Left for Dead: Amazing Career Resurrections

What happens a career hits a dead-end? I was thinking about Eric Clapton the other day. In the early 1973, Clapton was addicted to drugs and his career was in the dumps. Not very many people remember those times, in part because he rebuilt his career, and his guitar legacy only grew.

In America, second chances abound. The public loves a success story, a rebound from adversity, and rising from the ashes (sorry, a bit dramatic). Here are a few resurrected careers, people who went on to reinvent themselves and some attained even greater success.

Richard Nixon

You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore. That’s what Richard Nixon said after losing the race to become Governor of California in 1962. He had lost a close White House election to John F. Kennedy in 1960. Just a few years later he was elected President of the United States. Well, we know how that ended with Watergate and exile to San Clemente. Nixon would reemerge as a statesman and author.

William Shatner

Life after the cancellation of Star Trek was difficult for Shatner. A divorce, child support and difficulties finding work. Shatner worked in television, guest appearances and movies, the occasional feature film and theater. At one point he was living in a camper truck. Then, the Star Trek reemergence happened with the films, which led to the television crime drama, T J Hooker, and more Star Trek films. Shatner’s career was soaring far beyond his initial success. Shatner made a fortune promoting Priceline and other products. Being himself, loved or hated, was his biggest and most profitable asset.

John Travolta

From Barbarino to Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Urban Cowboy, the former sweat hog was an A-list movie star. By the mid 1980s, Travolta was doing TV movies and independent features. The “high point” was Look Who’s Talking. Ever hear of Chains of Gold or The Experts? No one else has either. In 1994, Travolta took a supporting role in Pulp Fiction, and that turned his career around. Get Shorty, Broken Arrow, Face/Off, Michael, Primary Colors and many other major features followed, making Travolta a very rich man.

Jim Plunkett

The 1970 Heisman Trophy winner and the first pick in the 1971 NFL draft, Plunkett landed with the Boston Patriots, the worst NFL team. Plunkett would spend five seasons with the Patriots, never quite able to get the team into the playoffs, and sustaining a serious shoulder injury. Traded to the 49ers with high expectations, he was released after two average seasons. He signed with the Raiders and sat on the bench for two years, allowing him to get healthy. During his eight seasons with the Raiders, he would lead them to two Super Bowl wins and be named a Super Bowl MVP. His overall NFL statistics and record are only average, and he dealt with numerous injuries late in his career, but he had some glorious moments with the Raiders and finally delivered on the success many predicted after his College Football Hall of Fame years at Stanford.

Jim Bakker

Jim and Tammy Faye build quite an opulent lifestyle for themselves back in the 1980s, before it all came crashing down. Known for their kitschy cable TV PTL Club. A pyramid scheme of overselling lifetime memberships at their Heritage USA development, and Jim funneling church cash as a payoff for forcing church secretary Jessica Hahn to have sex with him and other associates, landed poor Jim in prison. Good news, Jim is back on cable TV with a new wife, hawking products, end of the world religion and extremist political views. Same old Jim, different message, same game.

Tina Turner

Tina Turner’s story is well-known, her initial success with Ike Turner, the domestic violence she endured, and her escape. She clawed back, reclaiming her life, and building a career far beyond her success with Ike. She took her act on the road, playing Las Vegas and clubs at first. Private Dancer, her 1984 album was a massive hit, selling 10 million albums and winning three Grammy Awards. Her profile was now as a contemporary artist rather than a legacy artist. Duets with Rod Stewart, Bryan Adams and others, along with film appearances, helped to sell out stadiums around the world and sell millions of records, and earn the Kennedy Centers Honors, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Her greatest impact might have been helping empower women to leave abusive relationships and take charge of their lives.

