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"With luck, Rourke could become a major actor; he has an edge and magnetism and a sweet, pure smile that surprises you," Pauline Kael wrote in her review of Barry Levinson's 1982 film Diner, in which the actor played the compulsively gambling and girl-chasing hairdresser Robert "Boogie" Sheftell. "He seems to be acting to you, and to no one else." That was a movie that launched at least a half-dozen careers, but Rourke, whose bit part as an arsonist in the previous year's Body Heat had nearly stolen that movie out from under Kathleen Turner's smoldering legs, stood apart from the crowd, and won the Best Supporting Actor award from the National Society of Film Critics for his efforts.
Rourke's "edge," as Kael (and others) termed it, was a welcome trait in a decade that gave us lots of clean-cut, boy-next-door movie stars such as Tom Cruise, Matthew Broderick, and — yes — Steve Guttenberg. He seemed to have seen things and been places, to bear the marks of experience. And while Rourke went on to be perfectly convincing in white-collar roles like that of the Wall Street power player who cooks three square meals for (and on) Kim Basinger in 1986's Nine 1/2 Weeks, he was never better than as a certain breed of sensitive, soft-spoken hustler-vagabond-dreamer — the guy more likely to be roughed up in some back alley than to be the one doing the roughing.
There were stories that Rourke could be difficult to work with (Basinger famously, if somewhat enigmatically, dubbed him "the human ashtray") and hostile to those in authority. During the production of Nine 1/2 Weeks, a New York Times report described a brass plaque in Rourke's trailer that warned "all studio executives and producers" to stay away. "Stay the fuck away," Rourke corrects.
"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 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. 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 in which 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, and looks better than he has in years: the cheeks less puffy; the tan less bottled. 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, New York, moved at an early age with his mother, brother, and sister to Miami's Liberty City, 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 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. 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."
Rourke eventually 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."