The ’80s was a time of bright eyeshadow, bubbly pop music and lots of angsty teen comedies. Director John Hughes created “the Brat Pack,” which was a group of teenagers who starred in multiple Hughes movies. Hollywood is a rough business though, and the actors on this list had to reinvent themselves in order to still be in it three decades later. Even more surprisingly for actors who peaked in their early 20s, many of these young, 80s era celebs managed to make successful comebacks. Take a trip back through this decade. You might be surprised who got their start in it.
Actress Molly Ringwald got her big break in John Hughes’s 1984 film Sixteen Candles as the angsty Samantha whose 16th birthday is forgotten by her family. This movie cemented Ringwald as a member of the famous Brat Pack, and she went on to star in two other Hughes films, The Breakfast Club (1985) and Pretty in Pink (1986). These films defined the decade and put Ringwald on the map.
After starring in all of these iconic films, Ringwald had some trouble trying to eclipse the work she did early on in her career. She had minor roles up until 2008 when she played the mom in The Secret Life of the American Teenager and was put back on the map. The actress has written several books, including an autobiography Getting the Pretty Back, and is a singer. Recently, Ringwald has become a vocal #MeToo advocate—even criticizing some of her Brat Pack movies.
Rob Lowe first piqued Hollywood’s interest when he appeared as Sodapop Curtis in The Outsiders in 1983 and won the hearts of millions for his dashing good looks. The actor even became Brat Pack adjacent when he starred in John Hughes’s movie St. Elmo’s Fire as bad boy Billy Hicks.
The actor didn’t really take any break from the 1980s until now, but he fell from the zeitgeist. He reemerged briefly after playing Benjamin Oliver in Wayne’s World in 1992. Lowe reminded America why they missed him so much when starred as Sam Seaborn in the West Wing in 1999. His most beloved role is the hyperactive and optimistic Chris Traeger in the Amy Poehler-starring series Parks and Recreation.
Sometimes people forget that Drew Barrymore was a child star. She got her start at the very young age of seven as Gertie in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. in 1983. Although Barrymore got noticed for her performance, she struggled through her teens with a string of bad movies and drug abuse. She became legally emancipated from her parents at age 14.
Barrymore came back and hit her stride in the late ’90s with roles in The Wedding Singer, Ever After and Never Been Kissed. After she became the rom-com queen, she began producing her own films, giving her more creative control. Her most recent project was executive producing and starring in the zombie comedy The Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix.
When you think about 80s movies, Footloose (1984) comes to mind immediately. Even though Kevin Bacon was in other films in the late ’70s and early 80s like Animal House and Friday the 13th, he’s most remembered for his role as rebel dancer Ren—for better or worse. The actor and his fast feet were now in film history.
Despite his career taking off more than three decades ago, Bacon has survived. He’s been in movies and on TV ever since. There was even a game called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” which challenged players to connect every Hollywood actor with him because he’s worked so much. Most recently, the actor was in the sci-fi show The Following and Amazon series I Love Dick.
Neil Patrick Harris
Neil Patrick Harris can do just about everything. He can sing, dance, act and perform epic magic tricks. In the late 80s era, he was just a kid trying to escape from a Flying Purple People Eater and a genius teenage physician named Doogie Howser. He certainly has come a long way.
The actor survived the transition from child star to popular adult actor. Neil Patrick Harris became a Hollywood favorite again as the arrogant, annoying playboy Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother in 2009. When the series ended, he voiced many an animated character and shined on Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events as Count Olaf.
Demi Moore came onto the scene in 1982 for playing Jackie Templeton in General Hospital and won the hearts of Americans everywhere for her role on this soap opera. She shared the screen with Rob Lowe in John Hughes’s St. Elmo’s Fire as Jules and her career took off from there.
Demi Moore managed to transcend her Brat Pack status with her role in the highest-grossing movie of 1990, Ghost. She had a string of box office successes with A Few Good Men, An Indecent Proposal and Disclosure. Everything was going well with Moore until 1997 when G.I. Jane got terrible reviews in 1997. She took a nearly 10-year-long break from Hollywood to raise her children. She came back in the late ’00s and recently had a recurring role on the TV show Empire and in the film Rough Night.
Jason Bateman got his big break on Little House on the Prairie, playing orphan Cooper who was adopted by the Ingalls family. He spent the 80s era a heartthrob on various TV shows, including Silver Spoons, It’s Your Move and The Hogan Family. He even became the youngest director to join the Director’s Guild of America for directing a few episodes of The Hogan Family at the age of 18.
But like many young stars, Bateman hit a rough patch. He had a slew of TV shows that got killed after one season or even less. The actor reemerged on a quirky little show called Arrested Development as Michael Bluth, which would catapult him back to stardom. Most recently, Bateman was in the movie Game Night and stars in the Netflix show Ozark.
