For a short time, ex-boxer Mickey Rourke was one of the top heartthrobs of Hollywood. Sure he had a bad boy image, but that just fueled the fires of his ardent and titillated fans. So where did things go so wrong? Let’s let these facts show you the way.
Mickey Rourke came into this world on September 16, 1952 in Schenectady, New York. But while Rourke and his two siblings got to enjoy a comfortable existence in small-town USA for a little while—it wasn’t long before their lives were turned completely upside down.
The Rourke family consisted of mom and dad and Rourke’s brother and sister. They were, however, about to lose one member. Dad packed up and left the family, and mom—sensing he wasn’t coming back any time soon—eventually divorced him. Rourke’s mom then met someone else and brought about an enormous lifestyle change for Rourke and his siblings.
Mom’s new boyfriend, Eugene Addis, turned out to be an officer of the law who lived all the way down in Miami Beach, Florida. But that wasn’t even the biggest shock: He already had a family of his own—a big one. He had five sons.
Soon Rourke, his mom, and his two siblings were leaving New York and heading to a blended family in the warm climate of Florida.
Once Rourke settled into his new life in Miami Beach, he started getting into sports. At the Boys Club of Miami, Rourke started training in self-defense. Through this training, he found his passion: boxing. Before he was even a teenager, Rourke won his first boxing match.
He was 12 years old and weighed just over 100 pounds.
Well, Rourke was going to have to grow up fast because he was about to enter the ring with someone much, much bigger.
As Rourke got more and more serious about boxing, he joined a gym. It wasn’t, however, just any gym. This was the 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach, where world-famous Mohammad Ali had once trained. Rourke was now 17 years old, he weighed 63 kg (140 lbs), and he was ready for a real fight.
That’s when Luis Rodriguez walked into the gym. He was the world number one middleweight boxer, and he wanted to spar with Rourke. Would Rourke survive?
Rourke got into the ring with Rodriguez and he came out of it a loser. A loser with a concussion. At another fight two years later, Rourke suffered yet another concussion, and his doctor had some advice: take a rest from boxing. Rourke did temporarily retire from boxing—he was only 19 years old—but then came back with a vengeance. By 1973, he had a record of 27 wins, which included 12 consecutive knockouts.
A career as a boxer was all Rourke could see in his future, but then fate stepped in and changed everything completely.
Back in high school, Rourke had appeared in just one dramatic production, but he had never forgotten what it felt like to be on stage. Between his boxing matches, Rourke received an intriguing offer. A friend was directing a play for the University of Miami, and one of the actors had unexpectedly dropped out.
The play was Jean Genet’s Deathwatch and it made Rourke make a complete about-face regarding his career.
Rourke loved what it felt like to be in a play, so he decided to swap the boxing ring for the stage. Rourke was also wise enough to know that he wouldn’t be able to fulfill his dream in sunny Florida, so he set his sights on New York City. The problem, of course, was money. He went to his sister and asked if she had anything she could spare for her brother and his acting ambitions. She came up with $400 which, back then anyway, would get Rourke a start in the Big Apple.
Rourke knew he wanted to be the best, and he also knew where he could learn it. It was at the famous Actor’s Studio, which had huge competition for entry. The first hurdle was an audition with famed director Elia Kazan. Where other actors needed multiple auditions, Rouke only had one before they asked him to join. According to Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton, Kazan said that Rourke's was the best audition he’d seen in his 30 years with the studio.
With that kind of endorsement, Rourke was ready to be in the movies—or was he?
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Even though he was an Actors Studio alumni, Rourke only managed to book TV acting gigs during the 1970s. Of course, what he wanted to do was act in films. Eventually, he got a small role in Steven Spielberg’s comedy 1941— one of the few Spielberg flops. He then got a small role in a slasher film called Fade to Black which also didn’t really go anywhere.
It was a slow start to a career in film—but it was about to suddenly take off like a rocket.
1981’s Body Heat was full of up-and-coming talent. The leads were future stars Kathleen Turner and William Hurt. Better still was the director: Lawrence Kasdan, who would go on to find fame in the Star Wars franchise and as the writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the film, Rourke plays an arsonist, but he didn’t actually get a lot of screen time.
