What can you say about a guy who gives up a glamorous and lucrative acting career portraying male heartthrobs to get punched in the face for a living? You can say he is Mickey Rourke, and he does things his way.
The flip side of fame has a rude way of making celebs own their own manure, or at least make it very obvious what they are not owning. Its tough growing up, especially growing up in public. We'll see how that applies to Rourke in a moment.
First, let's note "Mickey" is a nickname, a nod to Rourke's Irish descent. German, French, and Scottish blood also flowed through his veins when he was born on September 16, 1952, and given the Christian name Philip Andre Rourke Junior. The senior Rourke was an amateur bodybuilder who deserted his family when his namesake was six. Senior never returned.
Mickey's mom, Annette Rourke, remarried a tough Miami Beach cop named Eugene Addis, and moved Mickey, younger brother Joey, and younger sister Patricia from upstate New York down to Florida to live with Addis and his five children (four sons).
Rourke said he learned to box at the Miami Boy's Club. He liked it enough to pursue an amateur career. In 1969 he got to spar with former World Welterweight champion Luis Rodriguez. Later Rourke said Rodriguez concussed him. It would not be the last concussion in Rourke's boxing career, which spanned decades.
Rourke claims to have had an impressive amateur record: 27 victories, 3 defeats, and 17 victories by knockout. Some Internet sources detail his career by opponent and outcome. The one I saw had a remarkable number of extremely fast victories – knockouts in less than one minute of the first round. There are three reasons for such a record. One: Mickey was a helluva puncher. Two: his opponents were saps. Three: stay tuned for the third reason.
Meanwhile, a friend of Rourke was directing a play and needed someone to replace an actor who quit the production. Rourke filled in and discovered he liked acting. It was rumored he also liked burglary, so Mickey may have had extra motivation to borrow money from sister Patricia to go to new York (or flee Miami Beach) to take up acting.
Fate smiled on a young man when Rourke stumbled into an audition for the elite Actor's Studio. Famed director Elia Kazan called Rourke's performance "the best audition in 30 years." Mickey started taking private acting lessons. He recalled, “I liked that you could escape who you were and be someone else, someone smarter, tougher.”
After some television exposure in the 1970's and a couple of bit parts in movies, Rourke got his first break, a small one, as the arsonist in Body Heat. Next year there was a bigger break, as Boogie Sheftell in Diner. The film had an ensemble cast, yet Rourke received special attention for his role as a compulsive gambler and con man who hits on his friend's wife, then regrets it and backs away before consummation. Rourke was named Best Supporting Actor by the National Society of Film Critics.
Roles kept coming. There was Rumblefish by Francis Ford Coppola, then The Pope of Greenwich Village in 1984. Later Rourke would say of this film:
"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...it's funny because that was the time when I went downhill."
Well, not quite - at least not so anyone would notice. Rourke's star seemed instead to be steadily rising. His first lead role was in 9 1/2 Weeks, a monotonous eroticom with Kim Basinger. The movie was trashed critically, but was very popular for the kinky sexuality. Mickey Rourke was now a sex symbol.
He also had serious chops as an actor, which he displayed in his role as alcoholic writer Charles Bukowski in Barfly. Then came Year of the Dragon, and Angel Heart, another controversial movie praised by critics and nominated for multiple awards. Acting along side Robert DeNiro and Lisa Bonet, Rourke carried the movie with his convincing portrayal of a seedy low-life detective. American audiences freaked out over a short sex scene between Rourke and Bonet that featured blood dripping from the walls. Audiences in Europe weren't as squeamish. Europeans loved Rourke, especially the French.
Perhaps Rourke's fans loved him more than he loved himself. At the high point of his career Rourke began making curious decisions. Like going from sex symbol to saint by starring in a docudrama of St. Francis of Assisi. Then there was Wild Orchid, a disaster savaged by critics. Another box office and critical bomb was 1991's Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. Even the title makes you wince.
What's more, Rourke's acting in the lousy movies was, well, lousy. He seemed to be mailing in his roles, relying on his trademark smirk instead of taking his role to heart and performing. So why was the global heart throb and critically acclaimed actor sleep walking through duds? And why was he he turning down plum roles in monster movies like Platoon, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, 48 Hours, The Silence of the Lambs, and Pulp Fiction? It is even said that Dustin Hoffman called Rourke to offer him a part in Rain Man, and Rourke never returned Hoffman's call.
Rumors started that Rourke was "a nightmare" to work with , even "very dangerous." During the shooting of one movie Rourke brought his bodyguards to the set. They were (real) Hell's Angels, and they freaked out cast and crew. The consequences for this behavior were that actors (like Nicole Kidman) refused to work with Rourke solely because of his reputation.
Years later Rourke admitted:
"I thought my acting talent transcended the business of films. I never had a game plan for my career. I didn’t have the tools for that. I became arrogant and self-destructive. I fought everyone ’cause I thought that was a kind of strength, but it became my weakness.”
During this period of his life Rourke seemed unable to rise to the challenge: to seize a major role in a major movie, devote himself to his craft, silence the critics and regain his self-respect. It was an opportunity any actor would love, because it doesn't happen very often. When it happened to Mickey Rourke in 1991, he declined the challenge to take his acting career to the next level. Instead, at the age of thirty nine, he became a professional boxer.
