Hollywood has become tabloid fodder with good reason. Throughout human history, mental illness, substance abuse and general eccentricity have all gone hand in hand with artistic inclination. The predilection goes far beyond movie stars too—Edgar Allen Poe drank himself to death, Hemmingway committed suicide, T.S. Elliot was mentally ill, and the artist Basquiat died of an overdose.
Tinsel town, though, loves a great comeback story. Perhaps that is why so many great actors rise to the top only to melt down and stage an inspiring comeback. Though the word “comeback” has become something of a taboo—some people just can’t stand the thought of ever having been gone—we find no shame in the term. Find here 15 remarkably talented performers, all of whom rose to the top, stumbled and faced their demons, only to rise once again. Check out 15 Stars Who Came Back After Huge Meltdowns!
15. Robert Downey, Jr.
Otherwise known as the mother of all comeback kids, Downey once had the reputation as the mother of all screw-ups. He first won notice in a supporting role in Weird Science, and his career took off from there. Just seven years later, he scored his first Oscar nomination for playing the title role in Chaplin. Unfortunately, around the same time, Downey began using a variety of drugs. His drug use even drifted into his work; director Jodie Foster encouraged him to get help after she caught him using drugs on the set of Home for the Holidays.
Through most of the late ‘90s, Downey made headlines for his drug-related antics rather than his performances. At one point, a neighbor came home to find him asleep in a bedroom under the influence. He ended up spending time in state prison and more than a year in rehab, before attempting a comeback on Ally McBeal. Other arrests followed, as did more time in rehab.
By the mid-2000s, Downey had finally sobered up, and began taking supporting roles in movies like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Gothika. Finally, Jon Faverau lobbied the fledgling Marvel Studios to cast Downey in the lead in Iron Man. Agreeing to work at a reduced fee (in part because of enormous insurance costs), Downey won the role, and reemerged as one of Hollywood’s favorite leading men.
14. Natasha Lyonne
Native New Yorker Lyonne began work as a child model before scoring small movie parts. She got her big break from Woody Allen, who cast her in his musical Everyone Says I Love You. From there, Lyonne became a darling of indie film, with acclaimed turns in But I’m a Cheerleader and Slums of Beverly Hills. She also managed to cross over into mainstream fare with American Pie, Scary Movie 2 and a stint on the sitcom Will & Grace. Lyonne won wide praise for her performances, which she also earned in several stage roles.
Behind the scenes, however, Lyonne struggled with demons. In the early 2000s, police arrested Lyonne more than once for driving under the influence. She also became addicted to heroin, which almost cost her life after she contracted a heart infection. She spent a few years getting sober, and undergoing treatment for her heart condition before making an acclaimed comeback in Orange is the New Black, which earned her an Emmy Nomination. She continues to work today in both television and film.
13. Hugh Grant
Grant first charmed audiences with the indie hit Four Weddings and a Funeral back in 1994. The British actor’s good looks and natural screen charm made him a hit with critics and audiences—women in particular. Hollywood also noticed, and tapped Grant as one of their up-and-coming leading men. He continued to earn positive notices across the Atlantic in films like Sense and Sensibility and Restoration.
On the eve of his Hollywood debut in Nine Months, police arrested Grant in a prostitution sting operation. The actor had solicited a prostitute (the divinely-named Divine Brown) before landing himself in jail. Nine Months bombed, and courts ordered Grant to pay fines after the actor pled no contest to the charges. He bounced back after a Tonight Show interview, in which he refused to make any excuses for his behavior. Grant then made a career comeback in the rom-com Notting Hill in 1999, and cemented his reputation with acclaimed roles in About a Boy, Bridget Jones’ Diary and most recently, in Florence Foster Jenkins.
12. Martin Lawrence
Army brat Lawrence first tried his hand at acting in New York, appearing at the famed comedy club The Improv. His work there led to more stand-up gigs across the country, and to acting in bit parts on television. With a natural charisma and comic timing, Lawrence caught the attention of Hollywood, beginning with director Spike Lee who cast him in a featured role in Do the Right Thing. Subsequent film roles followed, as did a spot in the prestigious comedy show Def Comedy Jam. His work there landed him a series deal with Fox, which resulted in the hit show Martin, which ran for five seasons.
