9 Best Big Screen Comebacks of All Time

The Last Stand opened on Jan. 18, bringing back to the Big Screen the Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. While we’ll withhold judgment on whether Arnold should be considered for comeback of the year until we see if we’re dealing with another True Lies or a Commando, we do find this to be an appropriate time to weigh in on some other second chances. Without further ado, Life’d gives you the 9 Best Big Screen Comebacks of All Time.


9. Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children

Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children


Starting Point: Child actor Jackie Earle Haley got his start doing voice work in “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home,” a short-lived 1972 cartoon about a conservative dad, who is constantly going Archie Bunker on his changing family (though not quite to the extreme of Bunker – after all, it is a cartoon). His most famous role after that was Kelly Leak in two Bad News Bears films and then a turn as Moocher in Breaking Away (1979).


Why It’s a Comeback: Haley dropped out of Hollywood completely in 1993. Thirteen years later he returned as registered sex offender Ronnie J. McGorvey in Little Children, an intense critically acclaimed drama from 2006. From there, he’s starred as Rorschach in Watchmen and as the replacement Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake.


8. The Three Stooges in The Three Stooges
the three stooges


Starting Point: Moses (Moe) and Samuel (Shemp) Horwitz joined Larry Fine on vaudeville in the early 20th Century as “Ted Healy’s Stooges.” As motion pictures continued to develop, Shemp broke free from the act, brother Jerome (Curly) joined the crew, and the boys dropped Healy. After Curly’s retirement, Shemp rejoined the act. Moe kept it all together even after his brothers were dead, bringing aboard Joe Besser, Curly Joe DeRita, and Emil Sitka (after Larry’s death), though the latter never did more than a publicity shot.


Why It’s a Comeback: In 2012, the Farrelly Brothers brought this revolving door of comedians back to life in a feature film starring Will Sasso (as Curly), Chris Diamontopolous (as Moe) and Sean Hayes (as Larry). Resemblances in both looks and mannerisms are uncanny, and most critics, audience members, and Stooge-o-philes loved it.


7. Sidney Poitier in Shoot to Kill

Sidney Poitier in Shoot to Kill


Starting Point: Sidney Poitier was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1960s. Known mainly for his performances in Lilies of the Field and In the Heat of the Night, Poitier quit acting in 1977 after starring in A Piece of the Action with frequent collaborator Bill Cosby.


Why It’s a Comeback: Eleven years went by before Poitier would ever act again, but in 1988, he starred as FBI agent Warren Stantin in the superior cop-versus-killer thriller Shoot to Kill—one of our favorite films of the 1980s. From there, he enjoyed an 11-film resurgence that teamed him with stars like Robert Redford, Richard Gere, and Bruce Willis. 


6. Robert Downey, Jr. in  Iron Man
Robert Downey, Jr. in  Iron Man


Starting Point: Downey, Jr., started out as a five-year old in his father’s fantasy film Pound. He achieved his first taste of the spotlight in Weird Science (1985) and became a bit of a teen idol with films like Back to School (1986) and Less Than Zero (1987).  


Why It’s a Comeback: Downey, Jr., never really stopped acting throughout his career. He just sort of languished on the B-List in spite of having huge amounts of screen charisma as seen in his brilliant performance as Charlie Chaplin in 1992’s bio-pic. Drugs held him back for much of his career, but in 2008, he starred as Tony Stark in the smash-hit Iron Man, and catapulted onto the A-List, where he was destined as a teen and young adult.


5. John Travolta in Pulp Fiction

John Travolta in Pulp Fiction


Starting Point: Travolta made his biggest early impact in TV, but achieved superstardom with the disco-era hit Saturday Night Fever in 1977. After that it was the musical smash Grease (1978), the unintentionally hilarious-but-still-awesome Urban Cowboy (1980), and Brian DePalma’s Hitchcock homage Blow Out (1981).


Why It’s a Comeback: Travolta stayed busy after Blow Out, but his stock had fallen from a meteoric rise. A series of bad film choices like Perfect (1985) were mostly to blame. After Quentin Tarantino cast him as hitman Vinnie Vega in 1994’s Pulp Fiction, it was like 1970s Travolta had been resurrected. Travolta had a good run after that until 2000 when he decided to do Battlefield Earth proving even feel-good comebacks can have sad endings.


4. Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa
Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa


Starting Point: Stallone, if he’s perfectly honest with you, will probably admit he wishes The Party at Kitty and Stud’s, his odd pornographic film from 1970, had never happened. Six years later, he released Rocky and shot to the top of the A-List. Thus, the only reason we know TPAKAS exists.


Why It’s a Comeback: The Rocky series popularized the sequel and was an enormous global success. To this day, they are some of the most beloved movies of all time. In 2006, Stallone hadn’t starred in a box office success for around nine years. What better time to come back to his most popular character and give him a truly fantastic sendoff?  Since then, Sly has done the same for Rambo, and has also launched a marginally successful bit of nostalgia in The Expendables I and II.


3. Sergio Leone  for Once Upon a Time in America

Sergio Leone  for Once Upon a Time in America


Starting Point: Actors shouldn’t be the only ones to get the love. Director Sergio Leone was the true star of his films, and that’s saying something considering he worked with Charles Bronson, Robert DeNiro and Clint Eastwood. He also holds a heavy influence over Tarantino. With that said, he didn’t make a lot of movies, but just about everything he did make, starting with A Fistful of Dollars (1964), was an absolute masterpiece.


