12 Actors Who Completely Reinvented Themselves Across Their Career

Over 1.2K Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of 12 Actors Who Completely Reinvented Themselves Across Their Career
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Vote up the actors who did the best job reinventing their careers.

In nearly every aspect of life, change is necessary in order to make progress and survive. These actors who reinvented themselves prove that even A-list stars need to change in order to maintain a successful and long career in the tumultuous land known as Tinseltown. 

Johnny Depp started his big-screen career as a bad boy starring in offbeat quirky Tim Burton movies. But "bad boy actor" doesn’t look the same at 40 as it does at 20. Depp signed with Disney to make a blockbuster called Pirates of the Caribbean, and it opened up a whole new fantastical world for the actor. 

Liam Neeson, Drew Barrymore, and Jason Bateman also experienced a tremendous amount of career change throughout their storied careers. But which actors did the best job reinventing themselves? Vote up the Hollywood career paths you think have been the most successful.

Photo: Iron Man / Paramount Pictures

  • In the 1980s and early '90s, Robert Downey Jr. established himself as not only a rising star but one who could really act. Among his best early performances are Less Than Zero and the biopic Chaplin, a role that earned Downey an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

    In the mid-1990s, Downey fell into a pattern of infamous off-screen behavior. He was arrested multiple times on different charges that included possession of coke and heroin. After several failed attempts at recovery, he told a judge in 1999, "It's like I have a shotgun in my mouth, and I've got my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal."

    After spending time in prison, Downey put himself on the path to rebuilding his life. He starred in a string of independent films that may not have dominated at the box office but proved he was an incredible talent that deserved another chance. The actor shined in David Fincher's Zodiac and Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - the latter of which caught the eye of director Jon Favreau, who was looking to cast the lead for his new superhero movie Iron Man

    In 2008, Iron Man hit the big screen and almost immediately made Robert Downey Jr. the biggest movie star on the planet. The actor would reprise his dual role as Iron Man/billionaire Tony Stark for three additional Iron Man installments and several Avengers movies. 

    Downey's movies have raked-in over $14 billion worldwide and made the actor one of the biggest box office draws in cinema history.

    • Age: 58
    • Birthplace: Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States of America
    1,135 votes
  • Jason Bateman: From Child Actor To Teen Heartthrob To Deadpan Comedy Genius To Grizzled Dramatic Actor
    Photo: NBC / Netflix

    Jason Bateman did something few actors could pull off. He was a child actor and teen idol pinup TV star, went out of the spotlight, then came back as a major Hollywood player. Audiences may first remember Bateman as Ricky Schroder's trouble-making best friend on Silver Spoons. In the mid-1980s, the actor exploded onto teen magazine covers everywhere when he played David Hogan on The Hogan Family (and its many different titles) for six seasons.

    After the success of the Michael J. Fox-led Teen Wolf, Bateman took on the lead role for the 1987 sequel, Teen Wolf Too. The film was a critical and box office disappointment. When The Hogan Family went off the air in 1991, Bateman didn't exactly disappear. He starred in a few TV movies and appeared in several different TV shows. However, all of his '90s series only lasted one season and didn't make much of an impression.

    Bateman came back in a big way in 2003 when he was cast as family patriarch Michael Bluth in the beloved sitcom Arrested Development. Bateman played the perfect deadpan straight man to the outrageous cast of characters that made up the Bluth family. Bateman won a Golden Globe Award in 2005, but more importantly, he was able to launch a successful career on the big screen. 

    The actor appeared in several hit comedies in the 2000s. He would sometimes take smaller roles in ensemble movies like Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, The Break-Up, Juno, Hancock, and Horrible Bosses. Other times, Bateman would be a primary star, as in Game Night, The Change-Up, and Bad Words (which he also directed).

    But Bateman proved he's not just a man of comedy. In 2017, he starred as criminal financial advisor Marty Byrde in the Netflix original series Ozark. The Breaking Bad-like drama is one of the streaming network's biggest hits. Bateman also serves an executive producer and has directed several of the episodes. Ozark has received an impressive 32 Emmy Award nods. Bateman won an Emmy for his work behind the camera in 2018. Bateman also produced, starred, and directed episodes of the HBO dramatic miniseries The Outsider.

    • Age: 54
    • Birthplace: Rye, New York, USA
    797 votes
  • Michael Caine: From Womanizing Tough Guy To Wise Old Grandpa
    Photo: MGM / Warner Bros.

    One of Michael Caine's early signature roles came as the womanizing cad in 1966's Alfie. Caine received his first Academy Award nomination for his performance. It wouldn't be the only role the British actor took that would show off his affinity for being a ladies' man. 

    In the 1970s, the actor carved out a solid niche in the crime and spy genre with performances in the British movies The Ipcress File, The Italian Job, and Sleuth. His most action star performance came as Jack Carter in the 1971 gritty British crime drama Get Carter. The intense classic features Caine as a cool but ruthless antihero seeking revenge for the demise of his brother. 

    In the 1980s, Caine won his first Oscar, playing a married man with a wandering eye in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters. By the end of the Reagan era, Caine made a smooth transition to more morally centered "wise" mentor-type roles. His performance as the sage orphanage doctor in 1999's The Cider House Rules earned the actor his second Academy Award. 

