Mickey Rourke Went A Little Too Far With His Con Air Audition

Mickey Rourke is one of Hollywood's true mavericks. Even in his '80s heyday when most of his contemporaries were so clean cut, he looked like he'd drifted onto set after an all-nighter in a dive bar. His softly mumbling, soulful charisma drew comparisons with Marlon Brando in his early years, but his mysterious presence was more of an all-encompassing vibe than the older actor's magnetic focal point.

Intense yet elusive, he was a rebel and an outlaw spirit whose talent came from a completely different place, maybe because he only took up acting after his boxing career was curtailed. I think of him in "Diner," sitting at a table with Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, Steve Guttenberg, and Daniel Stern — it's like they're talking in Morse code while Rourke is sending up smoke signals.

His regular persona of a tough guy with a sensitive soul hinted at the troubles beneath the surface, demons that would lead him to waste his talent, squander his fortune, burn his bridges, and turn his back on acting at the height of his stardom. It was one of Hollywood's most spectacular falls from grace, and in the '90s he was washed up, broke, and still rejecting great parts while starring in stinkers.

The list of classic films Rourke turned down is ridiculous: Just imagine him in "Top Gun," "Rain Man," or "Beverly Hills Cop." Then there was the part tailor-made for him: Butch in "Pulp Fiction." By the time the chance came along, he'd quit acting and become a real boxer as he was approaching 40. Yet even when he returned to making films, most of them garbage, he still got calls for big parts. One was the juicy role of the main villain in "Con Air" but, once again, Rourke didn't do himself any favors.

Audition tip: Leave the knife at home

"Con Air" came along at the glorious bombastic peak of '90s action movies, which gave us big, loud, testosterone-fueled blockbusters like "True Lies," "Bad Boys," and "Armageddon," and two films that saw Nicolas Cage transition from the serious Oscar-winning actor of "Leaving Las Vegas" to action hero. The first was "The Rock," where he had such great chemistry with Sean Connery, before he really buffed up to play Cameron Poe in "Con Air." Poe was a paroled convict just trying to get home to his family on a jet full of villains who inconveniently hijack the plane.

"Con Air" was joyously ludicrous and gave us a brilliant cast of crooks including Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, and Danny Trejo. The last part cast was Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom, a criminal mastermind who instigates the takeover of the plane. Bruce Willis turned it down, and Tom Sizemore and Willem Dafoe both read for the role. Then came Mickey Rourke, who took things a little too far. Director Simon West recalled (via Empire):

"Mickey Rourke was a particularly harrowing audition. He was doing a confrontational scene and there was this young assistant casting director reading the Poe part opposite him. Mickey Rourke was eyeball to eyeball, nose to nose with him, and then pulls out this 10-inch Bowie knife from behind him, which was totally real and incredibly sharp. And he held it under this poor guy's chin. And me and the casting directors froze — do we intervene, do we wrestle him to the ground? Is this great acting, or has he lost the plot and is going to kill us all? I'm ashamed to say we did not intervene. We let him finish the scene. So it was a pretty powerful audition, that one."

A shot at redemption

Understandably, Mickey Rourke didn't get the gig; John Malkovich was hired instead and he nailed it. Rourke still got other decent parts, but it wasn't until he stole the show as Marv in "Sin City" that we got a real sense that he was about to resurrect his career. Playing a battered bruiser on the trail of a serial killer, Rourke was the soul of the movie, and his almost unrecognizably grizzled visage prefigured his great comeback in "The Wrestler."

Rourke was a revelation as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an old-school wrestler with a heart condition who takes one last shot at glory. If the underdog tale was hackneyed, there was nothing inauthentic about his performance. Like Randy, Rourke saw the movie as his shot at redemption (via The Guardian):

"Randy's living in a state of shame. Living in a state of disgrace. The humiliation that I've lived with for five, six, seven, eight, nine, 15 years. That I brought upon myself. I lost everything, the wife, the house, my friends, my name in the business ... Nobody really knew how broke I was. A friend used to give me a couple of hundred dollars a month to buy something to eat. And I'd be calling up my ex-wife and crying like a baby and trying to get her back. I was desperate. And I was all alone."

Rourke's heartbreakingly honest performance earned him an Oscar nomination, and suddenly he was back in the big time, with high-profile roles in "Iron Man 2" and "The Expendables." Then he was gone again, back to tough guy roles and direct-to-DVD action movies, his demons even chasing him back into the ring at the age of 62. Will Rourke make another comeback? That's the thing with mavericks; you never can tell.