We’ll soon see why that didn’t matter at all.
Even though Rourke’s arsonist character in Body Heat had only minimal screen time, people took notice of him. This led to Rourke picking up a role in a hot new comedy called Diner. This was another cast full of up-and-coming stars like Mad About You’s Paul Reiser and Kevin Bacon, who before this had just done soap operas. Rourke, although still fairly new to working on films, became a mentor to young Bacon.
The real question was this: Could a crowd of young up-and-comers make a hit out of Diner?
Diner turned out to be a big hit, launching several careers, with Rourke picking up a Best Supporting Actor award from the National Society of Film Critics. Next, Francis Ford Coppola came knocking on Rourke’s door. The project was Rumble Fish—a follow-up to another Coppola film: The Outsiders, which Rourke had auditioned for and missed out on.
Rourke knew he had to bring his A-game to a film by Coppola, so he went back to his Actor’s Studio training.
One thing that directors noticed about actors coming out of the Actor’s Studio was that they tended to mumble rather than speak clearly. While this may elevate an actor’s performance, it made someone else’s life miserable: the sound technicians. Trying to make out what Rourke was saying made them so annoyed, that they gave the film a secret nickname: “Mumble Fish”.
Mumbling aside, Rourke again received positive reviews for his work on this film.
His work on Rumble Fish and in The Pope of Greenwich Village paved the way for his appearance in a career-altering film: 91/2 Weeks. Director Adrian Lyne had just come off of the huge hit Flashdance and was looking to make an erotic drama with two very attractive lead players. Lyne was happy to hire Rourke as the male lead but he had a stipulation: Rourke had to lose 15 kg (30 lb).
Rourke did what he was told, and then it was on to the next role.
Celebrated poet and author Charles Bukowski had written a semi-autobiographical screenplay and was ready to have it made. However, his dream for the man to portray him on film was not Rourke, but Sean Penn. Penn was up for playing the role, but he had one condition: tough guy Dennis Hopper had to direct. The only problem was that Bukowski had already promised the film to another director.
That, in short, is how Rourke got the chance to play the iconoclastic author Charles Bukowski in 1987’s Barfly. The stakes were high for portraying the revered Bukowski. Could Rourke pull it off?
The danger of portraying a living person is that there would not only be comparisons from audiences and critics, there would inevitably be one from the actual living person. However, Bukowski went on to say how lucky he was that they got Rourke to play his alter ego in Barfly. Years later, however, he changed his tune.
In 2003, Bukowski said that Rourke was “exaggerated” and “untrue”. Bukowski's comments must have been hurtful, but Rourke would eventually—and morbidly—have the last laugh.
In 1994, when Bukowski passed at the age of 73, something odd happened. Bukowski had finished his last novel and quietly passed from leukemia in Los Angeles. Of course, the media was eager to express their grief for the passing of such an influential writer. The New York Post was perhaps too eager to get their obituary out.
In their haste, they used a picture of Rourke as Bukowski instead of one of Bukowski himself. Oops!
After appearing in the Oliver Stone-penned Year of the Dragon, Rourke received an offer for another much-anticipated Stone film: Platoon. At the same time, however, he had an offer to play opposite Robert De Niro in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart. In Platoon, Rourke would be one of an ensemble. In Angel Heart, he would be the lead with De Niro supporting him. Rourke did the math and chose the project that would get him the most exposure.
Angel Heart, however, would prove to be a misadventure on several levels.
In Angel Heart, De Niro played Louis Cyphre—get it? Lou Cypher? Lucifer! While filming, De Niro had an idea so that Rourke’s character would seem authentically afraid of Cypher. He decided it would be better if he and Rourke didn’t speak between scenes or even off-set.
Rourke took this personally. While the story sounds more like a little spat than a big deal, the repercussions continue to this day.
Rourke and De Niro have not shared a single frame of film since Angel Heart. Not only that, they continue to bad mouth each other any chance they get. Rourke famously said of De Niro: "I don't look up to him no more; I look through him." Now, I’m only guessing here, but I’d say that having an enemy like De Niro is not good for a Hollywood career.
Let’s see how this will turn out.
