Year of the Ram

Mickey Rourke climbs back in the ring with The Wrestler.

So, Rourke returned home to Miami, only to receive a phone call from his agent a few weeks later saying that the role was once again his. "My reaction," he says, only half-jokingly, was "'Oh, fuck! Can't you get me something else?'"

Rourke's "edge," as film critic Pauline Kael (and others) termed it, was a welcome trait in a decade that gave us lots of clean-cut, boy-next-door movie stars like Tom Cruise, Matthew Broderick, and — yes — Steve Guttenberg.

But by the mid-'80s — after his celebrated roles in Diner (1982) and The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984) — there were stories that Rourke could be difficult to work with and hostile to those in authority. During the production of Nine 1/2 Weeks, a New York Times report described a brass plaque in Rourke's trailer that warned "all studio executives and producers" to stay away. "Stay the fuck away," Rourke corrects me when I mention this.

"I look at these guys like Matt Damon, George Clooney, Sean Penn — they're all very bright, educated guys who understand that it's a business and there's politics involved," Rourke says. "I wasn't educated or aware enough. I thought I was so good I didn't have to play the game. And I was terribly wrong."

So, in 1991, Rourke effectively turned his back on the industry, returned to his childhood home of Miami, and resurrected his adolescent dream of becoming a professional boxer. It was during that time, while training for a fight in Kansas City against light heavyweight Tom Bentley, that Rourke's assistant told him that an up-and-coming director named Quentin Tarantino wanted to meet with him about a role in his next movie. "I said, 'Who else is in it?' She said, 'John Travolta.' I said, 'How much?' She said, 'Scale.' I took the script, and I remember throwing it at her. I didn't even read it. I went to Kansas City and had a first-round knockout, and that was more important to me."

By the time Rourke retired from boxing in 1994 — the same year in which Otis filed, and later dropped, spousal-abuse charges against him — it was difficult to determine what had taken the bigger beating: his career or his once smooth, beautiful, boyish face.

In person, Rourke now seems more pussycat than mad dog, and looks better than he has in years: the cheeks less puffy; the tan less bottled. Not bad for a guy nearing 60, if you believe the least flattering of Rourke's various reported birth years (1950) — a subject on which the actor himself declines to comment. But every once in a while, you can catch a flicker of the deep-set anger and rage that Rourke has grappled with for decades, particularly when the subject turns to his childhood.

Rourke, who was born in Schenectady, moved at an early age with his mother, brother, and sister to the mostly black inner city of Miami following his parents' divorce. He doesn't reveal much about those years (though he has alluded in past interviews to abuse suffered at the hands of a violent stepfather), but what he does say paints a vivid portrait: "It was horrific; it was shameful," he says. "Let's put it this way: I would have preferred never to have been born. When you have things like that happen, you either go to prison for your whole life, or you act out and self-destruct."

Even at the height of his fame, he was never satisfied. "I was waiting for the great picture, and it didn't happen," says Rourke, who was offered — and turned down — roles in Beverly Hills Cop, Platoon, and Rain Man among others. "And I was living way above my means. I bought a big house, and because I was always turning shit down — formula stuff, Hollywood stuff — I got in a jam, so I had to do a movie called Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991). They paid me a lot of money, and I went fuckin' bonkers because I sold out and I hated myself for it. Some kind of anger kicked off, about the fact that I'd put myself in a position to have to do that movie. The demons took over."

And they reigned for most of the next decade, during which you needed an active Blockbuster membership to keep track of Rourke's erratic movie résumé, until the actor slowly but steadily began to re-emerge from his personal and professional inferno. Vincent Gallo took a chance on Rourke, giving him a role as a bookie in the offbeat Buffalo '66 (1998). Another actor-director, Steve Buscemi, followed suit, casting Rourke way against type as a transvestite inmate in the underseen prison drama Animal Factory (2000). Then Rourke's friend Sean Penn put him opposite Jack Nicholson in a three-minute scene in The Pledge (2000), and he was brilliant. As word got around about his new professionalism, bigger roles in bigger movies (Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Man on Fire, Domino) came Rourke's way, until there he was, handily stealing the show as the disfigured, partly CGI vigilante, Marv, in Robert Rodriguez's Sin City.

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