s a fucking comeback.
How’s the Comeback Going? Since that epic comeback, Haley has returned from the dead to star in a number of high-profile movies, most notably in Watchmen, in which he was probably the highlight of the movie and as Freddy Krueger in the re-launch of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Seriously, the scope of his comeback is just stunning. I mean, this was a dude who most people assumed was eating beans out of a tin can on the corner of the road for the better part of two decades. I mean, his career wasn’t just ruined, it was over. It was dead. Again, the dude didn’t even try to act for thirteen years. Thirteen years! And in the last half-decade he’s earned an Academy Award nomination and starred in a bunch of blockbusters. I’d say the comeback’s going pretty damn well.
3 Elvis Presley
Initially Famous For: Being the king of rock and roll.
What Happened? Elvis appeared in a string of shitty and corny movies throughout the ‘60s and found himself as the symbol for an era that was profoundly rejected by the counterculture movement, a movement his hip-shaking sneering ironically helped make possible.
The Comeback: Elvis said to hell with all that bullshit, threw on a sequined jumpsuit and took back his throne, starting with his iconic comeback concert in Las Vegas in 1968.
How’s the Comeback Going? Well, uh, the dude’s been dead for over 35 years so… yeah. But in the decade following his comeback, Elvis became a phenomenon. Sure, it was kinda cheesy but most people forget one thing: a huge chunk of America loves cheesy. Just loves that shit. And Elvis was the King of everything they loved. He embodied it. And after he died, if anything, he became even more famous. Seriously, there’s really nothing to compare it to, no way to describe it. I mean, he’s fucking Elvis. That’s all you need to say.
2 Mickey Rourke
Initially Famous For: Being one of the best actors in the world in the 1980’s. He was considered by some to be his generation’s Marlon Brando. Basically, he was Heath Ledger before Heath Ledger was Heath Ledger, minus the whole pesky death thing.
What Happened? Rourke tragically fell in love with boxing – not watching it, but actually doing it – and had his face destroyed. He then tried to fix that with some truly disastrous plastic surgery which left him looking kinda like Frankenstein’s monster. Along the way, he developed a reputation as an enigmatic dude who was tough to work with and the combination of all those things was absolutely lethal to his career.
The Comeback: Rourke slowly started to reemerge as a respected – albeit bizarre actor – with a number of small roles in fairly low budget films and then parlayed those into a notable appearance in Sin City until finally he blew down the door and came roaring back in with his award winning role in The Wrestler, which propelled him back onto the A-list, not as his generation’s sexy Brando but as something else, something deeper – the one and only Mickey Rourke.
How’s the Comeback Going? Since then, Rourke has become a fixture on the A-list, most notably appearing as the villain in Iron Man 2. People no longer lament what happened to Rourke, gibbering about the promise of his youth and his once handsome face and all that shit. Instead, they embrace who he is today and they recognize that underneath that beaten exterior, that incredible talent is still all there. He now owes his career to being who he is, not who he used to be and for Mickey Rourke, that’s the ultimate triumph.
1 Robert Downey, Jr.
Initially Famous For: Being the hyper-talented wunderkind who could be both incredibly funny or incredibly moving as an actor. Downey was able to go from being the lead in romantic comedies to being nominated for Academy Awards for more dramatic fare. His turn as Charlie Chaplin was astonishingly good and vaulted him to the top of everyone’s best actors list.
What Happened? He loved the drugs and they really loved him. Eventually it got to be so bad that Downey was in and out of jail and was essentially blackballed from making movies because no-one would insure him. He was basically the male Lindsay Lohan, minus the red hair, the giant breasts and the proclivity for blowing random dudes. Then again, who knows what went on while he was in jail?
The Comeback: Downey got clean and started making movies again, and once he proved that he could keep his shit together without snorting the contents of the entire nation of Colombia, his profile began to rise with each movie, until finally he landed the role of Tony Stark in Iron Man, the success of which combined with Downey’s ridiculous charm and talent, made him one of Hollywood’s alpha males.
How’s the Comeback Going? Well, Robert Downey, Jr. is on the short list for biggest star in the world so, uh, I’d say it’s going pretty well. With the Iron Man franchise, the Sherlock Holmes franchise and now the Avengers franchise, Downey is not only going to be very busy for the foreseeable future, but also almost absurdly successful. Seriously, who has a better career than Robert Downey, Jr. right now? Considering that a decade ago he spent most of his time in courtrooms and jail-cells and that in between he was less hirable than Steven Seagal I’d say that his comeback ranks as one of the most epic of all time, and that’s why it’s number one on this list.
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