Randy "Ram" Robinson is a washed-up pro wrestler whose greatest glory days occurred 20 years ago.
His once-handsome looks have been ravaged by the pounding he's taken in the ring, he's lost his home and lives in a decrepit trailer, and has long since lost his wife and daughter due to neglect.
But when doctors order him to end his career after a match-induced heart attack, he struggles to enter the daily grind of "real life." Yet hovering before him on the horizon is one last chance to have a great match that might provide a return to fame.
Robinson is the protagonist of the film "The Wrestler." Yet his story line provides a perfect fit for actor Mickey Rourke, who's making his own dramatic comeback in the role after years of poverty, drug and alcohol abuse and near-homelessness. He won a Golden Globe for best actor last month, and is considered a front-runner at tonight's Academy Award.
Rourke's re-emergence as a critically acclaimed performer has followed a turnaround in his faith life, which he credits to a New York City priest.
The process of portraying a wrestler included packing on 43 pounds of muscle and practicing flips and scissorkicks for four months before the shoot. Director Darren Aronofsky kept the training intense, Rourke said.
"Darren probably knew things. I don't read anything that's written about me, but the way Darren works, he knew more about me than I wanted him to," Rourke told Our Sunday Visitor. "He said it was gonna be tough to make the movie with me since I screwed my career up for 15 years, but he still fought hard to make it with me and battled for the budget. I've been working on getting back in the game for 10 years, and I had changed for the better. I knew I had to give him all of me, but if he said I would make the effort again, he'd get me an Oscar nomination."
"You rarely if ever see a connection between a role and an actor that's so perfect, and we had to get that," Aronofsky said in a separate interview. "There was literally no one else in Hollywood whom I could see playing this role, and he dug deep to nail it."
Rourke is now calm and collected, a far cry from his wild-man days of the 1980s and '90s. With a rakish goatee, it's hard to tell if he's managed to recover the good looks that added much to his bad-boy appeal in cult classics like "Diner," "91/2 Weeks" and "Angel Heart," but which were pounded out of him during a stint as a boxer in far-flung locales from Argentina to Thailand, and from Georgia to Oklahoma.
Early love of faith
At a recent roundtable session with reporters in Los Angeles, Rourke depicted a tough childhood in which his parents split when he was 6 and his mother got remarried to a man who was incredibly abusive to her children. Rourke fell in with a rough crowd, studied self-defense training and eventually boxed his way to an amateur record of 20-7.
But in a one-on-one interview, Rourke also recalled the happier moments of his childhood and the significant role his Catholic faith played in his life.
"I grew up going to catechism classes, and the early part of my life was in the Catholic Church. My father was very devout. He left us when I was 6, but I looked forward to Sundays as the days I got to see my dad," he said. "I loved going to church with him, and we had our ritual where, after church, we'd get a bag of doughnuts, a quart of milk and sit on a stoop. You know, it's like you see somebody you know and respect, my father on his knees praying, I wanted to be just like him."
When his parents got divorced, his mother joined the Episcopal Church, and it was a decade before Mickey turned 17 and decided to return to Catholicism. Despite his past battles with drugs and alcohol, he's rarely stopped praying since.
"If I wasn't going to church, I always made sure I said my prayers. My younger brother got very sick at 17 and was given a short time to live, so I was told about St. Jude, the miracle priest," Rourke said. "My brother lasted 20 more years, and I owe a lot of it to my faith and believing that my prayers helped my brother live as long as he was able to stay here. I used to go jogging four or five miles, and I'd continuously say my prayers over and over as I jogged."
But just because Rourke was talking the talk with his prayers didn't mean he was walking the walk of a holy man. Even at his peak, he purposely built an image as an outrageous outlaw prone to creating scenes like the time he attended a meeting with studio execs with an entourage of Hells Angels in full regalia beside him, and cultivated friendships from the seedier members of society.
The defining moment of his life came in 1994, amid a turbulent six-year marriage to former supermodel Carre Otis. During their union, she got hooked on heroin, an addiction so fierce, Rourke said, that it resulted in her getting raped while disoriented from the drug.
When Rourke learned who the rapist was, he headed out with a gun. He planned to kill the man and then himself, figuring he had nothing left to live for and that his murdering the rapist would be an act of vengeance in Otis' name.
Yet, instead of going through with it, Rourke felt compelled to enter the Church of the Holy Cross near Times Square. There, racked with sorrow and doubt, he started to cry, and the parish pastor, Father Peter Colapietro, took notice.
"I reached a place in my life where living was living hard. I was at a crossroads. Because I was raised Catholic, I had issues with the dark side of life I was drifting in," Rourke said. "I didn't know this man, Father Peter. I just walked in his church one day, walked in the right door and met the right priest."
Father Colapietro managed to talk Rourke out of his plan. "He took away my gun and had me leave the note with St. Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes. And he said that part of my life could be over now and I still had the opportunity to do things over again."
Over the 14 years since, Rourke and Father Colapietro have cemented their friendship, with Rourke saying his confessions in Colapietro's kitchen. Rourke has Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner at the church rectory.
"He definitely is a man of faith and believes in God's presence in the world," Father Colapietro told OSV. "He often wonders why he's having this success right now, and I say you've got the talent, and talent is a gift from God."
For his part, Rourke is trying to ride the wave of new success that "The Wrestler" is bringing him while keeping a level head about it all.
"You know, you can have fame, success and all the money in the world, but you can never take it with you. I believe God can reward you, but I don't think he punishes you, really. And those rough spots are the lessons in life. I wish I went with God's plan 15 years ago, instead of mine. I'd be in a lot different place, but I'm glad to be where I am right now."
Carl Kozlowski writes from California.