Originally appeared in Men's Journal, February 2009
Just a few months ago, Mickey Rourke was driving around Miami late one night, cruising the streets of his hometown, when his cell phone rang. “Hey, it’s Bruce,” a familiar voice said, but at first Rourke couldn’t place it. “Springsteen,” the voice said. Rourke tears up a little when he remembers.
Rourke, who is 52, has known Springsteen for more than two decades — a span of time that includes at least a few of Rourke’s glory days and all of what he calls “my lost years.” During that period the actor basically told Hollywood to go fuck itself, became a not entirely unsuccessful professional boxer, got the shit beat out of him, and lost all traces of prettiness in his once-pretty face. Long before his recent comeback, he had found a good psychotherapist in the hopes, he says, of finally becoming — and this is a word he uses a lot — “accountable.”
Rourke has a lot to account for. Once he had been mighty. In the 1980s, Time magazine said he had the potential of a young Jack Nicholson, and New Yorker critic Pauline Kael praised his “edge and magnetism and…sweet, pure smile that surprises you. He seems to be acting to you, and to no one else.” With luck, she said, “Rourke could become a major actor.” Then he self-destructed. There were fistfights and violent marital squabbles (his ex-wife, the model Carré Otis, accused him of assault, then dropped the charges). There was prima donna behavior (he walked off a job because a producer wouldn’t let his beloved pet Chihuahua appear in a scene). There was poverty. And there were many truly awful movies.
Then, in 2007, a really good director named Darren Aronofsky picked Rourke for a great leading role: Randy “the Ram” Robinson, a broken-down pro wrestler at the end of his career. Unbelievably, considering how hard Rourke had worked to dismantle the enormous goodwill the movie industry once had for him, he was getting a second chance — “the last chance,” he tells me. “I’m not getting another pass. This is it.” And to make the most of that chance, a movie called The Wrestler, he reached out to the Boss for help.
“When we got done with the movie, I knew we nailed it. There was magic going on,” Rourke says of the film, for which he transformed his already powerful body, adding 35 extra pounds of muscle. “So I wrote Bruce a letter — a real long fucking truthful letter. And I said, ‘I’m so glad that I didn’t end up like Randy because, unlike me, Randy doesn’t have access to somebody who can help him to change.’ ”
Rourke had poured his heart out, but still, when the phone rang that night in Miami, he was surprised. “Bruce said, ‘Listen, I wrote a little something,’ ” the actor recalls. The song, which shares the film’s title, plays as the credits roll, and its lyrics seem to perfectly capture Rourke’s breathtaking, backbreaking, and literally skin-perforating performance.
“Have you ever seen a one-legged dog making its way down the street?” Springsteen sings. “If you’ve ever seen a one-legged dog, then you’ve seen me.”
I ask Rourke how Springsteen teased out that central theme before the movie was even in the can. Rourke nods, knowing the answer. “He didn’t see the movie,” he says, “but he knows me.”
I first met Rourke on a Sunday morning in September 2002, half a dozen years before anyone would think to put his name and “Academy Award” in the same sentence.
It was early, probably 7 am. That must be said out of fairness to Rourke, given what happened. And he was understandably tired, having spent days at the Toronto International Film Festival promoting a movie he didn’t like much called Spun. He’d only done Spun, he says now, because his new agent told him to, and in those days he was lucky to even have an agent.