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“There are no second acts in American lives”
–F. Scott Fitzgerald

Usually when I’ve written about my encounters with Hollywood celebrities, I’ve tended to keep their identities anonymous. But this time I’m not going to do that. This blog will be about the brief moments I spent in the company of Mr. Mickey Rourke. Writing about Iron Man 2 (Rourke plays one of the baddies) and reading Justin’s recent blog about the late Pat Morita, reminded me about Mr. Rourke and I thought this story might be appropriate to serve as my final entry of 2009.

A little over ten years ago, a friend took me to a birthday dinner for Henry, a Korean American brotha who taught martial arts and was someone I knew socially. The dinner was at a bbq place in Koreatown and afterwards Henry invited us to join him and his friends at Karnak, a popular Koreatown club (one of the few that’s still standing from way back then). That’s really not my scene, but we were already out and it was his birthday so we agreed.

K-Town nightlife

 

Henry had reserved one of the private rooms and when we arrived, there were already a lot of people. Everyone was Asian except one man who sat in the corner and looked vaguely familiar. It took me awhile but I realized it was actor Mickey Rourke, who I learned was studying martial arts under Henry. He was hard to recognize because he looked like a different man. Rourke had done extensive plastic surgery to repair the damage to his face from his recent boxing stint and as he would admit in interviews later, the surgeon didn’t do a good job.

Now, as a kid growing up in the ‘80s, Rourke was the coolest motherfucker. He was my generation’s Marlon Brando or Robert DeNiro and appeared in iconic roles in films like Diner, The Pope Of Greenwich Village, Rumble Fish and Body Heat. But he never lived up to that early promise and the general consensus in the industry was that he had pissed away his career—by whoring himself to bad films, being difficult to work with (Alan Parker, who directed Rourke in Angel Heart, called him “a nightmare”) and turning his back on Hollywood to pursue boxing.

A young Rourke in "Diner"

 

And that’s what I thought when I saw Rourke—that he was a has-been who was now relegated to appearing in straight-to-video movies that wouldn’t even qualify as B-pictures. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the lowest period of his life—he had split with his wife, had no money, no career and even considered ending it all.

However, none of that was in evidence that night. If he was depressed or an asshole, he did a great job of hiding it. Rourke was charming and friendly and–as I found with other famous people–when he talked to you, he had a way of making you feel like you were the most interesting person in the world. We chatted over shots of Crown and slices of pineapple from the obligatory fruit platter about poet Charles Bukowski (whom Rourke had played in Barfly), art, the best places to eat in Koreatown and a bunch of other topics.

As he was about to be dragged onto the dance floor, he gave me a hug and said, “Phil, I can tell you’re a fellow brother-in-arms. Stay strong, brother.” I wasn’t sure what that was all about. Maybe it’s something he says to everyone I thought to myself, but it sounded sincere.

About a half hour later, I had about as much as I could take of the scene and headed for the exit. Rourke was on the dance floor surrounded by a bevy of hot chicks, but he saw me and came over.

“Phil, you leaving already?” He asked.

“Yeah, I got some stuff to take care of,” I replied.

He gave me another unexpected hug and repeated, “Well, stay strong, brother.”

I thought that would be my last encounter with Mickey Rourke, but fate had other plans. A few months later, I’m back at Karnak for a friend’s party. It’s even louder than I remember it and maybe I was in a foul mood, but I think everyone in the club is superficial and stupid and I’m ready to just book out of there.

I’m walking to the restroom for a quick pee before taking off when I hear a voice calling me.

“Phil!”

It was Mickey Rourke. He was at a table with a bunch of people and was waving me over. I was surprised he remembered me, let alone my name, but I went over and he hugged me like a long-lost friend and seemed genuinely happy to see me. He introduced me to his friends and insisted I sit with them and have a drink…or two…or three. Pretty soon, a couple of hours had passed and I had to admit I was having a good time.

At some point, I’m sober enough to drive home so I head outside and see Rourke on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette.

“You can’t leave already,” he says.

I tell him I have a meeting for some TV project on the following Monday and I need to go home and prep. He insists I stay with him until he at least finishes his smoke.

He asks me how my writing has been going. I tell him how I don’t really like working in TV and want to focus more on theater and eventually film.

Then, a serious look passes over his eyes and he whispers to me, “Do you love what you’re doing?”

I’m not sure what he’s getting at, but I reply that I do; that despite all the bullshit, I love writing and it’s the only thing I can see myself doing.

He nods and it’s almost as if his face has magically transformed. There’s a pain and hurt there that didn’t exist a few seconds ago. His eyes are getting watery and I almost think he’s going to cry.