In the mist of all his success, Lawrence became known for erratic behavior. Police arrested him for assault in 1995. An even more bizarre incident grabbed headlines in 1996 when onlookers spotted Lawrence waving a gun and screaming “they’re trying to kill me” on Los Angeles’ Ventura Blvd. Lawrence seldom speaks about the incidents in interviews, and observers have speculated drugs were involved.
Lawrence made a comeback with the hit film Bad Boys and its sequel (with a third about to go before the cameras), as well as the Big Momma’s House series. He continues to work in film and television.
11. Mariah Carey
Songstress Carey had a meteoric rise in the 1990’s performing some off the decade’s biggest pop hits like “Endless Love,” “Butterfly” and “Hero.” Her impressive five-octave vocal range earned Carey a sizable following, and the reputation as a vocalist beyond a flash-in-the-pan pop star. Her success continued all the way into 2001 when she decided to crossover into film. Glitter marked Carey’s first turn as an actress in a starring vehicle.
Just prior to the release of Glitter, however, Carey began exhibiting strange behavior, including posting rambling messages on her website referencing exhaustion, and doing a striptease on the MTV show TRL. Glitter also earned scathing reviews and bombed at the box office. Critics also noted that her voice had declined in quality, and that Carey no longer had the same range she once boasted.
After hospitalization for exhaustion in 2001, Carey toured in smaller venues before mounting a comeback in 2005 with The Emancipation of Mimi. The album became a hit, and more recordings followed, as did a pivotal role in Lee Daniels’ Precious. Carey earned positive reviews for her acting work, and she continues to act and perform music to wide acclaim today.
10. Winona Ryder
Roger Ebert once called Ryder one of the best actresses of her generation. Considering her filmography, the late critic might have a point. Ryder first won notice as a child star opposite Corey Haim in Lucas. She earned strong reviews for her work, and subsequent roles in cult hits Heathers, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands made her one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood. The 1990s brought her even more acclaim, earning Oscar nominations for her work in Little Women and The Age of Innocence. She also appeared in hits like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Girl, Interrupted and Reality Bites.
In 2001, Ryder’s fortunes changed. Police arrested the actress in Beverly Hills for shoplifting over $5,000 worth of clothes. During her subsequent trial, her addiction to prescription drugs also came to light. The incident caused significant damage to Ryder’s career, as did a guilty verdict in her trial. Her profile evaporated in the next few years, before taking smaller roles in Star Trek and Black Swan. Ryder didn’t mount a full-blown comeback until 2016, however, when she scored the lead on the Netflix series Stranger Things, which has brought her wide acclaim and become a cult phenomenon.
9. Julie Andrews
Andrews made one of the most auspicious debuts in film history, winning an Oscar for her performance in Mary Poppins. Her work is still regarded as some of the best in the musical genre. Following her Oscar win, she continued to act on stage and screen in hits like The Sound of Music, Torn Curtain and Victor Victoria to wide acclaim. After a successful return to the stage in the 1990’s with an adaptation of Victor Victoria, in which she repeated her Oscar-nominated role, Andrews underwent vocal chord surgery. The botched procedure destroyed her four-octave singing voice—one of the most recognizable in the world.
Andrews lowered her profile, spending time in a sanitarium to recover from the physical and psychological blow of losing her voice. She had a full-blown comeback in 2001, emerging as an acclaimed character actress in The Princess Diaries opposite Anne Hathaway. She continued to act in television and roles in noted movies like the Shrek series and Enchanted. She even made a brief return to singing in 2009. A surprise appearance at the 2015 Academy Awards brought the house down, suggesting that even if most of her singing days are behind her, Andrews still cherished status.
8. Kelsey Grammer
TV fans will no doubt recognize Kelsey Grammer, the baritone-voiced star of comedies like Cheers and Frasier. After studying at the prestigious Julliard School, he began his career as a vocalist and stage actor, before landing his part on Cheers in its third season. Initially written as a guest star role, his performance as Frasier Crane became so popular, he became a cast regular for the show’s remaining eight seasons. Following the demise of Cheers, he scored his own sitcom as Frasier Crane on Frasier, which ran for 11 seasons of its own!