George Foreman

An Olympic Gold Medalist in 1968 and Heavyweight boxing champion in 1973, by defeating Joe Frazier, George Foreman quickly established himself as a gifted boxer. Then Muhammad Ali took the title away from him the next year and Foreman retired in 1977. In 1994, at age 45, he returned to the ring. He won two heavyweight championships belts, and officially retired three years later. Foreman parlayed his fame and good guy image into pitching the George Foreman Grill. He later sold it for $138M. Foreman became an ordained minister and served as boxing announcer, amongst other pursuits.

Debbie Reynolds

America’s sweetheart of the 1950s survived the Eddie Fisher-Elizabeth Taylor affair and flourished in the 1960s. But in the 1970s, her career had hit a major slump, her husband bled her dry financially, and she was a 40 year old women with two teenagers to support. With no major film or TV projects, she turned to Las Vegas and the theater, where crowds loved her. She appeared on Broadway, and appeared in national and international theater tours. She paid off her ex-husband’s debts and rebuilt her career. She found television and film roles for her spunky nature, toured in her cabaret show, and reestablished Debbie Reynolds, not as a victim, but as a survivor and success.

Peter Frampton

A guitar phenom at a young age, he was a member of Humble Pie before going out as a solo artist in the early 1970s. His solo career stalled, until he released Frampton Comes Alive! and his world changed. He was a megastar for a short period of time, a misstep was starring in a film version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The reviews were brutal, then he released his next studio album and it was a disappointment. His career was circling the drain. In the 1980s, David Bowie asked him to play guitar on his world tour. That event reset Frampton’s career. A series of albums were warmly received in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including an instrumental album that was awarded a Grammy. Frampton toured regularly and played the hits that the boomers wanted to hear. He was a hot ticket again and even found his long-lost Gibson Les Paul guitar from his early days.

Robert Altman

Spending the 1950s and 1960s making industrial films, low-budget independent films and writing/directing television shows, Robert Altman finally got his chance to direct feature films with Countdown (1967) and A Cold Day in the Park (1969), which led to the surprise and controversial hit, MASH (1970). The toast of Hollywood, Altman spent the next decade making quirky, character-driven films that pleased him, but generally failed to find audiences. By the early 1980s, Altman was back making low-budget, independent films, having wasted the clout that MASH had earned him. In 1992, Players, about the film industry, reestablished Altman as a “player” in Hollywood, as A-list actors lined up to work with him. His last film, The Prairie Home Companion (2006) was released the year he died. Altman never changed the type of films he made, Hollywood changed to appreciate his style of filmmaking.

Rocky Bleier

A starting running back and team captain for Notre Dame, he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, playing for them as a rookie in 1968. Bleier was drafted and volunteered to serve in Vietnam, where he was severely wounded in the leg by a bullet his foot mangled by a grenade. Serious injuries for a football player. He would have to rebuild his body and increase his weight by 30 pounds. He rejoined the Steelers in 1970, but didn’t play that season and only on special teams the next season. The road back was a tough one and Bleier was waived several times, but Bleier never gave up. In 1974, he worked his way into the starting lineup. Primarily a blocking back for Franco Harris, he rushed for over 1,000 yards in 1976. He played on four Super Bowl winning Steeler teams before retiring in 1980.

Dennis Hopper

Early acting fame came with film appearances in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), but he derailed his own career by establishing a “difficult to work with” reputation. He found work in low-budget films and television, until John Wayne hired him for The Sons of Katie Elder (1966) and then later True Grit (1969). With his reputation repaired, Hopper teamed up with Peter Fonda for Easy Rider (1969), which Hopper co-wrote, co-starred and directed. Hopper suddenly had major Hollywood clout, which lasted until The Last Movie (1971), a troubled film Hopper directed and co-wrote. Refusing the studio’s demand it be re-edited, the film was essentially dumped onto the market and then buried. Difficult and a heavy drug user, Hopper again worked in low-budget and independent films until Blue Velvet and Hoosiers, both released in 1986, again revived his career. He quit drinking at his point and the character in Hoosiers was a struggling alcoholic. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the role. Hopper worked continuously for the rest of his life in lead and supporting roles and directed a number of films including Colors (1988). The quirky Hopper was cool again.

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