Nine of the Greatest Comebacks in Showbiz History

Ruth Gordon

In Hollywood, "comeback" is a usually just a PR term, since most of the time the celebrity a) never really went away (e.g., Bob Dylan, John Travolta, Betty White), or b) didn't really have much of a comeback (see: Demi Moore in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Actually, don't). For the sort of musicians whose work is easily dated but carries a whiff of nostalgia, such as Ben E. King or The Monkees, a "comeback" simply means making easy money wheezing all the old hits at state fairs and the like. But the following nine people are those who really did vanish from the spotlight for a good spell, and really did re-emerge for a serious second helping of attention and acclaim.

  1. George Burns. Anybody born after 1950 knows George Burns as a crotchedy standup comic and occasional actor. But from 1932 to 1958, in radio, television and cinema, he played straight man to his wife, Gracie Allen. After her retirement and death, Burns kicked around as a producer for a while, then more or less retired himself until his Oscar-winning turn in 1975's The Sunshine Boys put him back on the A-list. For nearly the remainder of his long life, Burns was everywhere.
  2. Don Ameche. Although not quite the legend that Burns was, Ameche enjoyed matinee idol status in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. But he was relegated to thankless guest roles in crummy TV series for a long while before his fortunes turned around with a plum role in the 1983 hit comedy Trading Places. Winning an Oscar for 1985's Cocoon, his true legacy, Ameche was once again a top-billed movie star, and remained so until he died in 1993.
  3. Tina Turner. Like most folks on this list, "The Burner" Tina Turner never stopped working. But she went through a long dry period between her 1960s success with then-husband Ike and her genuine comeback as a Top 40 grande dame in 1984, when her album Private Dancer became a smash hit. Her subsequent recordings did not achieve such stellar success, but by then she had cemented her status in the pop music firmament.
  4. Jackie Earle Haley. Child stars often have a hard time graduating into meaningful adult roles. For Haley, who made it big in The Bad News Bears and Breaking Away, he literally gave up in 1993 after appearing in straight-to-video stinkers like Maniac Cop 3. He worked odd jobs for 13 long years before being rediscovered for the Sean Penn drama All the King's Men. That got the ball rolling, and since then Haley's been a bankable supporting player, scoring an Oscar nod for Little Children and starring in Watchmen, Shutter Island, Dark Shadows, and many more.
  5. Iggy Pop. Even though the early albums Iggy Pop made with his band the Stooges are now considered classics, in their time they fizzled. Iggy himself was a mess, thanks to a drug habit he couldn't shake. It took many years of support from longtime friend (savior, really) David Bowie before Iggy finally arrived as punk's elder statesman in 1986, making money off of Bowie's cover of his song "China Girl" and his own first hit record Blah Blah Blah (produced by Bowie). Today, Iggy Pop is sober, still mostly shirtless, and treated like a god.
  6. Leslie Nielsen. Eternal hams like William Shatner and David Hasselhoff have Nielsen to thank as the trailblazer of the "second career as a silly actor" trend. A serious thespian in the '50s, Nielsen peaked with Forbidden Planet before years in forgettable supporting roles on TV. His resurrection as a comic actor got a false start with 1980's Airplane!; things finally clicked in 1988 when The Naked Gun, a theatrical release based on his short-lived TV series Police Squad! (which aired back in '82), became a surprise hit. Almost all of Nielsen's later films were downright horrible. He must have cried all the way to the bank.
  7. Ruth Gordon. Although she started out as an actress, by the 1940s and '50s Gordon was known primarily for her writing: With her husband Garson Kanin, she wrote the scripts for Adam's Rib, The Marrying Kind, and Pat and Mike. As her screenwriting career slowed, Gordon returned to the stage in 1957, then resurfaced on film (after a 22-year absence) with 1965's Inside Daisy Clover. This kicked off her second life as an unlikely movie star, peaking with her Oscar-winning work in 1968's Rosemary's Baby and her immortal role in 1971's Harold and Maude. She remained a popular presence in film and TV until her death in 1985.
  8. Terrence Malick. One of the big auteurs of '70s cinema, Malick made a splash with his debut feature Badlands (a personal favorite of mine). He took five years to helm his follow-up, Days of Heaven, which seemed like a long time back then. But that was nothing compared to the twenty years it took for him to get around to his third feature, The Thin Red Line. What did he do in the meantime? Who knows? But since then, it's as though Malick has become aware of his own mortality, and figures he'd better get cracking if he's going to leave a substantial body of work behind. He ramped up slowly – a seven-year wait for The New World, another six for 2011's The Tree of Life – but as of this writing, the director has no less than four features at various stages of completion, all due – maybe – within the next couple of years, unless Malick gets lost in the editing room (as is his wont).
  9. Kate Bush. Although she retains only a cult following in America, Kate Bush is my favorite recording artist, and her life has followed a path similar to Malick's: after a prolific early career (which began when she was just a teen), she vanished from public view for a full twelve years, then resurfaced in 2005 with a double album. Then she surprised her fans again by releasing two new albums in 2011 (even if the first was a reworking of old material, albeit an unorthodox one). Time will tell whether that's the last we'll hear from her in a while... or not.