Rourke nods again. “Never forget that,” he tells me. “Never take that for granted.”

I tell him I won’t.

“Good, good. Because I did. I forgot how much I loved to act. I blew it and it’s too late for me now. Don’t do what I did.”

I’m not sure how to respond to that. And what he says next to me, he whispers so quietly that I’m not completely sure what his words were but I think it was, “There are no second acts.”

He had finished his cigarette by this point so I suppose he could have been saying something about getting a second pack, but I’m pretty sure what I thought I heard was correct.

Rourke gives me a hug and once again says, “Stay strong, brother.”

He returns to the club. I walk down Wilshire to my car.

Fast forward to late December 2008. Sarah, an old friend of mine, is divorcing her husband of 12 years whom she learned on Christmas Eve had been having an affair with another woman for the past six years. She is in her late 30s and has a ten-year-old daughter and is completely broken. “I’m too old and tired to start again,” she tells me. I am having lunch with her in a Beverly Hills bistro trying to lift her spirits, but I don’t know what to say to comfort her.

I notice a commotion at the other end of the restaurant. It’s Mickey Rourke. He’s at a table being interviewed by a journalist about his “comeback.” The Wrestler has recently been released and it has given Rourke his career back. He has been nominated for a Golden Globe and will shortly also be an Academy Award nominee. I don’t go over to his table—it’s likely he won’t even remember me and I don’t want to interrupt. But I can tell he’s genuinely happy. He has his dogs with him and he jokes with the reporter, the waiter and the numerous people who come up to wish him well. He’s glowing. He’s a man who doesn’t seem like he’s going to take what’s been given to him for granted again.

And I think to myself–F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong. There are second acts. Sometimes we just have to hold on a little longer after the curtain falls before it comes up again.

I turn to Sarah and tell her my Mickey Rourke story. I hope it’ll make her feel better.

Fast forward to two days ago. Sarah calls to tell me the great news—the wonderful guy she’s been seeing for the past seven months has just proposed and she has said yes. She too sounds genuinely happy. I am reminded again that there are indeed second acts all around us.

May 2010 bring all of our readers their second acts!

Rourke at the 2009 Oscars

14 Comments

  1. Wow. Thank you so much for sharing that story. I’m so glad Mickey is back on top again.

  2. great story, phil!

  3. A truly relevant tale. Stay strong, brother!

  4. Very cool story, P. I wrote here about hangin out with the late David Carradine. Years after I did a small part on a movie, walked up to him on set, said, “Hey, you remember me?” He didn’t, he searched his memory, said “Kung Fu?” I said nah, I was interviewing you for a story I was going to freelance to Rolling Stone. He remembered, finally, after walking about 20′ away.

    As we all know, Carradine died far from home. Rourke got way lucky — there usually aren’t 2nd acts. If they come at all they may be quick as a cheap match. Robert Downey Jr. is another lucky son of a bitch.

    Happy New Year.

  5. most don’t get a 2nd act

    at least actors don’t

    loved this story

    i’m sure MR was a serious pain in the ass during his rise

    the fact that he survived the lowest of lows and got a second shot at stardom…

    you can tell from his Golden Globe speech that he truly does value what he has. go MR! can’t wait to see him in IM2

  6. Great story, Phil. Happy new year.

  7. This story put a smile to my face. Thanks for sharing and yes, may 2010 bring second acts to everyone who deserves one.

  8. I was expecting this to be some irrelevant story (the first picture through me off) but I actually enjoyed reading through it! Thanks for sharing this story.

  9. awesome story, Thanks for sharing this Phil. Great New Years read.

  10. A great story, beautifully told!

    One of the best pieces I’ve read about Mickey, and one that really seems to capture who he is. And I’m glad to see you’re still doing what you love–writing–and doing it exceedingly well.

  11. What a fantastic, moving portrait of a complex, needy, superficial, open, sincere man. Great theme, Phil. Don’t know if you’re interested in writing forms other than feature screenplays, but you should consider doing long New Yorker type portraits, or Harper’s first person essays.

  12. Phil, this is amazing and very inpspiring to me as a writer. Thank you so much for sharing. I really enjoyed The Wrestler, and it’s great to see a little of the soul behind that performance. Hope I can meet you in person sometime.

  13. Alfredo’s right. This totally felt similar to profiles in the New Yorker. Perhaps it is something you should consider.

    I was having a rather frustrating day today, but after reading this post everything went right again. So…thanks…kinda 🙂 and Happy New Year! Enjoy the One-ders of this decade.