15 of the most inspiring actor comebacks of all time

Hollywood is known for chewing people up and spitting them out, a symptom of an industry always looking for the next big (and lucrative) thing. When an actor makes their mark or even wins an Academy Award, that’s not a guarantee that their career will continue to receive consistent support.

Take, for example, Hilary Swank, one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actors at the turn of the 21st century, earning Oscars for “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby” in 2000 and 2005, respectively. Most recently, she starred in the 2022 ABC drama “Alaska Daily,” which was canceled after one season. Even someone like Nicolas Cage, who was born into a Hollywood family and worked tirelessly for decades, hit a career slump in the 2010s due to a financial crisis. Anything from mental illness to appearing in a box-office flop can force a working actor from the limelight, and there are few viable support systems in place for actors to make a return.

But sometimes, the stars align for a rousing comeback story of cinematic proportions. There’s Lily Gladstone, who was ready to change her career before she received the Zoom call of a lifetime to join “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and Brendan Fraser, whom the industry had all but abandoned for years until Darren Aronofsky gave him a starring role in “The Whale.”

It’s always heartwarming when a triumphant return like you see in the movies translates to real life. So, using various online sources, Stacker looked at 15 of the most inspiring actor comeback stories, researching actors who seemed down and out for a significant period before making a major mainstream return.

If you’re hoping to read something feel-good today, look no further than the 15 stories on this list.

Lily Gladstone poses Golden Globe for ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’.
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Lily Gladstone

Lily Gladstone had proven her acting chops and won critical acclaim in Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 indie drama “Certain Women,” leading top billing alongside Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, and Laura Dern. But it wasn’t quite enough career momentum to keep Gladstone from reconsidering her options, and despite making sporadic bit appearances in films and on TV, the actor was seriously considering restarting her life as a data analyst.

That was until, in August 2020, the one and only Martin Scorsese requested a Zoom call with Gladstone for a lead role in his upcoming film “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Of course, the rest is history—Gladstone is firmly back in the biz and landed a 2024 Academy Award nomination for her performance in the critically acclaimed blockbuster.

Brendan Fraser poses with Best Actor Academy Award.
Mike Coppola // Getty Images

Brendan Fraser

After becoming a veritable action star leading “The Mummy” franchise in the ’90s and early 2000s, Brendan Fraser spent years out of the spotlight until reemerging in 2022 to near-universal acclaim for his role in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale.” This absence was no fluke.

After speaking out about being sexually assaulted by the former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in 2003, Fraser claimed he experienced industry blacklisting and deep depression. That, on top of numerous traumatic injuries accrued from working on “The Mummy,” kept Fraser from the mainstream and relegated him to a series of overlooked side roles. With “The Whale,” Fraser’s return to the silver screen led to an inspiring comeback narrative and, ultimately, awards glory as the Best Actor Oscar winner in 2023.

Ke Huy Quan poses with the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Ke Huy Quan

Though he spent his childhood acting in some of the biggest movies of the 1980s—”Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “The Goonies”—Ke Huy Quan found that appearing in major blockbusters wasn’t exactly a meal ticket to Hollywood. As an Asian American actor, Quan struggled for years to find his footing before quitting acting to work behind the scenes on films like Wong Kar-Wai’s “2046.”

Still, shortly after deciding to return to the profession in his late 40s, directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert asked him to audition for the role of Waymond Wang in their 2022 film “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Quan received rave reviews and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in the film and has since appeared in series like “Loki” and “American Born Chinese.”

Mickey Rourke at ‘The Wrestler’ screening.
Frazer Harrison // Getty Images for AFI

Mickey Rourke

During the ’80s, Mickey Rourke received praise for his performances in “Barfly” and “Angel Heart,” and he led Francis Ford Coppola’s “Rumble Fish” and “The Pope of Greenwich Village.” However, he later experienced a string of commercial failures, and directors deemed him difficult to work with, so in the 1990s, Rourke quit acting to pursue boxing.