Rourke went back to Miami Beach to train. He even had world class trainer Freddie Roach in his corner (along with a couple of Hell's Angels). Rourke's plan was to have about sixteen fights, which would lead to a world championship bout he planned to win. “I was fighting guys 15 years younger than me," Rourke explained. "But I won 10 of 12 fights and had two draws.”
Actually there were eight fights. Rourke won six (4 by KO) and had two draws. Sounds good on paper. In reality he was booed in the ring when he waltzed to one draw. The Miami Herald called his fights a farce. World Boxing Magazine asked, "Mickey Rourke: Acting Like a Boxer, or Boxing Like an Actor?”
His boxing career was financially lucrative because of his celebrity status. His opposition was padded and carefully chosen, but Rourke still paid a heavy price. His ribs, toe, and nose were fractured, and his cheekbone was compressed. Getting hit repeatedly in the face is a surefire way to lose heart throb looks. Also, Rourke’s tongue was split, which did not improve his diction.
Then there was the short term memory loss. Rourke was starting to act punch drunk. His neurologist said Mickey wouldn’t have a brain left if he didn’t retire immediately. Rourke retired.
Sometimes Rourke talks about his boxing career in inflated terms, as if he could have had a championship fight except for his health. But for Rourke, as for many others, truth and fantasy intertwine. No less a Miami Beach authority than Angelo Dundee declares that Mickey Rourke never had one amateur fight in Miami in his entire life. The National Golden Glove Association say it is “unlikely” Mickey fought as an amateur, but they did not keep records that far back. But if Golden Gloves didn’t keep records, where do all the Internet boxing records come from?
Whatever Mickey’s boxing history was or wasn’t, in 1994 his face, body, and mind were a mess. Then his second wife, an actress and heroin addict, split up with him. Rourke hit bottom, an experience he sometimes describes with brutal honesty; and at other times in a glamorizing or self-pitying way.
“I lost the house, the wife, the credibility, the entourage. I lost my soul. I was alone ... The only thing I could afford was a shrink, so that's where my money went. Three times a week for the first two years. The year after that, twice a week and now I'm down to once a week. I've only missed two appointments in six years.”
The only thing he could afford was a shrink? Shrinks charge $3-500 an hour, and Rourke saw one three times a week? For years? Well, then, he had some serious money with him. But money doesn’t cure everything, and Mickey was definitely in acute distress. The suffering continued when he started on the plastic surgery circuit to repair his damaged face.
Rourke ran into a quack who grossly disfigured face. He looked appalling – seriously terrible. Several subsequent surgeries were necessary to undo the quack work. Other procedures followed over the years, leading to assertions that Rourke was "addicted" to cosmetic surgery.
Mickey was out of commission for about twelve long years. He lived with his dogs, and became a dog rescuer. He credits his Catholic faith with keeping him alive.
"I talked to my priest a lot. I used to have to call him or the shrink when there was an explosion, because I was really good at not talking to anybody until there was an explosion. My priest is this cool Italian from New York. We go down to his basement and he opens the wine. We smoke a cigarette and I have my confession. He sends me upstairs to do my Hail Marys. I mean, I'm no Holy Joe, but I have a strong belief. If I wasn't Catholic I would have blown my brains out. I would pray to God. I would say, "Please, can you send me just a little bit of daylight?" He talked me out of it and we started meeting. His name is Father Pete and he lives in New York. Father Pete put me back on the right track."
With the help of his shrink, Father Pete, and his dogs, Rourke made it through the dark times. He realized he wanted to act again. But it was several years before he could get a decent role, much less get back his credibility on the screen. But make it back he did, in 2008’s The Wrestler, a sweet, tough redemption story Rourke makes ring true. He portrayed a washed up, over the hill professional wrestler named Randy "The Ram" Robinson. Too old for the bright lights, Robinson can't forget his glory days, and can't face his bleak, unrewarding job at a supermarket. The movie ends during Robinson's last match. Alonso Duralde, of MSNBC, said, "Rourke's work transcends mere stunt-casting; his performance is a howl of pain that seems to come from a very real place."
Rourke won a Golden Globe award and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. His career was revitalized and he had his self-respect back. "I didn't think I'd come back to this level ever again," Rourke admitted. "I hoped I would but I thought too much time had gone by." Perhaps there is always enough time to grow up and realize you are okay the way you are; that you don't have to act like someone you are not to be worthy.
Perhaps life has taught Rourke that the real way to prove you are a tough guy is not to hang out with Hell's Angels or have boxing matches. The real way to prove you are a tough guy is by taking everything life gives you and hanging in there: suffering, dying, lying on a bed of coals until the cup of suffering has been drained and either by grace, or the slow grinding of the Dharma wheel, life changes: the sun shines again on smiling, loving faces.
After The Wrestler, Rourke starred as a villain in Iron Man 2 in 2010, and was featured in The Expendables (2010) and Immortals (2011). Then he received a crown for his suffering years: a space on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was an honor that by now Mickey Rourke could truly appreciate.
What has Rourke learned?
“I learned to keep a lid on that little man inside me with two hatchets,” he said. “It’s not hard to do since the repercussions are so severe. I learned I had to conduct myself in a professional manner. I had lost my career because I had put the blame everywhere but where it belonged. On me. I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. You know, actors live in a constant state of fear that it’ll all slip away.
“You want to earn respect in your old age. You want to walk into a restaurant and have people say: ‘There’s Mickey Rourke. He was great in “The Wrestler.” ’ You don’t want them jumping out of windows.”
Sounds like a lesson well learned and well earned. Good on you Mickey.