The feud between Rourke and De Niro does seem to be losing any steam. In fact, in 2019—32 years after Angel Heart—Rourke referenced it again. When Martin Scorsese didn’t hire him for his film The Irishman, Rourke suggested it was because of De Niro. Scorsese and De Niro have a working relationship that goes back years, and Rourke was sure that De Niro used his influence to stop him from getting hired.
There was, however, something even worse that came out of Rourke’s work in Angel Heart.
The second problem with Angel Heart involved another one of his co-stars: Lisa Bonet. Rourke had no problem working with the 19-year-old actress. It was more what America thought of him after they saw the movie. You see, Bonet was in the very family-friendly The Cosby Show.
In Angel Heart, Rourke and Bonet had an extremely steamy—and blood-bathed—scene. What was Rourke doing with America's sweetheart? To audiences, it looked like he was corrupting her. The truth, however, was far more complicated.
When they filmed the steamy scene between Rourke and Bonet, the director went too far. In fact, Parker had to edit out ten seconds of the scene just to avoid receiving an R rating. And what about innocent Bonet? How did she survive the ordeal? She later said that filming the controversial scene with Rourke was “so much fun to do” and that Rourke was “just as nervous” as she was.
Still, audience perception was what mattered and audiences thought it was inappropriate. It was now official: Rourke was starting to look like a sleazeball—but he was just getting started.
In Rourke’s next film, the home invasion flick Desperate Hours, he received a nomination for his first Razzie award for Worst Actor. The critics were not kind to Rourke or the film in general. Next up was Wild Orchid, which seemed a little like a 9 1/2 Weeks reboot. This time Rourke was bedding his real-life girlfriend Carre Otis, who was 16 years younger than him.
It wasn’t just that Wild Orchid was largely panned by the critics. A shocking rumor arose that just added to Rourke’s slimeball image.
Because Rourke and his costar Otis were actually in a relationship, people got to talking about the authenticity of the bedroom scenes in Wild Orchid. Many filmgoers and critics came to a stunning conclusion: The intimate scenes in the bedroom were the real thing. To make matters worse, it came out that, like with Rourke’s previous films, the director had to edit out some of the steamier scenes to avoid an R rating. So what kind of film was Rourke actually making? Was it the kind you rent from the back of the video store?
Rourke had two problems: He was not making popular films, and many people saw him as just plain sleazy.
What followed for Rourke was a number of unmemorable films and a startling realization: His film career was becoming an embarrassment. Rourke had to take stock of what was happening. Angel Heart director Alan Parker said that he didn’t want to work with Rourke again because he was an unpredictable actor.
Rourke needed a way out of this predicament: and he found it in a surprising place.
In 1991, Rourke had to find a way to leave the filmmaking business while saving face. He did it by returning to his first love: boxing. Rourke was just short of 40 when he made this decision, and many people thought he was just too old to box. Rourke didn’t listen to critics and decided to hire a trainer to get him back into shape.
This was professional bodyguard—and Hell’s Angels member—Chuck Zito. But Zito had his work cut out for him. Could he really send an almost 40-year-old actor into a boxing ring?
In Rourke’s eight boxing matches, he won six and drew two, which they call undefeated. Pretty impressive for someone his age. His career switch had serious consequences, though: He’d ruined his handsome face. Among his many injuries were a broken nose and toe, a split tongue, and what they called a compressed cheekbone. He also did a number on his ribs.
To add to his problems, Rourke had also suffered short-term memory loss. He’d tried to save face by returning to boxing, but in the end, it was his face that suffered the most. Surely it was time to retire from boxing: But what would he do next?
Rourke may have mangled up his face, but it didn’t stop him from getting back into acting. In 1997, Rourke reprised his role of John Gray from 9 1/2 Weeks in Love in Paris. Basinger was not about to sign on to this steamy sequel, so they got a swimsuit model to take her place. This was not really a serious sequel, though, and it went straight to DVD.
This certainly wasn’t the triumphant return to movies that Rourke likely hoped for. But he was just getting started.
Before his career went to slimeball status, Rourke had worked with famed director Francis Ford Coppola on Rumble Fish. Well, Coppola wanted Rourke back in front of the camera. This was 1997’s The Rainmaker which was an adaptation of a John Grisham novel starring Matt Damon. It was a good role, and it had the possibility of catapulting Rourke back into mainstream and popular movies. As long as he didn't mess it up.