Though his time in the ring unfortunately led to injuries that required extensive facial reconstructive surgery, he began slowly making an acting comeback during the 2000s in films such as “Sin City” and “Domino.” In 2008, he starred in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and a Golden Globe win.

Jennifer Coolidge poses with Golden Globe Award.
Matt Winkelmeyer/FilmMagic // Getty Images

Jennifer Coolidge

Though she made her mark on pop culture as Stifler’s mom in “American Pie,” Paulette in “Legally Blonde,” and as a frequent collaborator on director Christopher Guest’s films, Jennifer Coolidge saw her career flatline for years in a series of less-than-buzzy side roles. But after a friend persuaded her to take on a role in Mike White’s “The White Lotus,” things quickly turned around for Coolidge.

Her performance as Tanya McQuoid in the first two seasons of the anthology series earned her both Primetime Emmy and a Golden Globe awards, and in her emotional acceptance speech for the latter, she thanked White for helping reignite her career.

Michael Keaton accepts Best Male Lead for 'Birdman' at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.
Kevork Djansezian // Getty Images

Michael Keaton

Though some may know him best from “Beetlejuice,” Michael Keaton cemented himself as a Hollywood great by taking on the role of Batman in Tim Burton’s 1989 and 1992 DC Comics-based films. Keaton continued working on other films during the ’90s, including Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight.” However, he was never able to reach the highs of Burton’s “Batman” films, and his career took a downturn during the 2000s, when he starred in a number of films to consistently mixed results.

It wasn’t until 2014, when Keaton took on the lead role of a washed-up superhero movie star in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” that he finally made his grand Hollywood comeback. He went on to star in another Oscar-winning film, “Spotlight,” just a year later.

Eddie Murphy speaks onstage during event.
Emma McIntyre // Getty Images for Netflix

Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy was once one of the world’s most beloved and successful comedic actors, jumping from a stint on “Saturday Night Live” in the ’80s to a succession of now-iconic comedy films like “Trading Places,” “Coming to America,” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” But Murphy’s career began to decline during the late 1990s, and by the 2000s, Murphy had seemingly swapped adult comedy for family-friendly fare that generated mixed responses from critics and audiences.

Though his role in 2006’s “Dreamgirls” did get him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, it was 2019’s “Dolemite Is My Name,” in which Murphy starred as real-life blaxploitation actor Rudy Ray Moore, that bounced Murphy back into the limelight. The role won him a Golden Globe nomination and propelled him back to a hosting gig on “SNL,” which earned him a 2020 Primetime Emmy Award.

Keanu Reeves attends ‘John Wick’ screening.
Dave J Hogan // Getty Images for Lionsgate

Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves has been a big name in Hollywood since starring in 1989’s “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” a breakout role that catapulted him to ’90s fame in “Point Break” and “The Matrix” films. However, he languished in little-seen indies, schlocky action flicks, and a series of commercial failures during the mid-to-late 2000s.

“Sad Keanu” even became a popular internet meme in 2010, still four years shy of Reeves’ starring appearance in the first “John Wick” film, which bounced the actor back onto the A-list.

Now, both “John Wick” and Reeves have achieved legendary status—the four-film franchise raked in more than $1 billion at the global box office over nine years, and Reeves has appeared in a number of high-profile pics in the same time period, even reprising his role as Neo in 2021’s “The Matrix Resurrections.”

Matthew McConaughey attends the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Awards.
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic // Getty Images

Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey achieved a career breakthrough in the early 1990s, starring as the iconic David Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused.” But by the 2000s, his career stagnated amid a slew of rom-com leading roles, and McConaughey decided to seek out more challenging, dramatic work. During the 2010s, an era often called “The McConnaissance,” McConaughey starred on HBO’s “True Detective” series, as well as movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Interstellar,” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” for which he won an Academy Award.

John Travolta and Quentin Tarantino pose for a portrait in Cannes.
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John Travolta

John Travolta hit it big during the 1970s, with back-to-back classics “Carrie,” “Saturday Night Fever,” and “Grease.” But by the ’80s, Travolta’s career hit a bit of a standstill. He reteamed with director Brian de Palma for “Blow Out,” which was lauded by critics but bombed at the box office, and from there he continued to star in a slew of critical and/or commercial failures.