Why It’s a Comeback: Leone dropped out of filmmaking with Duck, You Sucker (1971) and didn’t return in an official capacity until Once Upon a Time in America 13 years later. The film in its original 3 hours-and-49 minutes form is easily one of the five greatest mob movies ever made and perhaps the best, though it was under-appreciated at the time.


2. Marlon Brando in The Godfather
Marlon Brando in The Godfather 


Starting Point: Brando tasted superstardom twice in his long and illustrious career. The first time was as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).


Why It’s a Comeback: Despite his household-name standing for more than 20 years, his role as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972) put him back at the top in a fashion not seen since 1954’s On the Waterfront. And as with that previous film, Brando captured the Academy Award for Best Actor.


1. Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler


Starting Point: Rourke started with 1941 (1979) and then moved to the low-budget horror flick Fade to Black one year later, but it wasn’t until Body Heat (1981) that critics really started to take notice, comparing him to Brando.


Why It’s a Comeback: Rourke had turned in a noteworthy supporting performance in Sin City (2005) prior to The Wrestler, but this was the film that once again showed the world what an incredible actor he is, and that, yes, after all the career turmoil, he can still carry a film and as Bob Dylan once said of him, “break your heart with a look.”


Those are our big screen comeback favorites. What are yours? Sound off in the comments section below.

  • Mike Willing

    A list of ALL TIME greatest comebacks and not one mention of Judy Garland??? There were so many! Granted, many of them were on the stage (1961 at Carnegie Hall…a record-breaking appearance, still a best selling CD after 50 years) but a washed-out drug and booze addled legend after “The Wizard of Oz” and “Meet Me in St. Louis” she managed a brilliant comeback on the screen with 1954’s “A Star is Born.”

  • Pam Grier in Tarantino’s Jackie brown-after a long absence as a blacksploitation actress from the 70’s, or her co-star from 1973’s Coffee,Sid Haig ;who’s captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 corpses series, brought his acting back to life.


    Maybe I am not getting this. The 3 stooges was a studio closing sized FLOP. I have never heard of the first guy, and I live in North Hollywood. ‘Seems to me the only real comebacks were Rourke, Downey and Travolta. Downey is a “Hollywood Kid” so he was going to get roles until the cows come in. It is Mickey and John that really impressed me. Mickey came back from drug issues, mental health issues, a string of crappy movies and a crazy personal life. John got a good role in pulp fiction, and went with it..

    • Smack Daddy

      Never heard of the first guy? He was Kelly Leak in “The Bad News Bears”. Classic Movie!

    • Derick Hess

      Seriously… never heard of the first guy?????

  • GretaGarbo

    No women? Really….

    • women rarely get roles much less comebacks since in hollywoodland-women over 40 are usually taken out behind studio lot and shot.

      • You’re joking right? Tina Fey, Julian Moore, Jodie Foster, Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, Melissa Leo, Jane Lynch, Tilda Swinton,etc. Just a few names off the top of my head that of the over 40 yet cashing in in Hollywood atm. Don’t be ridiculous.

        • We’re talking about COMEBACKS. Not actors who have continuous work.

  • Everyone waited 20 years for James Cagney to return – and he did in 1981’s ‘Ragtime’!

  • Arnold is such a “Once was”, he should hang up his ugly body and give us all a rest

  • I’d say Downey should be a bit higher on the list. For someone who was pretty much blacklisted in Hollywood because of his addiction and problems to now be THE GUY is quite an impressive comeback.

  • Kathy

    No comeback! During previews at the theater the movie-goers laughed. Karma is hovering, waiting for the first chance to pounce! Clown!

  • Most of these made enough money to buy their way back, but some of them need to retire. Arnold, Sly, Mickey, and a few more need to go. Then again we have Downey whom is so talented,still handsome as ever, I’m so proud of him.

  • teriquajones

    Marlon Brando is the most amazing man I’ve laid eyes on. Truly a beautiful man.

  • Jesus H. Hitler

    Why did the Terminator robot have a thick German accent? Enquiring minds want to know.

  • The Three Stooges was a huge flop, c’mon. And what about Judy Garland? Or Joan Crawford? It’s okay to name drop classic Hollywood stars, if the youngins don’t know who you’re talking about, they can always look it up and learn something new.

  • hubba bubba

    I don’t know how the author could have left off Joan Crawford. She had been declared box office poison before she was released by MGM where she has made one hit after another for them during the 30’s. She then signed on with Warner Brothers and waited three years before she released a movie. A three year hiatus in those days was an eternity.

    Her comeback movie was Mildred Pierce, which is a classic and won her an academy award for best actress. She had never even been nominated before that time. After Mildred Pierce she returned to the top of the heap and made numerous hits for Warner Brothers during the 40’s and 50’s.
    Crawford’s comeback is one of the greatest in Hollywood history.

  • Zach71

    “Shoot to Kill” was indeed a very good movie. I had never seen Poitier before that time cuz I was just a teen in 1988 but i was really impressed with him as the determined FBI agent hot on the trail of a killer brilliantly played by Clancy Brown. I highly recommend this & 1992’s – “Sneakers” if youy like Poitier or good action/suspense movies in general.

  • Ron Smith

    Downey Travolta and Rourke yes the rest not so much

  • Ron Smith

    They really should give James Caan credit for multiple fades and returns – His early Thief Godfather and later Eraser – Alien Nation work and he kept going dark for 5,6,8 years at a time between