I hope you will join me in wishing Mickey Rourke a happy 60th birthday on Sunday. He made it. And, having spent a lot of his career being beaten up – physically and critically – it was not a given that he’d reach this milestone, never mind at the commercial peak of his career. (In 2010, he co-starred in Iron Man 2 alongside another former “comeback kid”, Robert Downey Jr; it took $623 million worldwide.)
In the early 1980s, Rourke honed a particularly heady brand of crumpled, mumbled, sexually charged cool. Adrian Lyne, who directed him in the glossy, headline-grabbing 1985 erotic thriller Nine ½ Weeks, famously noted, “If Mickey had died after Angel Heart, he would have been remembered as James Dean or Marlon Brando.”
But he failed to curl up his toes in 1987, and instead went on to undermine his own reputation by stealth, through bad films, bad decisions and bad reputation (Angel Heart director Alan Parker called working with him “a nightmare”). By the decade’s end, meeting him at a party – or perhaps in a bikers bar, his favoured haunt – might have elicited the enquiry, “Didn’t you used to be Mickey Rourke?”
As a teenager in Miami, Rourke was an amateur boxer, but retired from the ring aged 19 after suffering a concussion. Discovering a passion for acting, he went back to his birthplace, New York, to study at the famous Actors Studio, impressing its co-founder, legendary director Elia Kazan. A small but incendiary part in 1981 neo-noir Body Heat led to key roles in Diner and Rumble Fish, and a star was born. But, just as quickly, that star faded. Divorce, drugs and a string of box-office bombs led him to quit Hollywood.
In 1991, Rourke went back to boxing. Although a little old at almost 40, he proved no slouch on the canvas and won more fights than he lost. However, he sustained a string of injuries before retiring for the second time in 1995, and reconstructive plastic surgery left him looking, in his own words, “a mess”. Bad luck still haunted him when he returned to acting – he turned down the Bruce Willis role in Pulp Fiction, while the sequel to Nine ½ Weeks flopped. But small roles kept him in the game, and his comeback began in 2005 with Frank Miller’s graphic-novel adaptation Sin City, in which Rourke’s ex-fighter’s bulk and scarred face suited the hoodlum Marv.
Then, in 2008, came The Wrestler. The film saw him garlanded with awards – and an Oscar nomination – for his compelling performance as the over-the-hill grappler of the title, which he’d surely lived his whole life to play. It also marked the end of what the actor described as “14 years in the woods”.
I raised a bottle of champagne to Rourke he picked up his best actor Bafta for The Wrestler the following year. I was filming backstage and he’d had the fizz thrust into his hand after winning, then kindly offered me a swig (“Here, have a drink!”). Well, it would have been rude not to.
Having spent years in therapy, “learning how to fix the broken pieces”, he was lucid and grateful, and compared acting to a sporting career: “Whether you’re a boxer, or a football player, or a wrestler, you reach a certain age and your body breaks down but everybody wants one more game, one more fight. In any profession, as age goes by, time can become a cruel thing.”
But, for now, he’s got time on the ropes, and Sin City 2 lined up for 2013. Long may he defy the adage that there are no second acts in American lives.