Top 20 Stars Who Saved Their Careers

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Top 20 Stars Who Saved Their Careers

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Michael Wynands
Fame can be a fickle beast. For this list, we'll be looking at celebrities who saw their stardom wane, only to rise again. Our countdown includes Eminem, Kesha, Ellen DeGeneres, Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., and more!
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Top 20 Stars Who Saved Their Careers


Fame can be a fickle beast. Welcome to WatchMojo and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 20 Stars Who Saved Their Careers.

For this list, we’ll be looking at celebrities who saw their stardom wane, only to rise again. Be it because of a hiatus, issues of mental health, addiction, or simply bad luck, these stars fell off the map but managed to bounce back in a major way. For the record, stars don’t need to currently be on top of the world to be considered, they just need to have made a major comeback in their careers.

#20: Dave Chappelle

In the early mid-aughts, this comedian’s career couldn’t have been any bigger. He was one of the most recognizable names in stand-up and his Comedy Central series, “Chappelle's Show,” was a massive success. He’d reportedly been offered a $50 million contract to keep the series going. But the fame seemingly got to Chapelle - specifically the cultural impact of his show. So, at the height of his popularity, he abandoned production of Season 3 and went to South Africa. Between 2005 and 2013, his public appearances were sporadic at best. When he finally made his long-awaited return, it could have been a disaster, but he pulled it off with style, winning an Emmy for a now-legendary “SNL” hosting gig and signing a massive deal with Netflix.

#19: Betty White

What other star of her age can claim comparable popularity with younger demographics? Betty White had a successful career spanning decades, including roles in popular television series such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Golden Girls.” With time, her roles became not only less high-profile but also fewer and farther between. When most actors would have been happy to retire, however, Betty White began a whole new phase of her career in the late aughts. She appeared in sketches for Craig Ferguson and Jay Leno, but it was a 2009 Snickers campaign that really connected White to a whole new generation. White hosted “SNL” at the record-breaking age of 88, establishing herself as a beloved comedic figure anew.

#18: D'Angelo

Younger listeners might not recognize the name, but in the mid-90s, D’Angelo was widely considered the gold standard of R&B. And he’s been a major influence on countless musicians in the years since. With his 1995 debut album, “Brown Sugar,” he not only rocked the charts but instantly became a sex symbol. His 2000 follow-up, “Voodoo,” seemingly solidified this reputation. Then… he just disappeared. D’Angelo retreated from the public eye to deal with personal issues, including alcoholism. Few artists can return after nearly a decade and a half and still feel relevant, but in 2014, he reclaimed his crown with “Black Messiah,” which was released to universal acclaim and earned him the Grammy for Best R&B Album.

#17: Kesha

Kesha initially climbed the charts as a party girl, but after essentially being robbed of her voice as both a woman and artist, she revealed an entirely different side to herself. She exploded onto the pop music scene with a feature on Flo Rida’s “Right Round” before landing hits of her own including, "Tik Tok," "Die Young,” and "Your Love Is My Drug." After going to rehab for bulimia, Kesha’s career was brought to a screeching halt in 2014 by a legal battle with producer Dr. Luke, who Kesha accused of sexual abuse, among other things. Many artists would’ve given up, but Kesha found alternative ways to perform, and eventually returned in 2017 with the widely celebrated “Rainbow,” a deeply personal album about empowerment.

#16: Eminem

There are few musicians who have had a bigger impact on popular music than Eminem. His lyrics terrified parents across America, his personal style inspired countless imitators, and many credit him with having brought hip hop to Middle America. Oh, and he starred in a critically acclaimed semi-autobiographical film because you know… why not? But in the mid-aughts, substance abuse, depression, and the death of his best friend, Proof, nearly destroyed Eminem. His comeback album, “Relapse,” was met with mixed reviews, but he’s just kept marching forward, repeatedly re asserting his dominance as both a hit-maker and one the greatest rappers to ever pick up a mic. He’s continued to take home Grammys, produce hit singles and divide critics and fans alike.

#15: Jason Bateman

A former adolescent star that earned roles in shows like “Silver Spoons,” Jason Bateman went on to star in films like “Teen Wolf Too.” But as the nineties progressed, the former teen idol’s career stalled big time. Getting cast in the acclaimed sitcom “Arrested Development” in the 21st century changed all that. Bateman demonstrated that his talent had very definitely matured, and he capitalized on the critical attention the show received by going on to garner laughs in huge comedies like “Horrible Bosses” and lending his voice to Nick Wilde in 2016’s “Zootopia.” He’s also given his fair share of solid dramatic performances, like his work on the Netflix series “Ozark.”