John Cusack’s second minor movie role was in Sixteen Candles, so he got his start in one of the most ’80s films. The actor’s breakout came in Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing in 1985, but his most iconic scene was yet to come. In 1989, he famously held a boom box up outside of a certain girl’s window in Say Anything and became a star.
The actor could have faded into obscurity, but he’s kept working. He provided Dimitri’s voice in the animated Anastasia (1997) and starred in the cult classic High Fidelity, Oscar-nominated film Being John Malkovich (1999). Cusack isn’t always the top-billed actor, but he’s been steadily appearing in films like Chi-Raq (2015) and Maps to the Stars (2014).
Patrick Dempsey sure has come a long way since he starred on the TV sequel to Fast Times at Ridgemont High as Mike Damone in 1986. He went from awkward—yet over-eager—high-school boy to total hunk. Although the actor got his start based off a popular ’80s movie, he toiled on some pretty unremarkable TV shows and movies for decades.
He caught America’s attention when he played Will’s boyfriend on Will & Grace in 2001. Hollywood realize that Dempsey was rom-com material and cast him as Reese Witherspoon’s love interest in Sweet Home Alabama (2002) and the romantic leads didn’t stop after that. Dempsey’s most famous for his role Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd on Grey’s Anatomy, which he was on for 13 years.
Anthony Michael Hall
After he nearly stole the spotlight from Chevy Chase in Vacation (1983), John Hughes decided 13-year-old Anthony Michael Hall would be perfect at pestering Samantha as Farmer Ted in Sixteen Candles (1984). The actor became known for playing a geek and was a core part of the Brat Pack, starring in The Breakfast Club (1985) and Weird Science (1985). He even reportedly dated Molly Ringwald for a bit. He also played against type as the bully to Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands (1990).
But he could only play the geeky kid for so long. Hall transitioned seamlessly from that scrawny kid to an adult. He had supporting roles in Dark Knight (2008), Foxcatcher (2014) and War Machine (2016). He has no problem playing authority figures like detectives and even principals. He reunited with Molly Ringwald on-screen in Riverdale as Principal Featherhead—a name no doubt Farmer Ted would approve of.
Alyssa Milano landed on the Hollywood scene in 1984 in the beloved Tony Danza sitcom Who’s the Boss? as the sassy Sam Micelli. Even though Milano was only seven years old, she went toe-to-toe with Danza with ease. The child star spent the entire ’80s decade on the show, which ended when was about 15 years old in 1992.
As soon as Milano was done with the sitcom, she did her best to try to throw off her “nice girl” roots with roles in dark thrillers and teen comedies. The actress re-emerged in the witchy show Charmed (1998-2006) as Phoebe Halliwell and has stuck to doing TV stints ever since, like Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later (2017). In addition to acting, Milano has an influential voice in the #MeToo movement.
It’s difficult to stay relevant in pop music, but Madonna’s career has spanned more than three decades. In the early days of her career, Madonna was part of a band called the Breakfast Club. She starred in the iconic 80s classic, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). How much more ’80s could she get? In 1982, Madonna was signed by Sire. She released “Everybody,” “Like a Virgin,” “Material Girl” and “Crazy For You” during this decade.
After she was done redefining what it meant to be a female pop star and fashion, she didn’t slow down. Madonna headlined the halftime show at the Super Bowl in 2014. She starred in the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita (1996). She was named Billboard’s Woman of the Year and gave a stirring speech about what it was like to be a woman in the music industry. She’s currently working on her 14th studio album and has reinvented herself so many times that she’s the de facto comeback queen.
Christian Slater got his big break as playing the handsome psychopath, J.D., in Heathers (1998). When Veronica wished that the mean, popular Heathers would just die already, she didn’t anticipate J.D. carrying it out. Slater went on to star in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), True Romance (1993), and Very Bad Things (1998).
The actor still has smaller roles on TV shows and movies today. But Slater had a trippy return to his roots in TV show Mr. Robot. He played a charming, manipulative leader of an underground hacking group called F-Society. Slater is as dangerous and clever as he was as J.D. in Heathers.
“Bueller?” is the line Matthew Broderick probably still gets quoted back at him on a daily basis. The actor shined as the clever, yet loveable Ferris Bueller in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). Broderick’s performance probably inspired many kids to play hooky and buy cheetah vests.
Broderick was in a ton of films in the ‘80s, including Wargames (1983), Project X (1987), and Glory (1989). The actor defied genre and made it through the Brat Pack slump, coming back almost unrecognizable in Alexander Payne’s Election (1999). Although Broderick prefers to act on Broadway these days, he still manages to appear in films like Manchester By the Sea (2016) and Rules Don’t Apply (2016).