The Rainmaker was a success, and it soon turned out that plenty of other actors and directors wanted to work with Rourke. Mostly it seemed that the offers came in from directors known more for their acting. Steve Buscemi wanted him for Animal Factory, and Sean Penn put him in The Pledge. Sylvester Stallone called Rourke in for his remake of Get Carter. It seemed that Rourke’s fear of De Niro ruining his film career was either a mistaken assumption or it had expired.
Sure he wasn’t playing the leading role. After all, he’d had too much bad plastic surgery from his boxing injuries. His mangled face, however, made him perfect for playing villains.
Parts in films kept flowing in for Rourke. They were mostly smaller roles, but in respected films like Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Man on Fire. Strangely, Rourke seemed to be garnering some unexpected respect from the acting community. Brad Pitt, when addressing a roundtable of Oscar-nominated actors, said that Rourke was one of his acting heroes. Wait a minute, is this the same guy who made the straight-to-DVD—and completely cheesy—sequel to 91/2 Weeks?
Things were finally looking up for Rourke—and the best was still yet to come.
In 2008, Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky was shopping around an idea for a film about a washed-up wrestler. He’d considered offering it to Sylvester Stallone, but he focussed his interest instead on Rourke. Rourke certainly knew his way around a ring—although he was a boxer and not a wrestler. Aronofsky also probably imagined that Rourke knew a bit about feeling washed up.
There was, however, one problem: the studio didn’t want Rourke.
It wasn’t really that the studio didn’t want Rourke. It was more that they wanted someone else: Nicolas Cage. However, Aronofsky did persuade the studio that Rourke was the best one to play the lead in The Wrestler. Next, all he had to do was convince Rourke. You see, Rourke was no fan of wrestling, and there was something else he didn’t like: the script.
In a desperate attempt to get Rourke to say yes, Aronofsky did something almost unthinkable: He let Rourke rewrite his own dialogue. Hmmm…I wonder how that will pan out.
Rourke knew that The Wrestler had the potential to reignite his career, so he took the role seriously. One thing he did was to cut his forehead with a razor before going into the ring. This is a practice wrestlers call “getting color” and it makes it possible for the wrestler to actually bleed during a fight. Rourke was certainly pulling out all the stops: But would it pay off in the end?
Aronofsky was working like a madman trying to get The Wrestler ready for its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. He was really hoping for a win at the prestigious event. He did it with just two days to spare. In the end, the rush turned out to be worth it: The film took the Best Picture honors. But what about Rourke—surely his performance deserved something as well.
Rourke’s performance had convinced the jury that he deserved the Best Actor Award at the Venice Festival. There was one problem, however. The rules state that one film can not take both the best picture and best actor category. Rourke was out on a technicality. Apparently, he took it all in stride, though. He was happy to be an actor—and writer—on a winning movie.
There was, however, some icing on the cake: He received nominations for Best Actor by both the Academy and the Golden Globes, and he even won the latter.
Once Rourke was sitting on a hit film, it gave him a chance to speak to the press: a lot. What came out was…well…a lot of interesting claims. He bragged to the UK’s The Daily Mail that he once slept with 14 women in the same night. Hey, that’s three more than you need for a soccer team!
Maybe it was time for Rourke to settle down.
In 2009, Rourke met Anastassija Makarenko and the two started dating. Makarenko is a Russian-born model and occasional actress who is 30 years younger than her beau. Rourke, however, may have had an ulterior motive with this hook-up. You see, Rourke was trying to surround himself with all things Russian. He’d just landed a part in Iron Man 2 as a Russian villain and he was just doing research.
Like with everything he does, Rourke went in full on.
When researching for his role as Whiplash in Iron Man 2, Rourke was going for extreme authenticity. He knew his character well and was sure he had to have two things: gold teeth and a cockatoo. Rourke was so sure he needed the teeth and the bird, that he paid for them himself. He also researched what kind of tattoos his character should have. In the end, he did have a favorite: the one that said "Give me a blonde, a bottle, and a boat, and I'll sail away..."
Getting the tattoos right was one thing, what he did next went above and beyond.