#14: Alec Baldwin

Like many male actors of his generations, Alec Baldwin has let his temper get the better of him to the detriment of his career. Baldwin established his star power in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; “Beetlejuice,” “The Hunt For Red October,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and “The Hunt for Red October” are just a few of the movies that made him a household name. Then, in 1995, an altercation with a photographer, coupled with various personal issues, caused him to retreat from the limelight, taking lower profile television roles. With “30 Rock,” however, Baldwin essentially reinvented himself, winning over a whole new generation of fans. Baldwin has weathered multiple controversies, but with his trademark charisma and sense of humor, he always manages to bounce back.

#13: Demi Lovato

With her performances in the “Camp Rock” films and the Disney Channel series “Sonny with a Chance,” Demi Lovato became a teen icon. But what few people knew was that she’d been struggling with mental health issues for years. With the pressures of fame building, she developed an eating disorder and a drug habit. After punching a dancer on tour and being sent to rehab, Lovato’s career seemed over at 18. But she not only returned with new music, but also addressed her struggles publically, becoming a better role model. She’s continued to struggle with addiction and mental health over the years, but in speaking frankly about her journey, she’s established herself as an important and hugely influential voice in both regards.

#12: Winona Ryder

In the late ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s, Winona Ryder was everywhere you looked. “Beetlejuice,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” and “Girl, Interrupted” are just a handful of the high-profile movies in which she starred. Following a shoplifting arrest in 2001, however, she stopped acting. Rumors of prescription pill abuse circulated. Seemingly overnight, she went from one of the biggest pop culture icons of her generation to a distant memory. It turns out that she was clinically depressed at the time and after taking a few years to focus on her personal life, she slowly returned to work. Ryder started small with indie movies, but they steadily got bigger. With her Golden Globe-nominated role in “Stranger Things,” she solidified her status as a comeback queen.

#11: Drew Barrymore

When she appeared in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” which held the record for highest grossing film of all time for eleven years, Drew Barrymore absolutely stole the show. The incredibly adorable young actress went on to star in several other films until adolescence – and drug addiction - sidelined her career. In the early ‘90s, she reminded the world how talented she was when she earned her 2nd Golden Globe nomination for “Guncrazy” and followed that up as teenage mistress Amy Fisher. New opportunities then opened up for her with her “Scream” cameo leading the way. With hits like “The Wedding Singer” and “Charlie’s Angels,” Barrymore became a huge star once again, and followed these up with more TV show and movie appearances.

#10: Ellen DeGeneres

In the ‘90s, stand-up comedienne Ellen DeGeneres tried her hand at the lead in a sitcom and found herself in a big hit. She achieved even greater fame when both she and the character she played came out as gay. But a backlash soon developed and her popularity faded. In 2003 though, she had a double whammy: she delighted audiences as the voice of Dory in the huge hit “Finding Nemo,” and simultaneously earned a devoted following as the host of her own talk show. Having hosted the Oscars, served as a CoverGirl, and contributed to numerous causes, Ellen is a bigger star than ever. Though it’s worth noting that, in 2020, she has come under fire for a “toxic work environment” on her show.

#9: Natasha Lyonne

During its heyday, “American Pie” made huge stars of its ensemble cast. Soon thereafter, Natasha Lyonne was appearing in everything from “Kate & Leopold” to “Blade: Trinity.” Unfortunately, as addiction took the wheel, her career declined in tandem with her health. In 2005, after a series of legal issues, she was hospitalized with a collapsed lung, a heart infection, hepatitis C, and heroin addiction. Few actors ever come back from such an extreme low, but Lyonne not only got healthy and returned to acting, but has since delivered her best work to date. She was an absolute scene-stealer as Nicky Nichols in “Orange Is the New Black,” but “Russian Doll,” which she co-created, co-wrote, and stars in, remains the crowning jewel of her comeback to date.

#8: Joaquin Phoenix

Only someone with the last name Phoenix can rise from the ashes not once… but twice. In 1989, Joaquin Phoenix, then credited as Leaf, retired from acting despite his success as a child star. Then, in 1995, two years after the death of his brother River Phoenix, Joaquin finally returned to the screen. By the early 2000s, he was a massive star. The second half of the decade, however, saw his behavior become increasingly erratic and in 2008, he announced his retirement from acting. Turns out it was all for a mockumentary, “I’m Still Here,” but the damage he did was real. Thankfully, filmmakers recognized his enduring talent, and his post-hiatus career has been defined almost exclusively by critically-acclaimed performances - and an Oscar!

#7: Michael Keaton

He was Beetlejuice. He was Batman! But by the early 2000s, he was essentially nowhere to be seen. Michael Keaton never technically stopped working, it just seemed like no one was offering him big roles anymore. The critics continued to commend his performances, but nothing he did generated much interest at the box office. It’s like Hollywood didn’t know what to do with middle-aged Michael Keaton until he aged into a more believably world-weary age bracket. With 2014’s “Birdman,” a film that was appropriately about an actor looking to make a comeback, he returned with a vengeance. The performance earned him an Oscar nomination, and roles in “Spotlight,” “The Founder,” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” soon followed.