In the midst of it all, though, Grammer struggled with alcohol and drugs. Fellow cast members on Cheers complained of his behavior on set, clearly under the influence. He sobered up long enough to land his deal for Frasier, only to have a very public shaming after crashing his car in 1996. Police determined that Grammer had consumed alcohol prior to the accident, and the actor checked into rehab thereafter. Sober at last, Grammer went on to become one of the most awarded and highest paid actors in TV history, and even acquiesced into film with roles as Beast in the X-Men series, and in Toy Story 2.
7. Drew Barrymore
Barrymore emerged a full-blown star at age four when E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial took the world by storm in 1982. She followed up with a number of roles on television and in films like Irreconcilable Differences and Babes in Toyland. Critics remarked that her incredible charisma and ability likely ran in the family; Drew is the granddaughter of legendary actor John Barrymore. Unfortunately, Drew also inherited the family demons. Much as her grandfather did, Drew began to struggle with substance abuse. Before the age of 10 she’d begun drinking and smoking marijuana. After several suicide attempts and failed attempts at sobriety, Barrymore emancipated herself from her mother and checked into lockdown rehab. Movie roles, by that time, had evaporated.
Newly sober, Barrymore went on about getting parts in films again, landing roles in the cult hits Poison Ivy and Guncrazy. Subsequent roles in movies like Crazy Love, Batman Forever, Scream and Ever After brought her great acclaim, and Barrymore became one of the biggest stars in the world. She started producing as well, rebooting Charlie’s Angels in 2000 and producing the cult hit Donnie Darko. She continues to act, produce and play parent as the mother of two children.
6. Charlie Chaplin
Yes, the greatest movie star in history had his own share of career woes, including one brutal meltdown. Chaplin, of course, began work as an actor and director in silent films, in classics like The Gold Rush and City Lights. Known for his driven temperament and massive ego, Chaplin helped found United Artists, one of the first Hollywood mega-studios, and had several failed marriages early in his career. By the 1940s, Chaplin stood at the apex of his industry, though perceived communist overtones in his film The Great Dictator attracted the attention of the FBI. His involvement with barely-18-year-old Oona O’Neil garnered both negative press and more government scrutiny. While in London promoting a film, the US government demanded that Chaplin submit to interviews regarding his political views. Disgusted, he opted to stay in Europe.
After releasing A King in New York, which only played in Europe, Chaplin chose to retire. Almost 20 years would elapse before Hollywood came calling again. In 1972, with the anti-communist Red Scare over, and audiences beginning to view cinema as art, Chaplin’s movies had again become popular stateside. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences invited Chaplin to receive an honorary Oscar—the only award ever deemed more important than Best Picture, it was presented at the end of the ceremony. When he appeared on stage, Chaplin received an unsurpassed and unprecedented 12-minute standing ovation. He died in 1977, a legend of showbiz.
5. Joaquin Phoenix
Just what the Hell was wrong with Joaquin Phoenix in 2010? The man had enjoyed a long career in Hollywood, beginning with small parts in TV and film before graduating to featured player status in Parenthood. The film earned Phoenix positive notices, and he continued to work to some acclaim in films like 8mm and To Die For. Gladiator earned Phoenix his first Oscar nomination, and leading man status. He followed up with the hits Signs, Hotel Rwanda and Walk The Line, for which he earned another Oscar nomination.
In 2008, Phoenix abruptly announced his retirement from acting to pursue a rap career. After growing a very long beard and donning dark sunglasses, he spent the next two years doing incoherent interviews and raising eyebrows the world over. He would later claim that his “retirement” was actually just promotion for the mockumentary I’m Still Here…though even if staged, his behavior resulted in him becoming an industry pariah. He wouldn’t act again until 2012, appearing in The Master, which earned him an Oscar nomination, and heralded his return to Hollywood…and sanity!
4. Tom Cruise
Cruise became one of the biggest stars in the world thanks to acclaimed performances in smash-hits like Risky Business, The Color of Money and the Mission: Impossible series. He’d also earned sizable credit for his acting talents, earning Oscar nominations for his work in Born on the Fourth of July, Magnolia and Jerry Maguire. His winning streak continued all the way into the mid-2000s with Minority Report for Steven Spielberg. When the two announced another collaboration on War of the Worlds, things started getting weird for Tom Cruise.
