Wes Anderson did it with Bill Murray; Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich; and John Waters did it with Kathleen Turner and Melanie Griffith. But the true comeback masters, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, have a knack for taking fading stars who were collecting showbiz cobwebs and paying them the ultimate homage—by placing the spotlight and all of popular culture's fleeting attention back on them. Like pairing an haute couture top with a pair of vintage jeans, retro casting can give a modern film the kind of authentic, nostalgic look that only a true fan can appreciate. These two popular independent filmmakers started out as adoring fans just like everyone else; now they possess the kind of power in the industry to resurrect an underused actor's career. And what audience doesn't love a good comeback?
The most obvious example of retro casting is John Travolta. He had already endured many peaks and valleys in his long career, but no peak as significant as with his role as a heroin-addicted hitman in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Travolta had just finished Look Who's Talking Too and was at a photo shoot for Vanity Fair when the fast-talking director cornered him with the Oscar-winning script. Rumor has it that the movie star turned him down until Tarantino, who loved the actor's work in Saturday Night Fever, Urban Cowboy, and Blow Out, recapped Travolta's entire career verbatim and convinced him he was selling himself short.
"I was working, I just wasn't in anything anyone ever saw," Travolta said in an interview for Well Rounded Entertainment. "I lost my opportunities and a few people like Quentin gave them back to me. He actually got mad at me for letting the career go. When I got back on top, I decided to act responsibly in a way like someone who really cared about it, like I used to, and like Quentin does now. He was just this little kid people were making all kinds of noise about, and he was yelling at me, telling me I hadn't realized my true potential. It got to me like a parent's scolding would have. I guess I'm just trying to make him proud of me like [my family]. I guess you could say that I decided to grow up."
Travolta received his second Oscar nomination for the role and has commanded $20 million per film ever since. Besides Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks, he is considered the most sought-after actor working in Hollywood—not bad for the man known as "the comeback kid."
Jackie Brown, Tarantino's third major release, revived two more forgotten careers of these actors: Pam Grier and Robert Forster. Grier was a blaxploitation staple in the 1970s, showing just how courageous and deadly an African-American woman could be, in films such as Foxy Brown and Coffy. Tarantino had originally considered her for Rosanna Arquette's role in Pulp Fiction but had thought better of it.
"She came in and gave a great reading, but I wanted it to be perfect," Tarantino told Guardian Unlimited. "I didn't just want to cast somebody because I like them or cast somebody because I want to work with them. I wanted it to be the perfect marriage. I am not just thinking about this actor in this role. I am thinking how … does it affect the whole ensemble and everything like that. The thing is, it gave me a chance to actually work with Pam. I felt like I had worked with her in the audition. I was just going to take it another step further when it was right, and [Jackie Brown] was right as rain." Since Grier's leading role in Jackie Brown, she has worked very steadily and is currently starring in Showtime's lesbian drama The L Word.
When Tarantino was looking for a seasoned actor to portray Jackie Brown's love interest in the film, he had a wish list in mind: Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, John Saxon, and Robert Forster. "I was always leaning more towards Robert Forster, and I walked into a restaurant with my notebook to do some writing, and he was there, and I thought, 'That's Max Cherry, he's right there.' C'est la vie to the three—all terrific actors. All would have done a wonderful job, but they are not Max Cherry; Robert is," Tarantino added. Since then, Forster kissed his days of struggle goodbye and started working with hot directors such as Gus Van Sant, David Lynch, and Michel Gondry.
The career resurrection continued with Tarantino's recent action-packed Kill Bill films. An homage to spaghetti Westerns and martial arts films, it placed 1980s darling Darryl Hannah back into the mainstream—as it did for Uma Thurman, who hadn't hit a career peak since her Oscar-nominated performance as Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction. But it was David Carradine, one of Tarantino's early childhood favorites, who found his true comeback as the title character in the series, although he wasn't the first choice. Warren Beatty had signed on to play the role but then demurred when he realized the commitment it would have taken, including three months of kung fu training in China. At the same time, Tarantino had been reading Carradine's autobiography Endless Highway, and he started to mold Bill in a style more suited to the actor.
"I'm a huge fan of [Carradine's]," Tarantino told Playboy. "Along with a few actors such as Jack Nicholson and Christopher Walken, David is one of the great mad geniuses of the acting community. There is also the aspect of having Gordon Liu representing Hong Kong, Sonny Chiba representing Japan, and David Carradine, star of Kung Fu, representing America—a literal roundup of the three countries that made martial arts the genre that it is."
Other than being responsible for championing and catapulting to fame his "family of actors"—John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, and Luis Guzmán—by casting them in multiple films, Paul Thomas Anderson has also resurrected a couple of careers. Unlike a lot of directors, Anderson writes his screenplays almost like love letters to his actors. His directing career began this way. A fervent admirer of Robert Altman, Anderson saw Secret Honor on TV one day and was totally blown away by Philip Baker Hall's performance as Richard Nixon. "I thought, 'This is a brilliant performance,' then for the next 10 years I saw him crop up in roles that weren't good enough for him," Anderson recalled to The Seattle Times. "He's one of the great undiscovered actors. The kinds of parts he plays tend to go to Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall. A lot of those kinds of actors are seriously underused, and no one knows they're out there."
Hall had been a steadily working actor for decades but was famous for little more than his Lt. Bookman cameo on Seinfeld. So when Anderson was a volunteer PA on a PBS special starring Hall, they struck up a father/son–type friendship. "I could see that this was someone special, and one day we were having coffee and cigarettes between takes, and I said, 'What is your ambition?' And he said he wanted to write and direct," Hall told BSW last year. "I was like, 'Oh, that's a surprise. Isn't that what everyone wants to do on this set?' But I knew that he was different. And he said, 'By the way, I have a short script, kind of a student project, and there's a great role for you in it.' I said, 'Sure,' and he mailed it to me." The short was Cigarettes and Coffee, and, while it played the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, the two began workshopping a project that eventually became Anderson's first feature, Sydney aka Hard Eight. Since then, Hall also appeared in Anderson's Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and he has become quite the sought-after actor.
Burt Reynolds received rave reviews, a Golden Globe win, an Oscar nomination, and a red carpet comeback for his portrayal of Jack Horner, the patriarch of the "porn family" in Boogie Nights. At first Anderson was concerned that featuring Reynolds in a film set in the '70s would be too much of a wink to the audience. "The '70s vibe was like the perfect world scenario, this '70s icon who can add a layer of authenticity without you remembering Smokey and the Bandit as being another movie about the '70s. That was the dream, and the fear was that it would be too kitschy in a way," Anderson told The Washington Post. "[And the other] concern of mine was that I don't want to be the guy who brings someone back; I just want to find someone who's perfect for this. I really decided to use Burt because when I sat down with him, he said something that was so fucking great, he said, 'Listen, I just want you to remember that I'm an actor first and I'm a celebrity second. Please don't forget that I'm an actor.' And I was like, wow, that's so Jack Horner."
So even though Anderson and Tarantino don't think of themselves as "comeback kings," it never displeases a director when regained prestige for an actor arrives as a direct result of their film. As for the grateful actors who receive the well-deserved attention after years in limbo, John Travolta rationalizes it: "I always viewed it as if I was a generator that was not hooked up to the electricity. You've always got the ability to perform, but if the studio decides to pull the plug on that then you're just a workable generator at a distance." BSW