#6: Keanu Reeves

Nothing says “my career just got a new lease on life” like having your name combined with the term “renaissance.” In the ‘90s, Keanu Reeves proved himself an unlikely action star who, understated acting style aside, is surprisingly versatile. “Point Break” and “Speed” made him successful before “The Matrix” launched him into the stratosphere. Unfortunately, there’s only one place to go from there, and the 2000s saw his star dulled by forgettable films. But highs and lows, he always remained likable, relatable, and down to earth, and in the 2010s, he’s finally got the sort of adoration he always deserved. The “John Wick” franchise, a fourth Matrix movie, his epic role in “Always Be My Maybe,” wherever you look, there’s Keanu, giving us a reason to smile.

#5: Mariah Carey

Every year, new artists make their presence known with hugely successful debut albums. But how many artists can you name who can make waves this big with their tenth studio album? The world is quick to get bored with the same old pop stars. By the mid-aughts, Mariah Carey’s heyday felt like it was squarely in the rearview mirror. With her 2005 album, “The Emancipation of Mimi,” however, she made herself feel relevant and in a way that would carry her forward for years to come. The beginning of the decade saw the singer-songwriter struggling on all fronts: professionally, personally, financially, and with her health. “Glitter” could’ve been the end, but she persevered and pulled off one of the most massive comebacks in music history.

#4: Britney Spears

One of the biggest stars of the late nineties pop music scene, Britney Spears was unstoppable with her releases of hit song after hit song. In fact, her first single is one of the best-selling tunes of all time. She even dominated the Super Bowl halftime show in 2001. Then, about halfway through the noughties, things started to go awry. Suffering from a mental breakdown, she became fodder for the tabloids, her record sales dipped and she ended up in rehab. She made a small comeback in 2007 with her “Blackout” album, but personal issues troubled her again until 2008’s “Womanizer” and its parent record, “Circus.” By 2012, she had again taken the record world by storm, with Forbes naming her the year’s highest paid female musician, an honor she hadn’t attained in a decade.

#3: Neil Patrick Harris

For many years, most people didn’t know the name Neil Patrick Harris. If he popped up on our screens, the only name we thought of was Doogie Howser, the teen-aged doctor Harris played early in his career. Harris seemed to fade away after the show came to an end – that is, until he appeared in the “Harold & Kumar” series as a self-aware version of himself. Taking that momentum to move on and star in “How I Met Your Mother,” Harris became the show’s breakout star. He’s since kept the momentum going with award show hosting gigs, high profile movie roles, a Netflix series, and his critically-acclaimed stage work.

#2: Matthew McConaughey

We love the Keanussance, but the McConaissance happened first and was arguably even bigger. Looking back now, it’s almost hard to remember what McConaughey’s career used to look like. For those of you who need a refresher… it was almost exclusively rom-coms. And that’s a genre that sadly you tend to age out of eventually. By the 2000s, they all just started to blur together. Then, suddenly, McConaughey just stopped saying “yes” to the rom-coms. Laying the groundwork with “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Mud,” McConaughey blew audiences away in 2013 with “Dallas Buyers Club,” earning himself an Academy Award in the process. He followed it up with “True Detective” and “Interstellar,” among other notable roles, and in doing so, fundamentally altered (and saved) his career.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Robin Wright
She Largely Disappeared After “Forrest Gump” But Returned with “House of Cards”

Shania Twain
After Retiring in 2004, She Returned with a 2011 Vegas Residency & New Album in 2017

Ed O'Neill
After “Married... with Children” We Saw Little of the Actor, That Is Until “Modern Family”

Mandy Moore
This One-Time Teen Idol Returned to the Spotlight with “Tangled” & “This Is Us”

Paula Abdul
A Popstar Who Was All But Forgotten Before Becoming a Judge on “American Idol”

#1: Robert Downey Jr.

When he started out, Robert Downey Jr. was heralded as one of the best actors of his generation. His Oscar-nominated role in “Chaplin” and arresting performance in “Natural Born Killers” demonstrated his impressive range. But the actor’s well-publicized drug problems made him too risky for producers and his star faded in the ‘90s. Eventually overcoming his demons, Downey pulled off a historic comeback in the 2000s, reminding everyone of his versatility and skill with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Zodiac,” and “Tropic Thunder.” His performance as Tony Stark/Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has solidified him as an icon of the big screen. Having gone from such an extreme low to the monumental fame he enjoys today, Robert Downey Jr. earns his spot.
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