Because his character in Iron Man 2 had spent time in prison, Rourke thought he should see what that was like. Rourke, however, couldn’t just visit a prison in his home country. No, he had to do it right. He traveled to Russia and spent some time at the Butyrka Prison in Moscow. He said the inmates at the prison were “gracious”.
All his work paid off as Whiplash became a hit character. What was not such a hit was Rourke’s comments regarding a fellow action star.
When talk show host Piers Morgan asked Rourke what he thought of Tom Cruise’s body of work, Rourke let loose. He said that Cruise had been doing the same part for 35 years, and that the Mission Impossible star was “irrelevant in my world.” So what kind of actor does Rourke respect? The answer to this may surprise you.
After Rourke had finished his review of Cruise, Morgan asked Rourke who he did like as an actor. Rourke mentioned classic Hollywood actors like Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. He then went on to talk about Al Pacino and Christopher Walken. One name that surprised careful viewers was Robert De Niro’s. Wait, wasn’t Rourke still in a full-on feud with De Niro? Well, it was actually a backhanded compliment: Rourke said he was only a fan of De Niro’s “earlier work”.
There was, however, something else odd about this interview.
Another one of Rourke’s tirades involves the Marvel movie franchise. In the same interview where he dissed Cruise, Rourke said he didn’t like Marvel films at all. He even went on to say that he preferred the TV show Law and Order over Marvel. I guess Rourke had conveniently forgotten that he appeared in Iron Man 2—part of the Marvel universe of movies.
Many women have come in and out of Rourke’s life: He even walked down the aisle twice. But when it comes down to it, for Rourke it’s all about the dogs. He even claims that his pets stopped him from taking his own life. And when his prize pet Beau Jack was on the verge of going to doggy heaven, Rourke went the extra mile. He reportedly gave the little chihuahua mouth-to-mouth resuscitation…for 45 minutes straight. Sadly, Beau Jack passed anyway.
Starring in 9 1/2 Weeks helped put Rourke on the map—but the stories from behind the scenes are downright disturbing. Director Adrian Lyne wanted Rourke to help him with the auditions to find his co-star—and bed partner. One audition was with a then-unknown actor named Kim Basinger. Basinger later said that her audition was physically and emotionally grueling. After working with Lyne and Rourke on the audition, she had one comment: I don’t want to be in this film.
But she was in for a rude awakening: Both Lyne and Rourke thought she was the woman for the role. To make her change her mind, Rourke and Lyne sent her flowers. Basinger eventually relented and later said it was the favorite film of her career. But first, she would have to survive filming with Rourke.
Lyne wanted the relationship between Rourke and Basinger to feel authentically dysfunctional. To make this happen, Lyne came up with some shady strategies. For example, he would not allow Rourke and Basinger to talk when off-camera. Also, Lyne would tell Basinger stories about Rourke, about how sometimes he wanted to make her like him and other times to dislike him. Lyne wanted to leave Basinger unhinged, and it seemed to work.
To make the emotional breakdown of Basinger’s character seem more realistic, Lyne shot 9 ½ Weeks in chronological order. So when the two characters first met—and they were playing nice—Rourke also was nice to Basinger. As the relationship between the two characters became more dysfunctional, Rourke started acting weird and distant in Basinger’s presence.
Rourke was definitely playing with Basinger’s mind. Then, however, he went one dangerous step further.
In one scene, Rourke’s character convinces Basinger's character to end their lives by swallowing pills. Lyne thought the scene was not working and took Rourke aside to have a chat. He told Rourke that he had to break Basinger down. Rourke went back to the scene, grabbed Basinger by the arm, and squeezed it hard. Basinger hit Rourke and began to cry. But her nightmare was just beginning.
Basinger’s tears had no effect on Rourke: He cruelly slapped her across the face. At that moment Lyne said: “Now, let’s start the scene.” So, after all this game-playing on set, how did the film do? Was it worth the drama?
9 1/2 Weeks did make a lot of money—just not in the US. MGM was hesitant to fully market the film in America because they thought it was too scandalous. Europeans, on the other hand, received the full marketing package, and they went to the theaters in droves. Back in the US, critics were torn, but some did praise both Rourke and Basinger’s performances, saying they made their characters real.
You think Kim Basinger thinks it was worth it?
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