Mickey Rourke's comeback -- The once-promising ''Body Heat'' actor talks about his downfall and his new film, ''The Wrestler''

Before he blew it, before he threw his career away, Mickey Rourke was one of the most promising actors of his generation. Go back and watch his early movies. Body Heat, Rumble Fish, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Barfly. Young actors like Sean Penn, Matt Dillon, and Nicolas Cage would visit the sets of his movies just to watch him work. They worshipped him. And so did the critics. In her review of 1982’s Diner, Pauline Kael singled out Rourke, writing, ”He has a sweet, pure smile that surprises you. He seems to be acting to you, and to no one else.” As 9 1/2 Weeks director Adrian Lyne put it, ”If Mickey had died after Angel Heart, he would have been remembered as James Dean or Marlon Brando.”

But Mickey Rourke didn’t die. He just destroyed himself.

In the mid-’80s, as his career was starting to soar, Rourke got a reputation for fighting with producers. He would show up late to sets. He wouldn’t bother to learn his lines. Acting came so easily to him that he didn’t take it seriously — he didn’t respect it.

And when all that didn’t kill his leading-man prospects, he went one step further, taking a break from acting to become a professional boxer. It was a bizarre decision, one that would eventually lay waste to his once-handsome face. Four years later, when he retired from the ring because he’d been so battered that his health was in danger, Rourke returned to making movies. But he rarely seemed invested. He’d take crappy parts just for the money — money that he’d turn around and blow on $5 million houses, a fleet of custom-made motorcycles, and an entourage of hair-trigger bodyguards and yes-men who would just as often get him into trouble as keep it away. By the time he walked off the set of 2001’s straight-to-video Luck of the Draw because the producers wouldn’t let his pet Chihuahua appear with him in a scene, it was official: Hollywood was done with Mickey Rourke.

That’s where his story should have ended. A career death wish followed by a fade to black. The next round of articles should have been his obituaries. But his story didn’t end there. Because just when it seemed like he was finally down for the count, a director came along who chose to ignore Rourke’s crazy past. He promised the actor that if he humbled himself and worked like he hadn’t worked in 20 years, he could get back on top again. And this is where another Mickey Rourke story begins.