The 21-year-old actor Tom Cruise went from nearly unknown to major heartthrob overnight in 1983 when he played Steve Randle in The Outsiders. His career skyrocketed from there, and he established himself as the leading man in Risky Business (1983) and Top Gun (1986). Cruise has gone on receive three Oscar nominations and star in just about every good movie from the 1990s.
In the past decade, Cruise has mainly relied on action movies and sequels to continue to draw people into the box office, but that’s worked like a charm. Mission Impossible: Fallout received rave reviews and raked in $790 million. Top Gun: Maverick is set to come out in 2020, so no doubt fans will be running to the theaters for nostalgia’s sake.
Robert Downey Jr.
New York City actor Robert Downey Jr. had a very eventful year in 1985. He starred in two memorable ’80s era films Tuff Turf (1985) and Weird Science. Downey Jr. became a household name for bullying Anthony Michael Hall. The young man became one of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood, starring in Less Than Zero (1987), Soapdish (1991) and Chaplin (1992) but turned into a liability for producers when he became addicted to drugs.
In 1996, RDJ got arrested for the first time for possession of heroin, cocaine and a handgun. For the next five years, Downey Jr. was in and out of jail. He lost most of his acting gigs, still winning a Golden Globe for his role on Ally McBeal. After his final arrest in 2001, Downey Jr. kicked drugs to the curb. The actor began making indie films that were critically acclaimed, but he still needed a big comeback movie. He got two in 2008: Tropic Thunder and Iron Man. The actor still plays Tony Stark today and has successfully revived his career.
When you think of Bruce Willis, your mind probably automatically goes to Die Hard (1988). Willis got his start years before that though on the show Moonlighting. The actor played a clever and funny detective whose partner, played by Cybill Shepherd, was a former model. They band together to start their own private eye agency. Laughs ensue. The show lasted from 1985 to 1989 and Willis won a Golden Globe for his performance.
Die Hard, of course, made Willis a bonafide action star. The actor hasn’t really taken a break since he broke through. Even at 63, he’s still making a ton of action flicks and has starred in films like The Sixth Sense (1995), 12 Monkeys (1995), Unbreakable, The Fifth Element (1997), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Armageddon (1998). There’s even a rumor that he’ll be making a movie about an origin story centered on his Die Hard character sometime in the future.
The eldest son of Martin Sheen already had acting in his blood. Emilio Estevez, like several other people on this list, also had a part in The Outsiders. John Hughes decided to cast him as the jock Andrew Clark in the Breakfast Club (1984) and then put him in St. Elmo’s Fire with Outsiders co-star Rob Lowe the following year.
Estevez was able to move on from his jock persona. He even stepped into his father’s shoes and portrayed a young Jed Bartlet on The West Wing. The actor has even found success in the director’s chair. He’s directed Men at Work (1990), several episodes of CSI, Bobby (2006), and The Public (2018). His brother is Charlie Sheen.
The groundbreaking singer Cyndi Lauper broke records when her album She’s So Unusual debuted in 1983. Four of the songs, including “Time After Time” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” topped the Billboard charts. She became the first woman to have four songs in the top 5. Her punk aesthetic inspired people to experiment with different hair colors and more eccentric styles.
“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is still a girl-power anthem today. Lauper’s music has lasted the test of time, and she’s showed no signs of slowing down. She’s produced nine studio albums and wrote the music and lyrics to the Broadway musical Kinky Boots, for which she won a Tony Award.
Julia Roberts might be best known for her ’90s movies, but she solidified herself as the girl-next-door and America’s sweetheart in the ’80s. She stole the show in Mystic Pizza (1988) where she played a teenage girl working at a pizza show in Mystic, Connecticut. The next year, Roberts received her first Academy Award nomination for her role in Steel Magnolias.
Roberts went on to win an Oscar in 2001 for Erin Brockovich. This iconic actress is still very valued in Hollywood, but 2018 has been a year of resurgence for Roberts. She starred in the Amazon series Homecoming, which marks her first recurring role in TV ever, and gave a stirring performance in Ben Is Back.
James Spader is one of the defining actors of the 1980s. His first starring role was in Tuff Turf with Robert Downey Jr. and co-starred with the actor in Less Than Zero. He also played Steff, the arrogant playboy vying for Andie’s affections in Pretty in Pink and in Mannequin. He’s most remembered for Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), where he plays a sexual voyeur named Graham.