Cruise began dating actress Katie Holmes, more than 15 years his junior. Around the same time, Cruise began displaying erratic behavior in interviews, jumping on a couch on The Oprah Winfrey Show and engaging in a verbal altercation with Matt Lauer on Today. He also became a visible, outspoken advocate for the controversial Church of Scientology. Cruise’s box office standing began to slide, as tabloid rumors dogged him and his marriage to Holmes. In 2011, however, he made a comeback with Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, which reaffirmed his star status. Now divorced from Holmes, Cruise continues to attract criticism over his involvement with Scientology, though his box office standing, for now, has returned.
3. Carrie Fisher
Star Wars made Carrie Fisher a bonafide star back in 1977. She had, however, come from showbiz stock, born to singer/actor Eddie Fisher and musical legend Debbie Reynolds. After studying acting and taking small roles in films like Shampoo, Star Wars made Fisher an international icon. She continued to earn strong critical notice with performances in The Blues Brothers, in a television version of Come Back, Little Sheba opposite Laurence Olivier, and on stage in Agnes of God. She returned to the role of Princess Leia in the Star Wars sequels, all the while, battling secret demons.
Fisher suffers from an extreme case of bipolar disorder, and began taking illicit drugs in the 1970s to self medicate. She battled abuse of painkillers and cocaine throughout the 80’s before making a comeback as an acclaimed screenwriter with Postcards from the Edge. In the 1990s, Fisher became one of the most acclaimed “script doctors” in Hollywood, working on movies like Sister Act, Outbreak and Scream 3. Addiction would continue to dog her well into the 2000’s, thanks to her bipolar disorder, before she found adequate treatment with electroconvulsive therapy. She toured in an acclaimed one-woman show called Wishful Drinking in the early 2010’s before returning to the screen, again as Princess Leia, in The Force Awakens in 2015.
2. Mickey Rourke
Before drifting into acting, Mickey Rourke first attracted attention as an amateur boxer. He began acting just out of high school, and quickly began earning parts in films like Heaven’s Gate and 1941. Rourke became a star with Body Heat, for which he won critical raves, and followed up with acclaimed turns in Rumble Fish, Barfly and Angel Heart. Erratic behavior began to earn Rourke a reputation as a loose canon. Career choices also began to affect his box office standing: Rourke rejected roles in hit movies like Top Gun in favor of duds like Wild Orchid.
After retiring from acting in 1991, Rourke began to work as a professional boxer, which left his face and body severely scarred. He retuned to acting in the late 90’s, taking smaller roles at first. In 2004, he made Hollywood take notice again with his work in Sin City before mounting a full-fledged comeback in 2008 with The Wrestler, a film which earned the actor an Oscar nomination. He’s had steady work since, again earning a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most interesting—if eccentric—actors.
1. Richard Dreyfuss
Dreyfuss might not sit at the top of the A-list in recent days. Nevertheless, he’s long attracted accolades as one of the best American actors alive, and had his share of career ups, and meltdowns. He began working as an actor in the 1960s with various bit parts, mostly on television. His big break came when George Lucas cast him in the lead in American Graffiti, for which Dreyfuss earned rave reviews. The actor followed up with smash hits like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goodbye Girl, for which he became the youngest actor up to that time to win a Best Actor Academy Award.
Through it all though, Dreyfuss battled bipolar disorder, which led him to drug use as a means of controlling his mood. He became addicted to cocaine and painkillers in the late 1970’s, and suffered a very public meltdown in 1982 after a Los Angeles auto accident. He wouldn’t work again for four years, until he made a comeback with the comedy Down & Out in Beverly Hills in 1986, opposite Bette Midler. He continued to work in hit films into the 1990’s, even picking up an Oscar nomination for Mr. Holland’s Opus in 1995. He continues to earn acclaim today as a character actor, with lauded turns in W. (as a terrifying Dick Chaney) and on the TV series Weeds.
Did we leave out your favorite meltdown/comeback story? Tell us in the comments!