Let’s face it: Tragic career spirals are as common in Hollywood as Botox and traffic jams. Nobody seriously asks the question, Whatever happened to (fill in the blank)? because the answer is obvious and unsurprising: He chose a couple of bad projects (Zac Efron); his ego got the better of him (Vin Diesel); drugs (Lindsay Lohan); bad reviews (Ryan Reynolds); people forgot about him (whatshisname). It’s the nature of the business. Did you know, for example, that the actor who portrayed the magnetic bad boy Kelly Leak form the original Bad News Bears movie, Jackie Earle Haley, is a renowned and busy character actor these days; or that Karate Kid nemesis William Zabka has been popping up in television shows of late?
To make a comeback, three essential things need to happen: 1) You must have talent—seems obvious, but you’d be amazed. 2) You have to have evolved in some way—it can be physical, emotional or relational. 3) You have to find that perfect part that both highlights your facile talent and makes the audience root for a comeback (are you paying attention, Christian Slater?).
Many comebacks sprouted from actors playing bad guys—they’re the meatiest roles. The big comebacks are fun, exciting stories—Robert Downey Jr., Alec Baldwin, Drew Barrymore—stars who are so big now, it’s hard to imagine they ever almost weren’t. So, who’s next? Who veered off course once (or twice) and is now solidly back on the path to stardom?
His 20s were busily spent playing the rich, devious antagonist. The innocuous damsel would not find her way to Andrew McCarthy on his watch. Fortunately, age has added a tad of complexity to his garden-variety foil. His turn as 'Red' Reddington on NBC’s The Blacklist is nuanced, sinister and charming. Expect to hear his name come awards season.
Neil Patrick Harris
Doogie Howser has exploded—so much so that even the genius child doctor wouldn’t know what to do. In spite of not being the pronoun in the title, Harris is, without a doubt, the romantic protagonist in the hit CBS sitcom, How I Met Your Mother, in addition to his duties as award show host and comedy cameo favorite.
You don’t have a run in the '80s like this guy without losing some perspective. Fortunately, an industry-veteran father and the hit Fox drama, 24, got him back to work. And after a fervent fan push, Jack Bauer will be fighting terrorists in a new season starting in May.
Most people don’t remember that the Oscar-nominated actress was the troubled outsider Jen in Dawson’s Creek. While her relationship with Heath Ledger produced much of her press, her indie film career has taken off.
Gigli to Argo. Enough said.
The Married…with Children child star has made quite a career for herself as an actor who can bring both the romance and the comedy to a rom-com. Her breakout sitcom, Up All Night, was cancelled last year after one season; but fortunately, the Anchorman franchise has kept her busy.
Much like the Dawson’s Creek bunch, the That '70s Show cast has all had their chance to break out, with varying degrees of success. Mila has not only chosen projects that show her range (Black Swan), but those that have been big at the box office (Friends with Benefits); and for the cherry on top, she is engaged to the highest-paid man in television, '70s Show co-star Ashton Kutcher.
James Van Der Beek
Continuing with the Dawson’s Creek theme, JVDB started his comeback last year playing a washed-up, entitled version of himself in the short-lived sitcom, Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23. His endearing potshot landed him a starring role on the upcoming show, Friends with Better Lives.
Raise your brows if you must, but Mrs. Timberlake hit quite a dry spell while she occupied herself reeling in the hottest bachelor alive. Biel grew up on the drama 7th Heaven; and after a couple of starring film roles, she fizzled. Now she’s back to work delivering a lauded performance as Vera Miles in the underrated indie biopic, Hitchcock, and she is starring in David O. Russell’s latest project, Nailed.
This is perhaps the least timely entry on the list, but still worth mentioning because of its magnitude. After playing the charming bumpkin Woody Boyd on Cheers, Harrelson snagged a couple of blockbusters in the mid-'90s and even an Oscar nod, then he was off the grid. After a decade of landing only small character roles, his star status changed with the unlikeliest of films: Zombieland. He received another Oscar nomination in 2010, and is unquestionably A-list…again.