    In 2008, Christopher Nolan cast Caine as Alfred Pennyworth for the Dark Knight trilogy. He settled in as the perfect casting choice to play Batman's butler and personal confidante. He would also play grandfatherly mentor-type roles in Nolan's Inception and the sci-fi movie Children of Men.

    • Age: 90
    • Birthplace: Rotherhithe, London, England, UK
    636 votes
  • Liam Neeson’s big breakout role came as Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 historical epic, Schindler’s List. The handsome Irish actor earned an Academy Award nomination and embarked on the path to being a serious dramatic leading man. Neeson’s 1990s/early 2000s dramatic roles included starring turns in Rob Roy, Nell, Michael Collins, Les Misérables, and Gangs of New York

    George Lucas cast Neeson to play Jedi Master Qui-Gon in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon was responsible for serving as a mentor and trainer for young Anakin Skywalker to help him find the force. The mentor role fit like a glove with Neeson, who took on similar roles in Batman Begins and Kingdom of Heaven.

    Then, a funny thing happened to Neeson in 2008 when the actor was already well into his 50s: He became an action movie star. After playing a retired CIA operative in Taken, Neeson proved he had a very particular set of skills - or in other words, he can kick *ss. Taken raked in an unexpected $229 million at the box office on just a $25 million budget. Neeson appeared in two additional Taken installments which totaled over $1 billion worldwide.

    His career second act was just getting started. He went on a run of blockbuster big-budget movies like Clash of the Titans and The A-Team. In the 2010s, he became an action movie staple, starring in the likes of The GreyNon-Stop, Run All Night, and The Commuter

    In 2020, at the age of 68, Neeson said he wasn't done making action films. He simply loves the genre and believes that he still has more fight left in him.

    • Age: 71
    • Birthplace: Ballymena, United Kingdom
    627 votes
  • Most people only remember Leslie Nielsen for his work in parody movies. However, the Canadian actor had three decades' worth of dramatic television and film work before getting into the comedy game. The 1950s were an especially prolific decade for Nielsen, as he appeared in dozens of television shows. The actor worked his way onto the big screen in 1956's Ransom! and continued to receive serious parts in everything from adventure films to westerns. 

    A couple of his more early popular films include Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure. He additionally co-starred with Debbie Reynolds in the 1957 romantic comedy Tammy and the Bachelor. The actor would also continue his prolific dramatic television work. He appeared in episodes of Rawhide, The Untouchables, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Peyton Place, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Virginian, among many others. 

    Then, a funny thing happened. The handsome character actor with that distinguished sheen of white hair was cast in the spoof movie Airplane! in 1980. Nielsen's role as Dr. Rumack in the classic disaster parody movie showed the world his impressive and soon-to-be trademark deadpan delivery. 

    Nielsen made the second act of his Hollywood career a massive success playing dimwitted but lovable characters who definitely are not in on the joke. In 1982, the actor starred as Det. Frank Drebin in the spoof police television drama Police Squad! The show only lasted one season, though Drebin was soon resurrected on celluloid. Nielsen received an Emmy nod for his performance. 

    In 1988, The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! hit the big screen. Nielsen reprised the role of the incompetent Drebin, and the absurd comedy filled with sight gags and ridiculous one-liners became a huge box office success. Two sequels followed - The Naked Gun ​2 1⁄2: The Smell of Fear and Naked Gun ​33 1⁄3: The Final Insult. Both films were hits at the box office, the first sequel even managing to bring in more money than the original. The three movies combined for a total box office gross of over $226 million. 

    Nielsen spent the next several years bringing his perfectly timed dry delivery to other spoof movies. He also starred in The Exorcist parody Repossessed, the 2001: A Space Odyssey spoof 2001: A Space Travesty, and The Fugitive parody Wrongfully Accused.

    • Age: Dec. at 84 (1926-2010)
    • Birthplace: Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
    458 votes
  • Henry Winkler: From Coolest Guy In America To Befuddled Comedy Star 
    Photo: ABC / HBO

    After landing small parts in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show, Henry Winkler landed his big breakout in 1974 when he was cast as Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli on Happy Days. The leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding character oozed the essence of cool and helped keep the sitcom on the air for 10 seasons. Winkler earned three Emmy nominations and won two Golden Globes for his portrayal of the Fonz.

    When Happy Days left the air, Winkler spent most of the 1980s working as a producer and director. Then in the 1990s, he made a big return to acting. His most head-turning role came as a potty-mouthed principal in the Wes Craven horror movie Scream. From there, Winkler took on several memorable comedic roles. He played Adam Sandler's character's coach in The Waterboy and Bluth family's incompetent lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development. He further polished his small screen comedic chops in Parks & Recreation, Royal Pains, and Childrens Hospital

    In 1999, Winkler also proved he could handle the drama. He earned an Emmy nod for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his work as Dr. Henry Olson in a multiple-episode arc on the legal drama The Practice. Winkler's biggest post-Fonzie role came in the Bill Hader HBO dramedy series Barry. He plays an aging acting teacher with hopes of still making it. Winkler won his very first Emmy in 2018 for his performance.

    • Age: 77
    • Birthplace: New York, New York, USA
    505 votes