5 Actors Whose Careers Changed Forever With Just One Movie Role

With the third Iron Man film set for release next month, Robert Downey Jr. is likely poised for another blockbuster success. The 48-year-old actor has come a long way from his days of drug addictions and jail time between 1996 and 2001.

Downey, who was also featured in last summer’s hit The Avengers, is continuing a winning streak that is even more of a triumph considering that he was uninsurable a decade ago. During the 2000s, he gradually built his way up with films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Good Night, and Good Luck, but it wasn’t until his turn in 2008’s Iron Man that he truly returned to the spotlight — in a good way, this time.

In Iron Man, Downey’s Tony Stark is neurotic, narcissistic, headstrong and self-absorbed. Audiences loved him. The film grossed more than $585 million worldwide and renewed Downey’s standing as a likable, bankable star. He followed up the critical and commercial success with Sherlock Holmes in 2009, another box office smash.

Downey isn’t the only star to turn his career around with a role. Here’s a look at five movie stars who rescued their careers, changed how audiences viewed them or became a household name through just one film.

1. John Travolta

The Grease and Saturday Night Fever star had an almost completely stalled career when he was offered a role in Quentin Tarantino’s controversial Pulp Fiction project.

“John Travolta was at that time as cold as they get,” Mike Simpson, Tarantino’s agent, remembered in a recent Vanity Fair interview. “He was less than zero.”

Travolta, who set disco, cowboy and greaser trends with his earlier roles, played a drug-addicted hit man, revitalizing a dying career with his role as Vincent Vega.

2. Elizabeth Taylor

Now known for her iconic performances in Giant and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Taylor may never have starred in those films without first establishing herself as an adult actress in A Place in the Sun. Before she played love scenes opposite Montgomery Clift in the 1951 film, Taylor was a child star in films like Lassie Come Home and National Velvet.

Her role as Angela Vickers in A Place in the Sun showed audiences that Taylor had grown up. One of the few child stars to find even greater success as an adult, Taylor went on to win an Oscar for her portrayal of a call girl in 1960’s BUtterfield 8.

3. Mickey Rourke

Rourke went from superstar to has-been to comeback status, reviving his career when he starred in The Wrestler in 2008. The actor, who previously struggled with wrestling injuries, poor career choices and alleged drug addictions and violence, won a Golden Globe and received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the film’s battered hero. He went on to star in box office hits Iron Man 2 and The Expendables.

4. William Holden

Holden took a role turned down by Fred MacMurray, who reportedly refused to play a gigolo, when he agreed to play the part of screenwriter Joe Gillis in Paramount’s controversial project Sunset Blvd. The film became iconic, spawning some of the greatest classic movie lines and establishing Holden as a contender.

After his first starring role in 1939’s Golden Boy, Holden was typecast as the boy next door and turned in a string of mostly unremarkable films through the 1940s. His role in the noir, Billy Wilder-directed Sunset Blvd inaugurated Holden as one of the leading actors of the 1950s. He would go on to star in classics such as Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Country Girl, and The Bridge on the River-Kwai.

5. Kristen Stewart

For better or for worse, Stewart will be remembered in movie annals as Bella, human-turned-vampire and Edward Cullen’s eternally teenaged bride. Before 2008’s Twilight, based on Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling novel, Stewart was queen of indie films, starring in projects like The Cake Eaters, Into the Wild and The Yellow Handkerchief. She became a household name almost overnight when she took on the role of Bella, a part that established her as a commercially viable star.

Critics have roundly panned most of the Twilight Saga films, but some dealt more gently with the first movie, partly due to Catherine Hardwicke’s intimate direction and probably partly because it was before Twilight mania truly set in. People magazine noted Stewart’s “lovely, bruised quality” in the film, while Empire magazine gave it four out of five stars and called the movie “one of the most beautiful films of the year” and Stewart “consistently excellent.”

Stewart seems to be alternating indie and mainstream projects, following up the filming of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II with On the Road. A sequel to last year’s Snow White and the Huntsman has been announced as well.