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“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 could get by on my raw talent — I really did. 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. He worked out with famed boxing trainer Freddie Roach and sparred with heavyweight champ James “Lights Out” Toney before fighting a brief (albeit undefeated) series of bouts in the U.S., Spain and Germany. It was during that time, while training for a fight in Kansas City against light heavyweight Tom Bentley, that Rourke’s assistant told him 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 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. He speaks warmly of those inside and outside Hollywood who helped him on the road to recovery, and he looks better than he has in years: the cheeks less puffy; the tan less bottled; his chin-length rock-star hair falling chicly over his face. 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 been happier living in jail, if I knew the 11 years I’d have to spend where I was living. Or 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.”
The self-destruction would eventually come, but at the time, Rourke threw himself into sports — baseball, football and amateur boxing. He was good in the ring, and a professional career seemed in the offing, until a couple of bad concussions set him back. It was then that Rourke, who had never given any thought to acting, auditioned for a role in a University of Miami production of Jean Genet’s Deathwatch, and got the part. By the time the play closed, he had resolved to go to acting school “and learn how to do this shit. So I got on a plane and went to the Village.”
Eventually, Rourke found his way to the Actors Studio, where he learned the method and dedicated himself to his newfound trade with signature obsessiveness. “I wanted to be like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Chris Walken and Harvey Keitel,” he says. “I wanted to be a really great actor. And if I worked really, really fucking hard, maybe one day I could do that. And I worked really, really hard. I had no social life. I lived like a monk. For weeks on end, I slept on the couch at the Actors Studio, working on scenes nonstop.”
Yet, at the height of his fame, when younger actors were heading to the Studio wondering if they might have a shot at becoming the next Mickey Rourke, 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.”
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