After this, Spader became well-known for his ability to play eccentric or creepy characters, like Robert California in The Office. Notably, he teamed up with Robert Downey Jr. again when he voiced Ultron, the antagonist in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). He’s currently on the popular TV show The Blacklist as a mysterious and dangerous criminal named Red. People might not recognize him as Steff now.
Michelle Pfeiffer captured Hollywood’s attention with her role in Grease 2 in 1982. Even though the film wasn’t critically acclaimed, it put Pfeiffer on the path to stardom. She played Elvira opposite Al Pacino in Scarface (1983), which helped her grab roles in The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989).
Although she already had two Academy Award nominations under her belt only a decade into her career, she’s better than ever. After taking a five-year break, she jumped back in with Hairspray (2007). 2017 was a particularly good year for her. She starred in HBO’s miniseries Wizard of Lies and in Mother!, Murder on the Orient Express. Last year she was introduced into the MCU as Janet van Dyne in Ant–Man and the Wasp. She was also immortalized in Bruno Mars’s song “Uptown Funk.”
His name might not sound immediately familiar, but Lukas Haas has been acting since he was eight years old. His first role was in Testament (1983) but gained notoriety two years later when played the young Amish boy who witnesses a murder in the Harrison Ford movie Witness (1985). His performance was well received by critics and sent him on his way in Hollywood to star in 80s cult classics like Lady in White (1998) and Solarbabies (1986).
Haas transitioned from child star to adult actor and can be seen hanging out with fellow child star Leo DiCaprio. He played a notable role in Rian Johnson’s first feature film, Brick (2005). In the past few years, Haas was in The Revenant (2015), Widows (2018) and First Man (2018) as astronaut Mike Collins. They might not remember that he’s the kid from Witness, but his star is starting to rise again.
Jon Cryer played the unlikely love interest, Duckie, in Pretty in Pink (1986). Cryer’s goofy, loveable childhood sweetheart might have won over America, buy it wasn’t the star vehicle that he had been hoping for. While Matthew Broderick and James Spader’s careers were taking off, Cryer got stuck with the Brat Pack curse.
It took Cryer more than a decade to find a way to make his entrance back in Hollywood. He finally found it with Two and a Half Men in 2003. He starred alongside Charlie Sheen, but Sheen got in trouble for behaving badly on set. There’s a reason why he isn’t on this list. Although Two and a Half Men ended in 2015, Cryer still makes guest appearances on TV shows.
Sean Astin made his film debut at the age of 13 in the 1985 Steven Spielberg film The Goonies. This classic film has definitely stood the test of time and still remains popular today, but Astin went through a few comebacks of his own. He shook off his child stardom with Rudy in which he plays an aspiring Notre Dame football player.
Astin then got the role of a lifetime in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as Frodo Baggins’s faithful sidekick Samwise Gamgee. He worked on those films for almost a decade. The actor got to return to his ’80s background unexpectedly when he got cast as Winona Ryder’s love interest, Bob, in Stranger Things season 2 in 2017.
Yes, Joan Cusack is John’s sister. She was in a lot of the major ’80s movies—even if she had unrecognized parts in some of them. One of her first movie roles was in Sixteen Candles (1984) where she played Teen Girl #1. She was also on Saturday Night Live for a season. Four years later though, Cusack had her breakout role in Working Girl (1988) as Cyn and got nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars.
Cusack has been in mostly supporting roles since the ’80s. She’s appeared in Addams Family Values (1993), In & Out (1999), School of Rock (2003), Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), and Instant Family (2018). Cusack has also lent her voice to Jessie in Toy Story (1995) and its subsequent sequels.
It might not seem like Keanu Reeves has aged at all, but surprisingly, he did get his start in the 1980s. The role that catapulted him to stardom was Ted in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and its sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991). Ted was such a loveable doofus that this movie spun off a TV series in 1990.
Reeves became an action star after The Matrix hit theaters in 1999, but his career was a little quiet until recently. The actor came back with John Wick in 2016. The film was so successful that he made a sequel with a third film coming in 2019. Reeves is returning to where it all started though, there’s a highly anticipated Bill & Ted movie currently in the works.
Alec Baldwin began his film and TV career during this decade, but he had nothing to do with the Brat Pack. He starred in Beetlejuice (1988) as the hapless and deceased husband Adam. He also plays Melanie Griffith’s jerk of a boyfriend in Working Girl (1988). Baldwin consistently stayed on the big screen thanks in part to these roles.
But Baldwin’s career has not been without controversy, some assaults on paparazzi and fellow civilians have clouded his career. Despite these transgressions, his career has remained intact. In this year alone, Baldwin has appeared in eight projects, including A Star Is Born and Mission Impossible: Fallout. He’s also on Saturday Night Live where he portrays president Donald Trump, a role that would have made his character Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock proud.
Michael J. Fox