When a hip, new director named Quentin Tarantino burst onto the Hollywood scene in the early ’90s, Travolta’s career was granted a second life. Travolta was cast as mobster hitman Vincent Vega in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” a performance that brought him back from the acting doldrums and earned him an Academy Award nomination.

Drew Barrymore waits tables in a scene from the film 'The Wedding Singer’.
New Line Cinema // Getty Images

Drew Barrymore

Born into the acting dynasty of the Barrymore family, Drew Barrymore began her career as a child actor in flicks like “Firestarter” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”—but being a “nepo baby” did not necessarily mean Barrymore had it easy. As is often the sad case for child actors, Barrymore had a notoriously fraught, unstable childhood, during which she misused drugs and faced challenges related to her mental health.

She spent time in both rehab and a mental institution as a young teen before becoming emancipated at age 14 from her mostly absent parents. But after getting cleaned up, Barrymore has gone on to enjoy an extremely successful Hollywood career as an adult, from starring in films like “Scream,” “The Wedding Singer,” and “Charlie’s Angels” to now hosting her own talk show.

Desiree Navarro/WireImage // Getty Images

Natasha Lyonne

Although Natasha Lyonne starred in numerous films as a teen actor during the ’90s—”But I’m a Cheerleader,” “Slums of Beverly Hills,” “American Pie”—her promising career floundered for a number of years. While she continued to act, she was dealing with an addiction to heroin, which brought with it a number of life-threatening health issues. However, Lyonne has been clean since 2006, which allowed her to find a later career revival through a role on the popular Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.” This comeback eventually led her to create her own acclaimed series, “Russian Doll,” and, more recently, star in Rian Johnson’s “Poker Face.”

Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic // Getty Images

Mandy Moore

Mandy Moore made it big as a pop singer in the late ’90s and early 2000s, rising to fame with her hit single “Candy” in 1999. By the turn of the century, she was dipping her toes into the acting world, debuting in “The Princess Diaries” and breaking hearts everywhere in the romance drama “A Walk to Remember.”

However, aside from voicing Rapunzel in Disney’s “Tangled,” Moore remained mostly overlooked or in supporting parts in the early 2010s, and her films did not often garner critical praise or box-office profits. Moore seemed to struggle to find her second act, but she eventually starred in the NBC melodrama “This Is Us” in 2016, which later garnered her a Golden Globe nomination.

Nicolas Cage at Sitges Film Festival ‘Mandy’ photocall.
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Nicolas Cage

To say that Nicolas Cage had a “comeback” might sound a bit confusing—the guy rarely seems to stop working, partly due to some hefty real estate debts he’s accrued over the years. But after leading popular flicks such as “Raising Arizona,” “Con Air,” and “Face/Off,” and being nominated for two Academy Awards (winning one), Cage appeared in numerous universally panned films that tarnished his reputation.

Nicolas Cage memes reigned supreme on the internet during the 2010s, and it seemed the actor’s best days might be behind him. However, he experienced something of a career resurgence in 2018 when he starred in the acclaimed indie horror “Mandy,” and Cage has continued to restore his standing with roles in independent features such as “Pig” and “Dream Scenario.”

Marlon Brando In a scene from 'The Godfather’.
Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images

Marlon Brando

It’s hard to imagine that a Hollywood icon like Marlon Brando could have ever experienced a career slump, but nevertheless, it happened to the “On the Waterfront” star as he hit middle age. In fact, prior to his career-energizing role of Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” Brando was something of a persona non grata in Tinsel Town, as he stumbled through a series of commercial failures and a reputation of being difficult to work with.

Studios were unwilling to take a chance on an actor who seemed to have become box-office poison, and Coppola himself had to fight with “The Godfather” producers in order to secure Brando for the film. That battle led to one of the most pivotal performances in movie history, which won Brando an Academy Award and fully cemented his status as a true Hollywood legend.

Story editing by Cu Fleshman. Copy editing by Paris Close.

Provided by Stacker

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